Skin absorbency is a generally overlooked factor when considering a daily health routine. Before I dig into the details, take a guess: what % of stuff you put on your skin gets absorbed? Remember that number. Is it high? Low? Somewhere in the middle? You might be surprised about what the science says.
Personal Care Product Use
But first, let’s look at the number of personal care products we use every day on average. A survey conducted by EWG (Environmental Working Group) and other public interest/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. Let me quote some stats from from this study that will blow your mind (they did for me!):
&& 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 really gross and potentially very dangerous chemicals every day without even thinking twice.
Skin Absorbency: The Numbers
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 (over drinking). They found that depending on the conditions, the skin could absorb 29-91% of the total daily dose of contaminants which an average contribution of 64% (!!) .
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. Are you surprised?
The Dose Doesn’t Make The Poison
You might be thinking along these lines now: “But the amount of chemical in my skin care product is so small! Even if I’m absorbing most or all of it, is it really hurting me?”
In a word, YES. The dose doesn’t make the poison. Especially when we’re talking about endocrine disruptors, a little goes a very, very long way. So first let’s back up and talk about how skin absorption works.
Skin Absorbency: How It Works
There are 3 methods of skin absorption. I swiped some pictures from the CDC’s website about skin absorbency to give you some visuals. 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.
Method 1: between the cells
The 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.
Method 2: through the cells
The FPs pass through the lipid freeways from cell to cell. The cell transporters do all the heavy lifting here.
Method 3: 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.
Now that we’ve seen how FPs are absorbed, we can go back to discussing why “very low” doses of toxins can have very large impacts.
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 (that’s not very much at all).
I mentioned endocrine disruptors briefly before. Let’s talk about that because I believe that they are one of the biggest overlooked threats.
What is the endocrine system?
The endocrine system is also called the hormone system. It is made up of glands, hormones, and receptors. These hormones control blood sugar and metabolism (insulin), reproductive functions and growth (testosterone and estradiol), body growth and energy (growth hormone and thyroid hormone). Obviously, that makes the endocrine system very important. It basically regulates how your entire body functions at every level. The endocrine glands are found all over the body. Check out this diagram from the EPA for a map of the endocrine system.
What is an endocrine disruptor?
According to the NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Science), and endocrine disruptor is any chemical “that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife.”
Basically anything that stops your body’s hormones from functioning properly.
How do endocrine disruptors work?
Endocrine disruptors primarily work in 3 ways:
1. Mimic a natural hormone. This can cause the body to over-respond or respond at inappropriate times to various stimuli. For example, your body might produce insulin when it’s not needed.
2. Block a hormone from doing its job. Some endocrine disruptors latch onto the receptors meant for a hormone, so the hormone can’t activate.
3. Block the effects of a natural hormone. This can cause over or underproduction of a hormone your body needs. Think hyper- or hypothyroidism.
What dosage causes endocrine disruption?
For decades, studies of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have challenged traditional concepts in toxicology, in particular the dogma of ‘the dose makes the poison,’ because EDCs can have effects at low doses that are not predicted by effects at higher doses. – Lauren Vandenburg 
The other problem with endocrine disruptors is that the symptoms might not manifest until years later. You won’t necessarily wake up the day after an exposure with a disease. It might take a few years for the domino effect to take place. For example, in the 70’s doctors prescribed a synthetic estrogen drug (DES) to as many as 5 million pregnant women. After the children went through puberty, they discovered that the drug had affected their reproductive system development and caused vaginal cancer. Those effects took place 15 years or so after the exposure to an endocrine disruptor.
What products contain endocrine disruptors?
Dr. Axe gives us a list of the “dirty dozen” endocrine disruptors: BPA, dioxin, atrazine, phthalates (think “fragrance” ingredients; this one is also used to make cosmetics stick to your body longer), perchlorate, fire retardants, lead, arsenic, mercury, PFCs (nonstick cookware), organophosphate pesticides, and glycol ethers.
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.
What You Can Do
I’ve got something for you! Organic. All natural. Chemical free skin care products!
Comment below and let me know what your initial guess % was! Were you surprised? Do you have plans to clean out your bathroom cabinets or are you already loving some natural skin care products?