The skin of the average human covers an area of about 20 square feet. Through the skin, we feel touch and regulate body temperature. Skin protects us from the outside world, yet is also vulnerable to it. That’s why scientists, engineers, and doctors are hunting for new ways of healing the skin, and are taking cues from this precious organ to develop the smart machines of the future. Check out these examples of innovations in skin science:

Artificial Skin
Artificial Skin

Self-Healing, Touch-Sensitive Synthetic Skin. Photo Courtesy of Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News Service.

Will robot skin soon look like ours? Scientists at Stanford University recently developed the first touch-sensitive material that is self-healing at room temperature, paving the way for humanoid robots and the next generation of prosthetic devices. This new artificial skin is so sensitive that it can feel a fly land on it, and is studded with chemical and biological sensors—even flexible solar cells to power it. In Switzerland, Stephanie Lacour is working with scientists in the Center for Prosthetics at EPFL to connect similar electronic skin to the nerves.

Printed Skin

Band-Aids be gone. In the near future, healing from a cut or burn could be as easy and hitting print. So-called bioprinting is the process of making living tissue using 3D printers that lay down cells instead of ink. At Wake Forest University in North Carolina, researchers are printing directly onto burns, resulting in faster healing. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., scientists are attempting to print heart valves. And Swiss company regenHU is already printing skin and bones.

Second Skin

Second Skin image

The bra’s sensor monitors minute temperature changes to look for areas where blood vessels are growing and feeding tumors. Image Courtesy of First Warning Systems.

What you put over your skin may be the secret to protecting what is under it. New garments like this smart bra from First Warning Systems, a company based in Reno, Nevada, continuously screen the body to detect disease or danger. The Breast Tissue Screening Bra incorporates a sensor that tracks tiny temperature changes that could signal cancer, and communicates with pattern recognition software to identify possible tumors. Similarly, the Guardian Angels project in Europe imagines smart sensors in clothing and other everyday objects that will keep people healthy and safe.

Skin Flicks

Roger Moore's skin cells

Fibroblasts belonging to Sir Roger Moore, aka James Bond, stained with Alcian blue. Image Courtesy of the University Hospital of Lausanne.

Skin is the star of the show at swissnex San Francisco, where the exhibition Skin, Cells, and Skin Grafts is on view through February 15, 2013. Curated by the University Hospital of Lausanne, the exhibition includes a series of photos and videos that zoom in on skin.

Patients and scientists alike—even Sir Roger Moore, aka James Bond—help explain how research into the skin is advancing care for burn victims and others, revealing the secret beauty of this delicate yet vital barrier to the outside world. After all, it’s only skin deep.

Have you heard of any recent skinnovations? Tell us in the comments below.