Dead skin cells give cleaning a whole new meaning

Britney Jones
23 January 2012

A recent experiment has provided one more reason not to dust (as if you needed it). A study conducted by chemist Charles Weschler has found evidence that certain properties of dust actually enable it to purify the air.

Did you know? A person sheds approximately 500 million dead skin cells every day.

While thinking about breathing in skin cells is mildly repulsive, it is actually these cells that are responsible for dust’s air-purifying properties. Skin cells produce a type of oil known squalene, and its secretion has been found to bind and deactivate ozone by breaking apart its chemical bonds.

Wait, why would we want to break down ozone? Aren't we supposed to be trying to save it? These questions can be answered by the all-important consideration of location,location, location! Ozone is invaluable in protecting us from harmful radiation while high in the atmosphere, but down on earth it has different properties. Far from being beneficial, ozone can cause chest pain, coughing,throat irritation, and shortness of breath when inhaled. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety warns that large amounts can damage the lungs and upper respiratory tract.

Did you know? A great way to remember the properties of ozone is: “good up high, bad nearby.

Weschler found that squalene reduces indoor ozone by as much as two to 15 percent, making it tempting to recline on the couch and tell your mom you’re letting the dust do the cleaning.

However, before you strike dusting from your list of chores forever, consider this—in addition to air-purifying squalene, dust also contains allergens and potentially disease-causing microbes. These factors can exacerbate asthma symptoms, cause allergic reactions, and even lead to illnesses. Besides, it is important to remember that air-purifying squalene is continually being replenished from our shedding skin cells, even after we clean.

So pick up that dust cloth and get to work—you’re not off the hook after all.

Learn More!

POPSCI – Dead Human Skin Helps Clean The Air byBreaking Apart Ozone

MSNBC.COM–Dead human skin helps clean the air

Ozone – Good Up High, Bad Nearby


Weschler, C.J., Langer, S., Fischer, A., Becko,G., Toftum, J. and G. Clausen. 2011. Squalene and cholesterol in dust from Danish homes and daycare centers. Environ Sci Technol. 45: 3872-3879.

Wisthaler, A., and C.J. Weschler. 2010. Reactions of ozone with human skin lipids: sources of carbonyls, dicarbonyls, and hydroxycarbonyls in indoorair. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 107:6568-75.

Article first published June 14, 2011

Britney Jones

Britney earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, majoring in biological sciences and minoring in psychology. She then went on to receive a Master’s degree in Biomedical Technology, where she developed a keen interest in health advocacy research. Britney spent two years as a member of the Clinical Research team at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. Currently, she is in her third year of medical school. 

Comments are closed.