skin deep

Can You Breathe Your Way to Better Skin?

Photo: Jamie Grill /Blend Images/Getty Images

Few things match the annoyance of being told that the secret to “perfect skin” is “drinking water.” One of them is being told that the secret is “breathing.”

I know this, and still, I must break the news: It seems that breathing — or more specifically, breath work — may be the key to the kind of clear, radiant skin typically seen on Meghan Markle and Instagram yogis on retreat in Costa Rica.

I arrived at this disappointingly simple theory after adding breath work to my laundry list of self-care hobbies. The practice utilizes specific deep-breathing patterns to “slow the mind down and feel what’s in the body,” Michelle D’Avella, a breath work facilitator and the founder of Pushing Beauty, explains to the Cut. She recommends choosing a breathing pattern (hers is two deep inhales — into the stomach, into the chest — followed by one long exhale, all through the mouth) and repeating it for a minimum of seven minutes a day; enough time to really get out of your head and into your body. Breath-work practitioners claim it can help “stir up” any emotional pain stored in the body — whether it’s from middle-school bullying, or sexual abuse, or a bad breakup, anything really — process it, and let it go.

Breathing classes did help with my anxiety (I am a cliché millennial), but about two months in, I noticed another, unexpected side effect: My face, normally plagued with patches of chronic dermatitis and hormonal acne, was glowing. I looked to D’Avella, my teacher, for confirmation. Yep, she was luminous. Had I not noticed it before? I scrolled through pictures of Ashley Neese, breath-work expert and author of the straightforwardly titled book, How to Breathe, on Instagram. Otherworldly! Erin Telford, NYC’s go-to instructor? Smooth, shiny alien skin. Professional breather Maryam Ajayi? Lit-from-within.

Neese is aware she is gloriously glowy. “Since beginning breath work years ago, the texture and appearance of my skin has greatly improved,” she tells the Cut. “I often hear comments that my skin looks luminous, and I partly attribute that to some of the skin-related benefits I’ve received from consistent practice, including improved digestion and flow of lymph in my body, as well as reduced stress and anxiety levels.” (The “flow of lymph” she’s referring to would be lymphatic drainage — essentially, how the body collects and eliminates toxins on the daily.)

D’Avella’s experience has been similar. “I had chronic acne on my face from adolescence up until I began my breath-work practice,” she says. “My skin completely cleared up, and I haven’t had any major issues since.” Although she’s hesitant to claim breath work can “cure” physical issues, she does believe that “everything that shows up in our physical bodies is a symptom of a deeper spiritual and emotional area that is in need of attention.” So, maybe your skin is desperately trying to get you to deal with your shit?

These accounts are anecdotal (at least) and reaching (at most). But the 5,000-year-old healing system of traditional Chinese medicine (known colloquially as TCM) offers evidence of a breath-complexion connection, too. TCM teaches that an individual’s physical, emotional, and spiritual health relies on a delicate balance of yin and yang in the mind and body. When the two are in harmony, one’s Qi (or energy) can flow freely. Acupuncture, cupping, and jade-rolling all stem from TCM, as does herbalism.

“There can be crossover with the herbs that treat the lungs and the skin,” says Antonia Balfour, a TCM practitioner and the founder of Yin Yang Dermatology. “As an example, there are two herbs — Pi Pa Ye (lotus leaf) and Sang Bai Pi (mulberry root bark) — that enter the lung meridian. Both herbs stop coughing and wheezing and transform phlegm. Interestingly, both are also primary herbs used to treat acne and rosacea.” Proof! Albeit ancient and based on the unquantifiable comings and goings of a life force known as Qi.

Craving validation of the dermatological variety, I approached Dr. Whitney Bowe, the author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin and a dermatologist known for debunking long-standing myths in the skin-care space. (She is basically the reason everyone and their gastroenterologist is obsessed with probiotics.) Did she think there’s a relationship between very heavy breathing and very good skin?

Shockingly, she does not laugh in my face. “Absolutely there is a connection,” Dr. Bowe says. According to her, it comes down to the relationship between stress and skin.

Dr. Bowe poetically describes “the slow boil of ongoing, unremitting stress from life in general” as a “big-time skin villain,” noting that deep breathing benefits the skin because it benefits the body’s stress response. Chronic stress (which can manifest as anxiety, depression, burnout, et al.) activates the sympathetic nervous system. This sets off a chain of unpleasant events, including “surges in stress hormones such as cortisol and the subsequent breakdown of tissues such as collagen,” as well as garden-variety inflammation and oxidation, says Dr. Bowe. Over time, the skin looks older and is less equipped to protect itself from environmental aggressors. It produces more sebum and even “leaks” water, leaving it simultaneously oily and dehydrated, a truly terrifying combination. “Any of the Big Four skin conditions — acne, eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis — can be part of this picture,” the dermatologist adds.

