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How Your Skin Works: Understanding the Epidermis

Your skin is divided into three main layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the subcutaneous fat layer. Each layer performs several different functions. What follows is a short introduction to each of the three skin layers and the various roles that they play in your body.

The Epidermis: Between You And The World

The epidermis is the layer of the skin that we all see. It is composed of three sublayers. The outermost layer is called the stratum corneum, “horny layer.” It is made of fully mature keratinocytes, cells that are filled with fibers of keratin, the same protein that makes up animal horns, and where the layer receives its name. These cells are died and dried out; they make a seal that keeps foreign matter out of the body and retains vital fluids.The top of the stratum corneum is continuously shed, revealing new cells beneath it. Under it are the younger keratinocytes and the basale layer, where basale cells constantly divide to create new layers of keratinocytes. The basale layer also contains the melanocytes, cells that produce skin pigment.

The Dermis: Where Things Are Happening

The dermis is the layer of skin where all the work is being done. Hair follicles are rooted in the dermis, and it is also where the skin’s resources are routed through. Blood vessels, lymph canals, and sweat glands are all inside the dermis, as well as the skin’s nerves and the touch and temperature nerve endings they are attached to. Cells called fibroblasts exist in the dermis, where they create the collagen bundles that give skin its firmness and elasticity. When the surface of the skin is damaged, the dermis delivers the resources that restore it to health.

The Subcutaneous Fat: Shock Absorbent

The subcutaneous fat, sometimes called the subcutis, is a layer consisting mostly of fat storage cells and collagen. Like the dermis it gives the skin shape and structure, but more than that, it serves as an insulator. The subcutaneous fat helps to control the body’s internal temperature as well as absorb mechanical shocks from outside. Without it, we would all be much more easily bruised. The subcutis also acts as a sort of immune moat, creating an obstacle between the body’s vital organs and the microbe-laden world outside. If the skin is broken, an infection needs to cross quite a long distance before it can reach the vitals, due to the interposing subcutaneous fat layer.

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