Toxic PFAS found to be easily absorbed through skin

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Recent research reveals that toxic PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances), often termed forever chemicals, can be absorbed through the skin at levels significantly higher than previously believed. This groundbreaking study, conducted by researchers at the University of Birmingham, demonstrates for the first time that human skin can absorb these chemicals at substantial rates, posing a significant source of exposure.

The study and its findings

The research team utilised lab-grown tissue models that mimic human skin to investigate the absorption rates of 17 different PFAS compounds. The results showed that the skin absorbed “substantial” amounts of these chemicals, including up to 60% of certain short-chain PFAS compounds, which are commonly used in industry today.

Lead author Oddný Ragnarsdóttir stated, “Our findings indicate that uptake through the skin could be a significant source of exposure to these harmful chemicals.”

This challenges previous assumptions that PFAS in products like makeup and personal care items are safe because they are ionised and believed to repel water.

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What are PFAS?

PFAS are a group of about 16,000 man-made chemicals known for their resistance to water, stains, and heat. Dubbed forever chemicals, they do not break down naturally and accumulate in the human body over time. Exposure to PFAS is linked to serious health issues such as cancer, liver disease, thyroid problems, and decreased fertility.

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Humans are primarily exposed to PFAS through water and diet. However, recent research suggests that inhalation and skin absorption are also significant pathways. PFAS are found in a wide range of products that come into contact with skin, including bandages, waterproof clothing, upholstery, baby products, and even guitar strings besides cosmetics.

Significant absorption rates

In the study, researchers applied samples of PFAS compounds to the three-dimensional tissue model. They discovered that the skin absorbed 13.5% of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), one of the most toxic and common PFAS, within a short application time. Longer exposure resulted in an absorption rate of 38% for PFOA. Notably, the skin absorbed up to nearly 60% of a short-chain PFAS compound, indicating that these supposedly “safer” chemicals might actually pose a higher risk due to their increased absorption rates.

“This is important because we see a shift in industry towards chemicals with shorter chain lengths, believing them to be less toxic. However, the trade-off might be that we absorb more of them, so we need to know more about the risks involved,” explained co-author Stuart Harrad.

Implications for public health

The study challenges the notion that PFAS in personal care products are not absorbed through the skin. “Our research shows that this theory does not always hold true,” Ragnarsdóttir emphasised.

This revelation calls for a reassessment of the safety of PFAS-containing products that come into direct contact with the skin.

The findings underscore the need for further research to understand the risks associated with dermal exposure to PFAS. Given their widespread presence in everyday products, the potential health impacts could be significant. The study’s results suggest that regulatory bodies may need to consider skin absorption as a major pathway for PFAS exposure when setting safety standards.

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The need for better understanding and regulation

This study highlights the complexity of PFAS absorption and the necessity for comprehensive safety evaluations. With evidence showing that skin absorption can be a significant exposure route, there is an urgent need for more detailed studies that mimic real-life exposure scenarios. Such research would help quantify the contribution of dermal exposure to overall PFAS body burdens and inform more effective regulatory measures.

The University of Birmingham study sheds new light on the potential health risks posed by PFAS through skin absorption. As these chemicals continue to be used in a wide range of consumer products, understanding all possible exposure routes becomes crucial. The findings call for heightened awareness and stricter regulations to protect public health from these pervasive and persistent chemicals.

By bringing attention to the underestimated pathway of skin absorption, this research prompts a critical reevaluation of the safety standards for PFAS in everyday products. As we move forward, it’s essential to continue exploring and addressing the multifaceted ways in which these forever chemicals impact human health.


Dr. Nikhil Prasad

Dr. Nikhil Prasad is an independent researcher, medical, pharma and health PR consultant, herbalists and phytochemical specialists and a medical and health writer for numerous international publications and sites including his own sites such as Thailand Medical News. He is based either at Sydney, New York, Shanghai, Mumbai or Bangkok.

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