Can your skin help you breathe?

Do your pores "breathe"?
Do your pores "breathe"? See pictures of ways to get beautiful skin.

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. The skin is the largest organ, making up about 12 to 15 percent of our body weight [source: Maricopa]. In addition to protection from outside toxins, skin offers temperature regulation and sensory reception.

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.

For lots more information on skin care, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • BBC News. "Breathe skin, breathe out." Feb. 24, 1999. (May 7, 2010)
  • Estrella Mountain Community College. "The Integumentary System." June 6, 2007. (May 7, 2010)
  • The Franklin Institute. "Respiratory System: Oxygen Delivery System." (May 7, 2010)
  • The Open Door Web Site. "Animals Which Breathe Through Their Skin." (May 7, 2010)
  • Timeless Myths. "Goldfinger Actress' Death from Paint." (May 7, 2010)
  • University of Bristol. "Characters and anatomy." (May 7, 2010)
  • Urban Legend Reference Pages. "Buddy Ebsen." Aug. 17, 2007. (May 13, 2010)