Skincology: When Skin Meets Environment

Your skin is the barrier between your insides and outsides but what happens when that function is challenged by the very environment it lives in?

Where is Autumn, are we even going to get a Winter this year? Believe me, my skin is panicking (skin, yes, I hear you!) Our environment feels like it’s hotter, for longer, plants are flowering early, there’s more pollen, more hayfever, more mosquitoes, more bushfire smoke, more asthma storms, higher UV levels, just urgh… I joke with my family about moving to Tasmania because if there are two things my skin hates it’s heat and poor air quality.

But hold up, this is very human-centric of me and our biology does not exist in isolation, we exist within and in response to our environment. So with our skin our trusty barrier, how it gets you through the world in one piece is actually a marvel. Yet that barrier can be severely challenged with changing levels in everything from pollution and temperature, unpredictable weather conditions and even water quality.

And what of the plants and animals we share this planet with, who are also wondering what on earth is going on? They’re trying to survive, we’re trying to survive and sometimes biology collides in the middle in the form of irritating hairs, toxins, pollen, stings, chemical compounds…you name it, there’s a skin reaction for everyone!

I haven’t always though like this mind you. Last year, Biology threw me a lecture series on Ecology and like the typical Medical Science student that I am, I thought how on earth was this related to my skin obsession…or was it? Enter Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli – who puts The Lorax quotes in his lecture slides so we know he’s a good guy.

“The one thing you realise is just how vulnerable we are – we’re not very hairy – and we can look at other animals who don’t have much hair, like frogs, and see that one of the great threats they face is threats through their skin, through absorbing toxins in their environment,” Dieter explains.

“In a frog model you can make observations quite quickly as skin is one of the main ways you connect with your environment. From a climate change perspective, there are public health risks in changes in temperature. We see more extreme days coupled with the interactions of pollution and UV, it’s a cocktail of effects!”

One of the mains concerns of highly urbanised populations is that we don’t have much ease or connection to nature, and subsequently there is a push to get us to connect, go out, touch, feel and experience nature. But Dieter reminds us there’s a catch – it’s going to expose our skin to a range of things we may have never encountered before and so designing green spaces in cities also need to account for allergies.

And while some animals deal with pressures of their environment incredibly well, are we seriously looking at a world where only hypoallergenic plants and flowers can exist?

“Allergens and rashes, let’s turn it around and ask, what’s in it for the plant?” says Dieter.

“It’s something they’ve evolved as protection. Think of mosquito bites, bee stings, ant bites – these are just a reflection of the natural world and our allergic responses are a defense mechanism. It doesn’t make it any better I know but once you’ve been bitten you kinda just have to suck it up”.

Shock, it’s not all about us, yes, there are individual differences and as a general life tip, don’t ever pat a furry caterpillar (no matter how cute it looks) – and if you’re keen on stings check out the Schmidt Sting Pain Index!

My skin has never fared well in national parks, botanical gardens or greenhouses, it regularly suffers from prickly heat and develops an attractive rash when in contact with any foods containing lycopene (especially tomatoes…I know right!) So what is skin to do?

“Just think of hayfever and pollen,” says Dieter. “Plant reproduction is tied to changes in climate and so there is every possibility we’ll be encountering new pollens which means new responses in our physiology. We’re more mobile, and so nature is forced to be more mobile. We’re both just trying to survive”.

Now look, this is a MASSIVE topic to cover in just one tiny blog post (and hopefully you’re still reading) but it’s here to get the conversation started – to get you thinking.

I’m big on people learning to respect their skin (yay for skin!) but that also means a respect for the environment it lives in, that it can survive in. It’s being thrown more and more challenges every day and you know, it might need more than just a new cream to fix it.

Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli runs the Integrative Ecology Group at The University of Sydney, School of Life & Environmental Sciences. #skinfitmister

SkinFit Tip

“A lot of the skin issues we have with the plant & animal world are a function of the fact that it’s pretty brutal out there and they’ve had to learn ways to defend themselves - it’s not deliberate, they’re just trying to make a living” - Dieter Hochuli #skinfittip

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