Have you ever been in water for a long time, whether taking a bath, at the pool, or even just washing the dishes, and noticed that fingers or toes have become wrinkly?
When your hands or feet are in water for a long time, your skin may start to become wrinkled, or prune. For the most part, pruning skin isn’t something to worry about. However, if your fingers or toes prune without being in water, you may want to take a trip to the doctor. Some medical conditions can also cause pruning.
Doctors and medical professionals used to think that your skin wrinkled or pruned after getting wet because your skin was absorbing water. We now know that this is not the case. Instead, pruning is caused by a process called vasoconstriction. Vasoconstriction happens when the blood vessels under your skin contract. This causes skin to look wrinkly.
While there’s no concrete evidence to explain why this happens, some research suggests that you’re better able to handle wet objects—like a slippery bar of soap—when your fingers are wrinkled. That may mean that pruning developed as an early adaptation.
Although water is a common cause of pruney fingers, there are other causes as well.
Dehydration occurs when you haven’t had enough water. This can cause your skin to lose its flexibility and look wrinkled. Older adults and babies are at an increased risk for dehydration, which is why their skin may appear wrinkly.
Besides pruning, other symptoms of dehydration include:
- Dry mouth and lips
- Dark yellow urine or not urinating enough
To treat or help prevent dehydration, drink plenty of water and consume electrolytes, especially if it’s hot or you’ve been doing any sort of physical activity.
Thyroid disorders can also cause pruney fingers. This is because the thyroid plays a role in your body’s temperature and metabolism. If your body temperature is lower than normal, your blood vessels will likely contract to make sure you don’t lose any more heat.
Thyroid disorders have other symptoms besides dry, wrinkly skin. These depend on the type of thyroid disorder and can include:
- Thinning or brittle hair
- Unexplained weight changes
- Cold or heat sensitivity
Thyroid disorders can generally be managed with medication or other treatments.
Diabetes affects the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels, and high blood sugar can damage sweat glands. This then causes dry and wrinkly fingers.
There are 3 types of diabetes—type 1, type 2, and gestational. Depending on the type, treatment may involve monitoring blood sugar levels, eating a healthy diet, or taking insulin and other medications.
Raynaud’s phenomenon is a rare condition that affects the blood supply sent to the fingers and toes. In response to cold or stress, it causes blood vessels to constrict and makes skin appear wrinkly.
Besides pruney skin, other symptoms of Raynaud’s phenomenon include:
- Pale or blue skin
- Feeling cold
- A throbbing or prickly sensation after blood returns to fingers or toes
People in cold climates, women, and people with a family history of Raynaud’s phenomenon are most at risk of developing the condition.
Raynaud’s phenomenon is generally treatable with calcium channel blocker medication and stress management.
Eczema is a skin condition that causes inflammation, itchiness, and dry, cracked skin. It can start as early as infancy and can affect people through adulthood.
Eczema can usually be managed with:
- Prescribed medication (topical steroids and treatments, antihistamines)
- At-home skin care (petroleum jelly, moisturizers for sensitive skin)
- Lifestyle changes (avoiding harsh skin cleansers, drinking plenty of water, wearing gloves in cold weather)
Lymphedema causes swelling in your arms and legs. It’s caused by lymph fluid building up in the body. People diagnosed with lymphedema are most often people undergoing treatment for cancer, including breast cancer.
In addition to wrinkly skin, lymphedema can cause:
- Gradual swelling in the arms and legs
- Skin tightness
- Tingling sensations
- A feeling of heaviness in the arms and legs
- Thick-looking skin
Lymphedema can be treated with:
- Exercises to reduce swelling and help lymph fluid drain
- Compression clothing
- Massage therapy
Almost everyone will experience pruney fingers due to exposure to water at some point in their life. Usually, it’s not a cause for concern, and the wrinkles will go away after a short time.
However, if you experience pruney-looking fingers or skin without any water or moisture, talk with your doctor. They can help you figure out what’s causing the pruning and how to treat it.