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Give Your Body’s Largest Organ Some Respect

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What is the largest organ in the body? Is it the liver or maybe the brain?

The answer may surprise you: It is the skin. This amazing organ regulates our body temperature, protects us from infection and toxins, keeps us hydrated, assists with metabolism and helps our bodies in many other ways.

Yet most of us give little thought to our hard-working skin; it’s just … there. Then one day in our 40s or 50s, we take a good look in the mirror and may be shocked by what we see: skin that is rough, thin and/or frail and without the elasticity it used to have. In addition, the walls of the blood vessels in the skin may have become thinner, making us more susceptible to bruising.

These changes show up all over the skin but can be particularly dramatic on the face. As we age, we lose collagen and fat, as well as bone and cartilage. At the same time, gravity tugs on our skin. As a result, we see looser skin, sunken eyes and dark circles around the eyes. The nose becomes flatter and wider, and the tip may appear enlarged because of loose cartilage.

It may seem that skin aging happens almost overnight. The reality is that small changes have been accumulating in the skin year after year, decade after decade. While there are hereditary and genetic factors that contribute to skin aging, much of it is the result of lifestyle choices. We don’t give our skin good nutrition with a healthy and balanced diet. We don’t keep ourselves hydrated, we don’t exercise enough, we don’t sleep enough, and we’re too stressed out. Furthermore, being overweight intensifies the effect of gravity on the skin.

In addition to these lifestyle issues, two of the most damaging things we do to our skin are smoking and exposing skin to the sun without proper protection. Beginning from birth, it is critically important to protect the skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Clothing and hats help, as does a high-quality sunscreen with a high SPF.

There are two very important things to remember about sunscreen: First, it must be applied before you go out in the sun. A good rule of thumb is to put on the sunscreen 15 minutes before exposure. Second, when you’re out in the sun for an extended period of time, you must reapply sunscreen for it to remain effective. Otherwise, swimming, sweating and other things can wash away the sunscreen, putting you at great risk for a nasty burn.
For more information about sun protection, including tips on choosing a good sunscreen, go to the American Cancer Society website at cancer.org and type “sunscreen” in the search box.
 

A word about tanning beds: For convenience and, sometimes, because of the false belief that it is safer than outdoor tanning, people turn to a tanning bed to get that coveted glow. The truth is that tanning beds are extremely harmful to the skin and should never, ever be used. A safe alternative is a self-tanner. While the damaging rays of a tanning bed penetrate deep into the skin, a self-tanner stays safely in the epidermis, the topmost layer.
 

Consistently using sunscreen throughout your lifetime can make an enormous difference in how—and how quickly—your skin ages. The other big factor in this process is a consistent, daily skin care regimen, starting during puberty. Two times a day—every day—wash your face then apply a toner and a moisturizer. Just like wearing sunscreen, cleansing and moisturizing has to become a habit you stick with your entire life in order to provide the maximum defense again skin aging.
 

No matter what age you are, starting these good habits—along with proper nutrition and keeping yourself hydrated—will have a tremendously positive effect on your skin.
 

If you’ve already experienced sun damage, you do have options. These include some of the newer fillers on the market, which can reverse the aging process, restoring elastin and collagen, thickening up the skin and stimulating the growth of skin layers. I use these fillers with some of my patients, who have experienced excellent results. For more information, talk with your primary care physician or a dermatologist.

Mojgan Sadeghi, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician with a practice in Simi Valley. She is a member of the Simi Valley Hospital medical staff.