Skin is the body’s largest organ (liver comes second) and together with our hair and nails it makes up the integumentary system. An average adult has a skin surface area of between 1.5-2.0 square metres (16.1-21.5 sq ft.). Skin, next to liver, lungs, kidneys and bowels, is our main excretion route for waste or excess particles. At the same time, through this body cover we are able to absorb all sorts of substances directly into the bloodstream, skipping the ‘hepatic first pass’.
What does it mean?
When we ingest food it is first being broken down by our digestive juices into individual nutrients. These small particles are then absorbed in the small intestine into the portal vein, which brings them straight to the liver. Almost everything that we ingest must first pass through the liver, where it is decided whether it should be further broken down, allowed to enter the main blood circulation or excreted. The liver is our gatekeeper – only acceptable substances will be granted access to the bloodstream, and then with the blood into every cell of our body. How clever is that?!
But back to the skin…
When we apply products onto our skin, some molecules are immediately absorbed and they may enter the lymphatic system or systemic circulation. They will eventually reach the liver but the initial exposure to the taken up substance has a more potent effect.
We use this route of absorption to our benefit in things like:
- drugs: ointments and patches;
- vitamins: vitamin D or B12 sublingual spray;
- minerals: Magnesium from Epsom Salts baths, iron oral spray;
- antioxidants: glutathione patches;
to name just a few.
In my clinical practice some of these come in really handy, when the digestive route for absorption of nutrients is compromised by things like low stomach acid, increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) or dysbiosis (imbalance in gut bacteria). In these cases, sublingual supplements allow for a direct absorption through the mucosal membranes of the oral cavity. I also often recommend (and use myself!) epsom salts bath for achy muscles.
On the flip side, there is also a multitude of the ‘bad guys’ that we can absorb through the skin, adding to the systemic load of toxins. It is especially significant with occupations like farmers (pesticides), decorators (solvents, paint removers, degreasants,) or sheep keepers (organophosphates in sheep-dip), who may be chronically exposed to large amounts of dangerous chemicals.
However in our everyday life we are all exposed to a direct skin-contact with harmful substances, mainly through the use of Health and Beauty Aids (HABAs) or cleaning products:
- Phtalates – in cologne, aftershave, hair gels, deodorants and lotions;
- Oxybenzone – in sunscreens;
- Fire retardants – in upholstery, mattresses, carpets;
- Parabens – in majority of personal care products like shampoos or moisturisers;
- Perchloroethylene – in dry-cleaning products;
- Triclosan – in dishwashing liquid and some hand soaps;
- Quarternary Ammonium Compounds – in fabric softeners;
- 2-Butoxyethanol – in multi-purpose cleaners;
- Sodium Hydroxide – in oven cleaners.
How toxins cause damage?
- Increase free radicals production
- Poison our internal enzyme and antioxidants production disrupting our defence systems
- Damage DNA – this damage not only affects us but also the generations to come
- Damage cell membranes
- Disrupt our hormonal equilibrium
- Linked with diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, infertility, erectile dysfunction, Hashimoto’s, cancers, cardiovascular disease and more…
It is not fully known to what degree these substances are absorbed through the skin upon a direct contact, but if you add this exposure to the toxins drunk, eaten, or inhaled in, the load becomes significant.
I see the human body as an endlessly complex and an ultimately clever organism. We have an amazing ability to adapt to whatever challenges the modern lifestyle throws at us, as we have for thousands of years. In a way, it was this constant reactive remodelling of our skills and abilities on a genetic and epigenetic level, that made us who we are. But let’s not take this almost ‘super-human’ power for granted; there is a limit to our detoxifying capacity and the list of illnesses above is a good illustration.
Let’s respect our bodies and be kind to our livers and to our skins!
How? Next time I will share with you some simple practical tips to reduce the exposure to harmful substances in our everyday living.