The skin is your body's first line of defense against any and all invaders — and, yes, it has its own immune system.

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Think of your skin as a bodyguard whose job it is to block your insides of every threat you come into contact with — bacteria and viruses, particles floating in the air, rays of sunlight, computer blue light.

"To do this, your skin has its own immune system that contains both specialized cells [Langerhans cells and T cells] to fight various infectious sources and melanocytes, which produce melanin to block potentially cell-mutating ultraviolet rays," says Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. For even more protection, the outer layer possesses a waxy, oily cover known as the "acid mantle" that shields against free radical damage while helping maintain hydration to keep the barrier intact.

Atop the mantle is a microbiome of good bacteria and yeast that defuse pathogens, says Jennifer Krejci-Manwaring, M.D., a dermatologist in San Antonio. "Similar to the GI tract, your body keeps a balance of germs that live in harmony on our skin and make it unfriendly for more dangerous bacteria, viruses, and fungi to survive and grow." (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Your Skin Microbiome)

These defense mechanisms ideally work together, but they can sometimes be thrown off. A couple of simple moves will help make sure all security systems within your skin's immune system are go.

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Credit: Getty / Jo Imperio

Fight Off Skin-flammation

When your skin is the victim of microassaults, either from outside (like UVA rays) or within (like the stress hormone cortisol), it can become inflamed. Whatever you can do to tone down the inflammation from these factors, the better your skin's immune system can perform its role as body armor, says Robert Anolik, M.D., a dermatologist in New York.

How to do that? Dr. Anolik points to intriguing new research in the British Journal of Dermatology that found taking a daily fish oil supplement containing 2 1/2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids — about the same amount found in two servings of salmon — can reduce inflammation triggered by air pollution. "That sort of calming effect can help maintain the skin barrier and allows the skin's inflammatory response — that is, its immune response — to focus on other pressing work," says Dr. Anolik.

And as hard as it is, do whatever you can to reduce stress in your life, says Dr. Krejci-Manwaring. "Prolonged exposure to the hormonal responses caused by stress can weaken skin and raise inflammation levels," she says. (Related: 'Inflammaging' Could Be the Sneaky Reason Your Skin Looks Older Than It Should)

Baby Your Barrier

Mind your skin's immune system during everyday routines. To shed the germs and grime without over-stripping the microbiome and mantle, Dr. Anolik recommends using lukewarm water (hot can be too harsh and drying), taking short showers, and swapping anything labeled as soap (its high pH saps the oils in the acid mantle) for gentle cleansers.

Pat dry and slather on a moisturizer — one with hyaluronic acid, glycerin, lanolin, or mineral oil is great — to still-damp skin. "That hydration keeps the skin's surface healthy and prevents inflammation and barrier breakdown," he says.

Daily use of topical antioxidants like vitamin C can also boost your skin's immune system, says Dr. Nazarian, and can neutralize the natural stressors in the environment. And as always: Use broad-spectrum sunscreen every single day.

Shape Magazine, May 2021 issue