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Chinn Chats

The down & dirty on women's wellness


Skincare

The Skin She's In

September 1, 2019

The school buses are back on the road, prolonging our daily commutes in ways we hadn’t had to worry about for the past three months. The berries are picked and the apples are ripening. The leaves are beginning to turn. The air in the evening is crisp now; it is not yet fall, but the prelude is here. Summer is definitely turning in for the year, and the sun’s brightest rays occupy fewer hours of our days. We are at that turning point, still, that allows me to trace tan lines that, despite my meticulous sunscreen use, highlight more exposure than I thought was happening. Like the last few days that are still warm enough for shorts, my extra pigment lingers. It will mostly fade with time, and my hope is that what doesn’t fade remains as a benign (if bothersome) change to my most exposed organ.


When most women think about women’s healthcare, they think about their pap smears. They think about their “yearly” visit, or their annual exams, which they equate only with breast and pelvic exams. We women are aware of and attuned to our risks for breast and cervical cancer. We know we should be screened because we know bad things can happen. When we schedule our exams, we are thinking about these gender-specific parts of our bodies, not about our other organs or how their chromosomal makeup might affect them. An annual exam should involve the gamut of organ systems, including a full skin (yes, it’s an organ, and a very big and important one!) exam for all women.


Rates of skin cancer diagnoses have skyrocketed for women under the age of 50, and women are being diagnosed with melanoma, the most concerning form of skin cancer, in unprecedented numbers. Until age 50, American women have a higher likelihood of developing skin cancer than any other form of cancer, and a higher likelihood of developing melanoma specifically than any cancers other than breast and thyroid cancer. Experts attribute this increase in melanoma incidence among young women to suntanning and artificial tanning, UVA and UVB ray exposure. I am not a sun worshipper. I am keenly aware of the damage these rays can do. As I continue adding years over the age of 30 to my life, I am acutely aware of my diminishing collagen production and the toll the sun takes on my overall appearance, including the dewy, youthful skin I’d like to retain. Despite all this, even with my meticulous application of sunscreen and my general avoidance of prolonged time in the sun, I am at risk. My tan lines prove it. The hardest part of protecting my lovely skin is that I am completely covered in it. From my head to my toes, I am wearing skin. It is virtually impossible, then, for me to completely protect my skin without wearing a second, identical (and likely stifling) suit atop it.


Protecting and caring for my birthday suit is crucial, because it is actually a secret superhero suit. My skin serves as my armor: it keeps the outside out and my insides in. We think of the skin as a lesser organ, and certainly more superficial and less crucial, than, say, our hearts or our brains, which we consider essential to continue living. Without our skin, however, we would have no environmental protection and would be susceptible to a host of microbes that would thrive by feeding on our exposed musculature and blood supply, but we would also dehydrate and die. My skin, therefore, is integral to my life. It is as important as my heart and my brain. Not only that, but my skin houses my thermostat. It contains the nerves and sweat glands that regulate my heat and allow me to cool my body to prevent heatstroke, which can also result in dehydration and death. My skin is a rich network of nerves, blood vessels, muscles and fat that can even feed me if I’m in a state that requires I tap into that reserve. My skin is not just the frosting on the cake of my body, but it is, in fact, a truly vital organ.


As a woman, my DNA makes my armor more penetrable than that of a man. I am not thinner skinned in the sense that I am more sensitive or less capable, but I am thinner skinned in the sense that my skin is literally less thick than my brother’s. Male hormones increase the thickness of one’s skin, making a man’s skin about 25% thicker than a woman’s, and male skin thins much more gradually with age as a result of their hormone production, whereas my skin thickness will remain constant only up until I enter menopause, after which time my skin’s fragility (and, therefore, my overall susceptibility to damage) will sky rocket. This thickness isn’t the only difference. Men actually have a considerably higher innate collagen density than women do. They have more collagen available to combat their aging processes. And, while they lose collagen at the same rate from age 30 onward (about 1% loss of collagen per year), they lose it at a consistent and unfluctuating rate, whereas women’s collagen loss accelerates markedly in the perimenopausal and immediate postmenopausal period, meaning we end up with more lines and wrinkles and more skin laxity much more rapidly than our same-aged male peers, despite women generally being more attentive to and taking better care of the skin they’ve been given. We are drawn to harsh chemicals and Botox because of this: it promises to halt and reverse our accelerating aging process.


It’s not all a bed of roses for male skin, however; because a man’s skin is thicker, it is rougher than a woman’s skin. The stratum corneum, which is the topmost protective barrier of the skin, has a rougher texture and is more prominent in men. The hormones produced by testicles, while serving to plump and hydrate men’s skin, also promote the development of acne and cause men to sweat more and smell worse. And, it is not a lost cause for women. Our skin is not only our most malleable, pliable, complex and diverse organ, but it is also incredibly forgiving. Having the most rapid cellular turnover of any part of our bodies allows it to regenerate and renew, compensating on a regular basis for any inflicted damage. With regular, thorough evaluation and a proper care regimen to prevent damage and restore integrity when it’s been compromised, we can actively protect our protective suits, preventing ongoing and progressive damage that leads to both a more aged appearance and the development of female skin cancer. And, we can actively repair and remodel the skin we’re in, enhancing its function and appearance, which optimizes not only the confidence with which we approach life but also the quality of the lives we live.