Although you may not typically think of the skin as an organ, it is in fact made of tissues that work together as a single structure to perform unique and critical functions. The skin and its accessory structures make up the integumentary system, which provides the body with overall protection. The skin is made of multiple layers of cells and tissues, which are held to underlying structures by connective tissue (Figure 1). The deeper layer of skin is well vascularized (has numerous blood vessels). It also has numerous sensory, and autonomic and sympathetic nerve fibers ensuring communication to and from the brain.
The epidermis is composed of keratinized, stratified squamous epithelium. It is made of four or five layers of epithelial cells, depending on its location in the body. It does not have any blood vessels within it (i.e., it is avascular). Skin that has four layers of cells is referred to as “thin skin.” From deep to superficial, these layers are the stratum basale, stratum spinosum, stratum granulosum, and stratum corneum. Most of the skin can be classified as thin skin. “Thick skin” is found only on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. It has a fifth layer, called the stratum lucidum, located between the stratum corneum and the stratum granulosum (Figure 2).
The majority of epidermal cells are called keratinocytes. A keratinocyte is a cell that manufactures and stores the protein keratin. Keratin is an intracellular fibrous protein that gives hair, nails, and skin their hardness and water-resistant properties. The keratinocytes in the stratum corneum are dead and regularly slough away, being replaced by cells from the deeper layers (Figure 3). Another abundant cell type is a melanocyte, a cell that produces the pigment melanin. Melanin gives hair and skin its color, and also helps protect the living cells of the epidermis from ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage (Figure 4).
If you zoom on the cells at the outermost layer of this section of skin (Figure 3), what do you notice about the cells?
Cells of the epidermis derive from stem cells of the stratum basale. Describe how the cells change as they become integrated into the different layers of the epidermis.
If you zoom on the cells of the stratum spinosum (Figure 5), what is distinctive about them?
The dermis might be considered the “core” of the integumentary system (derma- = “skin”), as distinct from the epidermis (epi– = “upon” or “over”) and hypodermis (hypo– = “below”). It contains blood and lymph vessels, nerves, and other structures, such as hair follicles and sweat glands. The dermis is made of two layers of connective tissue that compose an interconnected mesh of elastin and collagenous fibers, produced by fibroblasts (Figure 6).
The papillary layer is made of loose, areolar connective tissue, which means the collagen and elastin fibers of this layer form a loose mesh. This superficial layer of the dermis projects into the stratum basale of the epidermis to form finger-like dermal papillae (see Figure 6). Within the papillary layer are fibroblasts, a small number of fat cells (adipocytes), and an abundance of small blood vessels. In addition, the papillary layer contains phagocytes, defensive cells that help fight bacteria or other infections that have breached the skin. This layer also contains lymphatic capillaries, nerve fibers, and touch receptors called the Meissner corpuscles.
Underlying the papillary layer is the much thicker reticular layer, composed of dense, irregular connective tissue. This layer is well vascularized and has a rich sensory and sympathetic nerve supply. The reticular layer appears reticulated (net-like) due to a tight meshwork of fibers. Elastin fibers provide some elasticity to the skin, enabling movement. Collagen fibers provide structure and tensile strength, with strands of collagen extending into both the papillary layer and the hypodermis. In addition, collagen binds water to keep the skin hydrated. Collagen injections and Retin-A creams help restore skin turgor by either introducing collagen externally or stimulating blood flow and repair of the dermis, respectively.
The hypodermis (also called the subcutaneous layer or superficial fascia) is a layer directly below the dermis and serves to connect the skin to the underlying fascia (fibrous tissue) of the bones and muscles. It is not strictly a part of the skin, although the border between the hypodermis and dermis can be difficult to distinguish. The hypodermis consists of well-vascularized, loose, areolar connective tissue and adipose tissue, which functions as a mode of fat storage and provides insulation and cushioning for the integument.
The hypodermis is home to most of the fat that concerns people when they are trying to keep their weight under control. Adipose tissue present in the hypodermis consists of fat-storing cells called adipocytes. This stored fat can serve as an energy reserve, insulate the body to prevent heat loss, and act as a cushion to protect underlying structures from trauma.
Where the fat is deposited and accumulates within the hypodermis depends on hormones (testosterone, estrogen, insulin, glucagon, leptin, and others), as well as genetic factors. Fat distribution changes as our bodies mature and age. Men tend to accumulate fat in different areas (neck, arms, lower back, and abdomen) than do women (breasts, hips, thighs, and buttocks). The body mass index (BMI) is often used as a measure of fat, although this measure is, in fact, derived from a mathematical formula that compares body weight (mass) to height. Therefore, its accuracy as a health indicator can be called into question in individuals who are extremely physically fit.
In many animals, there is a pattern of storing excess calories as fat to be used in times when food is not readily available. In much of the developed world, insufficient exercise coupled with the ready availability and consumption of high-calorie foods have resulted in unwanted accumulations of adipose tissue in many people. Although periodic accumulation of excess fat may have provided an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors, who experienced unpredictable bouts of famine, it is now becoming chronic and considered a major health threat. Recent studies indicate that a distressing percentage of our population is overweight and/or clinically obese. Not only is this a problem for the individuals affected, but it also has a severe impact on our healthcare system. Changes in lifestyle, specifically in diet and exercise, are the best ways to control body fat accumulation, especially when it reaches levels that increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
The color of skin is influenced by a number of pigments, including melanin, carotene, and hemoglobin. Recall that melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes, which are found scattered throughout the stratum basale of the epidermis. The melanin is transferred into the keratinocytes via a cellular vesicle called a melanosome (Figure 7).
