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Air Pollutants Get Into the Body via the Skin

Air Pollution

While lungs remain the main way by which air pollutants get into the body, and, if in sufficient quantities, cause ill-health effects, a new study shows that certain pollutants (‘semi-volatiles’ like phthalates) can be drawn in by the skin. This effect is known as ‘dermal uptake’ and the levels absorbed can be equivalent to those drawn in through breathing via the lungs.

Phthalates are esters of phthalic acid. They are used as plasticizers (substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility). Some reports indicate that these substances can, in sufficient concentrations and over a prolonged period of exposure, cause asthma and cancer.

The new finding is based on a formal study. Researchers examined six participants, who were exposed to elevated air concentrations of the chemicals diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di(n-butyl) phthalate (DnBP). DEP is used as a solvent in personal care products, like moisturizers, DnBP is used as a plasticizer, such as in nail polish.

Assessing the participants in special chambers, the levels of exposure through the skin were measured, and found to be unexpectedly high. Assessment was made via urine samples.

The finding challenges earlier research which points to the skin either being a relative intact barrier to air pollution (unlike a liquid spilling onto the skin) or the mechanism for skin absorption being relatively slow, which reduces the potential harm that air pollutants can cause.

The finding has led researcher John Kissel of the University of Washington in Seattle to tell Science News that “we’re big sponges for these chemicals.”

The risk from both pollution breathed in, and now via the skin, is where a noxious chemical enters the blood stream in sufficiently high concentrations as to cause a toxic reaction.

The risk of skin absorption of toxins is the main conclusion of the research, which is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspective, titled: “Transdermal uptake of diethyl phthalate and di(n-butyl) phthalate directly from air: experimental verification.”


About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.

  • foodandart

    Not a surprise. As a housepainter, over the years, I have been in homes with new furnishings and carpets – and the stink, a variation on the ‘new car’ smell would permeate my clothes and skin for hours afterwards.

    Was instrumental in my decision, nearly 20 years ago to remove all the synthetic-based furnishings and carpets from my home. (let’s not even get into the plastics that food was stored in – eventually nuts and bolts were put in the Tupperware until it dried and cracked and it’s all gone now)

    Yes, the ancient 1930’s mohair living-room set is worn, yes the cotton throw rugs are not as comfy as the wall to wall.. but the peace of mind that comes of NOT having a home filled with [surprise! I was correct!] outgassing plastics is turning out to be well thought out.

    Get rid of as much synthetics in your life and home as you can. It’s toxic, and just a matter of time before the science finds out just how much it all is.

    • emeralda1

      I only wear soft pig leather shoes and my real fur coat is great and both green renewable too!! I am having a hard time with the Tupperware however my cotton throw rugs are great in the bathroom!!

  • cory raskel

    as a plastic surgeon i can attest to seeing chinese and los angeleons and others who live in polluted areas have a bbq’ed look to a cross section of the dermis went it is is incised. as if they lived in a meat smoker.

  • Chris Kurten

    It can’t be that harmful. Because our government wouldn’t let stratospheric aerosols and the spraying aluminum into our atmosphere be done. Well its been going on for the past 20 years without any regulations. No one is safe. Look up Geoengineering , Cemtrails or look up in the sky 2 or 3 times a day for a month and you well see our government is destroying us and the earth. All areas are polluted

    • BraveNewWhirled

      People under 35-40 don’t really notice anything wrong or different because they’ve grown up with persistent aerial vapor trails which diffuse and become cloud cover. Too many other folks are living inside their phone, never looking up. Old pharts like me are pointing at the poison while those who believe government is our friend yell “conspiracy theory”. arrgh!

  • ro man

    Scrub your air ducts/change your filters, and pray you don’t bring it home from the market.

  • Undecider

    What are you showering in?

  • Joe__A

    Chemicals such as Phthalates and Bisphenol A are endocrine disruptors. That means they mess with your hormone system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife.