Everyone is familiar with the phenomenon that occurs when you spend an extended period of time in the water—your fingers, toes, and feet get wrinkly and puckered. Yet, for a long time there was not a satisfactory explanation for this change in the skin’s appearance. Whether you are in the pool, bath, or a natural body of water, the effect is universal. So why does it happen? Keep reading to get a glimpse into the history of human evolution for a better understanding of why our skin behaves differently in the water.
A lingering trait of our ancestors
Like goosebumps, blushing, and twitching upper lips, pruney skin is a relic of our evolutionary past. Our ancestors favored areas near water sources, since water brings sources of food and is itself essential for human life. The effect of puckered, wrinkly skin likely developed as a way to improve the body’s performance in and around the water. When the skin becomes pruney, it is better able to grip items, which may have been helpful gathering food from streams or handling wet vegetation. On the feet, wrinkled skin can help improve tread in the rain or when walking through wet areas, which are slippery and harder to navigate.
Stronger grip strength under water
The revelation that wrinkled skin is better for gripping wet objects is actually fairly recent. It was previously thought that skin became wrinkly in the water because it absorbed water in the outermost layer, which would then bend and fold thanks to its newly expanded size. While this explanation seems logical enough, it was proven to be untrue as researchers observed the effects of water on the hands of individuals who have suffered damage to the median nerve or central nervous system. People with nervous system disorders or direct injuries to the peripheral nerves in the hands do not experience pruning in wet conditions, indicating that the change in the skin is controlled by the nervous system.
Your skin is a complex organ that can adapt to all kinds of conditions so that you stay comfortable, flexible, and agile. To give your skin the care it needs in the face of infections or other causes of irritation, connect with a physician anytime on your laptop or smartphone at MeMD.me.