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4.1: Layers of the Skin

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    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 \(\PageIndex{1}\)). 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.

    This illustration shows a cross section of skin tissue. The outermost layer is called the epidermis, and occupies one fifth of the cross section. Several hairs are emerging from the surface. The epidermis dives around one of the hairs, forming a follicle. The middle layer is called the dermis, which occupies four fifths of the cross section. The dermis contains an erector pilli muscle connected to one of the follicles. The dermis also contains an eccrine sweat gland, composed of a bunch of tubules. One tubule travels up from the bunch, through the epidermis, opening onto the surface a pore. There are two string-like nerves travelling vertically through the dermis. The right nerve is attached to a Pacinian corpuscle, which is a yellow structure consisting of concentric ovals similar to an onion. The lowest level of the skin, the hypodermis, contains fatty tissue, arteries, and veins. Blood vessels travel from the hypodermis and connect to hair follicles and erector pilli muscle in the dermis.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Layers of Skin The skin is composed of two main layers: the epidermis, made of closely packed epithelial cells, and the dermis, made of dense, irregular connective tissue that houses blood vessels, hair follicles, sweat glands, and other structures. Beneath the dermis lies the hypodermis, which is composed mainly of loose connective and fatty tissues. (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)


    The Epidermis 

    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.

     Showing the five layers of the epidermis from the stratum basale at the bottom to the stratum corneum at the top
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Layers of Epidermis  (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)



    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.

     This micrograph shows layers of skin in a cross section. The papillary layer of the dermis extends between the downward fingers of the darkly stained epidermis. The papillary layer appears finer than the reticular layer, consisting of smaller, densely-packed fibers. The reticular layer is three times thicker than the papillary layer and contains larger, thicker fibers. The fibers seem more loosely packed than those of the papillary layer, with some separated by empty spaces. Both layers of the dermis contain cells with darkly stained nuclei.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Layers of the Dermis This stained slide shows the two components of the dermis—the papillary layer and the reticular layer. Both are made of connective tissue with fibers of collagen extending from one to the other, making the border between the two somewhat indistinct. The dermal papillae extending into the epidermis belong to the papillary layer, whereas the dense collagen fiber bundles below belong to the reticular layer. LM × 10. (credit: modification of work by “kilbad”/Wikimedia Commons)  (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)



    Hair is a keratinous filament growing out of the epidermis. It is primarily made of dead, keratinized cells. Strands of hair originate in an epidermal penetration of the dermis called the hair follicle. The hair shaft is the part of the hair not anchored to the follicle, and much of this is exposed at the skin’s surface. The rest of the hair, which is anchored in the follicle, lies below the surface of the skin and is referred to as the hair root. The hair root ends deep in the dermis at the hair bulb, and includes a layer of mitotically active basal cells called the hair matrix.

    The hair bulb surrounds the hair papilla, which is made of connective tissue and contains blood capillaries and nerve endings from the dermis.


    This diagram shows a cross section of the skin containing a hair follicle. The follicle is teardrop shaped. Its enlarged base, labeled the hair bulb, is embedded in the hypodermis. The outermost layer of the follicle is the epidermis, which invaginates from the skin surface to envelope the follicle. Within the epidermis is the outer root sheath, which is only present on the hair bulb. It does not extend up the shaft of the hair. Within the outer root sheath is the inner root sheath. The inner root sheath extends about half of the way up the hair shaft, ending midway through the dermis. The hair matrix is the innermost layer. The hair matrix surrounds the bottom of the hair shaft where it is embedded within the hair bulb. The hair shaft, in itself, contains three layers: the outermost cuticle, a middle layer called the cortex, and an innermost layer called the medulla.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Hair Hair follicles originate in the epidermis and have many different parts. (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)


    This micrograph is of the base of a hair follicle. The protruding hair is largely transparent, with only its dark outline visible. The inner root sheath is visible surrounding the very bottom of the hair as a circle of cells with dark-staining nuclei. The inner sheath extends up the hair shaft. The outer root sheath is much thicker than the inner root sheath, consisting of a large oval of lighter staining cells. The oval surrounds the bottom of the hair and extends into the hypodermis.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Hair Follicle The slide shows a cross-section of a hair follicle. Basal cells of the hair matrix in the center differentiate into cells of the inner root sheath. Basal cells at the base of the hair root form the outer root sheath. LM × 4. (credit: modification of work by “kilbad”/Wikimedia Commons) (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)



    The nail bed is a specialized structure of the epidermis that is found at the tips of our fingers and toes. The nail body is formed on the nail bed, and protects the tips of our fingers and toes as they are the farthest extremities and the parts of the body that experience the maximum mechanical stress. In addition, the nail body forms a back-support for picking up small objects with the fingers. The nail body is composed of densely packed dead keratinocytes. The epidermis in this part of the body has evolved a specialized structure upon which nails can form. The nail body forms at the nail root, which has a matrix of proliferating cells from the stratum basale that enables the nail to grow continuously. The lateral nail fold overlaps the nail on the sides, helping to anchor the nail body. The nail fold that meets the proximal end of the nail body forms the nail cuticle, also called the eponychium. The nail bed is rich in blood vessels, making it appear pink, except at the base, where a thick layer of epithelium over the nail matrix forms a crescent-shaped region called the lunula (the “little moon”). The area beneath the free edge of the nail, furthest from the cuticle, is called the hyponychium. It consists of a thickened layer of stratum corneum.

    These two images show anatomy of the fingernail region. The top image shows a dorsal view of a finger. The proximal nail fold is the part underneath where the skin of the finger connects with the edge of the nail. The eponychium is a thin, pink layer between the white proximal edge of the nail (the lunula), and the edge of the finger skin. The lunula appears as a crescent-shaped white area at the proximal edge of the pink-shaded nail. The lateral nail folds are where the sides of the nail contact the finger skin. The distal edge of the nail is white and is called the free edge. An arrow indicates that the nail grows distally out from the proximal nail fold. The lower image shows a lateral view of the nail bed anatomy. In this view, one can see how the edge of the nail is located just proximal to the nail fold. This end of the nail, from which the nail grows, is called the nail root.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Nails The nail is an accessory structure of the integumentary system. (CC-BY-4.0, OpenStax, Human Anatomy)


    This page titled 4.1: Layers of the Skin is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by OpenStax.

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