Why Fingers Wrinkle When Wet – You Should Know Because Your Kids Will Ask!

May 18, 2017

It is amazing how quickly one adjusts to living in a larger space. When we went back to the small house to get a few lingering items I had a gasping, eye-bulging epiphany and uttered my thoughts later to a friend in a sighing gasp, “Ohmygosh I cannot believe we lived there for 15 months!”

There is a reason we spent a lot of time outside.

It wasn’t just the smallness of it. It was the oldness too and the very short ceilings, 7 feet 3 inches to be exact. We are relatively tall people. I am 5 feet 10 inches and my husband is a 1/64 of an inch or two short of 6’ 2.” The kids, well, naturally they are still short so ceiling height didn’t really matter to them.

Our rental is not perfect, but I am overjoyed with the extra 500 square feet of living space compared to the small house.  It also has normal ceilings and even a luxurious little vault in the living room. I joked with my husband that it was like living in the Sistene Chapel, minus the touch of Michaelangelo. 😉

In hindsight, I have realized that, while it is possible to live in 720 square feet as a family of five with a 70 pound dog, it is beyond unideal. I have some reflections of the experience resulting in me thinking our fortitude was herculean. I’m being dramatic, but you get my point. I still recommend the experience, but with slight hesitation (you can read more about our small house living experience here).

The small house had one small bathroom with one super-small shower. Two and a half feet by two and half feet to be exact. I recall watching an episode of Tiny House Builders where the couple had a shower rigged with a barrel of sorts. I think they may have had two small children. It’s been a couple of years. I admire them if they are still roughing it in that.

And, I wonder if the mom is extra hairy, because I am here to tell you there is nowhere to put your foot to shave your legs. The upside? I now have mad flamingo skills even while wielding a sharp object.

Thank you small house for offering me the opportunity to hone that skill.

Also, you should know that when you have a small shower and little people, who should fit within its clausterfobic confines, they get water all over the floor. And, when the showers are done you have to wash all of the towels too because there is nowhere to hang them. It is doable, but it isn’t ideal.

Then you find yourself with this confession:  I did not bathe my kids every day or every other day for that matter. Hey – it’s better for their skin – ask your pediatrician!

Anyway, a couple of nights into the rental, the kids all had their first bath in an actual bathtub in over 15 months. We let them each linger in the tub for an excessive amount of time, to offset their lengthy bath deprivation. Each one emerged with wrinkly fingers.  My youngest looked at his hands in awe and inquired why they were that way.

Yet again, they were met with my blank stare. I sauntered over to my husband and he wasn’t so sure either.  He stumbled, unsure, wondering if perhaps it was osmosis.

According to there are about 24.2 million children aged 0-5 just in the United States. The way I see it – that’s a lot of children asking why they are wrinkled after they take a bath.  Imagine how many in the world!

If you then factor in swimming in the summertime and the other 49.5 children aged 6-17 in the U.S., who might dip a toe in the swimming pool, that’s 73.7 million children uttering, “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?,” while shrouded in towels gripped by their prune-like fingers.

wrinkle fingers

Naturally, I sought the answer.  For me.  For my children.  For you.  And, for the millions of other parents around the world.

Why Fingers and Toes Wrinkle When Soaked in Water

Interestingly, scientists have known since the 1930s that it is unlikely the wrinkling is a result of water passing through the outer layer of skin and causing it to swell. The wrinkling does not happen when there is nerve damage in fingers or toes, so that has debunked the osmosis theory.

It was thus determined that the wrinkling was caused by blood vessels constricting beneath the skin, due to an involuntary reaction by the body’s nervous system (which also controls breathing, heart rate and sweating).

So, while that explains how it happens (constriction of blood vessels), it leaves a gap as to why it happens.  A theoretical neurobiologist, Mark Changizi, sought to try to unravel the mystery on why only the skin on our hands and feet incur such a phenomenon and not the rest of the largest organ of our body (skin).  He began to wonder if it was an evolutionary adaptation of primates and our human ancestors to survive better in wet environments.

After working for a year or so to replicate the wrinkle patterns, Changizi and his colleagues concluded with a theory that the wrinkles were potentially channels designed to drain water off the finger tips to allow for a better grip – much like the treads on car tires allow cars to grip the roadway during rain.

They theorized that perhaps the wrinkles, which develop after about five minutes of water exposure, helped our ancestors in wet environments forage for food and also gave them a better grip with their hands and feet on wet surfaces.

Hey – that is even useful in today’s world (but you still shouldn’t run at the pool). 🙂

Wrinkle Running at the Pool

Our bodies are pretty amazing in how they are created!  And, it is pretty crazy that some parts and functions are still a little mysterious!

In this case, just remember that it’s not osmosis, but blood vessel constriction.  And, ultimately, further studies are still needed to support the why or the tire tread grip theory.

Until someone figures out why…journey on!

xo, Melissa a.k.a. the mamabrain at mamabrains


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