Chapter OneHow your skin protects you
Beauty Tip fromSusan L. Taylor
Because of my lifestyle, I do wear makeup on a daily
basis. I keep it very understated, however, unless
the occasion (award presentations, television programs, special
appearances) calls for special emphasis. Before I apply
any makeup, however, I always start with a three-part skincare
regimen-cleanser, toner, and moisturizer.
Susan L. Taylor is publication director for Essence magazine. As former editor in chief, she
guided Essence through a period of phenomenal growth. Her acclaimed monthly editorials, "In
the Spirit," led Susan to the publication of a series of books-In the Spirit: The Inspirational
Writings of Susan L. Taylor, Lessons in Living, and Confirmation and the Spiritual Wisdom That
Has Shaped Our Lives (coauthored by her husband, Khephra Burns).
Your skin can be your best friend. It is your confidante.
It is your protector. It takes all types of abuse, and yet it is
quickly ready to forgive.
Your skin is a multifaceted creation that can't be duplicated by human
beings. It keeps out the harsh external environment-that is, germs and bacteria
-while it protects your vital organs. It helps maintain your body temperature
by preventing heat from escaping too rapidly, which would be
harmful or even fatal. Your skin stores nutrients for future protection.
Your skin is versatile and sensitive. It reacts to stress, pain, illness, pleasure,
and happiness as well as to light and dark, hot and cold. It stretches and
shrinks, wrinkles and unwrinkles. It needs minimal but regular, consistent,
and thorough attention if you want it to show you at your very best. But for
all your skin's strength and versatility, today it is under siege. It was not constructed
to withstand being bombarded by today's natural and unnatural
Geography and the Seasons
Where you live has a direct effect on your skin, particularly
on your face, which is almost always exposed to the
elements. Your face has an upper, or outer, layer of skin
called the epidermis. This layer is what you touch and
see when you look in the mirror. Another name for this
layer, owing to the shape of the cells making up the layers,
is the "horny" layer (stratum corneum).
Although everyone has this outer skin layer, the thickness
of the covering differs from person to person.
African Americans have more layers to their epidermis
than do whites. But even among blacks, the number of
layers varies. Now you can understand why your face, to
some degree, reacts differently to the forces assaulting it
than do the faces of other women you know. The outermost
portion of the epidermis consists of dead cells.
That is why sometimes, after washing your face and drying it with a face
towel, you may notice flaking skin on your forehead. Your face casts off this
outermost layer of skin in pieces. As the outer layer is dispelled, an underlayer
takes its place. This process constantly renews your skin. Each outermost
layer falls away when it has absorbed all the stress it can manage, and
then the underlayer takes its place.
When this surface action is taking place, the underlayer is protected,
waiting to supply your face with a new fighting army of cells. Beneath the
epidermis is the germinating layer, but before discussing this lower layer, let's
see what geography and climate can do to the outer layer of your skin.
If you live in a region that is warm year-round, like California, then your
skin will be affected differently than if you live on the East Coast, in a climate
that has four varying seasons. Obviously, where your home is determines
the amount of the sun and its damaging ultraviolet rays that you will
be exposed to. But this is only the beginning.
Office buildings are air-conditioned year-round. When you fly, you are in
a pressurized aircraft. The same air is continuously recirculated, sometimes
for several hours. Moisture in the air gets lost. The drier air
can lead to drier skin. Whether you're in the sky or on the
ground, air-conditioning draws humidity from the air and
moisture from the skin. Central heating also dries out the
skin. These modern conveniences are stressful to your face
and trigger the aging process prematurely. If you go from
your climate-controlled home or office into a sun-drenched
day, you bombard your skin with ultraviolet rays and further
draw off moisture. Whenever that happens, your skin really
takes a beating. The skin is left dry, peeling, and if the exposure
was too intense, with its underlayers damaged.
This is the damage that sunburns do: you peel or you're
left with leathery-looking skin. Worse, this constant negative
stress breaks down the face's connective tissue, resulting in
wrinkles and "premature aging." With steady damage, those
wrinkles and lines around the eyes and mouth get deeper and
become more prominent.
