Do Chemicals Absorb Through My Skin?

Do Chemicals Absorb Through My Skin?

Ever wondered why people make such a big deal of using products that contain chemicals absorbed through skin? What is the skin absorption of chemicals? Why does it matter if your shampoo or hand lotion or body wash contains parabens or sulfates or other chemicals? It’s not like you are eating these things. Does it matter?

Yes. Chemicals absorb through your skin.

Your skin is the largest organ of your body and it is porous. This means that it absorbs whatever you put on it. In fact, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, the skin can absorb between 64% and 100% of total contaminant dosage.

The percentage of absorption depends on many factors, including the structure and size of the chemical. Some chemicals are too big to be absorbed by the skin, while others are small enough, and still, others are specifically designed to absorb quickly and easily. For example, many sunscreens and lotions are intended to absorb into the skin. Other factors that increase absorption rates include damage to the skin (e.g. a scratch or other “tear” in the skin), concentration of the chemical, the length of time exposed, and the area of the body. For example, your face and scalp absorb about four times more than your forearm.

How do chemicals get through the skin?

There are three ways chemicals absorb through the skin. Chemicals can travel directly through the skin cells, around the skin cells, or through the hair follicles and sweat ducts. Once the chemical gets through – no matter the route it took – it has the opportunity to absorb into the blood.

But are those chemicals absorbed into my bloodstream?

They can be. It depends on the chemical. Consider that medicine can be administered through a patch on the skin: Nicotine patch. Insulin patch. Fentanyl patch. Birth control patch. Clearly, if medicine can absorb through the skin and into the blood, so can other substances. In fact, back in 2004, the Environmental Working Group published studies that found toxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies born in the U.S. They screened for more than 400 chemicals, and detected 287 toxins.

The bottom line is chemicals can be absorbed by the skin, and since science is not yet sure which chemicals enter the bloodstream, your safest bet is to avoid putting any chemicals on your skin. Plus, even if a chemical doesn’t make its way into the bloodstream, it can cause problems on the skin itself through irritation, rash, and even cancer.

What are some of the chemicals to avoid putting on your skin?

A good motto: if you can’t pronounce it, don’t use it. Petroleum derivatives, preservatives, synthetic fragrances, and dyes should be avoided. These go by many names including Olefin Sulfonate, Sodium Luaroyl Sarcosinate, Potassium Cocoyl Glutamate, Sulfates, Parabens, and Phenoxyethanol.
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Jamie J. Spannhake

Jamie Spannhake is a lawyer, mediator and certified health coach, and the author of "The Lawyer, the Lion, & the Laundry: Three Hours to Finding Your Calm in the Chaos." She is a partner at Berlandi Nussbaum & Reitzas LLP and writes and speaks on issues of interest to lawyers, including time and stress management, health and wellness, work-life balance, and effective legal writing. Learn more at and follow her on Twitter @IdealYear.

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