Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Does Your Skin Need to Detoxify/Breathe? December 12, 2012

Filed under: Skin and Skincare — askanesthetician @ 7:30 am
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I think most of us have read or heard (probably via a celebrity) about the need to go without make-up in order to allow our skin to breathe.  Unfortunately, this claim contains a faulty understanding of how the skin functions since our skin does not breathe.  So why does this misunderstanding persist?  Let’s discuss, shall we?

First to the claim that your skin needs to detoxify, Paula Begoun explains:

The Naughty Claim: “Detoxify and purify your complexion.”

Vague terms like “purifying” or “detoxifying” are common and often are used to describe what natural-based cleansers are supposed to do for skin. Don’t count on it, because the claim doesn’t hold water. A toxin is a poison, just like those produced by plants (poison ivy), animals (venomous snakes), and other organisms (bacteria, viruses). The truth is your skin doesn’t eliminate or excrete toxins; all the detoxification is done by your liver and kidneys. Plus, makeup, excess oil, dirt, and the like are not toxins; they don’t absorb beyond the skin into your bloodstream, and they are easily washed away with a gentle cleanser.

Keep in mind what a skin pore does and does not do.  According to Drs. Draelos and Pugliese in their book Physiology of the Skin (3rd edition, page 63):

Structurally the sebaceous gland is either unilobular or multilobular, and varies greatly in size from site to site.  The glands have a sac-like, or acinar form, at the bottom of the follicular canal.  The canal opens onto the surface with a widely dilated follicular orifice.  This opening is called a pore. …  The word pore comes from the Greek poros, which means “a small opening.”  A pore is this and nothing more, an opening.  A pore is not a stand-alone structure; it must always be associated with some structure, such as a sweat gland or a sebaceous gland.  Like the doughnut hole, it has no meaning by itself.  It can be helpful to remember that pores do not pass completely through the skin, but rather always are terminated in a gland at the level of the dermis.

Pores do not breathe.  They act only as openings onto the skin from which pour out sweat and various oils.  Pores sometimes do act as channels and carry certain substances that are placed on the skin down into the deeper dermal layers of the skin.

So if your pores cannot breathe why does the skincare myth persist that clogged pores cannot breathe?  Discovery Health does an excellent job in the article Can Your Skin Help You Breathe?  explaining the claims behind this misunderstanding and what your skin can and cannot do:

Every day, a barrage of advertisements for various cosmetics, oils and ointments assault our eyes and ears, all claiming to “let your skin breathe.” But does your skin actually “breathe”? Does it really take in enough oxygen to keep you alive?

Not unless you’re an amphibian, an earthworm or a Julia Creek dunnart. Although it can’t perform the functions of respiration, your skin can absorb fat-soluble substances, including vitamins A,D, E and K, along with steroid hormones such as estrogen. Many menopausal women, for example, have estrogen patches to thank for their relief from hot flashes, while nicotine patches have relieved cravings for many smokers trying to kick the habit. So, while the skin can’t breathe, it can take substances from the outside and bring them in, including a little oxygen.

The skin and its appendages, such as hair and nails, make up the integumentary system. The word integumentary comes from Latin, meaning “to cover,” and that is the skin’s main purpose — to keep the world out and our internal organs protected. By its very nature, skin does not help us breathe.   …

What does help us breathe is the respiratory system. The respiratory system is responsible for getting oxygen to our blood and removing carbon dioxide from the body. When we inhale, we take in oxygen through our mouth and nose and into the lungs. In the lungs, the oxygen flows into the blood through the arteries, while veins deliver carbon dioxide back to the lungs. From the lungs, we exhale the carbon dioxide back out into the atmosphere, and the process begins again.

So why might we be led to believe that oxygen can pass through the skin?

Misconceptions and Myths

Many people are convinced that we pull in oxygen through our pores, and cosmetic companies capitalize on this belief — at least through unspoken messages — by claiming that their products “let the skin breathe.” If pressed, the manufacturers would probably say what they really mean is that the cosmetics and creams are non-comedogenic, meaning they don’t block pores. This prevents acne from building up, not suffocation. Some companies take it a step further and claim that their products contain oxygen that your skin will absorb. Since your skin doesn’t have the capacity to absorb and use oxygen, dermatologists warn that this is totally bogus. The closest thing to pure oxygen in a skin care product is benzoyl peroxide, which kills acne-causing bacteria by oxidizing fatty acids.

