The skin is a miraculous organ. The largest in the body, it has a range of actions with the most important of these being to provide a protective barrier between the body and menaces of the outside world. This protective barrier shields the inner sanctum against mechanical, thermal and physical injury while also protecting it from other hazards such as microbes, chemicals and other environmental toxins which are better out than in.
The layer of the skin responsible for this is called the stratum corneum. This layer is made up of stacks of flat cells encased in a thick coating of lipids (fats). You could liken this layer to a brick wall, with the cells as the bricks and the lipids as the mortar, holding the cells together and acting like a sealant! This wall has a twofold use – it locks moisture in the skin and it keeps out bacteria, allergens, other chemicals and UV light.
This lipid “mortar” of the skin is heavily reliant on an adequate dietary supply of omega 6 fatty acids or linoleic acid. While these dietary oils are quite prevalent in the diet, they must be converted to gamma linolenic acid (GLA), the fatty acid that is most integral to maintaining the skins lipid mortar.
Unfortunately conversion is often impaired due to stress, genetics, aging, illness and poor dietary choices which then mean low levels of GLA in the skin and thus a poorly functioning skin lipid barrier. Imagine if you can, a brick wall cracking with the mortar chipping away, this is what an unhealthy lipid barrier looks like.
And this can essentially mean two things.
The first is that the skin is unable to lock in and maintain moisture within the skin, despite how much water you drink! This means that moisture evaporates readily, resulting initially in skin that appears dull and dehydrated. Long-term, skin that cannot hold moisture becomes rough, dry and flaky and dry skin is naturally more prone to the accelerated development of fine lines and wrinkles. Not good!
The second problem associated with a poorly performing lipid barrier is that the skin has trouble keeping things out of the lower layers of the skin. This means that microbes, bacteria, allergens and even seemingly innocuous, skincare and cosmetic ingredients can easily find their way into the dermis layer of the skin causing an inflammatory response. This results in skin which is overly sensitive and seems to be reactive to everything (even to natural and hypoallergenic products) A poorly functioning lipid layer is also consistently linked to all manner of inflammatory skin conditions including eczema, dermatitis, rosacea and acne.
It is no coincidence that research has found that people who suffer from these skin conditions have trouble converting dietary omega 6 fatty acids into the main lipid mortar GLA. Even more interesting is the link between stress and an exacerbation of skin conditions. The stress hormone cortisol also prevents the conversion of these dietary fatty acids into the skin sealant GLA. Just makes so much sense when you think about it!
So what can you do to support a healthy skin barrier and get the benefits of moisture rich, protected, resilient skin? Have a good intake of healthy sources of omega 6 (of course balanced with omega 3 fatty acids) the best sources are nuts and seeds. To enhance the conversion of dietary omega 6 into GLA you need to ditch the stress, sugar, trans fats and alcohol which all impact negatively on conversion. It is also important to provide the body with the nutrients required for conversion, namely zinc, vitamin B6, magnesium, biotin, calcium and chromium.
Unfortunately, even with these diet and lifestyle modifications, some people will still have poor conversion so in this case supplementing with readymade GLA is the best course of action. Blackcurrant, borage, hemp and evening primrose seed oils are all potent sources of natural GLA, essentially supplying the skin with the readymade ingredients for a healthy lipid “mortar”, bypassing the need for conversion.
Probably for this reason, supplementing with these oils is the best way to promote high levels of skin hydration and moisture, which in turn promotes skin smoothness, tone and elasticity. Of course, alongside keeping all the good stuff in, an improved lipid layer will also keep microbes, toxins and other chemicals out. This means a reduction in skin sensitivity and reactivity and reduced incidence and severity of skin conditions. These oils also soothe the skin due to their anti-inflammatory benefits.
So, if your skin is dry and getting more lined by the minute, if you have skin that seems to react to everything, or you have inflammatory skin condition, maybe have a think about making sure your skin lipid layer is getting the support it needs to perform its job properly!
By Rachel Dawson Dip Nutrition Dip Herb Med (Hons)
Senior Naturopathic Consultant Health & Herbs International Ltd
Radiance Oil of Beauty provides a synergistic blend of New Zealand grown evening primrose oil (EPO) and blackcurrant seed oil (BSO) alongside New Zealand grown astaxanthin to help support a healthy lipid barrier in the skin. Buy it now from our secure online shop.
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