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13 Facts About Skin

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Skin isn't just the outermost layer of our bodies. Without it, we couldn't do most of the things we take for granted, like breathing, moving, and keeping the body's inner workings where they belong. And while skin also evolved to keep pathogens and other bad stuff out of our bodies, consumers spend millions of dollars on products to penetrate that defense (with mixed results). Read on for more fascinating facts about the skin.

1. YOUR SKIN HAS THREE DISTINCT LAYERS.

Skin is considered an organ in its own right. It's comprised of three layers: the waterproof top layer, the epidermis; a middle layer of tougher connective tissue, hair follicles, and glands called the dermis; and the inner layer, the hypodermis, which is mostly fat and connective tissue that supports the skin's structure and attaches it to muscles.

2. SKIN COLOR IS DETERMINED BY CELLS IN THE EPIDERMIS.

Those cells are known as melanocytes, which secrete a pigmented substance called melanin; the more melanin in the cells, the darker the skin. Having too little or too much melanin can lead to some skin color disorders: On one end of the spectrum are conditions like vitiligo—which occurs when some melanocytes lose the ability to produce melanin, resulting in whitish patches on the skin—and albinism, a condition in which melanocytes don't produce any melanin. On the other end is hyperpigmentation—the presence of excess melanin, which can cause darker patches of skin.

3. YOUR SKIN COULD WEIGH MORE THAN 20 POUNDS.

"Your skin accounts for 15 percent of your body weight," says Toral Patel, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and supervising physician at D&A Dermatology in Chicago and a clinical instructor of medicine at Northwestern University. This makes it your body's largest organ.

According to that calculation and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average American woman weighs 168.5 pounds and carries more than 25 pounds of skin. An average man weighing 195.7 pounds will have nearly 30 pounds of skin.

4. YOUR SKIN RENEWS ITSELF EVERY 28 TO 30 DAYS.

New cells are created in that deep layer of the skin and take about four weeks to rise to the surface. There, they grow hard and then shed. This process, in which old skin is sloughed off and replaced by newer skin, might occur more than 1000 times over the average American's lifespan. But all skin is not created equal: Its thickness varies naturally among all areas of the body. Thickness can also be affected by age, gender, and habits (like smoking) that can change the cells' elasticity and other traits. According to Patel, the skin on the soles of your feet is up to seven times thicker than the skin of your eyelids.

5. TATTOOS STAY PUT, THANKS TO CELLS CALLED MACROPHAGES.

If your skin cells shed every month, how do tattoos stick around? It turns out to be a function of your immune system. The puncture of the tattoo needle causes inflammation in the dermis, the skin's middle layer. In response, white blood cells known as macrophages are sent in to help heal the damage. These macrophages "eat" the dye and can pass it to newer macrophages when they die off, so the pigment is essentially transferred from one cell to another. Any leftover pigment is soaked up by fibroblasts, which are longer-lasting skin cells that don't regenerate as often. Only lasers designed for tattoo removal are strong enough to kill off the macrophages and fibroblasts that hold the dye.

6. YOUR SKIN IS HOST TO BILLIONS OF CREATURES.

Your skin hosts a microbiome that can contain more than 1000 types of bacteria (along with other microbes, viruses, and pathogens). These "tiny ecosystems," as Patel describes them, are mostly friendly bacteria that work in concert with our bodies for many beneficial purposes, including wound healing, reducing skin inflammation, and assisting the immune system to help fight infection. These bacteria were once thought to outnumber your own cells 10 to one, but more recent research has found the ratio is closer to 1:1.

7. ANCIENT EGYPTIANS PUT SALT (AND OTHER FOODS) IN THEIR WOUNDS.

Injuring or breaking the skin's dermis, the layer below the epidermis, can expose the inner tissues to pathogens. To prevent infections from reaching any further into the skin, body fat, or muscle, ancient Egyptians cared for topical wounds with salt (yes, really!), fresh meat, moldy bread, and onions.

