Simple Skincare Series: Yes, Your Skin Actually Cleanses Itself
Hi! I'm Salmah and I am a passionate learner about how our skin really works, and what it really needs to be healthy, beautiful and glowing. The more I learn, the more I realize that our skin is amazingly complex and complicated, which is exactly why our skincare doesn't have to be! I share true beauty tips & knowledge on my Instagram, @kiselemental, and invite everyone to join me on my journey of gratitude, honor, mindfulness and love towards healthy glowing skin!
How the Skin Cleanses Itself
We all know that cleansing is the basis of any decent skincare routine, but did you know that the act of cleansing has the most potential to damage and disrupt our skin?
Basically, the more we cleanse with surfactant- or soap-induced foaming action, the more damage and disruption we cause to our skin–namely to our skin microbiome, acid mantle, and lipid barrier! These are our skin's fundamental mechanisms in preventing pathogen infection and dehydration, and so it is no wonder that daily assaults (through cleansing alone) lead to skin that is unbalanced and dependent on a vast array of skincare products just to appear normal.
If we want happy and healthy skin–and skin that is independent of a gazillion products–we need to re-evaluate our obsession with removing dirt and excess oils. And don't worry, the solution does not lie in the total abandonment of hygiene!
The solution lies in an understanding that healthy skin is self-cleansing, and that the mechanisms and technology our skin employs to do so are more effective and more high-tech than the simple mechanical act of rubbing and sudsing that we are so fond of.
Here are four ways healthy skin cleanses itself from the inside out, and how we can support these mechanisms. When we do so, we enhance our skin's natural protective and hydrating abilities, which translates to smoother, clearer and more radiant skin, no matter our age!
1. IMMUNE DEFENSE MECHANISMS THAT PREVENT INFECTION
Healthy skin is AWESOME at defending itself from infection and disease, a crucial aspect of keeping itself “clean!”
It employs three different methods (physical, biological, and chemical) and five separate mechanisms. These mechanisms all operate holistically (depending on each other while supporting each other at the same time), protecting your skin and every living cell within it against infection and disease 24/7. You cannot get more high-tech or dedicated than this!
Before we look into these five mechanisms, let's understand the term pathogens first. Pathogens are disease causing micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses. However, not all micro-organisms are pathogens, as their mere presence does not cause disease. In fact, some are beneficial and necessary for healthy skin. A micro-organism is only considered pathogenic when its numbers are large enough to cause disease.
This explains why the P.acnes bacteria, which is an abundant and useful member of a diversified and balanced skin microbiome, does not cause acne in healthy skin. However, in conditions that may favor its rapid multiplication, as in a clogged pore, it then becomes a pathogen because its numbers are too high and the subsequent high amounts of metabolites it produces becomes toxic to skin because you skin is not able to deal with it efficiently enough.
Which is why a healthy, balanced, and diversified skin microbiome is your skin's first defense against infection. The number of the P.acnes bacteria, as well as all the other micro-organisms in your skin, is kept in check by your skin's wide variety of other bacteria populations. Each population has its territory and will defend it from other invading micro-organism species, be it bacterial, viral or fungal.
They do so by producing their own versions of Free Fatty Acids (FFAs), Phenol Soluble Modulins (PSMs), and Antimicrobial Peptides (AMPs) that prevent potential pathogens from over-multiplying. Your skin microbiome also communicates with your skin's immune cells, providing feedback to your immune system when it’s required to produce an inflammatory response, should there be a threat of a possible pathogenic attack.
Your skin's own keratinocyte/epidermal cells also produce their own AMPs, and play an active role in maintaining this microbiome balance.
Your skins third defense mechanism is its pH balanced acid mantle, which is crucial to support the good bacteria on your skin. Its acidic pH of around pH 5.5 is not conducive for foreign pathogenic bacteria or micro-organisms, which is why maintaining pH balanced skin is so important. This acidic environment is your skin's chemical defense mechanism against foreign pathogens. Interestingly, sebum on its own also contains FFAs that act to protect against pathogenic attack.
The fourth protective mechanism is a physical barrier in the form of your skin's lipid barrier. When your skin's lipid barrier is strong and fully intact, it acts much like a solid brick wall that does not allow pathogens from infiltrating further into the skin and into the blood stream. Also, when your lipid barrier is intact and fully functioning, it also prevents irritants from entering your skin, saving your immune cells from having to produce an inflammatory response, and in essence reduces inflammation.
Your skin’s fifth protective mechanism is a biological defense mechanism that lies deeper within the epidermal and dermal region of the skin. It is made up of the abundant immune cells which stand guard 24/7 and serve as gatekeepers. They are constantly communicating with the body's main immune system or control center (in your gut) in case of a pathogen attack, in which it requires more immune cell soldiers to “kill off” the invaders.
