Why Do We Have Fingerprints?


A patient of mine with severe hand dermatitis has an identity problem. She applied for a job that she is well qualified to get, except she doesn’t have any fingerprints. Her job requires a security clearance, and she has to have fingerprints to verify her identity (and to verify that she isn’t wanted in Montana). But her severe hand dermatitis has left her fingertips scarred, and she is unable to give adequate fingerprints.

Why do we have fingerprints in the first place? The ridges are unique and allow you to be distinguished from billions of other people. Although wonderful for the FBI, your fingerprints were never meant to assist in identifying you.

It has been traditionally thought that the tiny ridges increase the coefficient of friction of the skin making it easier to grasp and hold things. A smooth surface makes handling delicate objects like a dime, difficult, especially if your hands are wet.

New research suggests that the grooves have another, possibly more important function: they improve your sense of touch. Fingertips are exquisitely sensitive to touch. This is partly due to a special nerve called the Pacinian corpuscle. The tips of your fingers are packed with these sensitive receptors. One sensation that they are particularly attuned to is vibration. It turns out that the ridges on your fingertips when rubbed against an object create a  fine vibration that is not noticeable to you, but is detected by your Pacinian corpuscles.

Loss of fingerprints is uncommon. It can happen from trauma, as from a burn, or from chronic skin diseases such as eczema, psoriasis, or scleroderma. There are also rare genetic conditions such as dyskeratosis congenital, an inherited condition that leads to scaly skin and increased risk of skin cancers, where patients are born without fingerprints.

Excess inflammation, as from dermatitis or psoriasis, can sometimes lead to temporary changes in the fingerprints. These changes can be resolved with topical steroids or other systemic medications to treat the underlying condition. Once the fingerprint is scarred, however, there is no way to regenerate it.

Post written by Dr. Benabio Copyright The Derm Blog 2009

Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt (flickr)

12 thoughts on “Why Do We Have Fingerprints?”

  1. Hate to leave a short comment, but this article was very interesting. Pretty interesting not to have any fingerprints, aren’t stuff like retinal scans and started being used now? Or have I just been watching a few too many movies 😉

  2. God, your blog is so interesting. I am nearing that part of my medical career where I need to decide in which direction to take my knowledge. All I’ve been able to do is narrow it down to “medical” and not “surgical”.

    Thanks to your fascinating posts I’m inclined to add “dermatology” underneath the Medicine unmbrella.

    Great blog…

  3. Hate to leave a short comment, but this article was very interesting. Pretty interesting not to have any fingerprints, aren’t stuff like retinal scans and started being used now? Or have I just been watching a few too many movies 😉

  4. Like the patient you have mentioned about, I too have the fingerprinting problem from almost 2 yrs from now… I had clear fingerprints until then.. I have been treated with some creams being told that the creases on my finger tips were due to extensive contact with harsh soaps and detergents. But the fact it, my hands were hardly in contact with these allergens.. Im really worried as my job requires travelling wherein I would encounter Biometric identification using Fingerprinting. Is there no solution for this problem as my fingers goes undetected after placing them on the fingerprint sensor machine? Please help.

  5. If your patient is turned down for the job because of her lack of fingerprints, would that be discrimination against a disability?

  6. Sharon Oxford says:

    My sister and I do not have fingerprints. As far as we know we have never had any of the conditions mentioned in the article. We are in
    our 70’s and both had jobs that required fingerprinting. After the 3rd
    attempt the police mark the fingerprint card as “best sample possible” and we were able to proceed.

    If we have the genetic fingerprint problem mentioned I would be surprised as we do not have scaly skin nor have we had skin cancer. There are probably other genetic factors involved not yet discovered.
    I believe the no fingerprint occurrence might be more wide spread then
    thought, but that many people in the past have not had to have a complete set of fingerprints for a job or other reasons.

  7. I wish you add some more information for the medicine. I lost my fingerprints just because I’m allergic to onion!

  8. @hiks
    I am sorry to hear that.

    Topical steroids can help people with a rash, scaling, splitting, etc. on their fingertips. I do not know of any treatment that can restore fingerprints.

  9. Lina Palacio says:

    Hi, well this article is so interesting. I just want to add my situation I need my fingerprint for my FBI background check, which is riquered for my canadian visa aplication. HOwever, i am from COlombia, I have a dermatitis for a long time even my parents have it. Anyways, so I close to be refused from the canadian embassy just because FBI only use fingerprint, but what happen with a person without it? I mean, now I feel like a gosth. 🙁

    I tryed steroids by my condition, I did not work, afte all. I mean this drug cuase a muscle pain, and my skin is still without my fingerprints 🙁

    What can I do?

  10. i loss my fingerprints due to skin allergy. ihope to hear a medication to have it back.

  11. Can your fingerprints — and toe and footprints — wear down with age? I feel like mine have, especially on my feet.

  12. It’s unlikely. Most changes in fingerprints are the result of severe skin conditions, burns, or illnesses.

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