If you live in a seasonally cool or temperate climate, you
might feel safer. But wherever you live or work, your skin is
often exposed to automobile emissions, major industrial pollutants,
and wind. Wind alone can strike at your skin and
cause damage, but when that wind carries pollutants, the
problem is intensified. The pollutants that cause acid rain
destroy forests and crops, so you can imagine the struggle your outer-skin
layer has in protecting your body from environmental assaults.
Other natural assaults, such as those from germs, bacteria, and environmental
impurities, must also be prevented from getting below the skin's surface.
So no matter where you live, your face contends with major stresses.
More often than not, the outer layer stands up to these assaults-but at a
cost: dryness, wrinkles and lines, and skin disorders. Your skin can't fight the
"good fight" alone; it needs your help. There is hope.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the elements our skin is exposed to is the
degree to which people are misinformed. Because of their African heritage,
black and dark-skinned women and men have often been led to believe that
their skin is built for the sun. Though this may seem true, it is in fact not
Most "blacks" living in the desert, or in comparably dry, hot regions like
the Sudan, almost always totally cover their bodies, leaving very little of their
skin exposed to the sun. In contrast, people living in hot, humid areas are apt
to wear less clothing-and rightfully so. Generally, the hot, humid areas are
less industrialized and have fewer if any direct pollutants, and the humidity
in the air reduces the degree to which skin moisture evaporates. People who
live in very humid climates don't peel and their skin, whether black or white,
often has fewer wrinkles. Their faces belie their age. The outer layer of their
skin is moist and pliable, rather than dry and lined.
I've talked with women from Gabon and the Central African Republic,
and they complain about how dry their skin becomes when they visit America.
Their complaints have validity, since the humidity here is comparatively
low. A change in climate like this can often start to affect your skin within
a few days or less. So remember-whatever your color, protect your skin or
you will pay for the neglect.
Black skin has special qualities. As I noted earlier, it has more epidermal
layers than white skin. To some degree, this means greater protection from
the sun, and those additional layers often help black skin to appear and feel
smoother. Black skin has more melanin (the dark pigment in the epidermis),
which reflects more of the sun's rays, giving greater protection and reducing
the drying process. But for all these positive qualities, black skin needs as
much care as any other if it is to maintain its health and good looks.
Devices of Protection
Remember, there are two upper layers to the skin: the epidermis and the germination
layer, which together make up the skin's essential defense system.
The outer layer has two essential ingredients helping it to do its job and
maintain its "looks": water and sebaceous oils. These two elements-no
matter how often you may have heard that oil and water don't mix-work
together beautifully to support and protect the skin.
to support and protect the skin.
The epidermis needs water to keep it pliable,
plump, and elastic. The body supplies that water
through the cells. Later I will discuss diet, but for
now I mention only that you need to drink plenty of
water to maintain healthy skin. The sebaceous glands
produce oils that travel upward and cover the surface
of the skin. The oils act as a defensive shield and a
reflector, not only holding the skin's surface moisture
in but also keeping the skin soft, pliable, and unbroken.
However, once moisture is drawn from the outer
layer, the oils cannot help restore the skin's youthful
quality. Only water will do the job. If you soak a
piece of dry skin in oil, for example, it will not
soften. It will not soften even if you use sebaceous
oil. The oil is not the softener; water is. Remember
this principle when we focus on products for your
The Germinating Layer
Beneath the epidermis is the germinating layer. Actually, this is the deepest
layer of the epidermis, resting on the corium, which is also called the derma,
or true skin. But the germinating layer is so different from the rest of the
epidermis, and should be nurtured so differently, that I present it as though
it were a distinct layer. It consists of a single row of columnar cells in which
young cells develop and move upward to the surface.
