PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ can be absorbed through human skin, says research

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Oddný Ragnarsdóttir, University of Birmingham; Mohammed Abdallah, University of Birmingham, and Stuart Harrad, University of Birmingham

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or synthetic forever chemicals have been detected everywhere from the Arctic ice and its polar bears to penguin colonies in Tasmania, even in rain water and sea spray. These persistent chemicals have been found in the blood of people all over the world, as well as in human breast milk. Indeed, our team has even found them in dust from the International Space Station.

But not much is yet known about how PFAS gets into our bodies. Possible pathways include ingesting (food, water and other products that contain PFAS) or breathing in air contaminated with PFAS particles. Our recent research shows that it’s possible for PFAS to penetrate human skin and reach our bloodstream.

PFAS are found in many consumer products, including skincare products, cosmetics and waterproof clothing. These compounds are often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in nature and in the human body where they can stay for many years.

Our new study shows that dermal exposure – absorption of PFAS through the skin – could be an important pathway into the human body. Using 3D models of lab-grown human skin tissue that mimic the properties of real human skin, our team of environmental chemists investigated the dermal permeation (the uptake of a chemical through our skin) of 17 different PFAS chemicals.

Our results suggest, for the first time, that many of these compounds can indeed be absorbed though the human skin, contrary to what has been previously believed about the skin acting as a barrier.

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