Hydration is a key aspect of the skin that influences its physical and mechanical properties. Here, we investigate the interplay between molecular and macroscopic properties of the outer skin layer - the stratum corneum (SC) and how this varies with hydration. It is shown that hydration leads to changes in the molecular arrangement of the peptides in the keratin filaments as well as dynamics of C-H bond reorientation of amino acids in the protruding terminals of keratin protein within the SC. The changes in molecular structure and dynamics occur at a threshold hydration corresponding to ca. 85% relative humidity (RH). The abrupt changes in SC molecular properties coincide with changes in SC macroscopic swelling properties as well as mechanical properties in the SC. The flexible terminals at the solid keratin filaments can be compared to flexible polymer brushes in colloidal systems, creating long-range repulsion and extensive swelling in water. We further show that the addition of urea to the SC at reduced RH leads to similar molecular and macroscopic responses as the increase in RH for SC without urea. The findings provide new molecular insights to deepen the understanding of how intermediate filament organization responds to changes in the surrounding environment.
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