What is the structure of the skin?

Ben Kaminsky
Dermatologist (Skin Specialist)

The skin is comprised of three layers—the epidermis, the dermis and subcutaneous (or fat) layer. The epidermis or outermost layer shows the “visible” signs of wear and tear. About 95 percent of the cells in the epidermis function to make new skin cells; the other 5 percent make melanin, which gives skin its color. But as we age, these epidermis cells replace themselves more slowly (up to 30 to 50 percent more slowly by age 50). The middle layer of skin, or the dermis, contains nerve endings, oil and sweat glands, hair follicles, blood vessels, nerve endings and protein fibers, collagen and elastin, which are strong and stretchy. This layer of skin has sebaceous (oil) glands that produce sebum, the skin’s natural oil that keeps skin lubricated and protected. As cell numbers decrease, the dermis becomes thinner and less capable of retaining its moisture contents. When the collagen and elastin lose their flexibility, the skin starts to sag and wrinkle. The subcutaneous is the innermost layer of skin. This layer is made mostly of fat and helps the body stay warm and protects it from injury. With aging, there is thinning of the subcutaneous in certain areas, particularly the face, the hands and the shins. As this fat layer thins, the skin on the face loses its plumpness and wrinkles can become more obvious.

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There are several layers in the structure of the skin. The top layer is the epidermis, a waterproof cover that keeps germs out. The second layer, the dermis, gives the skin its strength and stops it from tearing easily. Beneath the epidermis and dermis is a layer of fat. This layer stores fuel and stops the body from losing too much heat.

The skin is structured in three layers:

  • the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin, about the thickness of a piece of paper)
  • the dermis (the middle layer)
  • the subcutaneous layer (the deepest layer)

The thickness of the dermis varies depending on the location. For example, eyelid dermis is quite thin, but back dermis is about half an inch thick.

The epidermis has three sub-layers: the stratum corneum, the squamous cell layer and the basal cell layer.

  • The stratum corneum, or outermost layer of the epidermis, is the layer of skin that can be seen and felt. Proteins known as keratin (a fatty, waterproof envelope) and flat, closely packed dead cells make up the stratum corneum. This layer is the barrier between your body and the outside world.
  • The squamous cell layer produces keratin for the stratum corneum and also transports water.
  • The basal cell layer is the lowest layer of the epidermis. This is where the skin cells are reproduced and give rise to the more superficial layers of the epidermis. The most common form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, arises from this cell layer. Melanocytes, which produce melanin, or skin pigment, sit along this layer among these cells. Melanoma, one of the three most common forms of skin cancer, originates from these pigment-producing cells.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.