Your skin is your voice mail to the world—the boundary between what’s you and what’s not you. It’s an ambassador, a translator, a container—and the ultimate in packaging.
But unlike most packaging, with your skin there’s only so much that cosmetics can do. Good skin reflects inner health—or a lack of it. Understanding your skin, especially at its most challenging time of the year, is the key to using herbs to help it say good things about you to the world.
Skin’s not just skin deep. It is the largest of the body’s many organs. The skin also accomplishes a host of vital functions: sensation, protection of other organs, defense against infection and dehydration, and regulation of body temperature. To fulfill these tasks, skin comes well equipped. Every cubic centimeter of skin contains about 6 million cells, fifteen sebaceous glands, 100 sweat glands, and 5,000 nerve endings. In this tiny area, there are also about five yards of tiny blood vessels to supply nourishment. More than half of the body’s total blood supply goes to the skin.
Getting under the skin
Every centimeter of your skin contains about 6 million cells, 15 sebaceous glands, 100 sweat glands, and 5,000 nerve endings.
Like the liver or kidneys, the skin performs an important eliminative function. When we sweat, we get rid of waste and lower our body temperature through evaporation.
The skin’s layers perform different functions. The top layer, called the epidermis, has an external layer of dead cells that are continually shed at a rate of about 3 billion per day, making room for new skin cells every fourteen to thirty days, depending on one’s age. New skin cells are formed in the deepest sub-layer of the epidermis, called the stratum germinativum.
Beneath the epidermis is the dermis, a highly sensitive layer composed, in part, of nerve endings, blood and lymph vessels, sweat and sebaceous glands, and hair follicles. A veritable skin factory, the dermis depends upon a good supply of oxygen and nutrients from the blood to manufacture new cells. This is one reason why decreased circulation—from lack of exercise, poor health, or aging—can adversely affect the appearance and health of the skin.
Another feature of the dermis is its meshwork of collagen fibers. These fibers account for 70 percent of the dermis. It’s these collagen fibers, not muscle, that give skin strength, form, and stability. The dermis also contains flexible and resilient elastin fibers. It’s this pair, elastin and collagen, that keep skin toned, firm, and unwrinkled. As we age, however, these fibers eventually lose their elasticity and strength, resulting in skin that wrinkles and sags because the fibers can’t help it bounce back. Excessive sun exposure damages collagen and elastin much more quickly than everyday wear and tear.
Fragrant herbs contain essential oils that work efficiently in affecting skin at the crucial lower layers where new cells are being formed. Essential oils have a small molecular size and are fat-soluble, which makes them able to penetrate the skin. Whether you need to heal a sunburn, soothe a heat rash, or prevent premature aging resulting from excessive sun exposure, essential oils work to rehydrate skin, adjust sebaceous secretions, and help heal damaged cells.
Basic summer maintenance
The most important element for the skin is water. Healthy skin contains 50 to 75 percent water, which keeps skin cells soft and supple, decreasing flakiness, dryness, and wrinkles. Unfortunately, the skin constantly loses water through sweat and evaporation. To help retain this precious commodity, which provides a plump look to the skin, sebaceous glands (tiny coiled structures that lie next to hair follicles) secrete an oil called sebum that lubricates the skin and slows water evaporation. Keratin protein is one of the skin’s best friends because it increases the amount of water the skin can hold, making it plumper and softer. You can help keep your skin happy by drinking one to two liters of water a day, especially during strenuous activity. Your skin will also appreciate the hydrating powers of pure juices and herbal teas, whether you’re calmly relaxing poolside or hiking an uncharted trail. Both caffeinated beverages and alcohol, however, increase skin deyhdration.
While great skin is largely inherited, it’s also likely that anyone who has it drinks lots of water and eats lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Whole foods pack antioxidant vitamins such as A, E, and C into the diet. Zinc is another important element for healthy skin. It is found in oysters, meat, brewer’s yeast, eggs, whole grains, lima beans, and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds). The best way to get adequate nutrients for skin is to eat a “rainbow” diet—one that includes foods of many colors, especially green, red, blue, orange, and yellow.
If your skin and lips are excessively dry, even though you get enough water, eat well, and refrain from overcleansing, you may want to check your consumption of essential fatty acids, especially omega-3s. Most people get too many omega-6s, putting their fatty-acid ratio out of balance. Supplementing your diet with fish, hemp, flax, black currant, evening primrose, or borage seed oils may help fight persistently dry skin.
