Why Water Turns You Into a Prune (and Not a Plum)
Discover why, after just a few minutes in wet conditions, the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet and, in particular, your fingertips, transform from smooth to wrinkly.
Do you love taking long, hot showers or soaking in the tub? Or perhaps you swim like a fish and hit the pool every day?
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You’ve surely noticed the curious effect of water on your skin.
“After just a few minutes in wet conditions, the palms of your hands, the soles of your feet and, in particular, your fingertips, will transform from smooth to wrinkly,” says dermatologist Alok Vij, MD.
What gives — shouldn’t exposure to water plump your skin up like a plum, rather than wrinkling it like a prune?
“This is a fascinating question,” says Dr. Vij. “That ‘pruning’ is more than just passive absorption of water into the protein-rich outer layer of your skin.
“It is an active, adaptive process controlled by your sympathetic nervous system.”
The sympathetic nervous system is part of a larger system in charge of unconscious body processes like digestion and breathing.
It’s mainly responsible for the “fight or flight response” that helped us run from a saber tooth tiger in prehistoric times.
But it also appears to help us grip objects better in wet conditions — allowing us to grab the slippery, wriggling fish we needed for survival back in the day.
“The grooves appearing in your skin act like tire treads,” explains Dr. Vij. “They allow water to slide out from between the surface of your fingertips and the surface of objects you’re trying to grasp — like that bar of soap you just dropped.”
While pruning is harmless, it’s best not to overstay your skin’s welcome in a shower or tub.
Bathe in warm, not hot, water to avoid removing the natural oils from your skin.
As soon as you get out, towel-dry briefly. Then quickly apply moisturizer to add moisture back into your skin’s outer layer.
“Frequent swimmers encounter bigger problems than wrinkling of their fingers,” notes Dr. Vij.
To avoid the skin irritation, itching, inflammation or infection that result, he advises you to:
Pruning aside, these tips will help you enjoy swimming’s many benefits without consequences for your skin.