While these may seem like unsanitary things to put on a cut, modern research has found that there was actually merit in their methods. With its high iron content, meat was a good blood coagulant and recommended for the first day of a wound, according to a 2016 paper in the Journal of the German Society of Dermatology. Salt and onions are both astringent, which can stop blood flow. Moldy bread likely had antibacterial properties—a very early form of penicillin, you might say. Skin wounds would then be sealed with a combination of oils, fats, honey, and plant fibers.

8. YOUR BODY'S FLUID BALANCE DEPENDS ON SKIN.

Your skin is a significant shield against billions of tiny microbes and pathogens. But just as importantly, skin keeps fluids in. Another way to think of this, Patel says, is that your skin resembles a brick and mortar pattern. The bricks are the cells. The mortar is made up of lipids, fatty acids, and other sticky proteins that form the watertight layer. "If you have any ‘holes' in skin where moisture can escape, which are more susceptible to damage, that leads to dryness, cracking, and inflammation," Patel says.

People who have suffered burns often have fluid-balance problems, says Robert T. Brodell, M.D., professor of dermatology at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. "Fluids are seeping out, and they can't keep them balanced internally," he tells Mental Floss. This can be incredibly dangerous, because fluid loss can cause the heart to stop pumping blood to the rest of the body. Dehydration, hypertension, and other problems may also occur when skin is injured.

9. A SKIN CONDITION CAN PUT YOU AT GREATER RISK OF OTHER DISEASES.

Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition in which the skin cells in an affected area grow rapidly, leading to excess skin buildup, inflammation, and a red and scaly rash. While it can be uncomfortable to live with the condition on its own, studies [PDF] have shown that inflammation of the skin can lead to inflammation of other tissues and internal organs, and eventually certain diseases. For example, psoriasis has been linked to a greater risk for heart disease, as well as diabetes, Crohn's disease, metabolic syndrome, and other conditions thought to be correlated with inflammation.

Patel says that association makes treatment even more important: "If one organ is inflamed, you have to make sure another isn't."

10. YOUR LEGS MAY BE THE DRIEST PART OF YOUR BODY.

Unless you live in the tropics, you've probably noticed that the skin of your lower legs becomes drier in winter—and there's a biological reason for that. "You have fewer oil glands on your legs than any other area of your body," Brodell tells Mental Floss. Oil (or sebaceous) glands, found near the dermis's border with the epidermis, secrete an oily substance called sebum that lubricates skin and hair. As people age, the glands secrete less oil, and that means drier skin. Winter's low humidity and our tendency to spend more time around heat sources dries out skin even more.

The solution is to install a humidifier or apply some moisturizer. Certain skincare products, such as those with emulsifiers like sodium laureth sulfate, can also dry out or irritate your skin, so read your labels carefully.

11. OVERHEATING IS A RISK IF YOU LACK SWEAT GLANDS.

Both types of sweat glands are also located in the dermis. Eccrine glands, found all over the body, emit sweat directly through pores in the epidermis. Apocrine glands release sweat along hair follicles, so it's no surprise that these glands are concentrated in the hairiest parts of the body—head, armpit, and groin. Both types help regulate body temperature: In hot conditions, the glands release water and fatty liquids to cool the skin.

A lack of sweat glands puts people in danger of overheating. Those with a condition known as anhidrotic ectodermal dysplasia have few to no sweat glands, so they can't properly cool off when the body overheats. "They get heatstroke easily," Brodell says. A subset of people with this disorder suffer from immunodeficiency. They produce low levels of antibodies and infection-fighting immune T- and B-cells, so they are more prone to skin and lung infections.

12. YOUR GUT AND YOUR SKIN ARE SYMBIOTIC.

The gut and the skin never come into direct contact with one another, yet research shows that the gut has a profound impact on the skin.

"The skin becomes very unhealthy when the microbiome of the gut goes into a state of dysbiosis," meaning when something attacks the gut's good bacteria, says Gregory Maguire, Ph.D., a former professor of neuroscience at UC San Diego and the founder and chief scientific officer of BioRegenerative Sciences, a stem-cell technology company.

Dysbiosis can lead to inflammation, irritation, rashes, and pain. "There's good evidence that eczema [or] atopic dermatitis is partially due to dysbiosis of the gut and skin," he says.

