Magnesium tablets and oral supplements may not be able to deliver the magnesium to your cells that you really need. Most people don’t realise how hard they are to digest and absorb, and that most of the magnesium ends up going down the toilet. Our nutritional needs are increasing, as can be seen by the increase in magnesium deficiency symptoms. This is because of depletion in the food supply, drug interactions and chemical exposures, as well as loss of magnesium due to stressful conditions, via perspiration or urination (hypermagnesuria).
Magnesium: The master mineral (and why you can’t do without it)
Chronic stress (physical, psychological, chemical, or environmental) is our enemy because it depletes our magnesium levels, which greatly impacts our health and ability to recover.
Magnesium acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory and helps to strengthen the immune system. It is a muscle relaxant to help recover from stress, calms and stabilises heart rhythm abnormalities and alleviates cardiovascular tension by dampening down adrenalin (ie. antiadrenergic). It is also essential in the production of proteins like collagen and elastin, which are vital for the flexibility of muscles, ligaments and the vascular system.
Magnesium calms the central nervous system and muscles via its calcium antagonism and control of calcium channels. Magnesium relaxes, and calcium contracts. Magnesium is used by mitochondria to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate) electrical energy, directly influencing metabolism, and plugging us into our bio-electrical ‘power point’.
Magnesium supports the integrity of the lipid bilayer that makes up the cell membrane. Its electrolyte charge allows the channels to open and close for normal functions; including protecting against pathogens or toxic elements, to enable excretion of oxidised wastes, and to allow in hydration and nutrients.
Magnesium supports cell hydration because it has a big capacity molecular hydration shell. Magnesium loves water and water loves magnesium. Magnesium’s great affinity for water helps the water work better in the body, as it facilitates metabolism, electrical conductivity and detoxification. It also co-factors with numerous other nutrients and enzymes, and is an electrolyte you cannot do without!
SYMPTOMS OF MAGNESIUM DEFICIENCY can include: heart arrhythmias, chronic fatigue, headaches, muscles cramps, twitches and restless legs, acute stress response, irritability and anxiety, insulin and blood sugar (metabolism) disorders, dry skin conditions like dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis, joint pain, inflammation, immune system disorders, vascular tension and high blood pressure and hypercalcaemia (depositing excess calcium in the soft tissue and joints).
The problem with magnesium tablets or powders
Magnesium tablets and powders have their limitations. Studies indicate that high concentrations of magnesium do not make it through the gut wall. It can only take up lower concentration of magnesium optimally, as in mineral spring water concentration.
“Although absorption increased with each increment in intake, fractional magnesium absorption fell progressively (from 65% at the lowest to 11% at the highest intake) so that absorption as a function of intake was curvilinear.”  Several authors have outlined that higher bioavailability is observed when a given amount of magnesium is distributed over a day rather than being consumed in a single bolus.
The higher concentrations, as in tablet and powder supplements, are quickly eliminated via the digestive system. Additionally, if a person doesn’t produce enough stomach acid for protein digestion, or tablet digestion, then much of the magnesium can remain locked up and pass straight through the digestive system. The older we get the less stomach acid we make and the harder it is to break down the tablets. Tablet fillers and binders can also hinder digestion and absorption.
Another example where people can be misled is assuming that the larger the amount of magnesium contained in the magnesium tablet supplement, the better it is. This is not the case, because we are limited by how much we can digest and absorb. For example, in the case of a magnesium oxide tablet, because this compound is not very soluble or in the right form for cellular uptake, it is commonly only 4% bioavailable. A study of various concentrations of mineral waters published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that the fractional absorption rate is high at low magnesium load and decreases exponentially with increasing carrier amounts. The higher the concentration of magnesium, the more it follows a curvilinear diminishing rate of absorption.
You need ample stomach acid to be able to digest the magnesium oxide so you can use at least some of the elemental magnesium, which is ultimately converted to magnesium chloride. It also produces excess water in the bowel, which is why magnesium oxide is often used to relieve constipation. If you got diarrhea from this magnesium supplement, you would have lost most of the magnesium too quickly before it had a chance to pass through the gut wall. Using it as a laxative works for that purpose, but don’t expect a lot to get to the interior of the body.
Another popular magnesium laxative is magnesium citrate (magnesium and citrate compound), which produces watery stool to relieve constipation, but high doses can’t reach the interior as they are flushed quickly from the bowel and can’t get across the gut wall. The gut wall can only allow low concentrations to pass over.
Studies have shown that magnesium chloride is far superior to magnesium oxide when it comes to bioavailability: “Results indicated relatively poor bioavailability of magnesium oxide (fractional absorption 4 per cent) but significantly higher and equivalent bioavailability of magnesium chloride.” 
