By Omar Shamout

At the risk of being overly poetic, I like to consider our three layers of skin the brave knights defending the bodily temple from marauding microbes. As our largest organ, skin is the part of our anatomy that protects us from harmful invading pathogens. If the brave epidermis, the fearless dermis, and the dashing hypodermis weren't there to protect us from these intruders, we'd be as helpless as lambs to the slaughter.

Our skin has a total area of approximately 20 square feet, which leaves a lot of room for a myriad of potential medical problems. So, it's essential that we get a proper understanding of the most common of these ailments and take the steps necessary to ensure prevention. But sometimes issues can arise despite all of our best efforts, and it's important to understand all the options available to you in terms of treatment.

Before we even get to the list, one commonsense way to look after your skin is by staying properly hydrated. Waiting until you get thirsty means you're already dehydrated, so be proactive about it. Your body loses 2 to 3 liters of water a day just from normal activities, excluding exercise, so proper water intake is essential to keeping not only your skin healthy, but your entire body, and will aid in the prevention of many of the conditions mentioned below.
  1. Sunny (Vitamin) D. Naturally, many fitness enthusiasts are also sun worshippers who prefer to get their exercise outdoors whenever possible. This tendency can have positive and negative impacts on our skin.

    Vitamin D is a hormone generated in the skin using sunshine as a catalyst. It strengthens calcium absorption throughout the body, promoting healthy bones, teeth, and muscle. A vitamin D deficiency can lead to harmful problems such as low bone mass and osteoporosis, because your body will start looking anywhere it can for its much-needed calcium. It might even make you more susceptible to certain cancers.

    For those of us lucky enough to live in sun-drenched parts of the United States, such as the South or West Coast, 10 to 15 minutes per day of sun exposure without sunscreen is generally considered enough time to stimulate sufficient vitamin D production in people with light or fair skin. Dark-skinned people are thought to require 5 to 10 times as much sun exposure to achieve the same results. Exposing your arms, face, and legs to this amount of sunlight does not increase risk for skin cancer. Supplements and foods like dairy and fish are also good ways to increase vitamin D intake. Overdosing is of no real concern, so load up and help keep your bones healthy.

    The treatment of sun-damaged skin obviously depends on the severity of the damage. There isn't a cream in the world strong enough to get rid of melanoma, for instance. However, there are many different treatments for mild symptoms such as sunburns, wrinkles, and pigment discoloration. Always consult your doctor first to make sure that large freckle you never noticed before isn't something more serious.

    $ – Inexpensive over-the-counter products containing aloe or alpha hydroxy acids are the easiest way to ease the pain associated with sunburns, and are very effective ways to temporarily soothe damaged skin. More powerful creams such as Tretinoin or Tazarotene require a prescription.

    $$ – Chemical peels are procedures that burn off the topmost layer of damaged skin in order to regenerate new cell growth in the affected area. The deeper the peel, the more expensive, but also the more risk you run of superficially scarring your skin.

    $$$ – Non-Ablative Laser Surgery, which uses pulsed-dye technology, can be performed to heat up target areas in order to increase collagen production and produce healthier skin.

    Another popular treatment for smile wrinkles and crow's feet is to use a dermal filler. Dermal fillers (containing different variations of collagen) are injected into the wrinkled area to fill the depression. Botox® can also be used to deactivate the muscles that cause wrinkles, but it does not heal damaged skin.
  2. Stretch Marks. No one likes them, but most people get them. Fortunately, they are a cosmetic concern more than a medical one. These unsightly scars created by broken collagen occur predominantly in areas of the body that are affected by pregnancy, weight gain, and muscle growth. Women are more likely to experience them on their stomachs, thighs, breasts, and buttocks, while men find them mostly on their abdomens, upper arms, and shoulders. Obviously, pregnancy is the leading cause for stretch marks among women. Children can also develop them during a rapid growth spurt.

    Unfortunately, if you want to become pregnant, or build muscle, chances are you will see stretch marks as a result. The best advice is to maintain a healthy, stable diet and exercise regimen to avoid drastic changes in your body shape. Look for food or supplements rich in zinc; vitamins A, E, and C; and essential fatty acids to boost collagen formation and help build cell walls.