Pale is perfect
There’s no such thing as a healthy tan, most dermatologists agree. Excessive sun exposure is one of the worst things you can do to your skin. Not only does it speed the aging process, it creates free radicals, depletes the immune system, and increases your risk of skin cancer. The human body does need exposure to the sun to manufacture vitamin D—about ten minutes of exposure per day. After that brief time, your skin needs protection from the sun’s burning rays. Natural sunscreens include those with either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These block the sun’s rays rather than absorbing them as chemical sunscreens do. They are quite effective, but tend to leave a whitish film on the skin.
When summer weather beckons—and those warm rays feel so good—it’s easy to make your sunscreen choice a low priority. But sun overexposure should be treated as a genuine skin injury. A sunburn can make you feel feverish, headachy, and weak (and so can heat exhaustion—see “When sunburn turns scary,” at left). First of all, get out of the sun and into a cool place; second, to combat dehydration, drink water, slowly but steadily. After an hour, if you feel steady—no weakness or nausea—try a tepid bath with 1/4 cup of distilled or apple cider vinegar to re-establish the skin’s proper pH.
To that vinegar bath, you may want to add 4 cups of strong, cooled herb tea: chamomile (anti-inflammatory), calendula (healing), or green tea (antioxidant). When you step out of the bath, try a lavender spritz: 25 drops of lavender essential oil, diluted in 1 fluid ounce of aloe vera juice. Put the mixture in a spray bottle, shake, and spray directly on sunburned skin. Lavender essential oil has the ability to increase the turnover of healthy skin cells, is antibacterial to prevent infection, is mildly pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory, and helps prevent scar formation. The aloe and lavender spritz can be used as often as necessary.
After a sunburn, taking supplements that help heal the skin can’t hurt. Coenzyme Q10, also known as CoQ10, is depleted by sun exposure. This enzyme helps protect cell membranes from free radical damage, so when you’ve overdone it in the outdoors, it can be a helpful ally. Take 50 to 100 mg per day. The body uses vitamin C in production of collagen and to protect the skin; for post-sunburn healing, you may want to take as much as 2 g per day. Vitamin E is a skin-protecting, fat-soluble antioxidant; a typical post-sunburn dose is 800 mg per day. Finally, alpha lipoic acid (also known as ALA) helps calm sunburn’s inflammation. Try 200 mg per day as a post-sunburn dosage.
Treat your lips tenderly
If your skin and lips are excessively dry, you may want to check to be sure you are getting enough of the right kinds of essential fatty acids in your diet.
If you think summer conditions are hard on skin, just imagine the rough ride your lips get. Lips have very little keratin and no oil glands to lubricate them. That’s why dry, hot, and windy weather are especially hard on them. To keep your lips kissable, drink plenty of water and avoid licking them, which promotes chapping.
Natural lip balms that contain vegetable oils, cocoa or shea butter, vitamin E, and herbs such as calendula or aloe are the first line of defense. Read the labels of lip products carefully and avoid lipsticks or balms that contain mineral oil or other petroleum-based ingredients. Such compounds remove the oil-soluble vitamins A, E, and K from the skin. These are the very vitamins that help build healthy skin and keep it supple and moist, so you don’t want a lip product that steals them. Having a sunscreen included in your lip balm is an added bonus, but avoid anything scented with citrus essential oils; such oils are sun sensitizers, meaning they can increase your chances of sunburn. My favorite brand of summer lip balm is Moist Stic, made by Real Natural Products, with cooling peppermint.
Troubling trail souvenirs
Nothing dampens the summer spirit more than an irritating rash that can keep you up at night with a relentless desire to scratch. The oozing, watery blisters that result from exposure to the irritating oils in poison oak, ivy, or sumac can call for drastic treatment measures.
This is one time when you need to dry out the skin—but only in the affected areas. I’ve tried many natural remedies for poison ivy such as vinegar and salt, sassafras, mint, and jewelweed. While these herbal remedies may help some people, the most effective remedy I’ve found is a preparation called Chinese White Flower Oil, usually found in health-food stores that sell Asian products. It’s a combination of essential oils, such as wintergreen, and compounds isolated from essential oils, such as menthol and eucalyptol. This oil is inexpensive, helps dry out the rash, and cools the itch of poison ivy. Be prepared, however, to be utterly odiferous from the wintergreen and peppermint, depending on how large an area you apply it to.
Once the rash has stopped oozing, discontinue using this oil. Begin to moisturize the skin gradually with a natural lotion. I like Abra’s Moisture Revival, which contains pure vegetable oils, lavender, frankincense, and St. John’s wort.