Mindfully inhaling and exhaling won’t keep your boss from emailing you at 11 p.m. or reverse climate change, but it will activate the parasympathetic nervous system to make you feel — and look — less stressed, regardless of what’s going on around you. “It triggers the relaxation response, a term popularized by Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School,” Dr. Bowe explains. “The body releases chemicals and brain signals that relieve tension in your muscles, slow down your organs, and increase blood flow to your brain. Scientists now theorize that the biological events taking place during the relaxation response essentially prevent the body from translating psychological worry into physical inflammation.”

Science also confirms Neese’s previous claim about “flow of lymph.” In the book The Mind-Beauty Connection, psychodermatologist Dr. Amy Wechsler writes that the lymphatic system “gets a serious boost from deep breathing.” This system is the body’s garbage collector, but better. Lymph fluid gathers and disposes of toxins (“including those that can downgrade your skin health,” according to Dr. Wechsler), and leaves nutrients and infection-fighting white blood cells in its wake. But the lymphatic system is lazy, and if you eat too much salt or don’t drink enough water or skimp on exercising, it’s like, “Nah.” A stagnant lymphatic system can lead to swelling, infection, and lowered immunity; it’s even said to cause dull skin and breakouts. Deep breathing gives it a nice little kick in the butt or, as Dr. Wechsler writes, “causes the lymph to gush through the lymphatic vessels.”

Dr. Bowe says her patients take twice-daily breathing breaks to consciously inhale and exhale for five minutes (think of it like a smoke break, but the opposite) and notice changes in texture and tone in as little as a week.

All this medically sound, peer-reviewed information is nice to have, but it still leaves me with questions about the skin’s response to breath work as opposed to plain old breath. I mean, I’ve done breathing meditations every morning for years and never noticed a significant change until I committed to the soul-cleansing, energy-clearing kind I learned from D’Avella.

The pattern she teaches involves two deep inhales through the mouth — first into the stomach, then into the chest — followed by one long exhale, also through the mouth. D’Avella once explained it to me like this: Trauma tends to reside in the gut. Breathing into the gut stirs it up, breathing into the “heart-space” bathes it in love, and exhaling releases it. She believes this is what creates that luminous, lit-from-within thing.

I think I do, too? You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has tried more things to heal their skin than me. I’ve been on hormonal birth control, countless antibiotics, and two rounds of Accutane. I’ve maxed out prescriptions for medicated ointments and steroid creams. Later, I took a hard turn into naturals, covering my face in jojoba oil and Manuka honey, and committing to a dairy-free, gluten-free, fun-free diet (which did help, sadly). But breath work, when I practice consistently at least, unlocks some secret level of good skin.

The experience is hard to put into words — you have to do it to understand it — but after a few minutes of guided breathing, it’s as if time stops and I’m floating around outside of my mind but inside of my body. Every session digs up a deep-seated insecurity, or buried memory, or negative thought pattern, and my mission is to explore it, accept it, and let go of it. Every session also makes me sob uncontrollably, which isn’t uncommon. Maybe the salt water is the secret? But more likely, it’s the self-acceptance. (Happy people do have better skin.)

“Before finding breath work, I was a very angry young person who, like most people, was given the messages that anger is wrong and bad so I did my best to stuff it down until it would explode,” D’Avella says. “My sense is that my skin was trying to release toxins because there was so much repressed emotion in my body.” Breath work uncorked this pent-up pain, and voilà: radiance.

This explanation, I’m sure, will elicit the aforementioned eye rolls from skeptics, but as I am pretty much the opposite of a skeptic, it leaves me oddly satisfied.

“The relationship between our skin and our emotional life is inherently complex and manifests differently within each of my clients,” agrees Neese. “I’ve had many students over the years with a range of skin issues from acne to eczema which have improved significantly with the addition of breath work to their self-care routines.”

“If you’ve changed your diet and removed synthetic products and still struggle with breakouts, I would suggest beginning to look at your interior life,” D’Avella says. “How do you feel about yourself? Do you love who you are? Do you accept yourself? Do you know how to be with the spectrum of your emotions? The skin provides a clear indication that something needs to be addressed within.”

And really, the “clear your trauma, clear your acne” theory isn’t too far off from Dr. Bowe’s more scientific assessment. As the dermatologist notes, “It’s the prolonged stress, especially the kind rooted in our psyche, that’s the most damaging to our skin.”

Also: Breathing is free, so why not try it?

Can You Breathe Your Way to Better Skin?