96 10.4 Dermis

Created by CK-12 Foundation/Adapted by Christine Miller

Figure 10.4.1 Goose bumps!

Goose Bumps

No doubt you’ve experienced the tiny, hair-raising skin bumps called goose bumps, like those you see in Figure 10.4.1. They happen when you feel chilly. Do you know what causes goose bumps, or why they pop up when you are cold? The answers to these questions involve the layer of skin known as the dermis.

What is the Dermis?

The dermis is the inner of the two major layers that make up the skin, the outer layer being the epidermis. The dermis consists mainly of connective tissues. It also contains most skin structures, such as glands and blood vessels. The dermis is anchored to the tissues below it by flexible collagen bundles that permit most areas of the skin to move freely over subcutaneous (“below the skin”) tissues. Functions of the dermis include cushioning subcutaneous tissues, regulating body temperature, sensing the environment, and excreting wastes.

Anatomy of the Dermis

The basic anatomy of the dermis is a matrix, or sort of scaffolding, composed of connective tissues. These tissues include collagen fibres — which provide toughness — and elastin fibres, which provide elasticity. Surrounding these fibres, the matrix also includes a gel-like substance made of proteins. The tissues of the matrix give the dermis both strength and flexibility.

The dermis is divided into two layers: the papillary layer and the reticular layer. Both layers are shown in Figure 10.4.2 below and described in the text that follows.

Layers of the Dermis
Figure 10.4.2 This photomicrograph shows a cross-section of the papillary and reticular layers of the dermis.

Papillary Layer

The papillary layer is the upper layer of the dermis, just below the basement membrane that connects the dermis to the epidermis above it. The papillary layer is the thinner of the two dermal layers. It is composed mainly of loosely arranged collagen fibres. The papillary layer is named for its fingerlike projections — or papillae — that extend upward into the epidermis. The papillae contain capillaries and sensory touch receptors.

10.3 Fingerprints
Figure 10.4.3 This photo is an enlarged image of epidermal ridges on a finger.

The papillae give the dermis a bumpy surface that interlocks with the epidermis above it, strengthening the connection between the two layers of skin. On the palms and soles, the papillae create epidermal ridges. Epidermal ridges on the fingers are commonly called fingerprints (see Figure 10.4.3). Fingerprints are genetically determined, so no two people (other than identical twins) have exactly the same fingerprint pattern. Therefore, fingerprints can be used as a means of identification, for example, at crime scenes. Fingerprints were much more commonly used forensically before DNA analysis was introduced for this purpose.

Reticular Layer

The reticular layer is the lower layer of the dermis, located below the papillary layer. It is the thicker of the two dermal layers. It is composed of densely woven collagen and elastin fibres. These protein fibres give the dermis its properties of strength and elasticity. This layer of the dermis cushions subcutaneous tissues of the body from stress and strain. The reticular layer of the dermis also contains most of the structures in the dermis, such as glands and hair follicles.

Structures in the Dermis

Both papillary and reticular layers of the dermis contain numerous sensory receptors, which make the skin the body’s primary sensory organ for the sense of touch. Both dermal layers also contain blood vessels. They provide nutrients to remove wastes from dermal cells, as well as cells in the lowest layer of the epidermis, the stratum basale. The circulatory components of the dermis are shown in Figure 10.4.4 below.

10.3 Dermal Circulation
Figure 10.4.4 Both the papillary layer and the reticular layer of the dermis contain blood vessels, as shown in this diagram.


Glands in the reticular layer of the dermis include sweat glands and sebaceous (oil) glands. Both are exocrine glands, which are glands that release their secretions through ducts to nearby body surfaces. The diagram in Figure 10.4.5 shows these glands, as well as several other structures in the dermis.

10.4 Skin Glands
Figure 10.4.5 The dermis contains sweat and oil (sebaceous) glands, as well as hair follicles and blood vessels.

Sweat Glands

Sweat glands produce the fluid called sweat, which contains mainly water and salts. The glands have ducts that carry the sweat to hair follicles, or to the surface of the skin. There are two different types of sweat glands: eccrine glands and apocrine glands.

  • Eccrine sweat glands occur in skin all over the body. Their ducts empty through tiny openings called pores onto the skin surface. These sweat glands are involved in temperature regulation.
  • Apocrine sweat glands are larger than eccrine glands, and occur only in the skin of the armpits and groin. The ducts of apocrine glands empty into hair follicles, and then the sweat travels along hairs to reach the surface. Apocrine glands are inactive until puberty, at which point they start producing an oily sweat that is consumed by bacteria living on the skin. The digestion of apocrine sweat by bacteria causes body odor.

