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Unmasking Skin
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By Joel L. SwerdlowPhotographs by Sarah Leen

Equal parts armor, air-conditioning system, and genetic heritage, skin is more than skin-deep. Scientists are probing beneath the surface of the body's largest organ.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Tom Stevens sits across from me at a café in a small town in upstate New York. He has a handsome face and a powerful build. But his ears are stubs tucked tightly to the sides of his head, and when he takes off his baseball cap, I see that his scalp, except for a thin strip, is a mass of scar tissue.

"I lost my helmet somewhere in the house trailer just before the flashover hit," says Stevens. "It was about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius) in there when I jumped out the window."

Five years ago Stevens was a volunteer firefighter. Now, preparing for his sixth major reconstructive surgery, he laughs. "I'm learning more about skin than I ever wanted to know."

If you took off your skin and laid it flat, it would cover an area of about 21 square feet (1.9 square meters), making it by far the body's largest organ. Draped in place over our bodies, skin forms the barrier between what's inside us and what's outside. It protects us from a multitude of external forces. It serves as an avenue to our most intimate physical and psychological selves.

This impervious yet permeable barrier, less than a millimeter thick (0.04 inch) in places, is composed of three layers. The outermost layer is the bloodless epidermis. The dermis includes collagen, elastin, and nerve endings. The innermost layer, subcutaneous fat, contains tissue that acts as an energy source, cushion, and insulator for the body.

From these familiar characteristics of skin emerge the profound mysteries of touch, arguably our most essential source of sensory stimulation. We can live without seeing or hearing—in fact, without any of our other senses. But babies born without effective nerve connections between skin and brain can fail to thrive and may even die.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Online Extra
Learn about the evolutionary factors behind skin color variations across the globe.


VIDEO Go farther than skin-deep as photographer Sarah Leen describes the challenges of covering this assignment.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Why do we get goosebumps?

When a blast of cold air hit our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, their body hairs stood on end, fluffing up the hair and trapping more air between the hairs to warm the body, much like a down blanket. Today we call this reaction goosebumps, and it still occurs when tiny muscles, called piloerectors, located in each hair follicle, contract and raise body hairs. Even though we've become progressively less hairy over the millennia, our bodies continue to respond to cold in the same way.

So why do we then get goosebumps when we're scared or frightened? When you become emotional, your nervous system automatically responds by sending hormones that trigger a "fight or flight" response that also causes your hairs to raise. This effect may have helped us ward off enemies by looking bigger and tougher. Other animals, like cats and dogs, continue such displays today when fighting for dominance.

— Christy Ullrich

Did You Know?

Related Links
Xeroderma Pigmentosum
Find out more about the rare skin disorder xeroderma pigmentosum.

Environmental Protection Agency
The Environmental Protection Agency's guide to sun-smart behavior.

Skin Cancer Information
Learn how to protect yourself from harmful ultraviolet rays.

Enchanted Learning
View a graphic image of the anatomy of skin.

The Journal of the American Medical Association
Learn about the history of botulinum toxin—including its production during World War II.


Field, Tiffany. Touch. MIT Press, 2001.

Freinkel, Ruth K., and David T. Woodley, eds. The Biology of the Skin. The Parthenon Publishing Group, 2001.

Geras, Audra. Dermatology: A Medical Artist's Interpretation. Sandoz Medical Publications, 1990.

Goldsmith, Lowell A., ed. Physiology, Biochemistry, and Molecular Biology of the Skin. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Harder, Ben. "Enough Isn't Enough: An Epidemic of Vitamin D Deficiency," Science News (June 22, 2002), 388.

Netburn, Deborah. "Young, Carefree and Hooked on Sunlamps," New York Times, May 26, 2002.

Noonan, David, and Jerry Adler. "The Botox Boom," Newsweek (May 13, 2002), 50-58.

Perricone, Nicholas. The Perricone Prescription. HarperCollins, 2002.

Pollack, Andrew. "Biotechnology Is Taking Aim at Psoriasis," New York Times, June 1, 2000.

Randle, H. W. "Suntanning: Differences in Perceptions Throughout History," Mayo Clinic Proceedings (1997).


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