Remarkable Life of the Skin: An Intimate Journey Across Our Largest Organ by Monty Lyman
The brain and the heart tend to get all the good press as far as bodily organs go, each with a slew of books focused only on them. The other organs either don’t get mentioned at all or get thrown in with a bunch of others as part of the discussion of a particular system or the body entire, as in Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal or Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants. But skin, as New York Times crossword aficionados know, is the largest organ in the body, and though it’s a relative newcomer to the classification, only making the organ club in the eighteenth century, it’s about time it got its own tour book. And author Monty Lyman, a doctor at Oxford, makes for an engaging and knowledgeable guide in The Remarkable Life of the Skin (2020).
Lyman begins, as one might expect, with the structure and building blocks of skin, explaining how its various parts create the barrier that protects us from a hostile world, as well as keeping all our good things inside. Other subjects include its role as home to our exterior biome (mites, lice, and bacteria, oh my), its role in temperature regulation and the sense of touch (both pleasurable and painful), the ways it changes as we age, and the various diseases that either attack the skin, such as melanoma or eczema, or present themselves as symptoms on the skin, such as scabies or scurvy. Moving to the softer sciences of sociology and psychology, he also discusses skin color as it relates to the non-scientific concept of race, the different ways humans have marked our skin over time, and the connection between skin and our sense of self.
Some of Lyman’s discussion is depressing (our skin begins to lose its pliancy and smoothness in our twenties, and that loss accelerates once we hit our 40s). Some is moving, as when he discusses some of the individual cases of skin disease he’s treated. Some is infuriating and horrifying, as when he explains how albino children in some regions are murdered in the belief that their body parts “bring good fortune, wealth, and political power … [or] cure any ailments.” A “full set” he says, can go for as much as 100,000 dollars.
All of it is informative and much of it is fascinating, particularly for me the sections on touch and the microbiome. The mechanical aspects of the touch system are intriguing enough — its speed, the four different types of receptors, its fine, fine distinctions, but even more fascinating is how we can distinguish between a “good” touch and a “bad” touch, even though in terms of pure physics — pressure, contact — they’re the same thing. And while some might cringe a bit at the section on the creatures that live on top of us, there’s just something so cool (ok, and also cringy) about how we’re one big huge ecosystem, a walking forest basically, and that as we walk we’ve got a bunch of eight-legged creatures trekking over our faces seeking out food and mates, and even cooler, these creatures get passed down within families (perhaps via breastfeeding) and so their DNA is “a time capsule that could potentially be used to track the movement of our won ancestors across the continents … for thousands of years.” C’mon, that’s pretty neat.
For those wanting something a bit more grounded in the day-to-day, Lyman does offer some basics. Why are paper cuts so painful? How do you get a sunburn? Do moisturizers really work? What causes acne? And so forth. But even in these more mundane areas he finds a bit of magic. For instance, that wolfing down that pizza slice at midnight can impact your chances of getting a sunburn the next day.
The prose is clear and smooth throughout if not particularly “styled” or “literary” (i.e. I’d call it serviceable and engaging but not lyrical or compelling). For those who read a lot of popular science it’s not too technical or jargony, and for those who haven’t read much or any bio since high school, Lyman provides a useful and lengthy glossary. The Remarkable Life of the Skin is a deft weaving together of biology, history, sociology, and psychology, with some of Lyman’s own experiences mixed in for a nice personal touch.