Why your fingers go wrinkly after a swim

Have you ever wondered why your fingers get so wrinkly after a swim?

Instead of finding the smooth fingers you used to gracefully glide through the water, you find that your fingers are covered in prune-like wrinkles, and the same goes for your feet.

In this article, we look into why your fingers and toes go wrinkly after swimming, if there’s anything you can do to prevent it, and ways to iron out your fingers in time for your post-swim coffee.

Understanding your skin

Your skin is made up of a bunch of layers (kind of like an onion), with your three main layers being; the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis.

The epidermis is the top layer of the skin and itself is made up of a bunch of layers, with each layer being made up of special keratin cells.

These cells are constantly reproducing throughout the day and migrate from the bottom of your epidermis to the surface once they divide. Once near the surface these cells flatten out and create a protective outer layer of your skin. Along with your own special oil sebum, which is found on the outermost layer of your skin, this is what helps protect your skin and make it waterproof for a short time.

Why does your skin go wrinkly in water?

Ever heard of osmosis? Osmosis is a contributing factor to why your skin goes wrinkly when submerged in water for lengthy periods of time.

Osmosis is the movement of water through semi-permeable layers of your skin. Basically, when the keratin cells and sebum we talked about above die, they absorb water causing the outer layer of your skin to swell and bunch, creating wrinkly fingers and toes.

Skin layers

The other contributing factor to making the skin on your fingers and toes go wrinkly is your sympathetic nervous system.

This system controls the sweat glands in your hands and feet. Research has found that when your hands and feet get wet, water can travel into these tiny sweat ducts and into your glands.

This then triggers your nerves to restrict the blood flow to the tiny blood vessels in your fingers and toes. This constricting is called vasoconstriction and causes your fingers to reduce their volume and shrink which causes the outer skin layer to fold into wrinkles. Hence your toes and fingers getting wrinkly in the water.

Did You Know? Macaque Monkeys also get wrinkly fingers and toes when wet, just like us.

How long does it take for your fingers & toes to become wrinkly?

The primary indicator of how long it’ll take you to go wrinkly is the water temperature – slower in cooler water and faster in warmer water.

Depending on your age and whether you have any health conditions that may contribute, it can take anywhere from 10 minutes in ~20-degree water, to as quickly as three and a half minutes in warm water (40 degrees).

Studies have shown that it usually takes about 30 minutes in the water before your fingers and toes reach maximum wrinkle.

Did You Know? Finger and toe wrinkling takes longer and is less pronounced in saltwater compared to freshwater. So, next time you go for an ocean swim take note of how wrinkly your fingers are compared to your next squad session in the pool.

Conditions that can increase your likelihood of wrinkly skin

Getting wrinkly fingers and toes happens to everyone when they’re submerged in water for too long but some health conditions can increase the severity of wrinkly fingers, these include:

  • Raynaud’s disease
  • Dehydration
  • Thyroid disease
  • Lymphedema
  • Wrinkly skin syndrome
  • Lupus
  • Scleroderma
  • Eczema
  • Diabetes

How to treat wrinkly fingers & toes after swimming

There’s not much you can do to treat your wrinkly fingers and toes post-swim, but what you can do is apply a lotion to your hands and feet to ease the dryness and wait for your digits to return to normal.

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