Take a moment and go over how many skin care products you apply on a typical day. Toner, essence, facial oil, cream, lip balm? Now wondering where all the skin care goes? Does it just sit on top of your skin and stay there? Does it sink into your pores? And then what, go past it?
Or maybe you’re wondering if pores “drink up” your skin care? Or you’ve heard how 60% of the products get absorbed into your blood. Or how it only takes 26 seconds to get there.
These are very scary statistics, especially when you think how in times of Covid we’re constantly asked to sanitise our hands. Wouldn’t we all be heavily intoxicated, seeing that hand sanitiser contains at least 60% alcohol?
The number of “60% of products absorb into your bloodstream” probably comes from a study of 1984. It showed an average skin absorption rate of 64% using volatile compounds. These were solvents and they were used because they have an exceptional ability to mess with the skin barrier. Or in other words, you can’t compare the chemicals in this study, as solvents have a higher skin absorption rate than most other compounds aka products in your bathroom cabinet.
Coming back to the above questions: The short and very simple answer to all of them is yes. Depending on the substance, it can go to all kinds of places: Blood, pores, fat tissue, air… That’s because there’s a major difference between skin penetration and absorption.
Penetration or absorption?
Skin penetration and skin absorption are often used interchangeably. Unfortunately, I’m also one to do so and thus contributing to the confusion.
When a substance makes it into the deeper layers of the skin, this is called penetration. Some ingredients can’t penetrate while others can’t and sit on the surface of the skin.
Some substances can make it all through to the bloodstream which is absorption. But it’s a long long way to go and not many are going to make it.
It’s hard to get substances to go into the deeper layers of your skin
The main function of your skin is to act as a barrier. It’s a protection and elimination system. It’s pretty good at blocking substances and eliminating unwanted things. It’s not good at letting things pass. You see it in your everyday life:
- At the end of a day, don’t you still need to remove your makeup?
- You’re eating food but not applying a thick layer of food to get your nourishment
- After a rain shower or a bath, you don’t turn into a huge bag of water
In short, your skin’s not a sponge. And on the occasion, that a substance is absorbed, your body can generally filter it out (that’s wee).
So, then why are there medicinal patches and creams such as nicotine or birth control patches, I hear you ask. These have a different formulation. They’re specifically designed for a substance to reach the bloodstream. But even so, studies show that between 10% and 95% of the drug remains on the skin.
So what can be absorbed?
Absorption depends on a lot of different factors. For one it depends on the structure of the molecule, but also its solubility, the amount present, where and how are you putting it, with what are you putting it on with. To summarise
- Molecule size, the smaller the better it squeezes between what is already in your skin.
- Is it water or oil-soluble? Emulsions that are amphiphilic (both oil- and water-loving) have it easier to get into the skin and reach the bloodstream.
- The application on your body. Depending on which part of your body, your skin’s thickness varies. In general, the thinner the skin, the more likely a substance can penetrate.
- With what other things are you putting it on, for example, are you covering up your skin to help underlying ingredients penetrate the skin?
- With what kind of tools are you putting it on, for example, using ultrasound or heat?
- How long is the substance in contact with your skin? In general, the longer the exposure, the more likely a substance can penetrate.
If a substance reaches the bloodstream, another slew of questions remain such as does it get metabolised or does it hang around? How a substance reacts in a body depends not only on the compound itself but also on the individual person. Your age, genetic background, diet, gender all can affect how your body manages a substance.
If you see reports of a certain substance found in urine samples doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s harmful. It can also just mean that your body is working fine and filtering out unwanted stuff.
Some ingredients can up the chances of other ingredients to better penetrate your skin. So some chemists come up with formulations that have ingredients such as certain alcohols or fatty acids (such as linoleic and oleic acid) to help other ingredients to enter along with them.
These are called penetration enhancers: They penetrate the skin and decrease barrier resistance. It’s like you bring a friend to a party but they weren’t invited in the first place.
Skin care is for skin
The beauty industry wants its products to work in your skin. The last thing it wants is that its products go past your skin into the bloodstream. As mentioned, most substances aren’t capable of penetrating through your skin, even if you feel like your skin care feels like it’s absorbing. You know how it feels like it’s sinking in, it’s just that most of the ingredients evaporate as soon as you apply a product.
If the skin care were able to absorb they’d be classified as a drug. If you hear statements as 60% of products get absorbed, most likely it’s a marketing device and it wants to pull you from certain products and push you towards certain other products.
It’s not to say that your skin doesn’t absorb some ingredients, but it’s not as simple as a blanket statement: 60% of everything you put on your skin gets absorbed. You can relax a little.
My advice would be to read the ingredient list when browsing skin care, even organic ones. Even if they sound appealing because they may still contain harmful preservatives. There’s nothing wrong with being cautious.
The next time you hear someone say: “60% of everything you put on your skin gets absorbed” ask them how they survived taking a bath and point them to this post.
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