What Is Artificial Skin?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on January 27, 2023
4 min read

Your skin is your body’s largest organ. It keeps you protected, helps you feel your environment, and keeps the rest of your body controlled. Imagine how difficult life would be without skin that worked properly. For people with chronic wounds, this is a reality. But experts have created an artificial skin that can protect and detect things the way human skin does.

Artificial skin, or electronic skin (e-skin), might be the future answer for people who are no longer able to feel because of skin damage or who have large wounds on their skin.

Skin substitutes have been a topic of study since the 15th century BC. Experts found the first written report of the skin xenograft (which is skin from animals) in a document called the Papyrus of Ebers. The use of a human skin allograft (skin from another human donor) was first described in 1503. Today, experts still use similar technologies in medical centers around the world.

But the concept of artificial lab-made skin is relatively new. Experts have looked at different ways to create skin-like material with natural and artificial materials. Researchers created a new kind of fake skin from special gel-like material. They tested this on a robotic arm with sensors attached to a human's skin. The technology allowed the person to control the artificial skin on the robot with their own movements. They were able to get signals back to their skin from the robot’s fake skin.

Experts have worked for about 2 decades to create skin-like circuits, or pieces of fake skin that can act like real skin. They can bend, twist, and stretch, then bounce back to their regular form, similar to how your skin keeps its form.

Artificial skin can be made from gel-like hydrogel, lab-made materials, or natural materials like collagen, gelatin, and others.

There are three main classes of skin replacements. They are:

Temporary impervious dressing materials. These can be single-layer materials or double-layered tissue materials. And they’re dense enough that things can’t pass through them.

The single-layer options are natural things, like potato peels. They can also be man-made materials like polymer sheets, foam, or spray.

There are also double-layered lab-made materials.

Single-layer durable skin substitutes. These are made from collagen sheets or other products. They can replace the outer layer of the skin or the thick layer just underneath it (epidermis and dermis). The collagen these are made from can come from cows, pigs, or even humans.

Composite skin substitutes. These are artificial skin options from either skin grafts or lab-made tissue. They also include allografts (tissue from another human) and xenografts (tissue from animals).

The idea behind artificial skin is that it’ll act as a substitute for damaged or lost skin. The best forms of artificial skin should:

  • Cover your wounds
  • Keep you safe from infection and injury
  • Be affordable and available
  • Have multiple thicknesses
  • Last a long time
  • Be easy to store
  • Work well with your immune system and the rest of your body
  • Be easy to apply to skin
  • Be able to cover oddly shaped wound areas

Right now, there aren’t any artificial skin products that fit all of these needs. But experts are studying options that may in the future.

How can experts get this helpful creation to the people that need it most? Today, we don’t have the right tools to create a mass amount of artificial skin for the public. But some researchers think they’ve found the key to solve this issue.

Zhenan Bao, PhD, a chemical engineer at Stanford University, and her research team studied printable versions of artificial skin. They created a way to print stretchy and strong pieces of skin-like material. This process uses the same tools used to make solid silicon chips.

In the process, called photolithography, experts use ultraviolet (UV) light to create a detailed pattern on a material. Photolithography works layer by layer to form a complex circuit.

Because the process is already in place for silicon chips, Bao and her team believe this can lead to mass production of artificial skin. Factories that make these chips can switch from solid materials to rubbery ones.

When it comes to skin injuries, each person will have their own needs. This makes it a challenge to create an artificial skin graft for each situation. Every person’s skin also has its own features. We each have different hair patterns, sweat glands, nerves, and skin pigments.

This can make the process of artificial skin creation tricky, expensive, and time-consuming.

Experts also haven’t figured out how to avoid some issues with how artificial skin reacts with your real skin. For example, the artificial skin may not always adjust well to your skin. It may not work the same. It could also leave scarring in the areas where it connects to your natural skin.

But as more research comes out, these things may change. One day, artificial skin may become a normal part of wound and skin damage care to replace your skin or protect damaged skin as it grows back.