When looking for answers on how much our skin actually absorbs, there is a ton of varying information out there. While some sources say 60-70%, others say none at all.
The idea that your skin isn't absorbing anything you put on it seems almost outlandish, but this myth exists for a reason and I wanted to get to the bottom of it, because there are some conflicting messages out there. It seems as though there is ample evidence that our skin is absorbing what we put on it, from transdermal medications, to studies that have found constituents like linalool in the bloodstream of people using lavender essential oil topically, to the children in Oakland that have tested high for lead in their bodies from polluted air and dirt.
Skin as an elimination system
When you think about it, our skin is an elimination system. We have over four million sweat glands and adults humans shed almost 9 pounds of skin every year on average. In relation to naturally occurring chemicals escaping our bodies through our skin, our bodies absolutely push toxins and toxic chemicals out through our skin—that’s part of it’s job!
We don’t consistently reuse the same hormones and chemicals internally and we’re continually producing and consuming more. So our skin, along with our liver, kidneys, and lungs, is always working to detoxify our bodies.
The difference between penetration and absorption
This is a really important distinction. Penetration is when a chemical makes it into the deeper layers of the skin, while absorption is when the chemical actually makes it into the bloodstream. These two terms are often used interchangeably, and that’s not correct.
While both things are important considerations when you’re choosing skin care products, absorption rate is really what we’re after here. Most chemicals, even if they can penetrate to the deepest levels of the skin, are too big to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. So there’s the silver lining, right?
The Chemical Factors
The truth is, every chemical has a different absorption rate. To complicate that even further, some chemicals react on the body and make other chemical compounds more or less absorbable.
Ethanol (alcohol), for example, is a common additive in skin care products that increases absorption rates of other chemicals that are present—both because it breaks down the skin’s natural barriers, and because it pulls apart chemicals into individual constituents, so that they are small enough to absorb.
On the other hand, silicone additives, like dimethicone, sit on top of the skin and don’t allow anything to absorb. In fact, dimethicone is so adept at blocking absorption that it’s causing problems for aquatic animals that breathe and take in nutrients topically.
so, do entire products absorb into my skin?
It’s important to recognize that in most cases, it’s not going to be as simple as “I put lavender essential oil on my skin and lavender essential oil showed up in my bloodstream.” The environment and our bodies work to break down those larger products into many chemical components. If they are small enough to be absorbed, they will show up in the body as parts of the larger product, rather than the product as a whole.
variations between individuals
Additionally, humans aren’t one consistent chemical makeup, right? In general, everyone is made of organic matter and functions generally the same, but my precise chemical makeup is different than yours and yours is different than your best friend’s. This makes it a real challenge for scientists to do accurate studies on absorption rates and chemical reactions on the body.
Organic chemists have to make some generalizations about human chemistry when they’re creating a formula for topical medication, that’s why some people can use it and some suffer from serious irritation.
So Yes or No? Does our body absorb what we put on our skin?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes and no. We can most assuredly absorb things through our skin and into our bloodstream, but it’s not as simple as “60 to 70 percent of everything.”
Some things absolutely absorb right into our bodies, especially if there are other chemicals present that increase the absorption rate. That being said, most things don’t absorb directly into our bloodstreams through the skin, though they can often penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin.
check out information on specific chemicals
Because the jury is out on absorption rates in general, we definitely suggest researching penetration and absorption rates of any specific chemical or additive that you’re curious about. Even though there isn’t a black and white answer for this myth, it’s comforting to know that there is research out there that we can use to make informed decisions.
We stick with natural, organic skin care products to ensure that we are nourishing our skin and bodies, but we're also happy to know we're not blatantly absorbing everything we come into contact with.
“Can Cosmetics be absorbed into your Bloodstream?” Herb & Hedgerow. N.p., 06 July 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
DeBolt, David, and Katrina Cameron. “Oakland: Child lead exposure in Fruitvale worse than Flint, Michigan, study finds.” East Bay Times. East Bay Times, 29 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
“Do Your skin care Products Get Absorbed Into Your Bloodstream?” Askanesthetician's Blog. N.p., 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
“The Impermeable Facts of Skin Penetration and Absorption.” Personal Care Truth or Scare. N.p., 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
Olson, Samantha. “Guess How Many Gallons Of Tears, Sweat, And Saliva You Produce Each Year [VIDEO].” Medical Daily. N.p., 10 June 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
“Understand the importance your skin in your overall health.” Issels Integrative Immuno-Oncology. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
Aub is a certified clinical herbalist and content strategist/creator. She is the co-founder of Dandelion Branding, a digital marketing company that works with brands that are focused on revolutionizing their industries. When she's not working on a project, you can usually find her nosing about in the forest or giving congratulatory high fives to every plant in her house for growing.