In a 2017 paper published in the Archives of Dermatological Research, Maguire writes that normal gut bacteria can actually calm the body's response to stress. A reduction in the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which is thought to cause breakouts, also reduces the chance of skin irritation—all thanks to microbes in your intestine.

13. RESEARCHERS ARE USING "GOOD" BACTERIA TO TREAT ACNE.

When the skin's pores get clogged with sebum from the sebaceous glands and dead cells, a condition usually associated with hormonal changes, you've got acne. Clogged pores that stay closed are called whiteheads; if the pore opens and reveals the gunk inside, it's a blackhead. (The medical term for a blackhead, an "open comedo," stems from a Latin phrase alluding to "worms which devour the body." But don't worry, blackheads are not actual worms living in your face.)

While acne may seem like a rite of passage associated with puberty, researchers are experimenting with fighting "bad" bacteria (in this case, Propiobacterium acnes, which is linked to acne breakouts) with "good" bacteria, also known as probiotics. "One of the things [probiotics] do is ferment things on the skin like ammonia and nitrites, and metabolize it and turn it into other chemicals that are beneficial to the stem cells in your skin," Maguire explains. A 2015 study in the Journal of Women's Dermatology and other research has found that applying topical probiotics like Streptococcus salivarius and Streptococcus thermophiles inhibits P. acnes and may make skin more resilient against it in the long run.

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11 Facts About Fingernails
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Whether there's dirt beneath them or polish atop them, your fingernails serve more than just decorative purposes: They help keep your fingertips safe and have a multitude of special functions that even your doctor might not be aware of. “The nails occupy a unique space within dermatology and medicine in general, particularly because they are such a niche area about which few people have expertise,” Evan Rieder, assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Health, tells Mental Floss.

1. FINGERNAILS HAVE FOUR MAIN PARTS.

Along with skin and hair, nails are part of the body's integumentary system, whose main function is to protect your body from damage and infection. Fingernails have four basic structures: the matrix, the nail plate, the nail bed, and the skin around the nail (including the cuticle).

Fingernail cells grow continuously from a little pocket at the root of the nail bed called the matrix. The pale, crescent-shaped lunula—derived from Latin for "little moon"—on the nail itself is the visible portion of the matrix. If the lunula is injured, the  nail won't grow normally (a scarred lunula can result in a split nail), and changes in the lunula's appearance can also be signs of a systemic disease.

Fingernail cells are made of a protein called keratin (same as your hair). As the keratin cells push out of the matrix, they become hard, flat and compact, eventually forming the hard surface of the nail known as the nail plate. Beneath that is the nail bed, which almost never sees the light of day except when there's an injury or disease.

Surrounding the matrix is the cuticle, the semi-circle of skin that has a tendency to peel away from the nail. The skin just underneath the distal end of the fingernail is called the hyponychium, and if you've ever trimmed your nails too short, you know this skin can be slightly more sensitive than the rest of the fingertip.

2. THEY GROW AT A RATE OF 0.1 MILLIMETERS A DAY ...

That's about 3 to 4 millimeters per month. But they don't always grow at the same speed: Fingernails grow more quickly during the day and in summer (this may be related to exposure to sunlight, which produces more nail-nourishing vitamin D). Nails on your bigger fingers also grow faster, and men's grow faster than women's. The pinky fingernail grows the slowest of all the fingernails. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, if you lose a fingernail due to injury, it can take up to six months to grow back (while a toenail could take as much as a year and a half).

3. ... BUT NOT AFTER YOU'RE DEAD.

You've probably heard that your fingernails keep growing after death. The truth is, they don't, according to the medical journal BMJ. What's actually happening is that the skin around the base of the fingernails retracts because the body is no longer pumping fluids into the tissues, and that creates a kind of optical illusion that makes the nails appear longer.

