Skin, Hair, and Nails Are More Than Mere Accessories

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 7, 2000 (Nashville) -- Skin, hair, and nails all play a role in your appearance. But did you know they also serve as a protective shield against disease, infection, and the environment and can be an indicator of your overall health?

Dermatologists and members of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) from around the globe gathered in Nashville, Tenn., this week to learn about the newest medical and surgical treatments to protect and repair the tissues making up the skin. They believe that by taking care of the outside, you can help keep the inside healthy too.

Your skin -- the largest and most visible organ of your body -- interacts with many of your internal organs. It's always important to avoid skin problems, but during pregnancy, it's essential. "Several medications used to treat skin, hair, and nail conditions have been shown to result in birth defects," according to Barbara Reed, MD, of the University of Colorado Health Center in Denver.

Although fewer than 100 prescription drugs have been identified that cause severe problems for pregnant women, if a woman is considering trying to get pregnant, "she should discuss all her medications -- including vitamins, herbs, and even aspirin products -- with her physician," Reed tells WebMD. "It's a good idea to avoid all drugs that are not necessary to maintain health during pregnancy." Women who handle or use hair dyes, permanent conditioners, or relaxers, or who work in nail or hair salons should also tell their physicians about such exposure to chemicals on their skin or in the air.

The desire for fewer facial wrinkles and frown lines becomes more important to many women as they age. Recently, many women have turned to botulinum toxin -- or botox, one of the world's most potent poisons -- to soften facial lines. In its very purest form, minute quantities of the poison can be safely injected into the small muscles in the face, relaxing them and smoothing out lines.

"Botulinum toxin decreases the patient's ability to frown or squint, which prevents the progressive worsening over time," says Kevin Pinski, MD, associate professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University in Chicago. "It's been used since the turn of the century, and today is both corrective and preventive for aging skin." Pinski has been treating patients for over eight years and reports no side effects and the "same effectiveness" throughout treatment.


Recently, new uses have been discovered, and a new technique to decrease excessive sweating is showing promise. "Botulinum toxin is one of the greatest advances in dermatologic surgery," he tells WebMD. "It shows dramatic benefits, is reversible, and rarely has side effects."

Nails -- composed primarily of keratin, a hardened protein also found in skin and hair -- also reflect a woman's physical condition, and many diseases and serious conditions can be detected by changes in the nails. Today, an increase in common problems has been associated with nail products, acrylic nails, hardeners, and glues. When handled and used properly, nail cosmetics are generally quite safe, and the booming $6 billion industry "has risen to the challenge by increasing sanitation standards in nail salons and improving nail products," Phoebe Rich, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, tells WebMD.

"Problems from nail cosmetics can be divided into four general categories. Allergic reactions to nail cosmetic ingredients, irritant reactions, traumatic factors, and infections are the most common," Rich says. "In many cases, once the problem is identified, it can be easily treated."

Growth of facial hair increases at various times in a woman's life, including her midlife and senior years. More than 40 million women are affected by this chronic condition. Many spend a great deal of time and money searching for the best way to eliminate facial hair. Dermatologist Marty Sawaya, MD, PhD, reported today on a new cream applied to the skin that has shown promise in studies for long-term relief from unwanted hair. Sawaya is with the Aratec Clinics in Ocala, Fla., and is an adjunct professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Miami.

Called Vaniqa, the treatment has shown "significant improvement" in the reduction of facial hair growth, with only mild side effects. The FDA recently approved the prescription medication, and it will be available in September 2000. Women should consult their dermatologist or family practitioner to determine the appropriate course of treatment.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a few simple steps to protect your skin. They suggest that if your skin is dry, use moisturizers and gentle, non-drying cleansers. You can help prevent skin cancers by daily using sunscreen (at least SPF 15) outside and by wearing protective clothing, hats when outdoors, and gloves when gardening, for example. Wearing gloves is also helpful when working with detergents, chemicals, or water, such as when washing dishes. Proper skin care also should include regular visits to a dermatologist, who can inspect the skin for changes in moles, possibly heading off skin cancer.


For more information, visit the AAD's Web site at

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