Photo of makeup brushes
Make friends with your skin. Not every little 'flaw' needs to be hidden behind make-up [Image: Anita Martinz - Wikimedia Commons]

The secret life of your skin

13 September, 2011

Your skin has a life of its own that you rarely hear about.

It is a mirror, quietly but constantly reflecting and reacting to what you eat and drink, your exposure to environmental pollutants, allergens, cosmetic irritants and the elements. How well you sleep and the stresses you are under are also relevant to the way your skin looks from day to day.

While it’s tempting to try and bully it into submission, getting in touch with its natural rhythms, may, in the end, be the most straightforward path to a healthier complexion.

In real people – as opposed to the airbrushed supermodels you see on magazine covers – it is in the nature of healthy, normal skin to change on almost an hourly basis. Studies show, for instance, that:

Tuning into your cycles

For women skin also changes according to where they are in their monthly cycle. Most observations of these kinds of changes have been made in women with a ‘normal’ 28-day cycle that includes 5 days of menstrual bleeding. But even if your cycle is longer or shorter, chances are you will experience a similar pattern of skin changes throughout the month.

The pattern goes something like this:

Days 1-5 During your period, less blood circulates in the superficial layers of the skin making you look paler. The temptation now is to slap on more products but don’t since your skin retains less moisture and the skin barrier is less complete meaning reactions to topical irritants like soaps and detergents, but also skin peels and certain cosmetic ingredients are more likely.

Days 6-13 Skin thickness begins to increase in response to hormone changes that trigger water retention. Studies in healthy women show that the body is less efficient at clearing toxins now and this may be reflected in your skin. Try drinking more water.

Ovulation Around day 14 of a 28-day cycle skin tone will be at its peak. During ovulation skin microcirculation begins to improve which may account for the better colouring. Studies suggest women are perceived by others as being most attractive at this time.

Days 15-20 A benefit of increasing water retention in the skin around now is your skin looks more refined and your pores smaller. After ovulation your body temperature rises slightly and stays higher until just before your period.

Hormonal changes mean that nerves in the skin take on more of the burden of controlling body temperature. This means skin colour may change more dramatically in response to external cold (which may make you look paler) or heat (which may increase colour).

Days 21-28 Oil secretions increase then drop off dramatically just before your period. Skin disorders like dermatitis can flare up and pimples can be worst around day 22.  By day 25, skin is puffier and less elastic due to water retention. Your sleep quality is also reduced.

Nighttime variations in core body temperature trigger small bursts of brain activity that may briefly but regularly interrupt deep sleep. This carries on through the first few days of menstruation and may be reflected in more pronounced dark circles under the eyes.

If it ain’t broke…

These kinds of normal skin changes are not ‘problems’ that need to be ‘fixed’. Acknowledging this means you can stop obsessing over the most minute and transient shifts in skin tone and colour and adopt a more sensible approach to skincare that works from the inside out.

It’s true that some things are beyond your control. How skin ages, for instance, is a complicated process involving a number of internal and external factors, some of which are within our control, many of which are not.

Aging causes decreases in collagen and elastin, the ‘scaffolding’ of the skin, causing the skin to wrinkle and sag. Gravity can also make loose skin around eyes and jowls sag even more.

Aged skin also appears more translucent because of the decrease in the number of pigment-containing cells (melanocytes). It is also thinner and more fragile, and at increased risk of injury and less able to repair itself. Your genetic inheritance is also influential as are hormonal changes at menopause, though human studies have failed to conclusively link estrogen decline and skin wrinkles.

Start with lifestyle

But an unhealthy lifestyle will also influence your skin’s condition. Prematurely ageing skin often mirrors things like lack of sleep, too much sun or too much alcohol and a general build-up of toxins in the body.

Adjusting your lifestyle to include more rest, stress relief techniques, drinking more water and exercising more at different times of the month can make a big difference.  Similarly, cigarettes and alcohol are highly damaging since both can dehydrate the skin and interfere with its ability to utilise nutrients, so taking these out of the equation will also be helpful.

Using good quality skin products – those that make use of gentle natural cleansing agents and good quality natural oils and plant extracts, rather than petrochemical derivatives is one way to help maintain the condition of your skin.

Your diet is also influential in health of your skin in both the short and the long term.

Diet can significantly affect the skin and its tendency to wrinkle. In 2001 researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia studied the diets of 453 people (aged 70 years and over from Australia, Greece and Sweden) to find out if particular foods either predicted or were associated with skin wrinkling.

What they found

The findings strongly suggest that a high intake of fruits, vegetables and fish as well as certain healthy fats, can reduce skin wrinkling.Foods that protected against wrinkles, for instance, were:

  • Higher in total fat content
  • Mono-unsaturated fat
  • Olive oil and olives
  • Fish (especially fatty fish)
  • Reduced fat milk and milk products
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and legumes (especially lima and broad beans)
  • Vegetables (especially leafy greens, spinach, eggplant, asparagus, celery, onions, leeks and garlic)
  • Wholegrain cereals
  • Fruit and fruit products (especially prunes, cherries, apples and jams)
  • Tea
  • Water
  • Zinc-containing foods (seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts)

Foods that promoted wrinkles were:

  • Saturated fat
  • Meat (especially fatty processed meats)
  • Full fat dairy products (especially unfermented products and ice cream)
  • Soft drinks and cordials
  • Cakes, pastries and desserts
  • Potatoes
  • Butter
  • Margarine

Accepting the complex secret life of your skin and responding to it with a ‘from the inside out approach’ is not only sensible and healthy, it may well make the difference between being at war, or making peace, with the skin you are in.