The Myth The Beauty Industry Needs To Stop Perpetuating

Photographed by Amelia Alpaugh.
The beauty industry loves to tell us that our skin, nails, and hair need to breathe. What's more, we're told that only certain beauty products have been formulated to allow for said breathing to take place. Some brands even go so far as to claim their products (cough, cough, "oxygenating" creams) improve the breathing process.

Come. On.

We hate to break up the party, but it's time to officially call bullshit. The fact is, we are not fish and our skin, nails, and hair are not gills. Humans source oxygen from the environment using our — wait for it — noses and mouths. All the other parts of our body reap the benefits of this oxygen through our blood, by way of the lungs.

"Your skin, nails, and hair don’t breathe topically," Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, board-certified dermatologist and member of the American Academy of Dermatology, tells us. "When we think of breathing, we think of getting nutrients. But the hair, the skin, and the nails don’t get nutrients from the surface, they get nutrients from within, so the concept of things needing to breathe doesn’t ring true scientifically."

Now, of course, ditching heavy, chemical-laden beauty products in favor of ones that are free of sulfates, parabens, and artificial fragrances does indeed provide benefits across the board, but none of them relate to the breathing process. Say it with us now: No product allows your nails, hair, or skin to better process oxygen. It's pure baloney.

The experts we spoke with are just as fed up with the myth. In our corner: three top dermatologists from across the country, a nail and foot expert, and one of the most accomplished manicurists in the game — all of whom weigh in ahead.

Take a deep breath (through your nose) and prepare to get the real story behind the beauty industry's favorite false claim.
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Let's get right to the point: "Aeration of the nail does not contribute to the nutrition of the nail; the nail does not breathe and will not asphyxiate due to nail polish," says Suzanne Levine, DPM, board-certified podiatric surgeon. "The nail gets its nutrition, including oxygen, from the circulation at the nail matrix." (The nail matrix is where the bone meets the nail bed inside your finger.)

"Toenails and fingernails are made of keratin, like hair, and grow from the nail matrix," Dr. Levine explains. "The remaining nail is not living tissue. This is why you can cut your hair and your nails with no pain."

Nail health, however, is dependent on many factors. Lots of buffing thins the nail, the use of acetone polish remover dries the nail, and peeling off your gel manicure can create micro tears that lead to textural irregularity over time.

All our experts firmly agree that taking periodic breaks from polish is a positive thing, but not for breathing's sake. Rather, it'll give your nails a rest from the stress a manicure can cause. How often you go lacquer-free is up to you, but consider this: It takes your thumb between four and six months to fully grow out, according to Dr. Levine, so injecting breaks into that lifespan is a great way to keep the nail healthy over time.

Celebrity nail artist Jenna Hipp is one manicurist who always
encourages her clients to take breaks. "If you do wear polish, make sure you’re wearing a brand that is five-free, but even those have chemicals, so giving them a break means giving them a break from the chemicals," Hipp points out. She also reminds us that moisturizing dry nails can be beneficial — and can only be done when your nails are bare. (Not only will hydrating the nails with oils before polish application make chipping more likely, it's not ideal to trap moisture between your polish and nail, but more on that below.)

You might be thinking: Polish that claims to let your nails "breathe" may not be better, but it can't be worse, right? Eh, not necessarily.

Both of our experts warn against using nail lacquer that is marketed as being more porous. This is because allowing moisture to penetrate the lacquer, in theory, could trap moisture near the nail, which is how many fungal infections start. The warning signs: "If your nails become thickened, yellowed, flaky, or even pus-y, they may be infected with fungus, bacteria, or a virus," Dr. Levine says.

Moral of the story: Your nails don't breathe, but they do appreciate going on vacation.
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Perhaps the easiest one to brush off (pun intended) is hair — so let's knock it out. The resounding message from our experts: Hair is not alive, so there is no reason for it to breathe. Simple as that.

"Hair and nails don’t have any live cells in them to breathe," Lisa Chipps, MD, board-certified dermatologist, tells us. "They’re just keratin, a protein, so there are no cells to oxygenate."

Your scalp, however, shouldn't be lumped in with your hair — so it's best to heed the advice on the next slide. As we have said time and time again, your scalp is skin and should be treated as such.

But just because hair doesn't benefit from oxygen access doesn't mean you should coat it with products 24/7 and expect it to stay in good shape. Strands can become dull with product or oil buildup, but again, that's more of a cleansing issue than a breathing one. Plus, a clarifying shampoo will help solve that problem.
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Now, the big one: skin.

"Skin cells get their oxygen from the blood supply underneath, so to improve the blood supply to the skin, you can do things like avoid smoking and eat a healthy diet," Dr. Chipps explains. "However, it's important to understand that the skin cells aren’t getting oxygen externally; they’re getting oxygen from little micro-vessels under the tissue."

Board-certified dermatologist Michael Swann, MD, adds: "First of all, the cells in your skin definitely need oxygen, at least the living layers [but they're not getting it externally]. The outermost [layer, the] stratum corneum is made of dead cells and is an outer barrier, keeping environmental oxygen and other elements (for the most part) out of direct contact with your internal body."

Translation: Any oxygen that does happen to pass through your skin is not welcomed with open arms; it's actually a mistake. He continues: "Yes, you need oxygen to breathe, but our bodies are amazingly complicated...keratinocytes and fibroblasts in the skin are not getting useable oxygen from the air any more than the bark of a tree would be able to provide oxygen to a tree."

But what about oxygen facials? Those are good, right? Kind of. When oxygen is forced into the skin, it temporarily plumps. "They're basically just putting carbon dioxide on the skin, which is causing increased blood flow from underneath... It’s beneficial, but it’s also temporary," Dr. Chipps says.

In fact, this phenomenon could actually help prove the point: "When a higher percentage of oxygen is used in facials, I sometimes see evidence of immediate inflammation," Dr. Swann says. "This would further support that the skin is not set up to really benefit from transcutaneous oxygen."

However, just like with nails and hair, this doesn't mean it's great to coat your skin every second of the day. While you're not suffocating your skin in the literal sense of the word, you could be causing a slew of other problems. Dr. Tanzi says it can be good to take breaks from products. "You don’t want to bog down your hair, skin, and nails with a bunch of unnecessary chemicals," she says.

When it comes to skin, her advice is simple: Washing your face at night is enough for healthy skin; you don't need to go barefaced during the day if you don't want to.
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