We are a growing company and have recently made big leaps and lots of changes to become compliant with Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirements for cosmetic labeling. If you want to know more about what that entails, the FDA has this cosmetics quiz where you can answer questions and read about everything from the requirements to cosmetic myths to animal testing. The questions on the quiz piqued our interest in our FDA compliance and rebranding overhaul—we found ourselves asking more questions and researching these topics even deeper for our own information so we decided that we would share them with you too!
Today’s inquiry is about absorption rates through the skin. The FDA asks True or False; about 60 to 70 percent of what you put on your skin is absorbed into your body.
Here’s their answer:
False; Most of what we put on our skin is absorbed much too slowly, if at all, for that to happen. If the skin really let this much pass into our bodies, many of the chemicals that occur naturally in our bodies and keep us alive would escape through our skin, too, and that isn't happening. Plus, cosmetic products are generally meant to work on or near the surface of our skin. If much were being absorbed through the skin, the products wouldn't do a very good job. Some things can pass through skin more easily than others. When we are concerned about the safety of an ingredient, skin penetration is something we check.
While I understand and respect the brevity of this answer, it really got my gears turning. This myth exists for a reason and I wanted to get to the bottom of it because there are some conflicting messages out there. My mind instantly went to things like transdermal medications, studies that find constituents like linalool in the bloodstream of people using lavender essential oil topically, or the children in Oakland that are testing high for lead in their bodies because of the polluted air and dirt.
It also got me thinking about how 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, are always working to detoxify our bodies.
The difference between penetration and absorption
In reading the research, I learned that 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 just 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 and 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 really common additive in skin care products and that’s one chemical that increases absorption rates of other chemicals that are present both because it breaks down the skin’s natural barriers and because it tends to pull apart chemicals into their individual constituents so that they are small enough to absorb.
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 intake nutrients topically.
It’s important to recognize that in most cases, it’s not going to be the case of “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 their many chemical components, so 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. In the case of lavender essential oil, we will often see an increase of linalool, a naturally occurring terpene, in the bloodstream. If a synthetic chemical is broken down into its absorbable components, our bodies won’t know what to do with it and it could be stored somewhere like our fat cells or lymph tissue.
Additionally, humans aren’t one consist 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 (myself included) suffer from serious irritation. We even have this issue as a natural skin care company and we don’t use synthesized additives at all!
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 rates but most things, like the FDA says, just don’t absorb into our bloodstreams through the skin, though they can often penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin. Luckily, the FDA restricts the use of ingredients that are easily absorbed by the body.
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. Personally, I’ll stick with the natural, organic skin care products that I love, but I’m happy to know I’m not walking around blatantly absorbing everything I come into contact with.
What questions does this bring up for you? Let us know in the comments!
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“Do Your skin care Products Get Absorbed Into Your Bloodstream?” Askanesthetician's Blog. N.p., 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
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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.
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