Sebaceous Glands

Sebaceous glands are exocrine glands that produce a thick, fatty substance called sebum. Sebum is secreted into hair follicles and makes its way to the skin surface along hairs. It waterproofs the hair and skin, and helps prevent them from drying out. Sebum also has antibacterial properties, so it inhibits the growth of microorganisms on the skin. Sebaceous glands are found in every part of the skin — except for the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, where hair does not grow.

Hair Follicles

Hair follicles are the structures where hairs originate (see the diagram above). Hairs grow out of follicles, pass through the epidermis, and exit at the surface of the skin. Associated with each hair follicle is a sebaceous gland, which secretes sebum that coats and waterproofs the hair. Each follicle also has a bed of capillaries, a nerve ending, and a tiny muscle called an arrector pili.

Functions of the Dermis

The main functions of the dermis are regulating body temperature, enabling the sense of touch, and eliminating wastes from the body.

Temperature Regulation

Several structures in the reticular layer of the dermis are involved in regulating body temperature. For example, when body temperature rises, the hypothalamus of the brain sends nerve signals to sweat glands, causing them to release sweat. An adult can sweat up to four litres an hour. As the sweat evaporates from the surface of the body, it uses energy in the form of body heat, thus cooling the body. The hypothalamus also causes dilation of blood vessels in the dermis when body temperature rises. This allows more blood to flow through the skin, bringing body heat to the surface, where it can radiate into the environment.

When the body is too cool, sweat glands stop producing sweat, and blood vessels in the skin constrict, thus conserving body heat. The arrector pili muscles also contract, moving hair follicles and lifting hair shafts. This results in more air being trapped under the hairs to insulate the surface of the skin. These contractions of arrector pili muscles are the cause of goose bumps.

Sensing the Environment

Sensory receptors in the dermis are mainly responsible for the body’s tactile senses. The receptors detect such tactile stimuli as warm or cold temperature, shape, texture, pressure, vibration, and pain. They send nerve impulses to the brain, which interprets and responds to the sensory information. Sensory receptors in the dermis can be classified on the basis of the type of touch stimulus they sense. Mechanoreceptors sense mechanical forces such as pressure, roughness, vibration, and stretching. Thermoreceptors sense variations in temperature that are above or below body temperature. Nociceptors sense painful stimuli. Figure 10.4.6 shows several specific kinds of tactile receptors in the dermis. Each kind of receptor senses one or more types of touch stimuli.

  • Free nerve endings sense pain and temperature variations.
  • Merkel cells sense light touch, shapes, and textures.
  • Meissner’s corpuscles sense light touch.
  • Pacinian corpuscles sense pressure and vibration.
  • Ruffini corpuscles sense stretching and sustained pressure.
10.4 Tactile Receptors
Figure 10.4.6 A variety of types of tactile receptors are located in the dermis of the skin.

Excreting Wastes

The sweat released by eccrine sweat glands is one way the body excretes waste products. Sweat contains excess water, salts (electrolytes), and other waste products that the body must get rid of to maintain homeostasis. The most common electrolytes in sweat are sodium and chloride. Potassium, calcium, and magnesium electrolytes may be excreted in sweat, as well. When these electrolytes reach high levels in the blood, more are excreted in sweat. This helps to bring their blood levels back into balance. Besides electrolytes, sweat contains small amounts of waste products from metabolism, including ammonia and urea. Sweat may also contain alcohol in someone who has been drinking alcoholic beverages.

Feature: My Human Body

Figure 10.4.7 Acne can be embarrassing, but most people will experience it at one point in their lives.

Acne is the most common skin disorder in the Canada. At least 20% of Canadians have acne at any given time and it affects approximately 90% of adolescents (as in Figure 10.4.7). Although acne occurs most commonly in teens and young adults, but it can occur at any age. Even newborn babies can get acne.

The main sign of acne is the appearance of pimples (pustules) on the skin, like those in the photo above. Other signs of acne may include whiteheads, blackheads, nodules, and other lesions. Besides the face, acne can appear on the back, chest, neck, shoulders, upper arms, and buttocks. Acne can permanently scar the skin, especially if it isn’t treated appropriately. Besides its physical effects on the skin, acne can also lead to low self-esteem and depression.

Acne is caused by clogged, sebum-filled pores that provide a perfect environment for the growth of bacteria. The bacteria cause infection, and the immune system responds with inflammation. Inflammation, in turn, causes swelling and redness, and may be associated with the formation of pus. If the inflammation goes deep into the skin, it may form an acne nodule.

Mild acne often responds well to treatment with over-the-counter (OTC) products containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Treatment with these products may take a month or two to clear up the acne. Once the skin clears, treatment generally needs to continue for some time to prevent future breakouts.

