Misconceptions and Myths
Breathe (sk)in, breathe out.
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 skincare 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.
When we breathe, we move air in and out of our lungs. We need oxygen to be delivered to different parts of our body and to release energy. We also breathe in order to get rid of excess carbon dioxide in our bodies and to help move blood around the body. It’s an amazing part of our human physiology and we would die without being able to breathe.
But does the human respiratory system include the skin? Of course not. The skin is the body’s largest organ and makes up about 15% of our body weight. It does lots of amazing things like hold all our internal organs together, but it doesn’t play an active role in helping us breathe. The skin can absorb some oxygen under the right circumstances but that isn’t helping it “breathe”.
I’m always amused when I read people saying that our skin breathes because I have a mental image of thousands of little mouths opening and closing on my skin, gasping for breath if I dare to put a moisturizer on them.
Mammals don’t breathe through their skin, apart from this awesome tiny Marsupial mouse called the Julia Dunnart which is too weak to inflate its lungs when it is first born, so it breathes through its skin instead until it leaves its mother’s pouch.
What does the cosmetics industry mean by letting your “skin breathe”?
They’re trying to tell you that their product won’t clog your pores and will leave your pores open – to “breathe”. Saying “our products help your skin breathe” always sounds better than saying “our products won’t clog your pores“. We understand what they’re trying to say, it’s just an unfortunate way of explaining the benefits of their product.
When a product or ingredient is known to block pores, it is also called “comedogenic”. A comedo is a blocked hair follicle in the skin – a spot or a pimple. Again, the internet is filled with helpful lists of which ingredients are comedogenic and which aren’t. What they don’t tell you is that this list is based on research done in the 1950s where researchers tested products on… rabbit ears.
I think regardless of your stance on animal testing and the cosmetics industry, we’re all likely to agree that our skin probably behaves quite different to that of a cuddly rabbit and its cute fluffy ears.
So, when you apply a skincare product and you let your skin “breathe”, you are effectively using ingredients that don’t cause pimples.
Now let’s have a look at one of the most maligned products in the world of skincare – mineral oil.
Does mineral oil form an occlusive layer on your skin?
The internet is full of articles from people telling you that mineral oil/paraffin oil / Paraffinum Liquidum will form an occlusive layer on your skin and… stop it breathing.
They’ll tell you that mineral oil has large molecules that don’t penetrate the skin and sit on your’s skin surface, much like a layer of cling film trapping sweat and bacteria beneath it. Is this true?
A study in 2011 compared mineral oil with jojoba oil, almond oil, avocado oil, and soybean oil. The study found that none of the oils penetrated the skin further than the top 2-3 layers of corneocytes – the upper layers of cells in the upper layer (stratum corneum) of the upper layer (epidermis) of the skin.
Only almond oil and soybean oil made it to the third layer, the other oils either sat on the skin’s surface or made it to the first two layers of cells.
In other words, vegetable oils act in the same way as mineral oil – forming a layer on top of the skin. The main difference mentioned by the authors of the study is that vegetable oils are similar in composition to skin lipids, so they are taken up by the skin through enzymatic decomposition while mineral oil is not metabolized.
Furthermore, many vegetable oils contain components such as triglycerides, flavonoids, phytosterols and tocopherols which provide additional benefits for your skin whereas mineral oil is very simple molecule made of only two atoms – carbon and hydrogen.
Oils applied to your skin trap water underneath them and make your skin feel temporarily softer and smoother. They provide moisture to the top layers of the skin. There is no difference in this process regardless of whether you use mineral oil or vegetable oil. Nonetheless, certain types of oils might be more conducive at blocking pores than others. It’s worth experimenting with different oils if you find that you break out every time you use one.
But one thing is certain about ALL types of oil – and all other skincare ingredients for that matter – they are not stopping your skin from breathing.