Is most of that magnesium tablet going down the toilet? Even if you take chelated magnesium supplements, which are less likely to irritate the gut because they are magnesium compounded with amino acids, they can still prove difficult to digest, absorb to the interior of the body, and get inside of cells. These include magnesium glycinate, magnesium taurate and others. Such amino acids are beneficial to health, however the body still has to have enough stomach acid to digest the compounds to separate the components, and then the gut wall has to be able to absorb that high concentration taken in one go. Certainly some of the nutrients eventually get to their intended destinations, but because there are so many potential obstacles, typically most of the magnesium in the magnesium tablet ingested is lost by the digestive syetem.
When you analyse the gut wall, like the epidermis, it is also a type of membrane barrier comprising tight junctions that protect the interior of the body from waste toxins or pathogens that may be in the bowel. This bowel lining can absorb certain nutrients and keep out toxic elements when all is working as it should.
However, those with leaky gut and Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms will be absorbing some toxins, and also not able to tolerate very much in the way of magnesium supplements without triggering diarrhea. This leads to a very sensitive and volatile digestive system. Ironically, these conditions are also strongly correlated with magnesium deficiency. These people therefore need magnesium supplementation the most, but have the biggest issues with digestion and absorption of magnesium supplements.
Transdermal drug delivery: What can go wrong with that?
We had been indoctrinated for generations to believe that oral consumption and digestion of foods and tablet supplements (or drugs) were the only way for nutrients and drugs to access the body, except for medicines which can be injected. However, transdermal absorption of medicines became well accepted with the popularisation of nicotine patches or progesterone cream.
The first transdermal patch approved for systemic delivery in 1979 was a patch for the sustained, three days delivery of scopolamine in the treatment of motion sickness. Further research is ongoing to investigate the use of new transdermal drugs. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4695828/
Drugs can also be delivered via inhalation with puffers because the lung sacs have very sensitive membranes, which offer an efficient route for blood vessel uptake. It is also well known that essential oil aromas can penetrate the body via the epidermis, as well as inhalation via steam diffusion.
On the dark side is the abuse of solvent chemicals, which when inhaled, produce an altered state of consciousness, but not without a degree of damage to brain cells. This is one of the reasons why those working in industrial environments which may expose them to chemical inhalation, need to wear protective masks. The mucosal linings of our airways are particularly sensitive and can become irritated quickly by solvents. These chemicals can also penetrate the brain.
The skin is being viewed more and more as a convenient route to deliver medicines. A lot of research is now being undertaken by pharmaceutical companies in this area. However, this method is presenting challenges in the regulation of dosage from person to person, because skin type, age and environmental conditions can dial the skin’s permeability up or down, and it can change from day to day.
One such study concluded, “Overcoming the remarkable skin barrier properties in an efficient, temporary and safe manner remains a challenge. High permeation-enhancing potency has long been perceived to be associated with toxicity and irritation potential of such compounds, which has limited their further development. In addition, the complexity of enhancer interactions with skin, formulation and drug, along with their vast chemical diversity hampered understanding of their mechanisms of action.”
To help drugs get in through the skin they use chemical partners called ‘penetration enhancers’. These can include alcohols, detergents (surfactants) or sulphates. Too much of a penetration enhancer can break or damage the skin barrier – as is seen with excessive use of hand sanitizers and consequent reactions like dermatitis, psoriasis or eczema.
In addition, the transdermal drug product needs to be lipid based, as the epidermis is lipophilic. The fatty protective layer of the skin keeps water out, so that water-based products are typically repelled. To get water-based drugs into skin requires emulsifiers that can disrupt the lipid balance and penetrate the skin barrier. These ingredients can be irritating for skin – especially if it’s not in good condition to start with.
Compromised inflamed skin, such as in psoriatic skin, tends to have less collagen protein, which means the thinner skin can’t hold enough lipid to provide protection against water loss. The skin thus becomes dryer and more sensitive, as it is more open to the atmosphere, potentially absorbing substances without appropriate regulation. People with these skin conditions can thus get way too much of a transdermal drug.
Some people conversely have a very oily skin with tight junctions, or a thicker denser epidermis – for example the skin of men compared to women in general. People with thicker and more oily skin will have more resistance to transdermal drug therapy. The large variability in skin types makes it very difficult to deliver an exact dose of a drug transdermally.
The difference with transdermal nutrition, including magnesium and vitamin D, is that the body knows how much it needs and will draw from the epidermal reservoir accordingly (if available). It cannot however control or regulate chemicals and drugs, which are not a part of the natural environment and have breached the barrier via penetration enhancers.
Why is my skin more sensitive after exercise or a hot bath?
The more you look at this mechanism of action, the more it becomes obvious that small molecules can pass through membranes under certain conditions. Cells have a membrane that is made of a phospholipid bilayer. Our skin barrier contains keratinocyte cells made of collagen protein. In addition, it has rivers of cholesterol fats that form a matrix protection around the cells so that water loss is inhibited and we don’t dry up so quickly. The skin matrix structure looks like bricks with mortar holding them together.