2. CELLULAR CLEANSING
The first way our skin cleanses itself is at the cellular level, with the help of a healthy lymphatic flow. So many important functions occur at the cellular level, from the replication of new cells at the basal layer of the epidermis, to the formation of various enzymes, lipids, and proteins that all play a crucial role in keeping the skin healthy, balanced, and functioning optimally.
The health of each and every cell is important and determines how well our skin functions as an organ. When a skin cell is fully nourished by a healthy blood supply, and its waste products and toxins are removed efficiently with the help of a healthy lymph flow, our skin is able to conduct all its complex functions and mechanisms optimally.
Optimal Lymph Flow = Clean Cells = Healthy Cells = Healthy and Happy Skin!
Furthermore, when our lymphatic flow is optimal, our immune system functions in a smoother and more balanced manner, reducing inflammation while still effectively protecting us from disease.
So to support optimal cellular cleansing, we need to ensure that our lymphatic flow is optimal as well. We have three times more lymphatic fluid than we do blood, but our lymphatic system does not have a pump, like our heart. That means our bodies need to rely on other ways to move the lymphatic fluid through our body to keep us healthy.
The best and simplest ways to ensure optimal lymphatic flow are practicing regular deep breathing, laughing more (the deep belly types!), moving more (walking, running, jumping, etc) and performing simple lymphatic drainage face massages in our daily skincare routines!
3. CONTINUOUS CELL RENEWAL & EXFOLIATION
Your skin is naturally capable of exfoliating itself. It does this in a process called desquamation, whereby dead skin cells are enzymatically shed of one by one, every single night as we sleep. In other words, when our skin is healthy and balanced and its desquamation mechanism is working optimally, we wake up to a fresh new layer of skin every morning!
Desquamation is a highly complex, carefully orchestrated, and precisely timed mechanism, of which the complete understanding still eludes current scientists. In other words, your skin works in magical ways!
To learn all about how desquamation works and how to support your skin’s natural exfoliation process, read my last article: Yes, Your Skin Actually Exfoliates Itself.
4. DEEP PORE CLEANSING BY THE FREE FLOW OF SEBUM & SWEAT
In healthy skin, pores are self-cleansing because sebum and sweat flow outwards in a single direction, pushing out dead skin cells and dirt, and thus maintaining a healthy, clean environment that prevents bacterial overgrowth and is infection-free.
When we perspire, sweating cleans the skin by purging the body of toxins that can clog pores and cause pimples or acne. Sebum functions as an occlusive to keep our skin moist and soft, waterproofs the hair shaft, offers our skin some SPF protection and even feeds our good bacteria.
Sebum and sweat combine to become our skin's acid mantle, and so its production is consistent and carefully regulated in order to main our skin's important pH balance.
So why is that a lot of us suffer from consistently recurring clogged pores?
Clogged pores occurs when there is an accumulation of dead skin cells within the pores due to sub-optimal desquamation mechanism. This causes sebum to be trapped inside the pore, creating the perfect environment for the usually non-pathogenic P.acnes bacteria to over-multiply. The skin responds to this imbalance by creating an immune response of inflammation in an attempt to contain the rapidly multiplying P.acnes bacteria from spreading and causing further imbalance and damage to the rest of the skin. This phenomenon is what we recognize as pimples or acne.
Thus, the only effective way to minimize clogged pores for the long term is by ensuring that your skin's desquamation mechanisms are optimal and unhindered.
Using products that claim to “deep cleanse pores” or remove black and whiteheads are not effective long-term solutions, simply because they do not address your skin's sub-optimal desquamation mechanism. This is why our pores will continue to get clogged, and we would need to continuously use such products in order to maintain clear looking skin.
Now can you see how “clean” your skin is when it is healthy and balanced?
The above mechanisms of how your skin keeps itself clean naturally are unparalleled or unmatched by any skincare product or treatment currently available! When we focus on keeping skin healthy and balanced, we are rewarded with beautiful and glowing skin, without the need for too many skincare products.
HOW TO WASH YOUR FACE THE RIGHT WAY
Our skin would benefit from very gentle, non-foaming, and surfactant-free cleansing methods, such as the oil cleansing method or using cleansing grains or flours (e.g. oats, rice, gram, etc).
These methods are better suited for a nighttime cleansing routine, as our morning cleansing should be even more minimal to preserve the protective oils and antioxidants our skin.
For morning cleansing, just a splash or spray of pure water or an indulgent hydrosol is sufficient. We can further boost our lymphatic flow and aid cellular cleansing by very gently massaging our face while it is still wet with water/hydrosol from the center outwards, and ending with gentle strokes from the top down towards the base of the neck.
The less we interfere with our skin and its microbiome, the more we allow and welcome health to our skin!
Read Part 1: How the Skin Moisturizes Itself