Human skin: an independent peripheral endocrine organ

Horm Res. 2000;54(5-6):230-42. doi: 10.1159/000053265.


The historical picture of the endocrine system as a set of discrete hormone-producing organs has been substituted by organs regarded as organized communities in which the cells emit, receive and coordinate molecular signals from established endocrine organs, other distant sources, their neighbors, and themselves. In this wide sense, the human skin and its tissues are targets as well as producers of hormones. Although the role of hormones in the development of human skin and its capacity to produce and release hormones are well established, little attention has been drawn to the ability of human skin to fulfil the requirements of a classic endocrine organ. Indeed, human skin cells produce insulin-like growth factors and -binding proteins, propiomelanocortin derivatives, catecholamines, steroid hormones and vitamin D from cholesterol, retinoids from diet carotenoids, and eicosanoids from fatty acids. Hormones exert their biological effects on the skin through interaction with high-affinity receptors, such as receptors for peptide hormones, neurotransmitters, steroid hormones and thyroid hormones. In addition, the human skin is able to metabolize hormones and to activate and inactivate them. These steps are overtaken in most cases by different skin cell populations in a coordinated way indicating the endocrine autonomy of the skin. Characteristic examples are the metabolic pathways of the corticotropin-releasing hormone/propiomelanocortin axis, steroidogenesis, vitamin D, and retinoids. Hormones exhibit a wide range of biological activities on the skin, with major effects caused by growth hormone/insulin-like growth factor-1, neuropeptides, sex steroids, glucocorticoids, retinoids, vitamin D, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor ligands, and eicosanoids. At last, human skin produces hormones which are released in the circulation and are important for functions of the entire organism, such as sex hormones, especially in aged individuals, and insulin-like growth factor-binding proteins. Therefore, the human skin fulfils all requirements for being the largest, independent peripheral endocrine organ.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Endocrine Glands / physiology*
  • Hormones / biosynthesis
  • Hormones / blood
  • Hormones / physiology
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / metabolism
  • Skin Physiological Phenomena*


  • Hormones
  • Receptors, Cell Surface