Our biological membranes are not pieces of plastic. They have channels that open and close: In a sense, they ‘breathe’. When these channels are blocked or locked, it can suppress cell respiration. If everything works like it should, our membranes can protect us, they can open up to nutritional elements that we need, and also expel metabolic waste products.
Fats protect the skin barrier: Good fats are essential to the integrity of the cell membrane, as well as all membranes and linings of the body, including the skin. Nutrients like magnesium that are fused in lipids can transit more easily through the cell membrane and the skin. Lipids (fats) in the skin provide an insulating and protective function, as well as to prevent excessive loss of moisture.
If the nerves in the underlying dermal layers get too close to the surface because there is not enough protection in the epidermis, this will increase skin sensitivity. If collagen structures get too weak and thin, the skin matrix can’t hold enough fats, and so the epidermis can lose some protective capacity.
An example of the effects of less lipids in the skin in a short space of time, is after a long hot bath, or after a big exercise session. The extra heat will cause a small amount of the skin ceramides (solid fats), which are incorporated in the skin barrier, to melt (fluidify). The effect of this lipid reduction is increased sensitivity of the skin barrier.
Athletes will notice this effect more after exercise when the skin feels more sensitive and open to the environment, until it can restore the protective cholesterol fats that make up ceramides. Moisturising and conditioning the skin with the help of extra plant oils can replenish and restore the integrity of the skin barrier.
Although massage of muscles with magnesium oil can help to relax muscles and speed up recovery, if you apply straight magnesium oil to skin that has increased sensitivity and decreased lipid protection, then it will feel irritating and prickly. However, the more lipid content, the less the salt stimulates the nerves, and the more insulating the fat becomes.
This is why Elektra Magnesium developed Magnesium Cream in 2009. It incorporates a mild, yet potent amount of magnesium chloride infused in a rich base of plant oils and butters to facilitate transition through the epidermis, whilst also acting as a protective skin care product.
If you need a higher concentration of magnesium on certain muscle or joint areas, then add on Magnesium Oil Spritz, a unique magnesium oil formulation with extra plant extracts to enhance absorption and improve the feel of the magnesium oil on the skin. Magnesium Charge Lotion is also a hybrid between the cream and the oil. There is plenty of choice in the range to suit individual needs and skin types.
Absorb magnesium and plant nutrients, but avoid toxic chemicals
Some medical professionals have expressed doubt about whether it’s possible for magnesium ions to pass through the skin, and whether supplemental magnesium can be taken up transdermally. They are more familiar with magnesium tablets to treat cramps, but not so much transdermal magnesium.
The evidence shows clearly that mineral salts in their ionic form can pass in and out of the skin barrier. The tradition of balneotherapy has been practised for thousands of years, whereby people soak in mineral rich hot springs to alleviate degenerative health conditions such as arthritis, or to speed up recovery after injury and stress. There are also a number of published studies affirming the effectiveness of transdermal magnesium absorption (links at the end of this article).
The word ‘transdermal’ refers to elements passing through the skin, that is, either exiting or entering. The epidermal layer of the skin is a membrane with channels that open and close as a response to various stimulants. The skin has the ability to take up dissolved ionic minerals during soaking, or to release them, as in perspiration. The perspiration released by sweat glands is mostly made up of water, mineral electrolytes and some waste products.
Not only can the skin absorb valuable electrolytes, but other chemicals that are not so healthy can also gain access to the interior of the body via skin. Synthesized petrochemical ingredients, phthalates and solvent penetration enhancers can also get inside. This is why it is important to be mindful of the type of products applied daily to skin, and to ensure that they are free of chemicals which may accumulate in the body over time, disrupt hormones, or contribute to the development of cancer.
WARNING – Hand sanitizers can be dangerous to health: Caution should also be exercised with alcohol concentration in products applied to skin, like hand sanitizers, because studies have shown that people with a weakened skin barrier protection are more prone to absorb alcohol into the blood.
The excessive use of strong detergents and alcohols can compromise skin barrier protection and allow alcohols to intoxicate the blood. Of course, you probably won’t get drunk this way, but even a small amount of alcohol in the blood may be a concern if you are doing work which requires a high level of concentration and alertness (as in surgery).
When it comes to ionic magnesium, the body regulates uptake very effectively and can store it in the epidermis for absorption as needed over time. Magnesium is routinely stored in the membrane of cells in the body, with 99% residing in the muscle and bone, and 1% in the blood (primarily in the red blood cells).
