The Biggest Myth About Your Skin
"The skin is the largest organ in the human body."
It's a factoid that has made the rounds in hundreds of scientific studies, been taught in high school anatomy classes across the country, and even sits nestled within Wikipedia's page on human skin. But that too-cool-to-be-true-so-it-must-be-true "fact" is actually false. No matter how you spin it, the skin is not the largest organ in the human body.
The firm debunking of this persistent myth arrived slightly more than a quarter-century ago. In a lighthearted paper, University of Rochester dermatology professor Dr. Lowell Goldsmith approximated the average skin mass of a 154-pound male. Without resorting to flaying, Goldsmith determined a skin weight of roughly 8.5 pounds, or 5.5% of body weight, placing the skin well behind the body's bones (14% of body weight) and far behind its muscles (40%). The proud dermatologist was humble in defeat.
"Even with my extreme chauvinism for our organ it is logically difficult for me to consider the skin to be an organ and not muscle, blood, and bones. These other three organ systems do not have the natural fuzzy, furry countenance of our organ, but they are larger."
Nor can the skin claim superiority in another category: surface area. As University of Utah dermatology professor Richard Sontheimer explained with a tinge of sorrow, "The human skin surface area is identical to body surface area. The body surface area of the proverbial 70 kg man is 1.7 square meters. By comparison, the gas exchanging surface of the lung’s airways has been estimated to be 70 square meters, which is approximately half the size of a tennis court."
Now, do not fret for the collective ego of dermatologists, and definitely don't look down at your dermis and epidermis, the skin's two primary layers. The age-old adage, "Size doesn't matter" absolutely applies. Your skin is a biological wonder, worthy of whatever moisturizer or fancy skin care product you can slather on! Simultaneously waterproof, yet dotted with sweat glands that serve to excrete waste and keep you cool, the skin is the body's best tool to interact with the world, thanks to sensitive receptors that allow you to touch and feel. It's also home to more than 1,000 species of bacteria! Most of them are harmless, but those that would be harmful are incessantly stymied by the skin, which, by brute force, denies entry to pathogens laying siege to the body.
So say your skin shines! Call it glamorous! Hail it as smooth and silky!
Just don't call it the largest organ...
(Image: Helena Paffen/Wikimedia Commons)