Most people think that if it goes on their skin, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t get in their body. Skin absorbency is a generally overlooked factor when considering a daily health routine. We’re going to put that to the test today though. Before I dig into the details, take a guess. What percent of the stuff you put on your skin gets absorbed? You might be surprised about what the science says.
Personal Care Product Use
First, let’s look at the number of personal care products we use every day on average. A survey conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and other public interest or health organizations looked at the habits over 2300 people. They found that the average adult uses 9 products every day and that those products contain 126 unique chemical ingredients. Over 25% of women and 1% of men use at least 15 products every day. Here are some stats from from this study that will blow your mind.
&& 1 out of 13 women and 1 out of 23 men (12.2 million adults) are exposed to known or probable carcinogens every day in their personal care routine.
&& 1 out of 24 women (4.3 million) are exposed to known or probable reproductive and developmental toxins through their personal care routine. This includes ingredients linked to impaired fertility or developmental harm for fetuses or babies. (This stat doesn’t include phthalates exposure which isn’t listed on ingredient lists because it is a component of “fragrance”. Phthalates are estimated to be in 75% of personal care products.)
&& 1 out of 5 adults are (potentially) exposed to all of the top 7 carcinogenic impurities common in personal care products every day. These 7 ingredients are: hydroquinone, ethylene dioxide, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, nitrosamines, PAHs, and acrylamide. (Definitely sounds like these belong in a chem lab, not your bathroom!) Hydroquinone comes out on top for most common exposure. It is a potential contaminant in products used by 94% of women and 69% of men every day.
&& The average woman uses 12 products containing 168 unique ingredients every day. The average man uses 6 products with 85 unique ingredients daily.
Scary, right?? You can see why understanding what your skin is absorbing is super important. If your skin absorbency is even a small percentage, millions of people are taking in tons of really gross and potentially very dangerous chemicals every day without even thinking twice.
How Much Is Skin Absorbing?
One study done back in the ‘80s looked at skin absorbency as it relates to contaminants (specifically, volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) in drinking water. When considering exposure levels and allowed contaminant levels, the government never took skin absorbency into account. They only looked at ingestion. However, this group showed that not only is skin absorbing high level doses of water contaminants but that it could even be the primary route of exposure, even over drinking. They found that depending on the conditions, the skin could absorb 29-91% of the total daily dose of contaminants.
Another team examined skin absorbency of certain regions of the body, not just on the whole. They found that face skin is several times more permeable than the rest of the body. Underarms and genitalia had 100% absorption rate. That means deodorant or perfume or anything else you use on very sensitive skin is all being taken in by your body.
Not all contaminants are created equal when it comes to absorption. One study found that “fragrance” ingredients had a 100% absorption rate into the skin. Remember, fragrance ingredients include that list of 7 nasty carcinogenic impurities! Your body is sucking up every last drop of some super toxic chemicals.
Think back to your original guess. These studies tell us that if you guessed 100%, you’d be right! Are you surprised?
Skin Absorbency: How It Works
Let’s call the things being absorbed by the skin foreign particles (FP) because it isn’t always toxins we’re absorbing. We can also use our sponginess to our advantage like applying essential oils or other healthy products for their benefits.
There are 3 methods of skin absorption. By using Method 1, FPs can move between the cells. These spaces are full of fats, oils, and waxes (aka lipids) which FPs can travel through like a diffusion freeway. With Method 2, FPs pass through the lipid freeway from cell to cell, moving through the cells. The cell transporters do the heavy lifting here. Method 3 allows FPs to move through the appendages. The FPs come in through hair follicles, glands, or other opening. This pathway leads to the least amount of FP absorption because appendages have the least amount of surface area compared to the greater skin region.
Basically, between cells, through cells, and through openings.
What About Moderation?
We know that the skin has several ways of allowing up to 100% of what it contacts to absorb into the body. But you might be wondering if it’s really that big of a deal. It’s just a little bit, right? Can it really hurt me?
The answer is emphatically, “Yes!”. With many of these chemicals, particularly endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, a little goes a very long way.
Unless you’re exposed to chemicals in your job or by accident, probably every chemical toxin you could be exposed to would happen at a “very low” dose. Many scientific studies that determine toxicity of substances look at higher doses first and then assume that small doses are safter. This is not always true. For example, lead can affect the brain in an amount of parts per million.
Overall, the lesson here is that what we put on our skin is just as important as what we put in our bodies. Skin acts like a sponge, and toxic chemicals found in many skin care products can have long lasting effects on health. Read the labels of your cosmetics, bath products, and other skin care products, and throw away anything with suspicious ingredients (especially ditch products with “fragrance”). Buy organic and products with natural, readable ingredients.