The four elements all living things need to survive are oxygen, food, water and protection.
The sebum (fatty acids and oils of the skin) contains the food, water and protection for the skin which is why it is so critical to maintain the health of the sebum layer. As a groomer, you are the first line of defense in the wellbeing of the skin and the long–term health by helping to protect the sebum layer.
There are many things that play into the care of the sebum, such as harshness of shampoos, conditioning to replace the sebum stripped by the shampoo, using conditioners that are hydrating and nutrient rich, as well as techniques used. If we start with shampooing, the harsher the shampoo, the more of the sebum is stripped. Grandma’s lye soap, borax, bleach, dish soap, acidic products and anything with a high detergent level all work very well for stripping the sebum. The pet will definitely look clean walking out the door, but often will pay the price in the next few days and weeks because of the damage done (severe stripping).
As a general rule, we should think of shampoos as a product that strip the sebum. The amount is strictly due to the harshness of the product. So, if we remove sebum with a shampoo, it then becomes imperative that we condition the skin to add back what we removed, otherwise we leave the skin compromised and vulnerable for irritation and infection. That is what conditioners are designed to do.
Unfortunately, not all conditioners are created equal, so it is very important to pick the right ones to achieve the results desired. The most common group of conditioners are emollients (fats and oils in a suspension). Their function is to create a barrier to hold moisture in. The issue there is if the skin is dry, it only holds dryness in, and because it is a barrier, it is hard for moisture to even get to the skin. Emollients do add a layer of protection and are especially helpful when it comes our short–haired breeds that need more oils to compensate for their lack of hair. Humectants, on the other hand, are designed to be absorbed into the skin and draw moisture in with the product.
Other properties adding to the benefit of a conditioner are added nutrients and trace minerals that feed the skin. The outer skin (epidermis) does not have a blood supply, so therefore it is dependent on the nutrients and trace minerals from the sebum to keep it healthy. If harsh/stripping shampoos are used without adequate conditioning, then every bath takes away the food supply to the skin. No matter how good the quality of the food is that the pet is eating, if we strip the sebum, we have taken away the nutritional benefit of that food. If the pet is stressed or unhealthy, then conditioning with nutrient/mineral–rich products becomes even more important because of the depletion caused by the unhealthy nature of the pet.
Many other things contribute to the health of the sebum but are not in direct control of the groomers. As previously mentioned, nutrition plays a huge role in healthy sebum. When we talk about diets, we want to make sure they are a balanced diet so that the body has all the building blocks needed to maintain a healthy sebum. Many of our designer, fad, home–cooked and even some of our mainstream diets don’t meet the requirement of being “balanced” which can create an abnormal sebum production. Any metabolic disease (hypothyroid, Cushing’s disease, Addison’s disease, liver and kidney disease) can create toxins or changes in pH which in turn can change the nature of the sebum. Many environmental conditions such as dry weather, ash from fires, lack of bathing, chemicals and allergies also play big roles in the health of the sebum.
The important thing to remember is, no matter what the source of the change in the sebum, most of these conditions can be lessened if not eliminated with the correct bathing/conditioning process. By removing the bad and replacing it with good, we recreate or restore the health of the sebum layer. The secret is understanding the process (the science) and using the correct technique and products to return the skin to normal.
I often see groomers commenting on Facebook about the dryness and irritation of their own hands. The same principles also apply to the groomer. Just remember, the pets are even more sensitive to the products and environment than the humans. Pets have hair as part of their protection, but underneath that is very vulnerable/sensitive skin. I find it interesting that when these concerns are expressed on Facebook, most of the comments are geared towards solving the groomer’s hand issue and not taking into account that the pet’s skin is probably just as irritated—if not more—than the groomers.
It is also important not to just throw product at the issue. First you need to define the source. Without doing that you may continue to recreate the same scenario time and time again. Just think about it; if the problem occurs most of the year, then I would rethink your product or technique. If the problem is just spring and fall, then allergies and dry skin tend to be a more common source. Both of these can be positively affected with a good hydrating conditioner. However, for best results, it is better to be proactive and start working on the issue before it starts. Once the dryness and itching start, you are already behind a power curve. Watch the patterns (in you and your clients’ pets) year after year, be proactive and you will be able to prevent lots of issues.
As groomers you play a very important, if not vital, role in the health and wellbeing of a pet’s skin. Make sure you spend time educating yourself so that you can keep the sebum healthy and avoid causing or allowing pets to go through miserable (sometimes lifelong) skin issues. Healthy sebum is the secret to healthy skin—and that starts with every single bath you give! ✂️