skin

skin, the flexible tissue (integument) enclosing the body of vertebrate animals. In humans and other mammals, the skin operates a complex organ of numerous structures (sometimes called the integumentary system) serving vital protective and metabolic functions. It contains two main layers of cells: a thin outer layer, the epidermis, and a thicker inner layer, the dermis. Along the internal surface of the epidermis, young cells continuously multiply, pushing the older cells outward. At the outer surface the older cells flatten and overlap to form a tough membrane and gradually shed as calluses or collections of dead skin. Horns, hoofs, hair (fur), feathers, and scales are evolutionary adaptations of the epidermis. Although the epidermis has no blood vessels, its deeper strata contain melanin, the pigment that gives color to the skin. The underlying dermis consists of connective tissue in which are embedded blood vessels, lymph channels, nerve endings, sweat glands, sebaceous glands, fat cells, hair follicles, and muscles. The nerve endings, called receptors, perform an important sensory function. They respond to various stimuli, including contact, heat, and cold. Response to cold activates the erector muscles, causing hair or fur to stand erect; fright also causes this reaction. From the outer surface of the dermis extend numerous projections (papillae) that fit into pits on the inner surface of the epidermis so that the two layers are firmly locked together. In humans, whorls on the fingers show where the epidermis falls between rows of papillae, making the patterns used in fingerprinting. The skin provides a barrier against invasion by outside organisms and protects underlying tissues and organs from abrasion and other injury, and its pigments shield the body from the dangerous ultraviolet rays in sunlight. It also waterproofs the body, preventing excessive loss or gain of bodily moisture. Human skin performs several functions that help maintain normal body temperature: its numerous sweat glands excrete waste products along with salt-laden moisture, the evaporation of which may account, in certain circumstances, for as much as 90% of the cooling of the body; its fat cells act as insulation against cold; and when the body overheats, the skin's extensive small blood vessels carry warm blood near the surface where it is cooled. The skin is lubricated by its own oil glands, which keep both the outside layer of the epidermis and the hair from drying to brittleness. Human skin has remarkable self-healing properties, particularly when only the epidermis is damaged. Even when the injury damages the dermis, healing may still be complete if the wounded area occurs in a part of the body with a rich blood supply. Deeper wounds, penetrating to the underlying tissue, heal by scar formation. Scar tissue lacks the infection-resisting and metabolic functions of healthy skin; hence, sufficiently extensive skin loss by widespread burns or wounds may cause death.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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