Skin optical properties in the obese and their relation to body mass index: a review. Academic Article uri icon


  • SIGNIFICANCE: Obesity is a worldwide epidemic contributing directly to several cardiovascular risk factors including hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Wearable devices are becoming better at quantifying biomarkers relevant for the management of health and fitness. Unfortunately, both anecdotal evidence and recent studies indicate that some wearables have higher levels of error when utilized by populations with darker skin tones and high body mass index (BMI). There is an urgent need for a better evaluation of the limits of wearable health technologies when used by obese individuals. AIMS: (1)To review the current know-how on changes due to obesity in the skin epidermis, dermis, and subcutis that could affect the skin optical properties; (2)for the green wavelength range, to evaluate the difference in absorption and scattering coefficients from the abdominal skin between individuals with and without elevated BMI. The changes include alterations in layer thickness and cell size, as well as significant differences in chromophores and scatterer content, e.g., water, hemoglobin, collagen, and lipids. APPROACH: We have summarized literature pertaining to changes in skin and its components in obesity and report the results of our search using articles published between years 1971 and 2020. A linear model was used to demonstrate the absorption and reduced scattering coefficient of the abdominal skin of individuals with and without elevated BMI in the green wavelength range (530 to 550nm) that is typically found in most wearables. RESULTS: The general trends indicate a decrease in absorption for both dermis and subcutis and an increase in reduced scattering for both epidermis and dermis. At 544-nm wavelength, a typical wavelength used for photoplethysmography (PPG), the absorption coefficient's relative percentage difference between high and low BMI skin, was 49% in the subcutis, 19% in the dermis, and negligible in the epidermis, whereas the reduced scattering coefficient relative difference was 21%, 29%, and 165% respectively. CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that there could be significant errors in the output of optical devices used for monitoring health and fitness if changes due to obesity are not accounted for in their design.

published proceedings

  • J Biomed Opt

altmetric score

  • 7

author list (cited authors)

  • Rodriguez, A. J., Boonya-Ananta, M. T., Gonzalez, M., Le, V., Fine, J., Palacios, C., ... Ramella-Roman, J. C.

citation count

  • 3

publication date

  • March 2022