If acne fails to respond to OTC products, nodules develop, or acne is affecting self-esteem, a visit to a dermatologist is in order. A dermatologist can determine which treatment is best for a given patient. A dermatologist can also prescribe prescription medications (which are likely to be more effective than OTC products) and provide other medical treatments, such as laser light therapies or chemical peels.

What can you do to maintain healthy skin and prevent or reduce acne? Dermatologists recommend the following tips:

  • Wash affected or acne-prone skin (such as the face) twice a day, and after sweating.
  • Use your fingertips to apply a gentle, non-abrasive cleanser. Avoid scrubbing, which can make acne worse.
  • Use only alcohol-free products and avoid any products that irritate the skin, such as harsh astringents or exfoliants.
  • Rinse with lukewarm water, and avoid using very hot or cold water.
  • Shampoo your hair regularly.
  • Do not pick, pop, or squeeze acne. If you do, it will take longer to heal and is more likely to scar.
  • Keep your hands off your face. Avoid touching your skin throughout the day.
  • Stay out of the sun and tanning beds. Some acne medications make your skin very sensitive to UV light.

10.4 Summary

  • The dermis is the inner and thicker of the two major layers that make up the skin. It consists mainly of a matrix of connective tissues that provide strength and stretch. It also contains almost all skin structures, including sensory receptors and blood vessels.
  • The dermis has two layers. The upper papillary layer has papillae extending upward into the epidermis and loose connective tissues. The lower reticular layer has denser connective tissues and structures, such as glands and hair follicles. Glands in the dermis include eccrine and apocrine sweat glands and sebaceous glands. Hair follicles are structures where hairs originate.
  • Functions of the dermis include cushioning subcutaneous tissues, regulating body temperature, sensing the environment, and excreting wastes. The dense connective tissues of the dermis provide cushioning. The dermis regulates body temperature mainly by sweating and by vasodilation or vasoconstriction. The many tactile sensory receptors in the dermis make it the main organ for the sense of touch. Wastes excreted in sweat include excess water, electrolytes, and certain metabolic wastes.

10.4 Review Questions

  1. What is the dermis?
  2. Describe the basic anatomy of the dermis.
  3. Compare and contrast the papillary and reticular layers of the dermis.
  4. What causes epidermal ridges, and why can they be used to identify individuals?
  5. Name the two types of sweat glands in the dermis, and explain how they differ.
  6. What is the function of sebaceous glands?
  7. Describe the structures associated with hair follicles.
  8. Explain how the dermis helps regulate body temperature.
  9. Identify three specific kinds of tactile receptors in the dermis, along with the type of stimuli they sense.
  10. How does the dermis excrete wastes? What waste products does it excrete?
  11. What are subcutaneous tissues? Which layer of the dermis provides cushioning for subcutaneous tissues? Why does this layer provide most of the cushioning, instead of the other layer?
  12. For each of the functions listed below, describe which structure within the dermis carries it out.
    1. Brings nutrients to and removes wastes from dermal and lower epidermal cells
    2. Causes hairs to move
    3. Detects painful stimuli on the skin

10.4 Explore More

How do you get rid of acne? SciShow, 2016.

When You Can’t Scratch Away An Itch, Seeker, 2013.



Figure 10.4.1

Goose_bumps by EverJean on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) license.

Figure 10.4.2

Layers_of_the_Dermis by OpenStax College on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license.

Figure 10.4.3

Fingerprint_detail_on_male_finger_in_Třebíč,_Třebíč_District by Frettie on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license.

Figure 10.4.4

Blausen_0802_Skin_Dermal Circulation by BruceBlaus on Wikimedia commons is used under a  CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license. 

Figure 10.4.5

Anatomy_The_Skin_-_NCI_Visuals_Online by Don Bliss (artist) /  National Cancer Institute (National Institutes of Health, with the ID 4604) is in the public domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/public_domain). 

Figure 10.4.6

Blausen_0809_Skin_TactileReceptors by BruceBlaus on Wikimedia commons is used under a  CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license. 

Figure 10.4.7

Akne-jugend by Ellywa on Wikimedia Commons is released into the public domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/public_domain). (No machine-readable author provided. Ellywa assumed, based on copyright claims).


Betts, J. G., Young, K.A., Wise, J.A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D.H., Korol, O., Johnson, J.E., Womble, M., DeSaix, P. (2013, June 19). Figure 5.7 Layers of the dermis [digital image]. In Anatomy and Physiology (Section 5.1 Layers of the skin). OpenStax. https://openstax.org/books/anatomy-and-physiology/pages/5-1-layers-of-the-skin

Blausen.com staff. (2014). Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436.

SciShow. (2016, October 26). How do you get rid of acne? YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FX-FwK0IIrE

Seeker. (2013, October 26). When you can’t scratch away an itch. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcHQWMAClhQ&feature=emb_logo



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Human Biology Copyright © 2020 by Christine Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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