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J Invest Dermatol. 2003 Feb;120(2):275-84.

Hydration disrupts human stratum corneum ultrastructure.

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Miami Valley Laboratories, Procter & Gamble Co., PO Box 538707, Cincinnati, OH 45253, USA.


Using transmission and cryo-scanning electron microscopy, we confirm that extended water exposure leads to extensive disruption of stratum corneum intercellular lipid lamellae. We define the in vivo swelling behavior of the stratum corneum: exposure to water for 4 or 24 h results in a 3- or 4-fold expansion of the stratum corneum thickness, respectively. Corneocytes swell uniformly with the exception of the outermost and inner two to four corneocyte layers, which swell less. We show that hydration induces large pools of water in the intercellular space, pools that can exceed the size of water-swollen corneocytes. By 4 h of water exposure there are numerous small and large intercellular pools of water ("cisternae") present throughout the stratum corneum, and at 24 h these cisternae substantially increase in size. Within cisternae the lipid structure is disrupted by lamellar delamination ("roll-up"). Cisternae appear to be disk-shaped structures that do not obviously communicate. Cisternae appear to contain considerable lipidic and other material and to contain a substantial fluid volume that can rival the volume of the dry stratum corneum. Similar results are obtained following urine exposure. With urine exposure, cisternae communicate with salts in the external solution. This study illustrates the disruptive effect of overhydration on the stratum corneum intercellular space, identifies large and numerous unanticipated intercellular cisternal structures, defines the magnitude of stratum corneum swelling, and identifies stratum corneum cell layers that swell less. The study suggests the stratum corneum is a more chaotic structure than previously envisioned, and provides a framework for better understanding desquamation, irritancy, and percutaneous transport.

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