Many people believe the urban legend that Buddy Ebsen, cast as the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz,” nearly died because the aluminum in the makeup that gave him his silvery sheen clogged his pores. In fact, Ebsen did wind up in the hospital and was replaced, but it was attributed to an allergic reaction or an infection in his lungs caused by the aluminum dust. Needless to say, the makeup was modified for new scarecrow Jack Haley, and he danced through the role without incident.

Another famous movie incident involves 1964’s “Goldfinger.” After discovering his secretary has betrayed him, the villain Goldfinger paints her entirely — hair and all — with gold paint. Looking at her lifeless body, James Bond explains that the paint closed the pores she needed for respiration. In 1964, it seems, this was a medically accepted belief. The filmmakers took no chances and were careful to leave a patch of actress’s Shirley Eaton’s skin unpainted when shooting the scene.

Lastly, what about the idea that you need to go without make-up in order for your skin to look its best (aka breath)?  Allure tackles this subject for us:

Lea Michele recently revealed her secret to clear skin—She gives it room to “breathe.” “Maybe I’ll put on a little mascara. But other than that I try very hard to just let my skin breathe,” she told people.com. “I care more about letting my skin breathe than how I look.” While there’s no denying the pleasure of a Sunday spent bare-faced in your pajamas, is there any actual health benefit to naked, “breathing” skin? I spoke with dermatologist Papri Sarkar to find out.

Is there any truth to the idea that skipping makeup makes your skin healthier? 
“There are some benefits to wearing zero makeup, especially for people with sensitive skin or who are prone to breakouts. The biggest culprits are the fragrances, allergens, preservatives, and oils in makeup, which can cause blotchiness or acne. But as long as you remove makeup properly so it doesn’t clog your pores, you should be fine. If you wear makeup, wash your face twice daily—or more if you work out—with a facial cleanser, and if needed, exfoliate to get off any heavy layers of makeup.”

Can skin actually “breathe”?
“The top layer of the skin is dead, so it doesn’t ‘breathe.’ When people talk about skin ‘breathing,’ they’re usually referring to whether the skin is occluded or not. Occluding the skin can cause pimples, whiteheads, or blackheads. It can also cause skin to look dull—especially if a heavy amount of makeup is applied and not removed. The lower, living layers of skin get their oxygen and nutrients from the blood supply, or from what you put in your body. That’s why what you eat and drink is at least as important as what you’re putting on your face.”

Did makeup used to stop skin from “breathing”?
“Over time, cosmetics’ ingredients have varied. For example, a small container of ointment that was more than 2,000 years old was found in South London in 2004. It was made of animal fat, starch, and tin oxide and probably used as foundation. I wouldn’t want that on my face every day—you can imagine how that combination could occlude pores, cause acne, and become rancid very quickly!”

So there you have it – your skin cannot breathe and does not need to detoxify.  Now the next time you see a celebrity or cosmetic company making this false claim you’ll know better than to believe them.   Of course keep in mind if you want your skin to look its best make sure your skincare products and make-up are not clogging your pores and exfoliate regularly.

Further Reading:

Image from besskincare.com

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7 Responses to “Does Your Skin Need to Detoxify/Breathe?”

  1. Elizabeth Kosky Says:

    Even though skin does not technically “breathe” it is important to note that there are effective oxygen therapies including Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy which will aid in healing wounds or an impaired barrier function, plus oxygen can improve penetration of certain ingredients such as vitamins and minerals.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve written about oxygenation treatments for the skin in the past. The link to my post is above at the end of the “further reading” section.

  2. Rae Says:

    Great entry. Add to that, when people refer to some cleansers as “deep pore”-cleansing. When I see pictures of pores, I can’t imagine how water + the cleanser can actually get into the pore and get out considering how a pore is shaped like a bulb.

    • Thanks for your feedback Rae! “Deep pore cleansing” certainly is more of a marketing term than anything else, but keep in mind that salicylic acid can penetrate into pores and start to break-up oil and fight inflammation too.

  3. Jake Sauvage Says:

    This is an awesome post – the one commenter is right though. There are a lot of amazing clinical oxygen treatments out there – I do oxygen facials at my salon and they’re incredibly popular because they increase cell respiration throughout the entire body – and like certain acid treatment; have the ability to penetrate the dermal layer.

  4. Great post, lot’s of valuable information here. Imo there are many ways to treat acne and take care of your skin. Some things that have worked for me so far were topical treatment, witch hazel, and green tea. Oh yah, and not picking at your face really helps also, lol.


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