The Skin Barrier Series: Part One: Anatomy of the Skin

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

The skin serves as our body's shield, protecting us from external aggressors and maintaining our overall well-being. At the core of this defense system lies the skin barrier, a complex and vital structure that plays a crucial role in skin health.

In this series of articles, we will explore the anatomy of the skin, the functions and significance of the skin barrier, discuss the importance of maintaining a healthy barrier, and provide insights on how we can nurture and repair it through good skincare choices and habits.

Part One: Anatomy of the Skin: Layers that Shield and Nourish

Our skin is a complex structure consisting of three primary layers: the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis. For our purposes here, the most important layers to understand are the epidermis and the dermis.  Understanding the composition and functions of these layers helps us to make good choices in our skincare routines and practices.

The epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin, plays a crucial role in protecting the body from external aggressors. It is a dynamic structure composed of several layers, each with its unique characteristics and functions. The outermost layer of the epidermis is called the stratum corneum, often referred to as the "horny layer." This layer is primarily responsible for maintaining the integrity and functionality of the skin barrier.

The stratum corneum is composed of corneocytes, which are dead skin cells that have undergone a process called cornification. These corneocytes are surrounded by a lipid matrix, consisting of ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids, which act as a cementing substance holding the cells together. The lipid matrix plays a vital role in the barrier function by preventing excessive water loss and protecting against the penetration of harmful substances (Bouwstra et al., 2003).

Beneath the epidermis lies the dermis, a complex layer composed of connective tissue, blood vessels, hair follicles, sweat glands, and sensory receptors. The dermis provides structural support, elasticity, and nourishment to the skin. Collagen and elastin fibers within the dermis contribute to the skin's strength, flexibility, and resilience. It also houses vital components of the immune system which help defend against pathogens (Fuchs & Horsley, 2008).

The coordinated functioning of these layers ensures the skin's ability to shield and nourish the body. The epidermis, with its outermost stratum corneum, acts as the frontline defense, preventing water loss, regulating temperature, and protecting against harmful substances. Meanwhile, the dermis provides structural integrity, support, and nourishment.

Understanding the intricate anatomy of the skin allows us to appreciate the remarkable complexity of its protective mechanisms. By nurturing and supporting the health of each layer, we can promote optimal skin function and maintain a strong and resilient skin barrier.


Bouwstra, J. A., Honeywell-Nguyen, P. L., & Gooris, G. S. (2003). Structure of the skin barrier and its modulation by vesicular formulations. Progress in lipid research, 42(1), 1-36.

Fuchs, E., & Horsley, V. (2008). More than one way to skin. Genes & development, 22(8), 976-985.

Johnson, S. S., Elder, D. E., & Murphy, G. F. (2014). Histology and physiology of the skin. In Lever's Histopathology of the Skin (pp. 3-61). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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