Skin barrier structure and function: the single gel-phase model

Norlén, L.


A new model for the structure and function of the mammalian skin barrier is postulated. It is proposed that the skin barrier, i.e., the intercellular lipid within the stratum corneum, exists as a single and coherent lamellar gel phase. This membrane structure is stabilized by the very particular lipid composition and lipid chain length distributions of the stratum corneum intercellular space and has virtually no phase boundaries. The intact, i.e., unperturbed, single and coherent lamellar gel phase is proposed to be mainly located at the lower half of stratum corneum. Further up, crystalline segregation and phase separation may occur as a result of the desquamation process. The single gel phase model differs significantly from earlier models in that it predicts that no phase separation, neither between liquid crystalline and gel phases nor between different crystalline phases with hexagonal and orthorhombic chain packing, respectively, is present in the unperturbed barrier structure. The new skin barrier model may explain: (i) the measured water permeability of stratum corneum; (ii) the particular lipid composition of the stratum corneum intercellular space; (iii) the absence of swelling of the stratum corneum intercellular lipid matrix upon hydration; and (iv) the simultaneous presence of hexagonal and orthorhombic hydrocarbon chain packing of the stratum corneum intercellular lipid matrix at physiologic temperatures. Further, the new model is consistent with skin barrier formation according to the membrane folding model ofNorlén (2001). This new theoretical model could fully account for the extraordinary barrier capacity of mammalian skin and is hereafter referred to as the single gel phase model.