Can your skin help you breathe?

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 below.

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)

More to Explore