The Skin as a Detoxifying Organ
By Dr. Sama Kassira, M.D.
In light of the recent “detoxifying” craze that has occurred, the skin has been found to play an important role. Social media has been flooded in the past few years with adverts of colonic cleanses (including caffeine enemas), cryo-detoxification, and sweat-cleansing. While thus far, there has not been any published quality evidence of the effects, we do know that the skin is plays a significant role in detoxification (1). Specifically, poison detoxification is being studied in the treatment of Victor Yushchenko, former Ukranian president, after he was poisoned with dioxin (chemical name TCDD; related to Agent Orange) (2,3). He became very ill after being poisoned in 2004 and subsequently developed chloracne (2). Since then, his treatment team has published updates and data regarding his clearance of dioxin. Interestingly, the sebaceous glands in his skin over-growths were found to have an important role in clearing this poison from his body. Although most of the poison was excreted through his gastrointestinal tract (approximately 80%), the discovery that his skin assisted in clearance of this poison reminds us that the skin is one of the most important protective and detoxifying organs in the body (2).
The skin has a complex and organized structure, but in terms of the detoxification capabilities, the sebaceous gland is the star of the show. The sebaceous gland secretes cell debris and sebum. Sebum is an oily product of the sebaceous cells and it contains vitamin E and squalene, which both have antioxidant properties (4). Vitamin E and squalene also make up a large part of what is called the “skin surface lipid film (SSL film) (4). The SSL film has been shown in many studies to be our first protective layer against UV rays and environmental toxins. Along with this, there have been findings of increased levels of oil on the skin being associated with decreased aging (presumably because of the protection from UV rays) (5). Abnormal levels of byproducts of sebaceous gland squalene (squalene peroxides) in skin diseases such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis have also been reported4. This suggests that upsetting the balance of this detoxification may play a role in causing these skin diseases.
A study published in China has shown evidence of reduced versions (in terms of oxidation-reduction) of squalene in the skin of people residing in large cities as compared to those in more open rural environments (6). From this, we can deduct that living in a city required the skin and sebaceous glands to detoxify more than in clean air environments. Some studies have even suggested that measuring these squalene peroxides on a person’s skin can tell us how much environmental pollution that person is around – which is an exciting quantitative avenue to help track just how much toxins we are being exposed to in different places. Some environmental toxins are fighting back, however. Cigarette smoke and a few other poisons actually do exponentially more harm because they shrink sebaceous glands making the skin less able to detoxify the cigarette smoke and more susceptible to other toxins from the sun and in the air (7).
For former Ukranian presidents and Zalea authors alike, the skin and namely the sebaceous gland is one of the first and largest protectors of the body and in addition to the physical protection it provides, the skin clearly plays a significant role in chemical anti-oxidation and detoxification.
1. Zouboulis CC, Picardo M, Ju Q, et al. Beyond acne: Current aspects of sebaceous gland biology and function. Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 2016 Sep 11;17(3):319–34.
2. Sorg O, Zennegg M, Schmid P, et al. 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) poisoning in Victor Yushchenko: identification and measurement of TCDD metabolites. Lancet. 2009;374(9696):1179–85.
3. Patterson AT, Kaffenberger BH, Keller RA, et al. Skin diseases associated with Agent Orange and other organochlorine exposures. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016 Jan;74(1):143–70.
4. Lee SH, Jeong SK, Ahn SK. An update of the defensive barrier function of skin. Yonsei Med J. Yonsei University College of Medicine; 2006 Jun 30;47(3):293–306.
5. Pham D-M, Boussouira B, Moyal D, et al. Oxidization of squalene, a human skin lipid: a new and reliable marker of environmental pollution studies. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2015 Aug;37(4):357–65.
6. Lefebvre M-A, Pham D-M, Boussouira B, et al. Consequences of urban pollution upon skin status. A controlled study in Shanghai area. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2016 Jun;38(3):217–23.
7. Hu T, Pan Z, Yu Q, et al. Benzo(a)pyrene induces interleukin (IL)-6 production and reduces lipid synthesis in human SZ95 sebocytes via the aryl hydrocarbon receptor signaling pathway. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2016 Apr;43:54–60.