This is How Dolphins Get Their Skin so Good

In just one year’s time, we have moved past imitating the sheen of inanimate objects, like glass and butter, to envying the outer casings of aquatic creatures that are quite literally wet their entire lives. This sounds like we’re setting up our dry, land-dwelling selves for disappointment, but what are beauty trends if not aspirational and sometimes unattainable?

Makeup artists have described dolphin skin as smooth, plump, reflective, shiny, glistening, wet, and slippery. Does this sound accurate to you? How would you describe dolphin skin?

Dolphin skin is usually described as smooth and rubbery, but yes, it is somewhat slippery and definitely all of those things. It may be worth noting that dolphin skin is also quite thin.

What’s the function of dolphins’ skin?

Dolphins have skin for the same reason we do: to protect the body from harmful infections. But the reason for their smooth skin is likely due to the importance of hydrodynamics. In other words, they need to be able to glide through the water with very little resistance. It’s important for them to be hydrodynamic, so, unlike us, they really need to have smooth skin.

But they actually have cutaneous ridges, similar to what we might see when we look at our fingerprint, and this probably has to do with how water flows across a surface. Basically, evolution has done a nice job of creating skin that moves through water very efficiently with the extra advantage of having these cutaneous micro-ridges for, what we would call in physics, the laminar flow. So the ridges make it easier (more efficient) for the water to flow over the surface of the skin. They say you can see the ridges with the naked eye, depending on the species. That has not been my experience, but perhaps my eyesight is less than excellent.

Humans deal with wrinkles, ingrown hairs, dryness, hyperpigmentation, and breakouts — are there any comparable skin struggles that dolphins experience? Or do they just have perfect skin?

They do not have glands, because they do not need to sweat, nor do they have hair follicles in their skin like we do. They do have hairs called vibrissae, because that is a definition of all mammals, but these few hairs are generally located by the mouth.

They do not tend to get wrinkles, but the skin does change color with age in some species, generally going to more of a pale white or gray (more like our hair), especially around the rostrum (mouth). It’s also worth noting that coloration patterns vary greatly in dolphins, not just because of age but because of species. Spotted dolphins are interesting because when they are born, they have no spots. As they age, they get more white spots. So you can tell a very old animal because they have many white spots.

You know how they are always telling us to exfoliate? Dolphins actually shed skin nine times faster than humans! That means the outermost layer is renewed and sloughed off every two hours, or 12 times a day! So this may play into why they don’t get wrinkles.

They are not immune to skin diseases. There are several they can get, and this is usually due to changes in salinity or temperature of the water, which can increase microbe production. They do not have to deal with dryness, because they are always wet, and their kidneys are very good at regulating water and salt intake — much more efficient than ours. However, when animals strand, especially in hot weather, we always cover their skin with wet towels because their skin will burn in the sun, just like ours.

What is so remarkable about dolphins is, just like most wild animals, their healing rate is significantly faster than humans’. In the tropics, many dolphins dive deep at night for food. At those depths are cookiecutter sharks — look them up, they are so cool looking. They leave a huge cut in the dolphin in the shape of a cookie; think sugar-cookie dough you buy in the store and then cut into rounds. We have seen animals one morning with fresh cookiecutter bites and then seen the same animal the next few days as the wound heals. It is remarkable how fast they heal.

You mentioned dolphins are very good at exfoliating. Do they physically exfoliate, or is it a natural shedding?

As new skin is generated, the older layer of dead skin sheds off. Sometimes its obvious; you can see shedding skin still attached to a dolphin just like when our skin peels. Other times, it is lying at the surface of the water after a dolphin has been surface active — for example, leaping out of the water or after rubbing against another dolphin. One of the very reasons dolphins may be surface active or rub up against other dolphins is to shed skin; it’s important to renew the skin to keep it hydrodynamic and smooth.

Is there anything else in a dolphin’s routine that promotes better skin health? Diet? Environment? Gummies?

Environment makes a big difference. One of the most amazing stories about that involves killer whales from the Antarctic. There is evidence that they migrate from Antarctica to warmer waters in Brazil just to shed the diatoms (algae) from the cold Antarctic water and shed their skin. They are seen after this migration with shiny new skin! Satellite tags revealed they were traveling in one direction for an extended period of time, spending very little time once they reached the warm water — just enough to shed the skin — and then returning in a direct route.

This was in 2011, and follow-up studies show that killer whales (which technically are the largest dolphin) have no other motivation to go to warmer water than to shed their skin. Their prey aren’t found there. We call it the “killer-whale spa migration.” Ha! Not sure if that’s official, but around our labs at OSU, that is how we refer to it.

Another interesting species, not a dolphin but similar, is the beluga whale. Again, this species lives year-round in cold water where diatoms and other zooplankton attach to their skin. In order to keep their skin healthy, they go to areas where they can rub up against rocks in very shallow water to shed the skin.

As far as diet, when animals are very unhealthy, they tend to have more issues with their skin. Take, for example, gray whales, which usually have some whale lice on them. This is a good thing; the lice “clean” the whale’s skin and keep it healthy. However, if the whale is inundated with lice, it’s a sign something is wrong. We once had a young whale wash up onshore, very freshly dead, that was covered in whale lice. She had tumors on her ovaries, likely cancer, and was also emaciated. So just like humans, when you are unhealthy or sick, it can be reflected in your skin.

The beauty world is currently focused on dolphin skin, but are there any other marine mammals you feel have just as aspirational and impressive skin?

Definitely whales because they have this spa-migration thing down; they migrate to warmer waters (think humpbacks in Hawaii) during the winter months. Also sirenians: Manatees and dugongs have very thick skin, unlike dolphins, which have very thin skin. This is frustrating to us as geneticists because when we go out on a boat to collect skin samples, we use a remote biopsy dart; it’s easy with the dolphins and whales because the skin is thinner, so the biopsy dart hits the animals and easily pulls out a small plug of skin, which is all we need for all the genetics we do. However, with manatees and dugongs, their skin is so thick that the biopsy dart will sometimes just stick, so we have to attach it to a string so we can pull it out.

Sorry, got off topic there. So yes, whales, manatees, and dugongs.

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