How Does Starvation Affect the Integumentary System?

skin image by Robert Kelly from

Starvation or malnutrition has broad effects on the entire body, but may be especially visible in the integumentary system--the hair, skin and nails.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women and children are the most prone to malnutrition, especially in Africa and south Asia, and starvation remains a significant problem in the world today.

Parts of the Integumentary System

The integumentary system is the organ system that protects the body from damage from extreme temperatures, bacteria and chemicals. It includes the skin, hair and nails. The skin is the largest organ in the body.

Starvation and Malnutrition

Starvation also may be referred to as extreme malnutrition. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines malnutrition as "the cellular imbalance between supply of nutrients and energy and the body's demand for them to ensure growth, maintenance, and specific functions." There are different types of malnutrition based on the lack of specific nutrients, such as proteins or specific vitamins. For example, kwashiorkor is a common form of malnutrition caused by lack of sufficient protein, while rickets is a form of malnutrition caused by a lack of vitamin D.


Malnutrition may be caused directly by failure to eat or refusal of food as might occur in conditions like major depressive disorder, anorexia nervosa or dementia. It may also be caused indirectly due to crop failures, economic problems or war that make access to sufficient nutrition difficult or impossible. Various diseases and disorders may cause loss of appetite or problems absorbing sufficient nutrients from food.


Malnutrition affects all parts of the body. The effects on the integumentary system include dry, peeling skin and hyperpigmentation of skin over prior damage. Nails may become brittle or ridged when certain nutrients, especially iron are lacking. Hair becomes thinner and more brittle and dark hair may become more reddish or brown. Sores may develop at the corners of the mouth and inside the mouth. Injuries to the skin may become slow to heal, leading to a greater risk of infection.


Treatment of malnutrition is usually focused on resolving the imbalance of nutrients that help the body to heal and maintain itself. Some damage may be irreversible. In regard to the integumentary system in particular, sores and wounds are cleaned and treated as appropriate, while most other visible effects of malnutrition on the skin, hair, and nails will resolve gradually as nutrition is improved and maintained.