Skin, Reconsidered

Skin, Reconsidered

A beautiful membrane in a constant state of renewal. Our interface with the world

They say the true self is found within – not in our outward appearance. In this tradition, skin is purely cosmetic, a superficial façade that hides our inner reality. Don’t trust the beauty of a desirable person’s skin – it’s not that deep. Skin has been seen as a front to be maintained; from the white-powdered Elizabethan ‘mask of youth’ to the quick-fix camera filter that blands out our blemishes and grafts on a faux-healthy glow.

The look of young skin, blooming with vitality is a powerful force. It can attract a lover, and draw the classic painterly gaze to the object of desire, giving birth to countless works of art that are a meditation on surface.

But skin can do so much more. It’s the largest organ in the human body, our interface with the world. It grows, renews, nourishes, regulates, bonds us together and writes our inner story across its canvas.

A surge of self-consciousness on meeting a teenage crush brings a blush that shows them they’re the one. A newborn baby’s first shocking hours in the open are soothed by the comfort and warmth of its mother’s chest, picking up her precious skin flora to colonise his microbiome. In times of trouble, the supportive touch of a friend slows the heart rate, brings down blood pressure, and triggers hormones that make us feel more trusting and connected.

Through 1000 nerve endings every square inch, our skin talks to us and tells us what’s out there. The delicious prickle of hot sunrays; or a plunge into cold, open water that triggers an invigorating full-system rush. Neurons light up in the brain in an endless conversation between our bodies and the spaces we inhabit.

And when the world is not hospitable, skin is our protection. Sending signals about pain, warning against danger. Keeping our core safe from aggressors as a barrier against toxins and foreign bodies that don’t belong in ours. Lymph capillaries bring the defence: a squad of infection-fighting cells that protect the perimeter, and report back to base on potential attacks.

This beautiful membrane is in a constant state of renewal. Every second new cells are created in the dermis, pushing up to the surface to replace others that have done their job. It’s an everyday miracle of rejuvenation. The skin is a thriving system, as vital and alive as we are. A vast mesh of tiny blood capillaries brings life-giving nutrients and oxygen from deep inside to our outer edges. Skin purges what we don’t need, carrying off the by-products of living through the lymphatic system, and a burst of cooling sweat.

Trillions of microbes call the human skin their home, a rich flora living in symbiosis with their giant host in times of health. A thousand species of bacteria live across the diverse habitat of our bodies. As microbes-in-residence, they can help ward off pathogens, and educate the immune system on the environment beyond the barrier.

Through the skin, others can witnesses our state of wellness or emotion. When we are sad, we glow a little less; when we’re undernourished, our system slows, and it shows. But a body fired up on exercise, adrenaline, love or optimism beams out its vitality to the world. A person’s essence is written all over their face, with lived-in lines and battle scars the descriptive details of their life story. Far from being a shallow façade, skin shows the truth of who we are.

Text: Alison Smith

Alison Smith is an editor and writer on trends and lifestyle with a background in anthropology