It may be slightly surprising to think it, but our skin is our largest organ, and possibly the most versatile. It keeps our insides in and bad things out. It cushions blows. It gives us our sense of touch, bringing us pleasure and warmth and pain and nearly everything else that makes us vital. It produces melanin to shield us from the sun’s rays. It repairs itself when we abuse it. It accounts for such beauty as we can muster. It looks after us.
The formal name for the skin is the cutaneous system. Its size is about two square meters (approximately twenty square feet), and all told your skin will weigh somewhere in the region of ten to fifteen pounds, though much depends, naturally, on how tall you are and how much buttock and belly it needs to stretch across. It is thinnest on the eyelids (just one-thousandth of an inch thick) and thickest on the heels of our hands and feet. Unlike a heart or a kidney, skin never fails. “Our seams don’t burst, we don’t spontaneously sprout leaks,” says Nina Jablonski, professor of anthropology at Penn State University, who is the doyenne of all things cutaneous.
The skin consists of an inner layer called the dermis and an outer epidermis. The outermost surface of the epidermis, called the stratum corneum, is made up entirely of dead cells. It is an arresting thought that all that makes you lovely is deceased. Where body meets air, we are all cadavers. These outer skin cells are replaced every month. We shed skin copiously, almost carelessly: some twenty-five thousand flakes a minute, over a million pieces every hour. Run a finger along a dusty shelf, and you are in large part clearing a path through fragments of your former self. Silently and remorselessly we turn to dust.
Skin flakes are properly called squamae (meaning “scales”). We each trail behind us about a pound of dust every year. If you burn the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag, the predominant odor is that unmistakable scorched smell that we associate with burning hair. That’s because skin and hair are made largely of the same stuff: keratin.
Beneath the epidermis is the more fertile dermis, where reside all the skin’s active systems—blood and lymph vessels, nerve fibers, the roots of hair follicles, the glandular reservoirs of sweat and sebum. Beneath that, and not technically part of the skin, is a subcutaneous layer where fat is stored. Though it may not be part of the cutaneous system, it’s an important part of your body because it stores energy, provides insulation, and attaches the skin to the body beneath.
Nobody knows for sure how many holes you have in your skin, but you are pretty seriously perforated. Most estimates suggest you have somewhere in the region of two to five million hair follicles and perhaps twice that number of sweat glands. The follicles do double duty: they sprout hairs and secrete sebum (from sebaceous glands), which mixes with sweat to form an oily layer on the surface. This helps to keep skin supple and to make it inhospitable for many foreign organisms. Sometimes the pores become blocked with little plugs of dead skin and dried sebum in what is known as a blackhead. If the follicle additionally becomes infected and inflamed, the result is the adolescent dread known as a pimple. Pimples plague young people simply because their sebaceous glands—like all their glands—are highly active. When the condition becomes chronic, the result is acne, a word of very uncertain derivation. It appears to be related to the Greek acme, denoting a high and admirable achievement, which a faceful of pimples most assuredly is not. How the two became twinned is not at all clear. The term first appeared in English in 1743 in a British medical dictionary.
Also packed into the dermis are a variety of receptors that keep us literally in touch with the world. If a breeze plays lightly on your cheek, it is your Meissner’s corpuscles that let you know.* When you put your hand on a hot plate, your Ruffini corpuscles cry out. Merkel cells respond to constant pressure, Pacinian corpuscles to vibration.
Meissner’s corpuscles are everyone’s favorites. They detect light touch and are particularly abundant in our erogenous zones and other areas of heightened sensitivity: fingertips, lips, tongue, clitoris, penis, and so on. They are named after a German anatomist, Georg Meissner, who is credited with discovering them in 1852, though his colleague Rudolf Wagner claimed that he in fact was the discoverer. The two men fell out over the matter, proving that there is no detail in science too small for animosity.
All are exquisitely fine-tuned to let you feel the world. A Pacinian corpuscle can detect a movement as slight as 0.00001 millimeter, which is practically no movement at all. More than this, they don’t even require contact with the material they are interpreting. As David J. Linden points out in Touch, if you sink a spade into gravel or sand, you can feel the difference between them even though all you are touching is the spade. Curiously, we don’t have any receptors for wetness. We have only thermal sensors to guide us, which is why when you sit down on a wet spot, you can’t generally tell whether it really is wet or just cold.
Women are much better than men at tactile sensitivity with fingers, but possibly just because they have smaller hands and thus a more dense network of sensors. An interesting thing about touch is that the brain doesn’t just tell you how something feels, but how it ought to feel. That’s why the caress of a lover feels wonderful, but the same touch by a stranger would feel creepy or horrible. It’s also why it is so hard to tickle yourself.