“Integumentary system” is a fancy term for the skin and related structures (hair, nails). This system sometimes doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. It’s “just skin.” But our skin is more important than you might realize!
Probably the most obvious job the skin has is protection. It protects us from the elements. It is also our first line of defense against “bad bugs.” The skin itself filters or destroys many potential invaders. Skin, together with its associated hairs and mucosal linings, also filters out many of the potential invaders that would otherwise find entrance through one of the body’s openings (nose, mouth, etc.). Protection, however, isn’t the only important role the skin has.
Our skin helps moderate our temperature, raising our hairs (and causing goosebumps) to warm us up, causing perspiration to cool us down, and generally helping to either hold heat in or let it dissipate into the air around us.
Vitamin D production takes place on the skin, when certain UV rays in sunlight hit and interact with the necessary substances in the oils our skin produces. 1
In ways that are still poorly-understood, the skin can serve as a gateway for healing substances (and, potentially, toxic substances).2 This is one reason aromatherapy can be effective.
The skin often serves as something of a barometer of the overall health of the body. The body naturally seeks to move problems out so they can be eliminated, so skin problems are often one of the earliest indications that something is wrong.
Possibly one of the most under-appreciated roles the skin has is detoxification. Through perspiration and sweating (very similar, but separate, processes*) many toxins are removed from the system. As with other routes of elimination, it is important to keep the skin functioning well so this can happen effectively.
Healthy Skin, Hair, & Nails
Healthy skin should be supple and (for the most part) clear. It should not be dull, dry, cracked, or scaly; seem clogged; or (routinely) itch.
Healthy nails should not be ridged, spotted, discolored, misshapen, or prone to easy splitting or breakage. Any of these features may indicate nutrient deficiencies.
Likewise, dull, thinning hair or excessive breakage (that you can’t explain by not-so-gentle handling) may indicate inadequate nutrition.
Apart from ruling out significant medical issues, if your skin seems to be in less-than-optimal condition, check your intake of water, vitamins, and fats, ensure your skin is being exfoliated adequately, and be sure you’re exercising regularly to keep your circulation going and encourage sweating.
*Perspiration is more passive and resembles condensation. Perspiration essentially “seeps out.” Sweating is a more active process and results from sweat being released via sweat (“sudoriferous“) glands. The terms are generally used interchangeably for the two processes, but I will use them this way throughout this site in order to differentiate.