Skin is outer body covering of an animal. The term skin is commonly used to describe the body covering of any animal but technically refers only to the body covering of vertebrates (animals that have a backbone). The skin has the same basic structure in all vertebrates, including fish, reptiles, birds, and humans and other mammals. This article focuses primarily on human skin.
The skin is essential to a person’s survival. It forms a barrier that helps prevent harmful micro organisms and chemicals from entering the body, and it also prevents the loss of life-sustaining body fluids. It protects the vital structures inside the body from injury and from the potentially damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun. The skin also helps regulate body temperature, excretes some waste products, and is an important sensory organ. It contains various types of specialized nerve cells responsible for the sense of touch.
The skin is the body’s largest organ—that of an average adult male weighs 4.5 to 5 kg (10 to 11 lb) and measures about 2 sq m (22 sq ft) in area. It covers the surface of the body at a thickness of just 1.4 to 4.0 mm (0.06 to 0.16 in). The skin is thickest on areas of the body that regularly rub against objects, such as the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. Both delicate and resilient, the skin constantly renews itself and has a remarkable ability to repair itself after injury.
STRUCTURE OF SKIN
The skin is made up of two layers, the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis, the upper or outer layer of the skin, is a tough, waterproof, protective layer. The dermis, or inner layer, is thicker than the epidermis and gives the skin its strength and elasticity. The two layers of the skin are anchored to one another by a thin but complex layer of tissue, known as the basement membrane. This tissue is composed of a series of elaborately interconnecting molecules that act as ropes and grappling hooks to hold the skin together. Below the dermis is the subcutaneous layer, a layer of tissue composed of protein fibers and adipose tissue (fat). Although not part of the skin itself, the subcutaneous layer contains glands and other skin structures, as well as sensory receptors involved in the sense of touch.
Hair is a distinguishing characteristic of mammals, a group of vertebrates that includes humans. A thick coat of body hair known as fur protects many mammals from the cold and from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. In humans, a species whose body hair is relatively sparse, this protective function is probably minimal, limited chiefly to the hair on the scalp.
Nails on the fingers and toes are made of hard, keratin-filled epidermal cells. They protect the ends of the digits from injury, help us grasp small objects, and enable us to scratch. The part of the nail that is visible is called the nail body, and the portion of the nail body that extends past the end of the digit is called the free edge. Most of the nail body appears pink because of blood flowing in the tissue underneath, but at the base of the body is a pale, semicircular area called the lunula. This area appears white due to an underlying thick layer of epidermis that does not contain blood vessels. The part of the nail that is buried under the skin is called the root. Nails grow as epidermal cells below the nail root and transform into hard nail cells that accumulate at the base of the nail, pushing the rest of the nail forward. Fingernails typically grow 1 mm (0.04 in) per week. Toenails generally grow more slowly.
An adult human has between 1.6 million and 4 million glands, or sweat glands. Most are of a type known as sweat glands, which are found almost all over the surface of the body and are most numerous on the palms and soles. Sweat glands begin deep in the dermis and connect to the surface of the skin by a coiled duct. Cells at the base of the gland secrete sweat, a mixture of water, salt, and small amounts of metabolic waste products. As the sweat moves along the duct, much of the salt is reabsorbed, preventing excessive loss of this vital substance. When sweat reaches the outer surface of the skin, it evaporates, helping to cool the body in hot environments or during physical exertion. In addition, nerve fibers that encircle the sweat glands stimulate the glands in response to fear, excitement, or anxiety. The sweat glands can secrete up to 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of fluid per day, far more than any other type of gland in the body.