Cover story: Human skin

It weighs about 9 pounds, darkens in the summer and wrinkles as the body ages. It is also the body’s largest organ. Yes, the topic is skin, but let’s go beyond the importance of applying sunscreen in the summer — an otherwise hot topic during sizzling July and August — because skin and what it represents goes well beyond the only skin deep.

“Skin reflects our age, ancestry and state of health — and we manipulate and adorn it to convey things about ourselves; to make us unique,” says Nina Jablonski, author of “Skin — A Natural History.”

“Skin means something to us both culturally and biologically,” adds Ms. Jablonski, professor and head of the department of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.

One of the ways we manipulate our skin is by plastic surgery. Americans spent more than $12 billion in 2006 on invasive and noninvasive cosmetic procedures, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, a national professional organization of plastic surgeons.

“Nonsurgical procedures are becoming very popular,” says Dr. Foad Nahai, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

“They are safe and effective, relatively inexpensive, and there is very little downtime,” adds Dr. Nahai, who is in private practice in Atlanta.

These nonsurgical procedures include injections of Botox (a toxin used to relax facial muscles and smooth the skin) and fillers (fat used to puff up and smooth the skin).

It used to be that patients focused only on the face for these procedures; now the treatments are becoming more common in other areas of the body.

“One of the yardsticks I used to use at cocktail parties was, ‘Do the hands match the face?’ and if they don’t, the person has had something done,” Dr. Nahai says.

You can’t do that as easily anymore, he says, because patients use fillers in their hands.

The future? We will be spending upward of $25 billion on cosmetic procedures, says Dr. Nahai, who adds that he anticipates anti-aging procedures being performed at a cellular level within a few years.

“It will become much more scientific,” he says, adding that — aside from cellular manipulation — radio frequency will be used to heat subcutaneous collagen to tighten the skin.

But before getting too sci-fi, let’s go back to where it all started, namely the evolving properties of human skin going back millions of years. One major aspect of human skin that separates it from that of other mammals is its relative hairlessness.

Theories abound about the origins of this unique lack of hair, Ms. Jablonski says. The most supported one, though, is that hairless skin enables sweat to cool the body faster than hairy or furry skin. This cool-down system is essential for us restless and active humans.

“Our brains were bigger than other mammals’ and our grapefruit-sized brain needed to be maintained at thermo-equilibrium,” Ms. Jablonski says.

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