Can PFAS Be Absorbed through the Skin?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are synthetic chemical compounds that are found in many common industrial and consumer products. These substances are known as “forever chemicals” because they essentially never break down. 

PFAS firefighters

In addition to their environmental impact, PFAS chemicals are highly problematic in that many of them build up on the body, and they have been linked to a number of risks to human health. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), human studies have suggested that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS chemicals may lead to:

  • Increased levels of cholesterol
  • Changes in liver enzymes
  • Decreased response to vaccines in children
  • Increased risk of pregnancy complications
  • Decreases in newborn birth weights
  • Increased risk of certain types of cancer, such as kidney and testicular

PFAS Exposure Through Skin Absorption

While the focus on PFAS exposure has generally been on other means, some research has suggested that some PFAS may be absorbed through the skin. In a study sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), scientists exposed mice to high levels of a common PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) through the mice’s skin. The study showed that, within four days of exposure to PFOA, the mice had a notably reduced antibody count, suggesting a weakened immune system. They also showed a reduction in the weight of their spleens and thymus glands. 

While research on mice is not indicative of a precise correspondence in human bodies, the study does raise concerns. If humans do absorb PFAS through their skin, it is possible that bathing, showering, or even washing dishes with water supplies that are contaminated with the chemicals may pose a serious health risk. Furthermore, the possibility invites scrutiny into the safety of several consumer products that could be exposing people to PFAS through their skin.

PFAS-Containing Products with Risk of Skin Absorption

Many common products that people wear or apply to their skin daily contain PFAS chemicals. These include some varieties of:

  • Water-repellent clothing
  • Sunscreen
  • Shampoo
  • Shaving cream
  • Eye makeup
  • Lipstick
  • Nail polish

What Are Other Forms of PFAS Exposure?

The most common forms of exposure to PFAS chemicals are inhalation and swallowing.

Inhalation of PFAS chemicals is primarily a risk for workers who are involved in manufacturing or processing PFAS and materials that contain PFAS. People who work in this capacity are at a greater risk of exposure than the general population.

firefighting foam PFAS

This is also the case for firefighters who work with aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF), which are made with PFAS.

Swallowing PFAS chemicals is a concern in areas where the water supply is contaminated with high levels of the substances. If you are unsure about whether your water is contaminated, check with your local health department. People who live in areas of contamination should use an alternate water source for drinking, cooking, brushing their teeth, and any other activity where they might swallow water.

It is also possible to swallow PFAS chemicals by eating foods that were packaged in materials that contain PFAS or were prepared in some kinds of non-stick cookware.

An additional risk may arise from eating fish that come from waters with high levels of PFAS contamination. Again, check with your local health and environmental quality departments for any fish advisories in your area.

Can Babies Absorb PFAS through Breastmilk? 

According to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ADSTR), studies have indeed shown that PFAS chemicals appear in breastmilk and can be passed to the baby during breastfeeding. 

However, while scientists are continuing to do research in this area, there are currently no studies that show any connection between PFAS in breastmilk and any specific health effects in children. 

For this reason, the CDC recommends that mothers continue to breastfeed their children if they are able to do so. Breastfeeding has remarkable benefits for the health of both infants and mothers. For infants, these include reduced risks of:

  • Ear and respiratory infections
  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

For mothers, breastfeeding is linked to reduced risks of:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Breast cancer

The CDC, therefore, notes that the benefits of breastfeeding appear to greatly outweigh the risks that might come about from PFAS exposure through breastmilk.

Some children and mothers, however, are unable to breastfeed. In these cases, if they are feeding with powdered or liquid formulas, it is important that these formulas are mixed with water from a safe source that is free from contamination.

Research regarding the environmental and health risks of PFAS and AFFF is ongoing. TruLaw and its seasoned lawyers are working hard to support and stand up for those who have been injured due to third-party negligence.Visit our Firefighter Gear Instant Case Evaluator to learn if you may be eligible for a Firefighter gear case today.