4. ITS ESTIMATED THAT 20 TO 30 PERCENT OF PEOPLE BITE THEIR NAILS.

Scientists say it's still unclear why, but they suspect nail-biters do it because they're bored, frustrated, concentrating, or because it just feels comforting (and anxiety doesn't seem to play a big role). Perfectionists who don't like to be idle are very likely to have the habit. Biters expose themselves to the dangerous crud that collects underneath the nail: The hyponychium attracts bacteria, including E. coli, and ingesting that through nail-biting can lead to gastrointestinal problems down the line. Biting can also damage teeth and jaws.

5. HUMAN FINGERNAILS ARE BASICALLY FLAT CLAWS.

Our primate ancestors had claws—which, like nails, are made of keratin. As human ancestors began using tools some 2.5 million years ago (or even earlier), evolutionary researchers believe that curved claws became a nuisance. To clutch and strike stone tools, our fingertips may have broadened, causing the claws to evolve into fingernails.

6. THE NAIL ACTUALLY MAKES YOUR FINGERTIP MORE SENSITIVE.

While the fingernail may be tough enough to protect tender flesh, it also has the paradoxical effect of increasing the sensitivity of the finger. It acts as a counterforce when the fingertip touches an object. "The finger is a particularly sensitive area because of very high density of nerve fibers," Rieder says.

7. FINGERNAILS CAN REVEAL LUNG, HEART, AND LIVER DISEASES.

"One of the most interesting facts about fingernails is that they are often a marker for disease within the body," Rieder says. Nail clubbing—an overcurvature of the nail plate and thickening of the skin around the nails—is a particularly significant sign of underlying illness, such as lung or heart disease, liver disease, or inflammatory bowel disease. Two-toned nails—whitish from the cuticle to the nail's midpoint and pink, brown, or reddish in the distal half—can be a sign of kidney and liver disease. Nails that are two-thirds whitish to one-third normal can also be a sign of liver disease. However, little white marks on your nails, known as milk spots (or punctate leukonychia) are just the remnants of any kind of trauma to the nail, from slamming it in a door to chewing on it too fervently.

8. YOU CAN GET A COMMON SKIN DISEASE ON YOUR NAILS.

Psoriasis is "typically thought of as a skin disease, but is actually a skin, joint, and nail disease, and when severe, a marker of cardiovascular risk," Rieder says. Psoriatic fingernails may have orange patches called oil spots, red lines known as splinter hemorrhages, lifting of the edges of the nails, and pits, "which look like a thumb tack was repeatedly and haphazardly pushed into the nails," he says.

Doctors often prescribe topical or injected corticosteroids to treat psoriatic nails, but using lasers is an emerging and potentially more cost-effective technique. Rieder relies on a pulsed dye laser, which uses an organic dye mixed with a solvent as the medium to treat nail psoriasis, "which can be both medically and aesthetically bothersome," he says. This laser is able to penetrate through the hard nail plate with minimal discomfort and "to treat targets of interest, in the case of psoriasis, blood vessels, and hyperactive skin," Rieder says.

9. ANCIENT CULTURES DISPLAYED SOCIAL STATUS WITH NAIL ART.

Painting and other forms of decorating nails have a history of offering social and aesthetic cues through variations in nail color, shape, and length, Rieder says. In fact, he adds, in some cultures ornate and well-decorated fingernails "serve as a proxy for social status."

Five thousand years ago in China, men and women of the Ming Dynasty aristocracy grew their nails long and covered them with golden nail guards or bright home-made polishes. The long nails allegedly announced to the world their social rank and their freedom from performing menial labor.

10. A FORMER BEAUTICIAN HELD THE WORLD RECORD FOR THE LONGEST NAILS.

Lee Redmond of Utah started growing her nails in 1979 and kept at it until she held the world record for "longest fingernails on a pair of hands ever (female)" in 2008. Her right thumbnail was 2 feet, 11 inches and the collective length of all her nails was 28 feet, 4 inches. She also applied nail hardener daily and painted them a reflective gold. Unfortunately, she broke her nails in a 2009 car accident and has no plans to regrow them.