The top cells making up the germinating layer move upward while others
remain, protecting the corium beneath. The germinating layer does not
use water or oils to maintain itself but is nourished, by the blood circulated
to the skin. This layer of cells is nourished as are cells in the rest of your
body, through proper nutrients. This is why what you eat and don't eat, what
you take into your system and what you don't take into it, will show in your
face. What gets into your circulatory system will be seen, one way or
another. Drinking alcohol will show, smoking will show, drugs will show,
birth control pills will show. A healthful or poor diet will show. Your skin
is an indicator of your state of health. Moreover, your state of health will
either help or prevent your skin from doing its job.
The pH Defense
Those sebaceous glands have another defensive purpose besides holding in
the skin's moisture. They maintain what is called an acid mantle across the
skin's surface. Healthy skin is slightly acidic. It is believed that skin with a
tendency toward alkalinity (the opposite of acidity) is more likely
to become infected and have skin disorders. The pH factor of
healthy skin (a tendency toward acidity) works as a defense by
affecting the skin's ability to both ward off infection and disorders
and thereby save the body from having to fight beneath the
surface as well. So when you see products proclaiming to return
the skin's pH factor, don't automatically accept or reject them,
but know that the pH measure is important.
I have deliberately not discussed the skin's corium, or derma,
since commercial products cannot affect it. Your genes, diet, and
cosmetic surgery are its primary influences. So you can readily
understand that the epidermis and germination layers, with the
sebaceous glands, are the skin's primary, effective defense against
the environment-both man-made and natural. The "falloff "
defensive process of the outermost layer of the epidermis serves
two vital functions: (1) the older and drier cells are removed, and
as the layer of the cells falls off, (2) the environmental impurities,
bacteria, and pollutants on or in them are removed.
This self-renewing process is ongoing, with little visible evidence
when your skin is young and healthy. However, when your skin is neither
young nor healthy, then the process works less effectively, with the
noticeable results of lines, wrinkles, cracks, and peeling. But with help
and knowledge, you can retard the aging process and keep your skin
healthy and youthful-looking.
Water-A Key to Youthful-Looking
Even though the outer layer of the skin receives a continuous supply
of water from the inner layer, the amount provided is limited at any
given time. Thus, the outer layer is often short of water when it may
need it most. For example, if the skin's loss of water to the atmosphere
exceeds its upward supply, then the skin is in danger of going dry. If
you don't use a sunscreen or moisturizing guard, the extreme dry conditions
in such areas as Arizona, New Mexico, and the desert in California
can have a dangerous effect on your skin.
The Aging Process
If you look at the skin of an older person, particularly if it has been
neglected or abused, you will find evidence of structural change. The
dead, outer layer of the epidermis is thicker and therefore drier. This
is partly because the epidermis of an older person begins to produce
a slightly different type of cell.
Furthermore, with age these cells stick together with greater adhesion
and are not shed as readily. The outer layers of dead skin begin to
build up, becoming thicker and thicker atop the lower, living layers.
These outer layers have not only less water or moisture in them but
also less capacity to hold water. Unless their moisture capacity is
increased, the outer, now thicker layer becomes dry and wrinkled. This
causes crepey lines to appear, with the ends of the cells curling up,
leading to roughness.
During this aging process, the oil glands decrease in function,
with the decline greater in women than in men. Also, the surface
guard of oil, whose function is to hold moisture in the skin, does not
work as well. Without its water retention, the skin loses its pliability
Suntanning and the Aging Process
Tanning is a defense the skin uses to protect its delicate inner layers.
The increase in pigment, brought about through exposure to sunlight,
is by and large temporary; the suntan disappears in time. However,
during the aging process, there is a tendency for these pigments
to increase, causing the skin to become darker and, in some instances,
blotchy. These darker areas usually appear on the hands and face.
Often they are called age spots or liver spots. With continued use,
fade cream, gel, and lotion formulas can be an effective method to
temporarily fade age spots. But spots will reappear without regular
applications. Actually, these are the result of suntanning combined
with the aging process. People who stay out of the sun have fewer, if
any, liver spots.
Lines, Wrinkles, and Spots
If you were able to take a look at the skin's lower layer-the dermis
-you would notice elastic fibers. Unlike the epidermis, or outer layer,
the dermis cannot regenerate itself.