SOUND MIND, SOUND BODY: Skin will repay you for good care

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Our bodies' largest organ is one that is easy to see but also easy to overlook.

Covering about 20 square feet, our skin protects us from environmental elements, and allows us to feel sensations and temperature change.

Some people are blessed with naturally flawless skin, while others struggle to have healthy skin. The skin thrives off moisture, fluid intake and healthy foods. A good moisturizer can benefit the skin as well.

Skin is made up of three layers, the most familiar one being the epidermis, the layer that faces the world. The epidermis, in turn, consists of four or five layers and is of varying thickness, depending on where it is. Eyelids are considered the thinnest; the palms and soles of the feet the thickest.

Epidermal cells start out as living cells that move closer to the surface as cells exposed to the elements are shed and new cells form beneath. On their way to the skin's surface, cells flatten and die. This process involves the saturation of the cells with the protein keratin, which is what makes your skin waterproof.

Skin cells tend to shed within a couple of weeks, so it can be helpful to use a washcloth or a skin brush to exfoliate the dead cells.

After showering, many people prefer to moisturize the skin with aloe vera gel or skin cream. However, cosmetic products contain preservatives that are possibly detrimental to one's health. According to the Food and Drug Administration, parabens are an anti-fungal preservative used in numerous shampoos, lotions, hair products, deodorants, shaving products and make-up. Three of the most common parabens used in products include methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.

Studies have shown parabens have estrogen-like properties and have been detected in the bodies of women who have had breast cancer. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Toxicology detected parabens in breast cancer tumors. However, there is no research that has established a causal link between parabens and cancer.

Another pair of ingredients often found in shampoos, shower gels and bubble bath are sodium laurel sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, which are detergents. A study conducted by the University of Georgia Medical College indicated these chemicals penetrated the eyes, brain, heart and kidney showed long-term retention in the tissues.

Beyond choosing proper products, people maintain healthy skin through avoiding sun and smoking.

"The most important way to maintain healthy skin is to avoid sun damage. People with outdoor jobs are recommended to use sunscreen and hats to avoid direct sunlight on the face," said Dr. Jeffrey Stiles, a Walla Walla Clinic dermatologist.

It is recommended people receive approximately 10 to 15 minutes daily of sun exposure during the summer months.

"It is impossible to get enough vitamin D year round from sunlight. Very few people receive vitamin D from their diet; therefore, it is recommended to take 1,000 units of vitamin D from the fall through the spring months," Stiles said.

Stiles can frequently recognize skin affected by smoking.

"Smoking affects every cell in the body including skin cells. The skin is usually heavy lined and gray."

He added that anyone with a changing or bleeding skin lesion should contact a dermatologist.

Reading the label is as vital as reading a food label to recognize the added chemicals. Currently, the FDA is not authorized to approve ingredients, so manufacturers may incorporate almost any substance in the product with the exception of color additives in coal-tar hair dyes.

That leaves it up to you to make sure your skin is nourished with healthy ingredients. Your skin will thank you in the long run.

Elizabeth Kovar has been working in the fitness industry since 2006 with international experience in India and Australia. She has a master's degree in recreation and tourism and is a programs coordinator at the YMCA where she trains, instructs fitness classes and assists in marketing projects. She welcomes questions and comments and can be reached at ekovar@wwymca.org.

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