11. THE FIRST NAIL CLIPPERS WERE PATENTED IN 1875.

Today, biters don't have to use their teeth to trim their nails. While the earliest tools for cutting nails were most likely sharp rocks, sand, and knives, the purpose-built nail clipper—though it might be more accurately called a circular nail file—was designed by a Boston, Massachusetts inventor named Valentine Fogerty and patented in 1875. The nail clippers we know today were the design of inventors Eugene Heim and Oelestin Matz, who were granted their patent for a clamp-style fingernail clipper in 1881.

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What's Really Happening When We See 'Stars' After Rubbing Our Eyes?
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.

It's likely happened to you before: You start rubbing your eyes and almost immediately begin seeing colors, specks, and swirls from behind your closed lids. So what's happening when you see these 2001-esque "stars"? Do they only occur upon rubbing? Does everyone experience them?

Before we can get to what causes the lights, we need to understand a bit about how the eyes work. Angie Wen, a cornea surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, tells Mental Floss that the retina—the innermost layer of the eye—consists of millions of cells, or photoreceptors. These cells, she says, "are responsible for receiving information from the outside world and converting them to electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain by the optic nerve. Then, the brain interprets them as images representing the world around us."

However, what we see doesn't just stop there. Sometimes "we see light that actually comes from inside our eyes or from electric stimulation of the brain rather than from the outside world," Wen says. "These bursts of seemingly random intense and colorful lights are called phosphenes, and appear due to electrical discharges from the cells inside our eyes that are a normal part of cellular function."

People have been writing and theorizing about phosphenes for thousands of years. Greek philosophers thought the bursts of light were the result of fire inside our heads: "The eye obviously has fire within it, for when the eye is struck fire flashes out," wrote Alcmaeon of Croton (6th–5th century BCE), a philosopher and early neuroscientist, of the swirls and specks someone sees after getting a blow to the head. A century later, Plato—who believed that a "visual current" [PDF] streamed out of the eye—wrote that "Such fire as has the property, not of burning, but of yielding a gentle light they [the Gods] contrived should become the proper body of each day."

Plato's take was still the dominant one through the Middle Ages. Eventually, Newton (1642–1727) theorized a concept that's more in line with what's believed today about these strange sparkly visions: The phenomenon is due to light that's produced and observed when pressure and motion is placed on the eyes.

Eleonora Lad, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Duke University Medical Center who has a background in neuroscience, explains exactly why eye rubbing generates these visions: "Most vision researchers believe that phosphenes result from the normal activity of the visual system after stimulation of one of its parts from some stimulus other than light," including putting external pressure on the eyes. (Interestingly, due to retinal damage, blind people can't see phosphenes caused by pressure, but they can see them when their visual cortex is electrically stimulated. In hopes of turning this phenomenon into improved vision for the blind, scientists have developed a cortical visual prosthesis, implanted in the visual cortex, that generates patterns of phosphenes. The device has been approved by the FDA for clinical trial.)

As Alcmaeon rightly pointed out, there are causes for the bursts of light beyond just rubbing your eyes: Getting hit in the eye can produce this phenomenon—as can a sneeze, a surprisingly powerful event that tends to clamp our eyes shut, Wen says.

Receiving an MRI or EEG may also trigger it. MRIs, for example, produce a changing magnetic field which can stimulate the visual cortex, making a person see these flashing lights. When it comes to an EEG, depending on the brain stimulation frequency band (Hz) used, some patients experience the phenomenon when closing their eyes, which is believed to come from retinal stimulation during the process.

And the activity doesn't only happen on Earth; astronauts in space have also been known to experience them. As reported in 2006 in the journal Vision Research, "over 80 percent of astronauts serving in today's NASA or ESA (European Space Agency) programs have perceived phosphenes at least in some missions and often over several orbits." They're mainly attributed to interactions between the eye and cosmic ray particles in space, outside the Earth's protective magnetic field.

No matter the cause, the bursts of light are perfectly normal—but that doesn't mean you should engage in excessive eye rubbing. Wen says ophthalmologists advise against rubbing your eyes or applying vigorous pressure; according to Lad, too much rubbing may be damaging to the cornea and lens or "result in a loss of fatty tissue around the eyes, causing the eyes to look deep-set."

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