• Núria Estapé, science journalist

    Men: the weaker sex (in their skin at least)

    Contrary to popular belief, men's skin is more fragile than women’s skin. Dry skin, ingrown hair and persistent redness are some of the problems faced by men who shave. But there’s much more. Men's skin is more sensitive to the harmful effects of the sun and is more susceptible to cancer.


    We can distinguish the sex of a young person just by observing and touching a square centimetre of skin. Men’s and women’s skin react in specific ways to internal aggression (infections, hormonal changes) and external agression (temperature and humidity changes, shaving, cosmetics). The differences are in part due to steroid hormones that travel through the blood to bind to proteins in the skin, where they act. However, we now also know that lifestyle and approach to skin care have a bearing on the health and appearance of our skin.


    Shaving can damage the skin

    Fashion and grooming rules require men to shave for social and professional reasons. Or they shave because it makes them feel better. Shaving is an aggression on the skin that is aggravated by the use of aftershave products that contain alcohol. Frequent shaving damages the hydrolipid film of the stratum corneum, formed by fat-secreting sebaceous glands that keep the skin moist. Thus, neglecting the skin can have bothersome consequences such as dryness, tightness, irritation and ingrown hairs that clog pores. Men’s skin is also irrigated by numerous blood vessels, which, in response to changes in temperature, may break and cause redness in the face, especially the cheeks.


    Womanly ways, manly ways

    The immune system of women’s skin, which protects against invading germs, tends to “go to war” more easily than that of men. Studies indicate that female skin, especially in older women, is nine times more likely to develop autoimmune diseases, in which the defence system rebels against itself because it does not recognize cells as the body’s own.

    Men, with their more acidic skin pH, are more likely to suffer bacterial infections and also to develop several types of cancer, including melanoma. The demands of some professions in which work is mostly outdoors and a lack of protection of the skin from ultraviolet radiation are the main causes of melanoma, diagnosed in twice as many men as women, according to expert calculations. Women’s skin suffers more from the effects of emotional stress, often resulting in skin disorders such as eczema or psoriasis.


    Sensitivity to touch and pain

    Men and women react differently to touch. Women have more responsive tactile sensations than men. The surface of male skin is believed to contain fewer nerve fibres than that of women. These fibres are responsible for the sensations that arrive to the brain so that we can feel pleasure and pain and distinguish cold from heat. Some studies indicate that women are more sensitive to small temperature changes in the skin and feel pain more, while men are less sensitive to touch and to anything that may cause pain in the skin, such as extreme temperatures.

    Men are generally less sensitive to touch probably because their brain processes the stimuli coming from their skin with less finesse and precision. Ageing also causes skin sensitivity to decrease significantly.

    Is it this lesser sensitivity which makes men’s skin often look worse than women’s skin? Indeed, it seems that men’s skin, equipped with a less effective anti-aggression alarm system, is more exposed to external damage by cuts and scratches; this is because the nervous system is slower and less effective in responding to harmful and irritating stimuli that can hurt the skin.

    Maybe men should pay attention to the experts and start taking care of their skin. They clearly need to do so more than women. Not only would they have a much healthier skin, in appearance they could even compete with women.