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Image of a woman representing healthy skin

What actually is healthy skin?

Written by
Chloë James

A smooth, glowing complexion that’s never seen a pimple in its life might be the common goal of every skin regime – but it doesn’t necessarily equal ‘healthy’ skin.

Your skin is the largest organ in your body and, just like any other organ, its health starts from within. With steady collagen production and a regular cell turnover rate, healthy skin should feel comfortable and hydrated. It’s not about being poreless and flawless. It's about having skin that works the way it was designed to (which, yes, even includes getting the occasional spot).

Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Skin is composed of multiple layers, which all serve a purpose – and can all be compromised. To understand how to keep each one healthy, it's important to know how each one works.

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image representing skin layers

The skin’s layers and what affects it?

The only layer of skin you can actually see is the epidermis, the one at the very top. Its job is to serve as a barrier against the outside world, preventing bacteria and foreign substances from getting into your body. But despite having such a critical job, it also happens to be your thinnest layer of skin and, as a result, the one most vulnerable to environmental factors such as the sun.

To stay in top condition, the epidermis relies on the layer beneath it – the dermis – for hydration. This is where your blood vessels, hair follicles, oil and sweat glands, and nerves live, all bound together by collagen and elastin to give skin its flexibility and strength. Think of the dermis as your skin's moisture supply. Both oil (or, to use the technical term, sebum) and hair travel up from it to the epidermis through the hair follicle, providing everything you need to keep the surface of your skin soft and smooth.

But sometimes that thin surface layer of the epidermis struggles to retain moisture, so it’s instead left irritated, flaky, and dry. This moisture can also cause just as many problems when your skin gets a little too enthusiastic with oil production. Too much oil can clog follicles, causing breakouts that push their way up to the epidermis. That’s why you can occasionally feel your spots – and why they feel like they're growing deep beneath the surface – days before you see them.

Then, at the deepest level of your skin, is the hypodermis, where your body stores fat (and even more collagen) to keep you warm and protect your body from injury. When this area loses volume – for instance, when we age – so does your skin, leaving it less plump and more prone to damage. Unlike the top two layers of skin, products don’t contain molecules small enough to reach the hypodermis, making it impossible to treat without minimally invasive methods, such as fillers.

Although there’s a lot that can go wrong with your skin, even if these layers are compromised, your body is equipped to deal with the fallout. On average, new cells are created every 27 days to replace the existing ones. This minimises the build up of acne-causing dirt and bacteria, as well as gradually healing the inflammation and pigmentation left behind by any breakthrough blemishes.

However, plenty of things can slow down this cell turnover rate – and, as if that’s not frustrating enough, a lot of them are tough to avoid. The hardest factor to control is, of course, getting older. As we age, our bodies find it harder to generate new skin cells as we produce fewer hormones. This means dead cells sit around on your face for longer, making it easier for bacteria to gather and trigger breakouts, as well as a general thinning of the skin making it more vulnerable.

Sun exposure has a similar impact, as does a diet lacking in the right nutrients, and an irregular sleeping pattern. Then there are the environmental factors that are totally out of your hands. Pollution can break down collagen, while extremely hot weather can cause your skin to produce too much oil, while cold temperatures sap moisture.

How to keep skin healthy

So, with all that considered, what makes healthy skin? Even though it sometimes seems like mother nature has other plans for your complexion, with the right precautions it is possible to protect it from the wear and tear of everyday life.

image of a smiling woman representing healthy skin

Lifestyle

Stay hydrated – Anyone who’s struggled with their skin has heard the tip “drink more water” more times than they count. While there’s no hard proof that it hydrates your skin, skin does lose elasticity when the dermis doesn’t contain enough water – and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that drinking enough water – between 2.5 and 3.5 litres a day – does improve the appearance of your skin.

Avoid the sun – Sun damage is more than just sunburn. Spending a lot of time in the sun’s UV rays breaks down collagen at a higher rate than natural ageing, which decreases your skin’s elasticity and cell turnover. Nobody’s suggesting you never see sunlight again but try to avoid the sun’s strongest hours between 10am and 3pm, and make sure you apply – and reapply, reapply, reapply – a high factor SPF. It’s also best to skip the sun bed, which uses UV and poses a similar risk.

