How (Diabetic) Skin Works and How to Keep It Happy
Your skin accounts for 15 to 16 percent of your body weight. That’s a big organ that plays a vital role in protecting you from infection and disease. At its most basic, the skin consists of three main layers—epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. These three layers work together to keep out dangerous invaders, regulate body temperature, and protect and support the immune system. Diabetes can affect the skin’s ability to do its job, leading to infections and slow immune system responses. However, careful diabetes control and consistent daily skin care can keep the skin intact, supple, and strong.
Epidermis: The Visible Barrier
The uppermost skin layer, the epidermis, provides a visible barrier from the immediate environment. The epidermis’ outermost layer consists of dead skin cells that continually flake off but completely replace themselves every four to six weeks.
The epidermis contains two vital forms of protection: Melanin that protects against cellular damage from UV light and Langerhans cells considered the immune system's outermost barrier. These cells attach themselves to foreign substances and take antigens to lymph nodes and T-cells, where the body can fight off potential intruders. The epidermis also makes additional proteins that help regulate the immune system.
Diabetes and the Epidermis
Diabetes affects this outermost layer in a number of ways, starting with dry skin. While the reasons behind diabetic dry skin aren’t entirely understood, dryness makes the skin of those with diabetes more prone to splitting and cracking. That creates openings where bacteria and fungi can enter the skin.
At the same time, chronic high glucose levels cause blood vessels to shrink, resulting in poor circulation to the epidermis. Poor circulation gets in the way of the immune system’s ability to fight infections effectively.
Dermis: The Pathogen Protector
The dermis houses nerves, blood capillaries, sweat and oil glands, and hair follicles. These tissues work together to cushion, stretch, cool the body, fight infection, and circulate blood.
Diabetes and the Dermis
The dermis’ blood capillaries are small, contributing to the same poor circulation that affects the epidermis. In the dermis, poor circulation affects the immune system, like the epidermis, and the skin’s ability to sweat, retain water, and produce the body oils necessary to keep the skin hydrated.
Diabetes can also affect the nerves in this layer, potentially leading to a condition called diabetic peripheral neuropathy. It can cause numbness and pain, especially in the feet and legs. The resulting numbness increases the chances of infection because numbness may hide a developing skin irritation or infection.
Subcutaneous tissue, sometimes called the hypodermis or subcutaneous fat, consists mostly of fat cells but also includes blood vessels, collagen, elastin, hair follicles, and sebaceous glands. This layer stores energy and acts as a cushioning and protective layer for the bones, internal organs, and muscle tissue.
Diabetes and Subcutaneous Tissue
Circulatory problems affect this layer as well. However, the blood vessels are larger, so the symptoms, like dry skin and nerve damage, are more likely to show themselves in the dermis and epidermis.
How to Improve Diabetic Skin Health
The best way to keep your skin healthy is to carefully and consistently manage your blood glucose levels. You can also boost your skin health with:
1. Daily skin checks
After you shower or bathe, check your skin for red areas, chafing, cracks, or scrapes. Treat any potential issues right away. Keep a close eye on your feet. They’re a prime target for poor circulation and unnoticed injuries. A simple cut or crack can become an entry point for bacteria or fungi.
2. Daily cleansing
Keep the skin clean and dry. Be careful of highly fragrant soaps and scrubs that may cause skin irritation. Opt for a gentle, hypoallergenic cleanser that’s designed to help maintain the skin’s natural moisture.
3. Daily moisturizing
After you’ve completely dried the skin, apply a day or night moisturizer, depending on the time of day. A formula like VitalFit’s Day Moisturizer that contains anti-fungal ingredients can help maintain the skin’s integrity and prevent infections. The VitalFit Night Moisturizer contains healing ingredients to recharge the skin while you sleep.
4. Treat your skin with care
Wear well-fitted shoes that don’t rub. That may mean buying wide-width shoes and wearing thicker socks as an extra layer of cushioning. Keep tabs on red spots, chafing, heat rashes, and any other seemingly small skin issues. A lowered immune system response can turn something simple into a chronic problem.
A Final Note
Careful management of your blood glucose levels is the foundation of diabetic health. That holds true for diabetic skin, too. A better understanding of how the skin works, what diabetes does to it, and how you can better take care of it can keep you healthy and active.