Skin 101 PART II: The Dermis (The part you really, really want to care about if you are concerned w

You've read about the epidermis, the visible portion of our largest organ. We spend so much time focused on our skin, in particular the epidermis, when in fact the outer layer isn't much more than an aging version of what's underneath at the level of the dermis. The dermis is where healthy tissue is generated, and it is therefore of primary concern for those of us seeking youthful, vibrant, luminous skin.

The Dermis: Structure, Support & Resilience

The dermis, or middle layer of our skin, provides tensile strength and elasticity through the extracellular matrix, which is made of the structural proteins and anti-aging titans collagen and elastin, along with blood vessels, lymph vessels, and specialized cells. The holy grail of youthful skin, the dermis is twice as thick as the epidermis, measuring about 2mm. Unlike the epidermis, our dermis is hydrophilic, or water loving. It is here that the growth of spanking new skin cells begins.

Collagen: The GLUE. Structural, Tensile Strength

Collagen is a structural protein made up of amino acids and is the main component of connective tissue and the extracellular matrix in the dermis. Along with keratin and elastin, collagen is what gives skin its tensile strength and elasticity. As its proteins degrade, sagging and wrinkles follow, so keeping collagen production in high gear is essential in the great matter of anti-aging. But collagen resides in the dermis, not on the surface. You can’t just slap a collagen moisturizer on your face and expect a miracle. In fact, contrary to the advertisements, you can expect precious little. Though there’s nothing wrong with collagen molecules resting on the surface of the skin (which will temporarily soften it), there will be exactly zero increase in actual collagen production, because the molecule itself is too large to be absorbed beyond the epidermis. The good news is that collagen can be synthesized, or manufactured, in the dermis and throughout the extracellular matrix. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, ranging from hyaluronic acid injections to healthy eating (essential fatty acids, antioxidant foods) to a very few hallowed preparations and techniques.


Reviving the dermal matrix isn’t rocket science, but you have to understand this fundamental principal of physics: whatever product or method is used, it must be able to physically reach the dermis (be absorbed transdermally) in order to reach and stimulate new cell production. This is no small feat, since the epidermis is specifically designed to keep all but the tiniest molecular weights out. Your skin is a bouncer, and if you don’t know the secret password (which is “500 Daltons”), you’re SOL.

Elastin: Anti-Sagging, Rebounding Elasticity

On the subject of bounce, the other critical structural component of the dermis is elastin, a durable, resilient web of rubber band like fibers responsible for imparting elasticity. Like collagen, this protein deteriorates under stress and over time, losing its ability to rebound. Eventually it will even become brittle and crack. As it degrades, the skin matrix is compromised, becoming weaker, more dry, and more detached from the epidermis. Certain activities hasten the decline of elastin. Besides avoiding UV exposure, toxins, and a frappaccino and French fry diet, one of the most controllable things we can do to preserve elastin levels is to eliminate stretching and pulling on skin. None of us think we tug on our skin, but every time you scrub you are wrenching it to and fro, encouraging the separation of the epidermis from the anchor basement membrane, which connects to the dermis. The result? Loathsome and mostly irreversible sagging.

Q: I didn’t know I needed to friend collagen and elastin. I thought if I spent a lot on skin care, somehow everything would work out. Can I arrange an emergency playdate with them now?

A: Yes, you can, and the sooner the better.

Ok, so now that you’ve read this, you realize that, in fact, you probably have done your fair share of elastin compromising activities. What to do now? First of all, let’s see how much damage has been done. To check your elastin levels, lightly pinch the skin on the back of your hand and lift. If it snaps right back, you have adequate elastin. If you can pull a finger’s worth, or if it takes more than a second to go back to normal, then the quality or quantity of elastin has been compromised. This happens in just about all skin over 40, so if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone.

Arresting the progression of collagen and elastin degradation through your own bad habits is the first place to start. Never, ever, pull on your skin. Tugging occurs during these seemingly benign activities:

  • Eye makeup removal

  • Aggressive face washing

  • Scrubbing

  • Getting facials by certain inexperienced estheticians

  • Using your hand to prop up your face or forehead

  • Eye rubbing

  • Applying products to face and decolletage

  • Wearing your hair in a tight ponytail (you think I’m kidding)

At some point all these things may be necessary, but take care to handle your facial tissue with kid gloves. Overzealousness in skin care wreaks havoc, so ditch the heavy-handed habits and save your magic bullet for things that are out of your hands, like gravity. And the sunburns you baked into your teenage skin with tin foil and baby oil. You know who you are.

You are now probably wondering if you will forever be punished for all those years of using a Buff Puff? Inversion boots and yoga poses may not cut it, though studies show that retinoids (retinol, tretinoin, Retina-A), foods containing vitamin C (also seafood and nuts), and certain essential oils are capable of improving production and restoring elastin levels.

Nurturing the dermis is job #1 when it comes to anti-aging protocols. In the next post, we will discuss active ingredients that synthesize collagen, regenerate tissue at warp speed, and give us the kind of skin so many advertisements (falsely) promise.

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