Cut down on smoking – Of all the ways smoking affects the body, its impact on collagen production wreaks the most havoc on your skin. By increasing the amount of MMPs – enzymes that destroy collagen – tobacco reduces skin’s strength, as well as robbing it of the oxygen and critical nutrients that help it glow. The good news is it’s easy to reverse these effects. Those who’ve quit or reduce their intake often report a visible improvement in elasticity within just a few weeks.

Skip sugar – Eating too many foods with a high sugar content can lead to inflammation in the body, which in turn affects the skin in the form of acne breakouts or conditions such as rosacea or eczema. It also has an adverse effect on collagen production which can then accelerate the development of wrinkles and fine lines.

image of a donut with toppings to represent skipping sugar for healthy skin

Skincare

Skincare is usually the first port of call for any skin issue, but the amount of advice in the world is overwhelming – and it can be tempting to try everything all at once. Different product combinations work well for some skin types and only aggravate others. However, a few simple practices make up the most effective routines...

Stick to the basics – Rather than overloading skin with too many ingredients, too soon, strip it back to the basics. The staples of any skincare routine should be a cleanser, moisturiser, and SPF. Once you’ve found the right combination for you, you can gradually introduce other products based on your skin’s needs, making it easier to identify anything potentially irritating.

image of a smiling woman representing healthy skin

Slowly introduce exfoliants – Physical exfoliants will slough away dead skin cells but can be too harsh for some people – especially in excess – and lead to redness or puffiness. Chemical exfoliants can penetrate further for deeper exfoliation, keeping skin fresh and glowing. Just be sure to introduce them slowly into your routine. Too much, too fast can cause inflammation and damage your skin barrier.

Try a retinol – Retinol has more than earned its place in the skincare spotlight. This antioxidant goes a long way in increasing cell renewal, boosting collagen, reversing the effects of sun damage, and regulating the amount of oil your skin produces. Just don’t expect overnight results – it can take an average of 12 weeks to see a notable difference – and be sure to layer up on SPF, as it will make you more susceptible to sun damage.

Treatments

Sometimes, there’s only so much skincare can do to reverse concerns like sun damage or hyperpigmentation – especially if you want results fast. For a more rigorous way to get your skin back to a healthy medium, you might consider treatments such as...

Phototherapy – With repeated exposure to LED lights, phototherapy has been proven to repair tissue damage and reduce inflammation, making it a good all-rounder for improving the health of your skin. Different colours deliver different results, with yellow promoting collagen production, blue killing off bacteria, and red boosting circulation.

skincare

Chemical peels – There are three different levels to chemical peels: light, medium, or deep. The right one for you depends on the depth of damage you want to treat, with the most superficial peel using some form of acid to dissolve dead skin and bacteria from the epidermis, and the deepest reaching all the way down to the hypodermis. As peels encourage cell regeneration, they aid recovery from a wide range of skin woes.

Laser skin resurfacing – If your skin’s taking too long to fade acne scars or hyperpigmentation, laser skin resurfacing can speed up the process. This gently and specifically removes the epidermis, creating multiple tiny wounds to trick the skin into thinking it needs to produce new collagen to heal. The result? Fresh cells that help skin look brighter and healthier.

Mesotherapy – Even though your body naturally produces the nutrients necessary for healthy skin, sometimes it needs a little extra help – especially as you grow older. Mesotherapy works by injecting vitamins and minerals into the epidermis. This can have lots of benefits, including reducing the appearance of wrinkles and boosting hydration, but the critical thing for the health of your skin is that it stimulates collagen production.

Microdermabrasion – For rapid results, microdermabrasion manually triggers the cell turnover process and exfoliates away dead cells to unveil the soft and bright new skin underneath. While it’s unsuitable for recently sun damaged skin, it can help reduce uneven pigmentation, redness and scarring on pretty much any part of the body.

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