If you want to know your magnesium levels however, a blood test does not accurately show what is stored in the tissue cells of the body, so it won’t necessarily give you an accurate measurement of whole-of-body magnesium status. A tissue analysis provides a more accurate result. Or you can use symptoms as a rough guide: When you are getting enough magnesium, the magnesium deficiency symptoms dissipate. Transdermal magnesium uptake is both safe and effective, as the body is able to self-regulate this process.
The most bioavailable and easily absorbed form of magnesium both via gut (as in mineral drinking water) or transdermally, is magnesium chloride hexahydrate, which is the natural salt form of magnesium as found in sea water. It is a compound of magnesium and chloride packaged in an hexagonal structure of six water molecules – a sort of ‘liquid crystal’ with organised water molecules that make water feel slippery. Once it is dissolved in a certain concentration, it is able to be absorbed by cells without further digestion because it is already in the right form for cell uptake.
Safe and effective magnesium absorption
Dissolved magnesium chloride can bypass problems with digestion, such as when taking magnesium tablets. A low concentration of magnesium in drinking water, as in natural spring water, can easily pass through the gut wall. For instance, if you consume 80mg of elemental magnesium per litre of water and drink 3 litres over 24 hours, you would likely be able to absorb the majority of the magnesium because it is a low dose over a longer period of time.
Magnesium ions can also pass into the epidermis (outer layer) of the skin, which acts as a nutritional reservoir. This nutritional reservoir also holds (for later use) the vitamin D you may have made when you got some sunshine on your skin. Because the skin is the largest organ of the body, it has the capacity to deliver a much greater amount of magnesium than magnesium tablets or powders.
Plant fats facilitate absorption of magnesium chloride into the epidermis, and help to moisturise and condition the skin. Without enough lipids the magnesium salt can get stuck on top of the skin as a sticky or irritating residue. When you have a magnesium bath the hot water helps to open up the skin pores, but when dry-applying magnesium chloride solution (magnesium oil), it helps to have a combination of magnesium and plant oils, as in the Elektra Magnesium product range.
The body is self-regulating when it comes to transdermal magnesium absorption. The skin takes up what it can, depending on what is made available, and can store some for later use too. In this way more magnesium is accessible faster via the epidermis, without requiring further digestion or risk of diarrhea and bowel irritation, as with magnesium tablets and powders.
You can apply as much as you like via skin until it feels good, because when you absorb magnesium via skin, you can supplement-feed the body effectively without fear of overdose. The practice of regular magnesium bathing or footsoaking, together with the application with Magnesium Cream, Oil or Lotion, can potentially deliver as much as 1,000mg or more of elemental magnesium per day in the case of high-end magnesium needs.
The transdermal pathway works faster than the oral pathway, as there is no need to wait hours for digestion of the magnesium tablets, and potentially more magnesium can be absorbed directly into tissue cells. All members of the family, at any age, can absorb magnesium via skin to alleviate magnesium deficiency.
You can choose from Elektra Magnesium’s extensive range of natural magnesium skin care products to find the products and daily routine that suits you best. The bonus is better looking skin too!
by Sandy Sanderson © 2022
Effect of topical magnesium application on epidermal integrity and barrier function . 
Effect of transdermal magnesium cream on serum and urinary magnesium levels in humans: A pilot study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5389641/
Intravenously and Topically Applied Magnesium in the Prevention of Arterial Thrombosis https://www.thrombosisresearch.com/article/S0049-3848%2800%2900215-2/abstract
Preliminary study of transdermal permeation of magnesium cream formulations across skin https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240614002_Preliminary_study_of_transdermal_permeation_of_magnesium_cream_formulations_across_skin
Effects of transdermal magnesium chloride on quality of life for patients with fibromyalgia: a feasibility study.
- Firoz, M. and M. Graber, Bioavailability of US commercial magnesium preparations. Magnes Res, 2001. 14(4): p. 257-62.
- Ranade, V.V. and J.C. Somberg, Bioavailability and Pharmacokinetics of Magnesium After Administration of Magnesium Salts to Humans. American Journal of Therapeutics, 2001. 8(5): p. 345-357.
- Chandrasekaran, N., Effect of topical magnesium application on epidermal integrity and barrier function 2016, The University of Queensland. p. 84.
- Kass, L., et al., Effect of transdermal magnesium cream on serum and urinary magnesium levels in humans: A pilot study. PLoS ONE, 2017. 12(4): p. e0174817.
- Toft, G., H.B. Ravn, and V.E. Hjortdal, Intravenously and Topically Applied Magnesium in the Prevention of Arterial Thrombosis<sup>☆</sup>. Thrombosis Research, 2000. 99(1): p. 61-69.
- Sang-ngern, M., et al., Preliminary study of transdermal permeation of magnesium cream formulations across skin. 2012.
- Engen, D.J., et al., Effects of transdermal magnesium chloride on quality of life for patients with fibromyalgia: a feasibility study. J Integr Med, 2015. 13(5): p. 306-13.