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The Way You Breathe May Affect Your Skin's Hydration Levels — Experts Explain

Skin Care
Image by Milles Studio / Stocksy
February 11, 2022
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Say it with me: Breathing is skin care. Everything is skin care, actually—we make the argument quite frequently here at mbg beauty. Those tart, juicy berries you snack on? Filled with polyphenols that repair skin and keep your complexion bright. The morning jog that gets your heart pumping? Hello, post-workout glow. And every time you take a deep, steady inhale, trillions of molecules pass through your nose, many of which boost the flow of oxygen and nutrients to your cells—and that is very much skin care. 

I'm certainly not the first (nor the last!) to highlight the breath-skin connection. Breathwork techniques have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine to stimulate energy flow and promote whole-body healing. A quick trip to Google, and you'll also wind up with a list of articles discussing the beauty benefits of a stress-relieving breathwork practice. 

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But I'm not specifically talking about the anti-inflammatory properties of a big, deep breath (we do discuss it here, if you're curious). Apparently, the physical way you inhale, exhale all day long can affect your skin's total hydration—and a simple change may help you hold on to moisture.

How the way you breathe can affect your skin.

The way you breathe can affect your immunity, sleep, and gut health—it only makes sense your skin wants to join the party. Quick refresher: The nose acts as a filter, as the hair follicles in your nose are able to sift the air with each inhale, blocking dust and bacteria from reaching your lungs. Our mouths, on the other hand, don't have this same filtration system. "There's a large amount of air that passes and goes right in the lungs," says human performance specialist and breathing expert Brian Mackenzie on an episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.

That large amount of air is also faster1 and drier2, says board-certified dermatologist Cynthia Bailey, M.D., founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care, which can create a perfect storm for dehydration: As loads of dry air passes through your lungs without that necessary filtering, research shows that people can experience a net water loss of 42%2 from mouth breathing alone. Theoretically, that's why you may wake up in the morning with a dry mouth or chapped lips, especially if you're one to fall asleep with your mouth hanging wide. 

But let's back up for a moment. How can we make the jump from full-body water loss to skin dehydration? Studies have shown internal hydration can affect your skin's moisture levels and dermal thickness3, but the exact relationship remains a little unclear. (It's why the advice to "just drink more water" elicits an automatic eye-roll; aptly hydrating the skin takes a lot more effort). 

"While there may not be data to directly correlate these particular statistics, we know that transepidermal water loss (TEWL) impacts the integrity of the skin barrier and its function, which can contribute to inflammation, redness, and irritation," says board-certified dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D. There is data to suggest, however, that mouth breathing is associated with asthma, skin allergies, and eczema4—and people with these conditions are prone to increased TEWL and skin dryness, a coincidence that's difficult to ignore. The skin is also more permeable at night5, which means it's already vulnerable to water loss; mouth breathing, it seems, only adds more fuel to fire. 

What's more: "Mouth breathing not only dries out the mouth, but by doing so it contributes to removing the first line of defense against oral bacteria," notes Barr. "This is an issue not only because it contributes to bad breath and tooth decay, but it can also impact the gut microbiome downstream, as the mouth is the gateway to gut health6—and we know how intimately linked gut health and skin health7 can be." 

Finally, mouth breathing can also contribute to poor sleep quality8, as it causes your tongue to fall back toward the upper palate of the mouth, thus obstructing the airway and limiting the amount of oxygen you get. And "beauty sleep" is very much a thing: During the nighttime sleep cycle, there's a huge surge in HGH (human growth hormone), which helps rebuild body tissues9 and spurs increased cell production to replace cells that were damaged throughout the day. If you aren't getting enough sleep, your skin cells aren't regenerating as much during this recovery process. In comes a buildup of damaged cells, which can make your skin appear dull, dry, and congested.

So, yes, there is limited research on mouth breathing and skin care outcomes specifically—but if you take a peek under the hood, it's not difficult to make the connection. As Barr notes: "While serums, lotions, and potions can help, the real healing happens when we go beyond skin-deep and address what's happening beneath the surface."

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So can you breathe your way to more hydrated skin? 

In theory—totally. Breathing through your nose actually allows you to retain more oxygen, which can ultimately benefit your skin's hydration and overall health: "The air has to curve and twist through the airway, and it's getting heated up. You are removing particulates, adding moisture, so by the time it reaches the lungs it is conditioned so you can absorb more of that oxygen more efficiently," says James NestorNew York Times bestselling author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, in a mindbodygreen podcast interview. "You can get a lot more oxygen with fewer breaths." And the more oxygen your skin cells have, the brighter your glow. 

Plus, nasal breathing causes a release of nitric oxide10, which plays a role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells. "Nitric oxide is so important for boosting the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the skin for a brighter glow," says Barr. Point being: In terms of "breathing your way to better skin," the pros say nasal breathing is the way to go. 

Of course, it can be pretty difficult to keep your mouth from hanging open while you're, you know, out cold. Some experts, like Nestor, swear by mouth taping to train your jaw shut overnight. Just please don't use a heavy-duty piece of duct tape—he suggests tearing off a bit of blue painter's tape the size of a postage stamp. Barr is also on board: "Mouth taping can help minimize water loss, boost skin hydration, and promote oral health, which, in turn, nourishes the gut microbiome to support glowing skin," she says. Just make sure to speak with a doctor or health care professional before grabbing the tape, as it's not right for everyone. 

If taping your mouth shut sounds a bit scary (understandable), you can always try to optimize your breath during the day. Mackenzie recommends breathing through your nose for at least 80% of your day, if you can—yes, including during workouts. 

Aside from keeping hydration levels up to par, breathwork techniques—like diaphragmatic breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and belly breathing—can promote skin health from multiple avenues (see here for a few beginner exercises). "Breathing slowly, deeply, and mindfully activates the parasympathetic nervous system," says Barr, which can help ease inflammation, relieve tension, and increase blood flow to your skin. "Deep breathing also stimulates your lymphatic system to help your skin flush out toxins, swelling, and inflammation to minimize breakouts and a dull, sallow appearance," she says. 

The takeaway. 

The discussion between breath and skin care is not a new one—the stress-relieving properties of breathwork can ease inflammation, thus leading to reduced breakouts, flares, and the like, which is just as important to discuss; but from a purely physiological standpoint, the way you breathe can potentially rob your skin of hydration. It takes much more than a grounding deep breath to keep your skin supple all winter long (by no means am I suggesting you toss your humectant serums and whip-thick night creams), but in these frigid temps? We need all the moisture we can get. 

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