Our Skin Is Covered With Invisible Stripes
By Kate Horowitz
Jun 15, 2015 | Updated: Jan 11, 2022, 11:00 AM EST
Envy the tiger and the zebra no longer. You have stripes of your own.
Human skin is overlaid with what dermatologists call Blaschkoís Lines, a pattern of stripes covering the body from head to toe. The stripes run up and down your arms and legs and hug your torso. They wrap around the back of your head like a speed skaterís aerodynamic hood and across your face. Or they would, if you could see them.
In the early 1900s, German dermatologist Alfred Blaschko reported that many of his patientsí rashes and moles seemed to follow similar formations, almost as though they were tracing invisible lines. But those lines didnít follow nerves or blood vessels. They didnít represent any known body system.
Here is how Blaschko depicted these lines in an early paper:
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
It turns out these lines are far more extensive than even Blaschko thought.
And today we know what they are: cellular relics of our development from a single cell to a fully formed human. Each one of us started out as a single cell, and then a little glob of cells. As the cells divided, they differentiated. Some became muscles, others bones, still others organs. And some became skin. As those skin cells continued dividing, they expanded and stretched to cover a quickly growing body. One cell line pushed and swirled through another like steamed milk poured into an espresso to make a latte.
Blaschkoís lines are the molecular evidence of those swirls.
Most people will never see their own stripes. As Blaschko noted, there are dozens of skin conditions that follow these lines, but most of them affect patches of skin or a single body part, not the entire body.
And then there are the chimeras. Remember the single cell that turned into a glob? From time to time, two of these starter cells will merge and become a glob together. The glob eventually resolves into a chimera: an animal with two lines of DNA. As the animalís skin develops, the two groups of cells divide and swirl just like non-chimera skin cells. The difference is that the two groups of chimerical cells are slightly different from each other.
Sometimes, this difference is obvious. More often in humans, though, itís too subtle to notice with the naked eye, and can only be spotted under UV light.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.