The trailer for American Made kicks off with Tom Cruise as drug smuggler Barry Seal. He’s piloting a small plane crammed with cocaine when he gets intercepted and chased down by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. So Seal nosedives his plane to evade capture, rolls into a suburban yard, and stumbles out — completely covered in cocaine.
Which obviously begs the question: What would actually happen if you got smothered in cocaine?
“I don’t want to be a buzzkill — not to make a pun — but if that happened, you certainly wouldn’t die, and you’re not going to absorb very much,” Julie Kauer, Ph.D., informs Inverse. Kauer is a professor of medical science and neuroscience at Brown University, specializing in synaptic transmission and brain plasticity.
That’s not to say you’d just be brushing off some powder and going on your merry way. “You’d definitely be affected,” Kauer says. “You could still be pretty high if you swallowed enough, and you got it all up in your nose. You may breathe in some and get it into your lungs, which are essentially the perfect surface to absorb any drug — they are unbelievable.”
Kauer explains that there are two forms of cocaine that are typically used: crack and cocaine hydrochloride. Crack is extremely difficult to absorb, which is one reason why people smoke it, and why Kauer says “you can rub that all over yourself and probably nothing at all will happen.”
Cocaine hydrochloride — the white, fluffy stuff we see in the American Made trailer — is a different story. It’s soluble in water, and because of that can be absorbed on mucus membranes on the gums, inside the nose, and the back of the throat. It can also be absorbed rectally or vaginally, if you’re so inclined.
But it would be very hard to absorb cocaine through the skin, which is why being covered in it wouldn’t come with crazy repercussions.
“What I can tell you is that about one percent of free-base cocaine is absorbed through the skin, but slowly, over many hours,” Dr. Peter Morgan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University, explains to Inverse. “Powder cocaine is absorbed to a lesser degree, perhaps around a quarter of a percent of the total dose applied, and also very slowly. Because the absorption is so slow, the effects would be minimal unless the total dose that was applied to the skin was very, very large. One would also have to consider that just covering someone doesn’t mean all of the drug is touching the skin and will be absorbed — only the layer touching the skin will be absorbed, and most of the rest will probably fall off.”
Kauer also points out there are about six layers of cells covering every surface of the outer skin. These are pretty impermeable to most things, which is why most drugs don’t cross through the skin, save for something like a nicotine patch. Someone’s sweatiness wouldn’t make a difference, either — those glands don’t go to a place that would enable the cocaine to get you high.
What would happen if your skin encountered cocaine is that the cocaine would be hard to get off. Kauer says other scientists have found that cocaine makes bonds with the skin, and that even after scrubbing and washing, remnants still sometimes stick. It’s not getting into the body and it’s not getting someone high, but this stickiness does explain why covering actors in fake cocaine comes off as realistic.
Look, it happened in Search Party.
And who can forget the classic 2001 mafia film Corky Romano:
Cocaine, Kauer explains, is a “really weird property,” because it causes the blood vessels in the area it has absorbed to narrow down and constrict. That actually makes it more difficult to absorb; when blood vessels constrict, they’re not open and available to let the drug in. That limits the spread of the drug. This also means that sniffing cocaine really isn’t the most effective way to take the drug, because the blood vessels in your nose will constrict (but also makes it safer for someone to consume it that way).
“If you’re absorbing something by accidentally eating it — I’m just imagining me, being Tom Cruise, covered in cocaine — if some gets in my mouth, nose, and eyes, there are a number of things that are going to limit how much you have in your system,” says Kauer. “Breathing it would be what I’d most be concerned about, in terms of getting a ton into you.”