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Question:

    Why do fingers and toes wrinkle in the bathtub?

Answer:    

    The outermost layer of the skin swells when it absorbs water. It is tightly attached to the skin underneath, so it compensates for the increased area by wrinkling. However, new research is investigating the role of digital vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) of water immersion wrinkling of the skin.

There are various theories of why fingers and toes wrinkle in water. Most biologists suggest that the tough outer layer of skin made up of dead keratin cells is responsible. Keratin is a protein found in hair, nails, and the outermost layer of our skin.

Our skin is made up of three layers:

  • The subcutaneous tissue is the deepest layer. It contains fats and connective tissue along with large blood vessels and nerves.
  • The dermis is the middle layer. It contains the blood vessels, nerves, hair roots, and sweat glands.
  • The epidermis is the topmost layer. It helps to prevent evaporation of water from the body and to protect the internal layers from harm.

The epidermis is made up of four layers:

  • the stratum corneum
  • granular layer
  • squamous cell layer
  • and basal cell layer

The stratum corneum is the outer layer of our skin - the part that we can see and feel. This is the layer with the dead keratin cells.

While a person is in the pool or a bathtub for a long time, the dead keratin cells absorb water. This absorption causes the surface area of the skin to swell, but the outer layer is tightly attached to the living tissue. So, to compensate for the increased surface area, our skin wrinkles.

So why does this happen to hands and feet and not to other parts of the body? Because the hands and feet have the thickest layer of dead keratin cells. Our hands and feet are subjected to a lot of wear and tear. Imagine if the palm of our hands had skin as thin as that on our backs. No fun playing basketball with skin that thin!

Scientists continue to look for the exact mechanisms of why our fingers and toes wrinkle when immersed in water (Wilder-Smith et al, Hsieh et al). One theory gaining recognition is the role of digital vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels). When hands are immersed in water it seems that the nerve fibers are triggered to “shrink” and glomus bodies (body temperature regulators in the skin) in the hand lose volume, which then pulls the skin structures downwards to produce wrinkling. Studies on patients with loss of nerve function in their hands due to a disorder or replantation of amputated fingers exhibit no or slight wrinkling in the fingers when immersed in water (Hsieh et al). As the nerve functions return, so did the wrinkling.

For more fascinating facts about the skin see the following Web sites and further reading sections.

Standard DisclaimerRelated Web Sites
  • About the Skin - This Web site, from the British Association of Dermatology, provides all types of information about the skin, such as the importance of skin and its role as a barrier, as well as information about skin cancer and other diseases.
  • Anatomy of the Skin - This Dermatology Health Guide, from The University of Maryland Medicine, contains interesting skin facts and information on skin diseases and conditions.
  • The Whole Story on Skin - "Created by The Nemours Foundation's Center for Children's Health Media, Kids Health provides families with accurate, up-to-date, and jargon-free health information they can use." The section on skin provides interesting skin facts, an illustration of the epidermis, additional articles about the skin, and related web resources such as, Why does my skin get wrinkly in water?
  • The World of Skin Care: an on-line reference by Dr. John Gray, provided by the P&G Skin Care Research Center - This reference from Procter and Gamble provides information about the structure, function, and care of skin as well as information about skin problems and aging. The information is presented in a book format with a table of contents and index.

Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Brynie, Faith Hickman. 101 questions about your skin that got under your skin … until now. Brookfield, CT, Millbrook Press, c1999. 176 p. (Juvenile).
  • Bull, C and Henry, J.A. Finger wrinkling as a test of autonomic function. British medical journal, Feb. 26, 1977: 551- 552.
  • Hseih, Ching-Hua et al.  Paradoxical response to water immersion in replanted fingers.  Clinical autonomic research, v. 16, June 2006: 223-227.
  • Kareklas, Kyriacos, Daniel Nettle, and Tom V. Smulders. Water-induced finger wrinkles improve handling of wet objects. Biology Letters , v.9 (2), 2013.
  • Lappe. Marc. The body's edge: our cultural obsession with skin. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1996. 242 p.
  • Robbins, C.R. Skin in the Encyclopedia of human biology. Edited by Renato Dulbecco. v. 8. San Diego, Academic Press, c. 1997. p. 39-47.
  • Royston, Angela. Why do I get a sunburn? And other questions about skin. Chicago, Heinemann Library, 2003. 32 p. (Juvenile).
  • Wilder-Smith, Einar P.V. and Adeline Chow.  Water immersion wrinkling is due to vasoconstriction. Muscle and nerve, v. 27, March 2003: 307-311.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "skin," "skin--anatomy," or "dermatology--popular works" in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.


Diagram of human skin layers. From the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Web site.

Photograph shows one soldier sitting in a bathtub while another stands over him pouring water over his head.
The coastal defence guns: One of the crew takes a bath under the shadow of the gun. Prints and Photographs Catalog, Library of Congress.

Scale model of a bathtub made for Presindent Taft, who was nearly six feet tall and weighed 340 pounds. The original tub was 7 feet 1 inch long, 41 inches wide, and weighed one ton.

Cartoon of man in bathtub
Cartoon originally from the National Weather Service. NOAA, Website.

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  February 5, 2013
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