The skin on the fingers can become wrinkly or “pruney” when soaked in water. Pruney fingers may serve an evolutionary role, helping people grip wet objects or objects in water. If wrinkly fingers happen without being submerged in water, it could be a sign of a medical problem.
The skin on human fingers and toes is known as glabrous, meaning it is smooth and hairless. When it has been in contact with water for a long time, the glabrous skin on the fingers can look like a prune.
Most people are likely to know the common experience of pruney figures after a long bath, swimming, or washing dishes. It may be more likely to happen in warm water than cold water.
Pruney fingers occur when the nervous system sends a message to the blood vessels to become narrower. The narrowed blood vessels reduce the volume of the fingertips slightly, causing loose folds of skin that form wrinkles.
Scientists still do not fully understand the purpose of the fingers wrinkling when exposed to water or cold temperatures.
A small study in 2013 suggested that it is easier to grip objects in water with wrinkled fingers, meaning that the phenomenon may be an evolutionary change that helps humans adapt to wet conditions.
However, a 2014 study found contradictory results and concluded that finger wrinkles due to water exposure did not affect how well humans could handle wet or dry objects.
Immersion in water is the most common cause of pruney fingers. There are other, less common causes of wrinkling or puckering of the skin on the fingers, however.
Pruney fingers are not usually the only symptoms of a medical condition. If a person does frequently experience pruney fingers due to a medical condition, they will often appear alongside other symptoms.
The following conditions may cause pruney or wrinkly skin on the fingers:
Dehydration can affect the skin, making it feel dry and cold. The skin on the fingertips may look shriveled.
Similarly, if a person gently pinches the skin on the back of their hand, then it may not spring back as quickly as usual.
Older adults, children, and babies have a higher risk of dehydration than other groups. People may be at more risk of dehydration in hot weather, if they are unwell, or if they have been exercising.
Other symptoms of dehydration include:
- dry mouth and lips
- not peeing as much as usual
- dark yellow pee
- feeling dizzy
- feeling confused or irritated
Vomiting and diarrhea can also cause dehydration. Anyone experiencing these symptoms may need to replace the electrolytes they have lost with over-the-counter (OTC) oral rehydration products. A pharmacist can advise on which products to use.
Raynaud’s disease is an extreme sensitivity to cold. It affects the small blood vessels that supply blood to the extremities of the body, including the fingers and toes.
The key symptoms of Raynaud’s disease are fingers turning white or blue in the cold, numbness, and tingling. The skin on the fingertips can also look puckered, wrinkled, or pruney. Stress can also trigger symptoms.
There is no cure for Raynaud’s disease, but a person with the condition can take steps to reduce stress levels and ensure they do not get too cold. For symptom management, people can take calcium channel blockers.
Atopic dermatitis is a long-term form of eczema. It causes red, dry skin that may itch or swell. Atopic dermatitis commonly affects the hands and fingers, backs of the knees, and inside the elbows.
Eczema dries out the skin and can cause it to wrinkle or pucker. The fingertips may look pinched.
Conditions that can affect the fingers include:
- bacterial infections
- fungal infections
- disseminated granuloma annulare
Bacterial and fungal infections can affect the skin around the nails and between the fingers. Bacterial infections often cause the skin to become red, swollen, and possibly wrinkled.
Fungal infections usually cause itching and redness. They often create raised areas of skin.
Disseminated granuloma annulare is a rash that affects the extremities, such as the fingers or the ears. The rash looks like raised red rings on the skin.
Pruney fingers due to water exposure are nothing to worry about if they go back to normal after being dry for some time.
If a person has pruney or wrinkly fingers without having been in water but does not have any other noticeable symptoms, they may be mildly dehydrated. Anyone experiencing dehydration should drink more water.
If a person has been drinking enough water, pruney fingers may be a symptom of an underlying medical condition.
Anyone concerned about frequently wrinkly fingers can speak to a doctor. Making a note of other symptoms and possible triggers can help a doctor make a diagnosis.
Fingers wrinkling in water and then returning to normal does not damage the body. A person may choose to wear rubber gloves to do the dishes or avoid spending a long time immersed in warm water if they find pruney fingers bothersome.
Dehydration can affect the body’s ability to function, causing fatigue, headaches, and other symptoms. Drinking water regularly throughout the day can help a person stay hydrated.
At risk groups, such as children or older adults, may need support to get enough liquid during the day. Suggestions for ways to help include:
- providing a drink with meals
- offering foods with a high liquid content, such as soup or watermelon
- finding more flavorful alternatives to water, such as herbal teas or clear juices
People with Raynaud’s disease should try to avoid getting cold. It can help if they regulate the temperature at home and wear gloves, thick socks, and appropriate shoes in the cold. They can also protect the hands when holding a cold glass or taking food from the freezer.
If the symptoms of Raynaud’s disease are severe, a doctor may prescribe medication to open the blood vessels. This medication will allow more blood to the extremities, such as the hands and feet.
Managing blood sugar levels is essential for people with diabetes. Regular blood glucose checks, eating a healthful diet, and getting plenty of exercise can help to maintain safe blood sugar levels.
The risk for skin conditions, including those on the hands and fingers, is higher for people with diabetes. Keeping skin clean and dry can help them avoid infections.
Using a mild soap and moisturizing the skin frequently can also reduce the risk of skin problems. Medication is available to treat many of the skin conditions associated with diabetes.
There is no cure for eczema, but people can manage symptoms with a combination of OTC or prescription medication, creams, gentle bath products, and by avoiding known triggers.