Stories That Will Make Your Skin Crawl

The Longform guide to our largest organ.

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

Skin and Bone
Kate Wilson  • International Consortium of Investigative Journalists  • July 2012

An in-depth investigation into global tissue trade.

Inside the marketplace for human tissue, the opportunities for profits are immense. A single, disease-free body can spin off cash flows of $80,000 to $200,000 for the various non-profit and for-profit players involved in recovering tissues and using them to manufacture medical and dental products, according to documents and experts in the field.

It’s illegal in the U.S., as in most other countries, to buy or sell human tissue. However, it’s permissible to pay service fees that ostensibly cover the costs of finding, storing and processing human tissues.

Almost everyone gets a piece of the action.

The Itch
Atul Gawande • The New Yorker • June 2008

The power of an itch may lead to a new theory about brains and bodies.

M. was willing to consider such possibilities. Her life had been a mess, after all. But the antidepressant medications often prescribed for O.C.D. made no difference. And she didn’t actually feel a compulsion to pull out her hair. She simply felt itchy, on the area of her scalp that was left numb from the shingles. Although she could sometimes distract herself from it—by watching television or talking with a friend—the itch did not fluctuate with her mood or level of stress. The only thing that came close to offering relief was to scratch.

Scratching is one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any,” Montaigne wrote. “But repentance follows too annoyingly close at its heels.” For M., certainly, it did: the itching was so torturous, and the area so numb, that her scratching began to go through the skin. At a later office visit, her doctor found a silver-dollar-size patch of scalp where skin had been replaced by scab. M. tried bandaging her head, wearing caps to bed. But her fingernails would always find a way to her flesh, especially while she slept.

Mark Jacobson • New York • September 2010

The lampshade emerged from the wreckage of Katrina. But was it really what it appeared to be—a Buchenwald artifact made of human remains? A Holocaust detective story.

Then something caught his eye about the lampshade frame, the way the thin metal rods were held together. When he was running his guitar shop back in Jersey, Skip often handled vintage German instruments, Höfners and Framuses for the most part. Both companies made a high-quality product, but many players complained about the so-called Popsicle-stick structure of the guitar neck. Rather than a single piece, the German necks were composed of thin wood layers sandwiched together with glue. The necks never warped, but to some ears they didn’t resonate like the single-piece models. This made the German guitars sound, Skip sometimes thought, a little dead.

Philosophy of Tickling
Aaron Schuster  • Cabinet  • June 2013

Laughing at the touch of the skin.

Why do people laugh when tickled? Why can’t you tickle yourself? Why are certain parts of the body more ticklish than others? Why do some people enjoy tickling and others not? And what is tickling, after all? In fact, it is not so easy to pin down the phenomenon, as a number of scientific studies attest. Here’s one attempt at a precise description: “Tickle may thus be finally defined as an intensely vivid complex of unsteady, ill-localized and ill-analyzed sensation, with attention distributed over the immediate sensory contents and the concomitant sensations reflexly evoked.” Coming at the end of some fifty pages of scientific investigation, such a vague and “ill-analyzed” conclusion might well disappoint. But perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here: any definition of tickle must be able to account for its lack of definition, its equivocal and evasive dynamism.

Babboons must think we look funny without any fur.

Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Why Humans and Their Fur Parted Ways
Nicholas Wade • New York Times  • Aug 2003

On the evolution of skin.

Once hairlessness had evolved through natural selection, Dr. Pagel and Dr. Bodmer suggest, it then became subject to sexual selection, the development of features in one sex that appeal to the other. Among the newly furless humans, bare skin would have served, like the peacock’s tail, as a signal of fitness. The pains women take to keep their bodies free of hair—joined now by some men—may be no mere fashion statement but the latest echo of an ancient instinct. Dr. Pagel’s and Dr. Bodmer’s article appeared in a recent issue of The Proceedings of the Royal Society.

New Connective Tissue: Bullet-Resistant Human Skin As Art
Joost Ramaer •  De Groene Amsterdammer •  Aug 2011

Bullet resistant skin as art.

Human skin is the result of a continuous process of death and creation, sustained by our body. With artificially bred skin, the creation stops as soon as the paper filter in the dish is exhausted. “The beauty of it,” observes Essaidi, “is that, right from the moment when the roundel of skin is fully developed, it starts to die again.”

Synthetic skin is used for the treatment of serious burn wounds, but also to avoid animal tests for cosmetics ingredients and chemicals. For instance, l’Oréal has been using a type of skin developed in its own laboratories for many years. “But that is a product fit only for limited commercial purposes,” explains El Ghalbzouri, the Leiden cell biologist. “It is hardly of any use for scientific research.

Unmasking Skin
Joel Swerdlow • National Geographic • Nov 2000

On the science of skin.

Laboratory experiments decades ago, now considered unethical and inhumane, kept baby monkeys from being touched by their mothers. It made no difference that the babies could see, hear, and smell their mothers; without touching, the babies became apathetic and failed to progress. Deprived of their mothers, they did not explore as young primates normally do; rather they “threw themselves prone on the chamber floor, crying and grimacing all the time, or huddled against a chamber wall, rocking back and forth with their hands over their heads or faces,” according to one report.

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