    The treatment of sun-damaged skin obviously depends on the severity of the damage. There isn't a cream in the world strong enough to get rid of melanoma, for instance. However, there are many different treatments for mild symptoms such as sunburns, wrinkles, and pigment discoloration. Always consult your doctor first to make sure that large freckle you never noticed before isn't something more serious.

    $ – The most inexpensive option is Tretinoin cream, but it can only be obtained with a doctor's prescription. This cream is used to treat many types of skin problems, and can be effective on stretch marks that are less than 6 weeks old. Tretinoin helps to rebuild collagen in the affected area, and diminish the pink or red appearance so that it blends in with the natural color of your skin. Tretinoin cream should never be used during pregnancy.

    $$ – The intermediate cost option is microdermabrasion, which blasts your skin with tiny crystals in the hopes of stimulating new cell growth.

    $$$ – The most expensive remedy is various laser treatments including pulsed-dye laser treatment, and fractal photothermolysis, both of which are used to stimulate collagen and elastin growth in different ways. An excimer laser can be used on older scars to stimulate melanin production.

    It's important to realize that no matter how much money you spend, none of these treatments are 100 percent effective because stretch marks create a permanent change in the dermis layer of your skin. At best, laser treatments can reduce the depth of immature (red) marks by no more than 50 percent.
  3. Loose Skin. If you've undergone significant weight loss, you more than likely have some loose skin that hangs and sags. This is because the skin has stretched to hold in all the excess weight, and is unable to tighten again once that weight disappears. The loss of 50 pounds or more from your body is generally the point at which loose skin is going to be a problem. Skin also loses its elasticity the older we get, so the longer you wait to shed those pounds, the worse the problem will be afterwards.

    If possible, lose weight gradually, at a stable rate of 1 to 2 pounds a week over a number of weeks, giving your skin time to adjust and regain its elasticity. Sometimes, though, this is impossible, especially if you've undergone a surgical procedure such as the lap band treatment. In either case, it is always helpful to build muscle mass while losing the weight to significantly aid in the prevention of loose skin. Exfoliating your skin after a shower also helps circulation and cell rejuvenation.

    Over time, your skin will regain some of its elasticity, but the rate at which that occurs also depends a lot on genetics, which is obviously out of your control.

    $ – Some people claim that yeast and aloe vera extracts or soy protein products will assist in tightening the skin and boosting collagen production, but these methods have not been medically verified. Bodybuilders also use a product called Thiomuplex cream to temporarily tighten skin in affected areas.

    $$$ – A significant amount of weight loss will undoubtedly leave you with pockets of loose skin that won't go away no matter how much cream you use or how many supplements you take. In these cases, you might consider a body-contouring procedure. While these procedures can't be considered cheap, the price range has definitely decreased in recent years, and medical technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in this field due to the increased demand for very specific plastic surgery procedures. Depending on the severity of your problem, you may even be able to use noninvasive laser treatment or something similar to alleviate the issue. Only a doctor will be able to tell you what procedures might work for you.
  4. Acne. Contrary to popular belief, teenagers are not the only ones who get acne. This is because hormones play a part in its formation, leaving pregnant women, among other adults, also susceptible. The hormonal nature helps explain the connection between acne and emotions. Without going into gory detail, a breakdown of the different types of mild acne symptoms and their causes can be found here. Moderate and severe types of acne such as cystic acne will require a visit to the doctor.

    The buildup of oil and bacteria on your skin and the irregular shedding of dead skin cells are the primary physical causes of acne, so it is important to lightly wash your skin twice daily using water-based cleansers to eliminate excess oil. Do not confuse oil with dirt, however. Dirt does not cause acne, and hard scrubbing of your skin is actually counterproductive. Studies are still being done to confirm whether starchy foods contribute to the formation of acne, but don't believe the hype about chocolate. More than likely, it's the hormones causing you to eat the candy bar that are the real cause.

    Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid products, which can be found in most drug stores, help open pores and dry up blemishes. Don't overuse these products, though, because you might end up damaging your skin more than when you started. If your acne keeps recurring and is present on more than one area of your body, see a doctor to discuss your medical options to avoid possible scarring.

    Fortunately, most of the issues related to your skin are easily treatable and cosmetic in nature. But it's the first layer of defense against an entire universe of bad guys, so be sure to give it all the attention and help it needs to keep your flag flying high.