Melanin occurs in two primary forms. Eumelanin exists as black and brown, whereas pheomelanin provides a red color. Dark-skinned individuals produce more melanin than those with pale skin. Exposure to the UV rays of the sun or a tanning salon causes melanin to be manufactured and built up in keratinocytes, as sun exposure stimulates keratinocytes to secrete chemicals that stimulate melanocytes. The accumulation of melanin in keratinocytes results in the darkening of the skin, or a tan. This increased melanin accumulation protects the DNA of epidermal cells from UV ray damage and the breakdown of folic acid, a nutrient necessary for our health and well-being. In contrast, too much melanin can interfere with the production of vitamin D, an important nutrient involved in calcium absorption. Thus, the amount of melanin present in our skin is dependent on a balance between available sunlight and folic acid destruction, and protection from UV radiation and vitamin D production.
It requires about 10 days after initial sun exposure for melanin synthesis to peak, which is why pale-skinned individuals tend to suffer sunburns of the epidermis initially. Dark-skinned individuals can also get sunburns, but are more protected than are pale-skinned individuals. Melanosomes are temporary structures that are eventually destroyed by fusion with lysosomes; this fact, along with melanin-filled keratinocytes in the stratum corneum sloughing off, makes tanning impermanent.
Too much sun exposure can eventually lead to wrinkling due to the destruction of the cellular structure of the skin, and in severe cases, can cause sufficient DNA damage to result in skin cancer. When there is an irregular accumulation of melanocytes in the skin, freckles appear. Moles are larger masses of melanocytes, and although most are benign, they should be monitored for changes that might indicate the presence of cancer (Figure 8).
What determines the color of skin, and what is the process that darkens skin when it is exposed to UV light?
The first thing a clinician sees is the skin, and so the examination of the skin should be part of any thorough physical examination. Most skin disorders are relatively benign, but a few, including melanomas, can be fatal if untreated. A couple of the more noticeable disorders, albinism and vitiligo, affect the appearance of the skin and its accessory organs. Although neither is fatal, it would be hard to claim that they are benign, at least to the individuals so afflicted.
Albinism is a genetic disorder that affects (completely or partially) the coloring of skin, hair, and eyes. The defect is primarily due to the inability of melanocytes to produce melanin. Individuals with albinism tend to appear white or very pale due to the lack of melanin in their skin and hair. Recall that melanin helps protect the skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation. Individuals with albinism tend to need more protection from UV radiation, as they are more prone to sunburns and skin cancer. They also tend to be more sensitive to light and have vision problems due to the lack of pigmentation on the retinal wall. Treatment of this disorder usually involves addressing the symptoms, such as limiting UV light exposure to the skin and eyes. In vitiligo, the melanocytes in certain areas lose their ability to produce melanin, possibly due to an autoimmune reaction. This leads to a loss of color in patches (Figure 9). Neither albinism nor vitiligo directly affects the lifespan of an individual.
Other changes in the appearance of skin coloration can be indicative of diseases associated with other body systems. Liver disease or liver cancer can cause the accumulation of bile and the yellow pigment bilirubin, leading to the skin appearing yellow or jaundiced (jaune is the French word for “yellow”). Tumors of the pituitary gland can result in the secretion of large amounts of melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH), which results in a darkening of the skin. Similarly, Addison’s disease can stimulate the release of excess amounts of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which can give the skin a deep bronze color. A sudden drop in oxygenation can affect skin color, causing the skin to initially turn ashen (white). With a prolonged reduction in oxygen levels, dark red deoxyhemoglobin becomes dominant in the blood, making the skin appear blue, a condition referred to as cyanosis (kyanos is the Greek word for “blue”). This happens when the oxygen supply is restricted, as when someone is experiencing difficulty in breathing because of asthma or a heart attack. However, in these cases the effect on skin color has nothing do with the skin’s pigmentation.
This ABC video follows the story of a pair of fraternal African-American twins, one of whom is albino. Watch this video to learn about the challenges these children and their family face. Which ethnicities do you think are exempt from the possibility of albinism?
In Summary: Components of the Integumentary System
The skin is composed of two major layers: a superficial epidermis and a deeper dermis. The epidermis consists of several layers beginning with the innermost (deepest) stratum basale (germinatum), followed by the stratum spinosum, stratum granulosum, stratum lucidum (when present), and ending with the outermost layer, the stratum corneum. The topmost layer, the stratum corneum, consists of dead cells that shed periodically and is progressively replaced by cells formed from the basal layer. The stratum basale also contains melanocytes, cells that produce melanin, the pigment primarily responsible for giving skin its color. Melanin is transferred to keratinocytes in the stratum spinosum to protect cells from UV rays.
The dermis connects the epidermis to the hypodermis, and provides strength and elasticity due to the presence of collagen and elastin fibers. It has only two layers: the papillary layer with papillae that extend into the epidermis and the lower, reticular layer composed of loose connective tissue. The hypodermis, deep to the dermis of skin, is the connective tissue that connects the dermis to underlying structures; it also harbors adipose tissue for fat storage and protection.