Physiology of the Integumentary System

Basic Physiology of the System


The skin protects the body from wind, water, and UV sunlight. It acts as a protective barrier against water loss, and it also is the first line of defense against abrasive activity such as grit, microbes, or harmful chemicals. Sweat excreted from sweat glands deters microbes from over-colonizing the skin surface by generating dermcidin, which has antibiotic properties.

Sensory Function

The skin acts as a sense organ because the epidermis, dermis, and the hypodermis contain specialized sensory nerve structures that detect touch, surface temperature, and pain. These receptors are more concentrated on the tips of the fingers, which are most sensitive to touch, especially the Meissner corpuscle (tactile corpuscle), which responds to light touch, and the Pacinian corpuscle (lamellar corpuscle), which responds to vibration.


The integumentary system helps regulate body temperature through its tight association with the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is continuously monitoring body temperature and initiating appropriate responses.


Thermoregulation. Image description available.
Figure 7.2 Thermoregulation. During strenuous physical activities, such as skiing (a) or running (c), the dermal blood vessels dilate and sweat secretion increases (b). These mechanisms prevent the body from overheating. In contrast, the dermal blood vessels constrict to minimize heat loss in response to low temperatures (b). (Credit a: “Trysil”/flickr; credit c: Ralph Daily.) From Betts, et al., 2013. Licensed under CC BY 4.0. [Image description.]

Vitamin D Synthesis

The epidermal layer of human skin synthesizes vitamin D when exposed to UV radiation. In the presence of sunlight, a form of vitamin D3 called cholecalciferol is synthesized from a derivative of the steroid cholesterol in the skin.

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Accessory Structures

Accessory structures of the skin include hair, nails, sweat glands, and sebaceous glands. These structures embryologically originate from the epidermis and can extend down through the dermis into the hypodermis.


Hair is a keratinous filament growing out of the epidermis. It is primarily made of dead, keratinized cells. Strands of hair originate in the hair follicle. The hair shaft is the part of the hair not anchored to the follicle, and much of this is exposed at the skin’s surface. The rest of the hair lies below the surface of the skin and is referred to as the hair root. The hair root ends deep in the dermis at the hair bulb. The hair bulb surrounds the hair papilla, which is made of connective tissue and contains blood capillaries and nerve endings from the dermis (see Figure 7.3).


Cross section of a hair follicle. Image description available.
Figure 7.3 Hair. Hair follicles originate in the epidermis and have many different parts. From Betts, et al., 2013. Licensed under CC BY 4.0. [Image description.]


The nail bed is a specialized structure of the epidermis that is found at the tips of our fingers and toes. The nail body is composed of densely packed dead keratinocytes, forms on the nail bed, and protects the tips of our fingers and toes. The nail body forms at the nail root, which enables the nail to grow continuously. The nail cuticle is also called the eponychium (see Figure 7.4).


Anatomy of the fingernail. Image description available.
Figure 7.4 Nails. The nail is an accessory structure of the integumentary system. From Betts, et al., 2013. Licensed under CC BY 4.0. [Image description.]

Sudoriferous (Sweat) Glands

When the body becomes warm, sudoriferous glands produce sweat to cool the body. There are two types of sweat glands, each secreting slightly different products.

An eccrine sweat gland is a type of gland that produces a watery sweat for cooling the body. These glands have pores that are found all over the skin’s surface (Figure 7.5). Eccrine glands are a primary component of thermoregulation in humans and thus help to maintain homeostasis (the internal balance of the body).

An apocrine sweat gland is usually associated with hair follicles in densely hairy areas, such as armpits and genital regions. Apocrine sweat glands are larger than eccrine sweat glands, with the duct normally emptying into the hair follicle. In addition to water and salts, apocrine sweat includes organic compounds that make the sweat thicker and subject to bacterial decomposition and subsequent smell.


Eccrine sweat gland. Image description available.
Figure 7.5 Eccrine Gland. Eccrine glands are coiled glands in the dermis that release sweat that is mostly water. From Betts, et al., 2013. Licensed under CC BY 4.0. [Image description.]

A sebaceous gland is a type of oil gland that is found all over the body and helps to lubricate and waterproof the skin and hair. Most sebaceous glands are associated with hair follicles. They generate and excrete sebum, a mixture of lipids (fats), onto the skin surface, thereby naturally lubricating the dry and dead layer of keratinized cells of the stratum corneum, keeping it pliable.

Image Descriptions

Figure 7.2 image description: Part A is a photo of a man skiing with several snow-covered trees in the background. Part B is a diagram with a right and left half. The left half is titled “Heat is retained by the body,” while the right half is titled “Heat loss through radiation and convection.” Both show blood flowing from an artery through three capillary beds within the skin. The beds are arranged vertically, with the topmost bed located along the boundary of the dermis and epidermis. The bottommost bed is located deep in the hypodermis. The middle bed is evenly spaced between the topmost and bottommost beds. In each bed, oxygenated blood (red) enters the bed on the left and deoxygenated blood (blue) leaves the bed on the right. The left diagram shows a picture of snowflakes above the capillary beds, indicating that the weather is cold. Blood is only flowing through the deepest of the three capillary beds, as the upper beds are closed off to reduce heat loss from the outer layers of the skin. The right diagram shows a picture of the sun above the capillary beds, indicating that the weather is hot. Blood is flowing through all three capillary beds, allowing heat to radiate out of the blood, increasing heat loss. Part C is a photo of a man running through a forested trail on a summer day. [Return to Figure 7.2].

Figure 7.3 image description: A cross section of the skin containing a hair follicle. The follicle is teardrop shaped. Its enlarged base, labeled the hair bulb, is embedded in the hypodermis. The outermost layer of the follicle is the epidermis, which invaginates from the skin surface to envelop the follicle. Within the epidermis is the outer root sheath, which is only present on the hair bulb. It does not extend up the shaft of the hair. Within the outer root sheath is the inner root sheath. The inner root sheath extends about half of the way up the hair shaft, ending midway through the dermis. The hair matrix is the innermost layer. The hair matrix surrounds the bottom of the hair shaft where it is embedded within the hair bulb. The hair shaft, in itself, contains three layers: the outermost cuticle, a middle layer called the cortex, and an innermost layer called the medulla. [Return to Figure 7.3].

Figure 7.4 image description: The anatomy of the fingernail region. The top image shows a dorsal view of a finger. The proximal nail fold is the part underneath where the skin of the finger connects with the edge of the nail. The eponychium is a thin, pink layer between the white proximal edge of the nail (the lunula), and the edge of the finger skin. The lunula appears as a crescent-shaped white area at the proximal edge of the pink-shaded nail. The lateral nail folds are where the sides of the nail contact the finger skin. The distal edge of the nail is white and is called the free edge. An arrow indicates that the nail grows distally out from the proximal nail fold. The lower image shows a lateral view of the nail bed anatomy. In this view, one can see how the edge of the nail is located just proximal to the nail fold. This end of the nail, from which the nail grows, is called the nail root. [Return to Figure 7.4].

Figure 7.5 image description: An illustration of an eccrine sweat gland embedded in a cross section of skin tissue. The eccrine sweat gland is a bundle of white tubes embedded in the dermis. A single white tube travels up from the bundle and opens onto the surface of the epidermis. The opening is called a pore. There are several pores on the small block of skin portrayed in this diagram. [Return to Figure 7.5].


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Medical Terminology: An Interactive Approach Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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