Does skin need to breathe?

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In short, for humans who are not premature babies, the answer is “no“. Not in the traditional sense of taking in oxygen for the rest of your body, anyway.

Your skin’s essential function is to prevent things from the environment from entering your body, and things you need (e.g. water) from leaving the body. It’s very good at its job! Skin is also necessary for secreting sweat to cool the body down. However, these are the only two really essential functions of skin. Other functions are pretty useful though, such as touch and making vitamin D from sunlight!

The idea that skin has a role in breathing, and that you can suffocate if your pores are covered for too long, probably comes from the James Bond film Goldfinger, in which the villain kills his victim by covering her in a thin layer of gold. People at the time (1964) believed this, but we know now that it isn’t true!

However, the very top layer of your skin (0.25-0.40 mm) does get almost all its oxygen from the air – not through the pores, but through direct diffusion (imagine that the oxygen is soaking through into the cells, like water through a piece of cloth). However, your skin doesn’t need to be in direct contact with air for oxygen to diffuse in – oxygen dissolves in oily substances like makeup and moisturiser, so it can diffuse through the whole lot and get to the skin, even if you manage to cover it 100% (which is quite difficult).

Still, it’s a good idea to remove your makeup every night before you go to sleep – pores clogging with the day’s dirt and oxidising makeup won’t suffocate you, but it can lead to acne and blackheads.

Interestingly, some animals, such as frogs, do get most of their oxygen needs through their skin. So don’t go dipping your pet frog in gold!

References

M Stücker, A Struk, P Altmeyer, M Herde, H Baumgärtl and D W Lübbers. The cutaneous uptake of atmospheric oxygen contributes significantly to the oxygen supply of human dermis and epidermis. J Physiol 2002, 538, 985.

D F Roe, B L Gibbins and D A Ladizinsky. Topical Dissolved Oxygen Penetrates Skin: Model and Method. J Surg Res 2010, 159, e29.

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6 thoughts on “Does skin need to breathe?”

  1. That is really interesting 😀 I have four frogs and always have to be so careful with chemicals etc in the house because they absorb everything through their skin.

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  2. I think you can actually die of you are all covered in something water resistant on your skin for to much time. As you said the skin’s primary role is for water exchange. If the skin cannot sweat for to many hours the body temperature increases and it’s very dangerous, and I think in the end some organs can malfunction because of the twmperature

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    • The skin’s primary role is to PREVENT water exchange. You’re right, if you can’t sweat and you’re in a hot place you can overheat, but theoretically, if you’re being cooled down by other means you’ll be fine. Although water resistant paint, makeup, sunscreens etc. resist water, they have to completely block the pores through which sweat escapes to affect the cooling mechanism, and most things aren’t able to block the pores completely (one notable exception is aluminium chloride, which is commonly used in antiperspirants – you can tell it blocks pores and prevents sweating because usually the bit where you put on the antiperspirant is dry but the bits around it are usually doubly wet! This doesn’t really happen with makeup, moisturisers etc., to my knowledge).

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  3. Ah! Thanks so much. I arrived on this page looking for answers to “Does our skin need air?” Specifically does our scalp need air? Cos sometimes my thick AFRICAN hair and my head does not want to be covered up in cap scarf or wig, whether am in or out, with hair styled or not. So that made me wonder does my scalp (extension of our skin) need air?
    So it does not ‘breathe’ air but diffusion is needed from time to time, just like water seeps into clothes during washing period, for a time, but does not become ‘part’ of the cloth, permanently. I will like to know more, especially when I saw you are have a Doctorate in Chenistry with interest in Beautu Sciebce, – my two interest areas-for scalp; hair; skin; beauty)! Thanks for this! Just subscribed.

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