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Dry skin, moisturization and corneodesmolysis

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The process leading to the loss of corneocytes form the skin surface is termed desquamation. In healthy skin it is an orderly and essentially invisible process whereby individual or small groups of corneocytes detach from neighbouring cells to be lost to the environment and replaced by younger cells from the deeper layers. Desquamation is carefully controlled to ensure that corneum cohesion and integrity, and hence tissue thickness, is maintained.

The most important components of the corneocytes contributing towards intercellular cohesion are the corneodesmosomes and lipids. Corneodesmosomes are proteinaceous complexes which effectively rivet corneocytes together. The intercellular lipids, primarily responsible for the water barrier, also provide part of the extracellular cement. In addition, the shape of the corneocyte itself plays a role in stratum corneum cohesion. Through interdigitation along their peripheral edges, adjacent corneocytes become physically locked together, a process which reinforces the integrity of the tissue.

For effective desquamation to occur corneodesmosomes must be degraded: a process catalysed by serine proteases present within the intercellular space and facilitated by subtle changes in lipid composition and phase behaviour. Ultimately, it is the availability of free water which controls corneodesmolysis. In healthy skin this proteolytic process leaves relatively few corneodesmosomes intact in the most superficial layers.

By contrast, in chronic and acute dry skin conditions, corneodesmosomal degradation and hence the final stages of desquamation are perturbed, leading to the characteristic formation of visible, powdery flakes on the skin surface. The inability to degrade these structures ultimately reflects a decreased hydrolytic activity of the desquamatory enzymes, either through reduced synthesis of the enzymes, inherent loss of activity, leaching from the surface layers of the corneum or changes in the surrounding lipid-rich microenvironment, which may indirectly reduce enzyme functionality.

Increased understanding of the desquamation process is providing new insights into the mode of action of current moisturizing ingredients and is offering opportunities to develop novel therapies for preventing and correcting dry skin.
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Keywords: ceramides; desmosomes; natural moisturiser factor; stratum corneum

Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: 1: Dept of Cell Biology and Physiology, Unilever Research, Colworth Laboratory, Sharnbrook, Bedford MK44 1LQ, U.K. 2: Unilever Research, Edgewater Laboratory, New Jersey 07020, U.S.A.

Publication date: February 1, 2000

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