While lungs remain the main way by which air pollutants get into the body, and, if in sufficient quantities, cause ill-health effects, a new study shows that certain pollutants (‘semi-volatiles’ like phthalates) can be drawn in by the skin.

This effect is known as ‘dermal uptake’ and the levels absorbed can be equivalent to those drawn in through breathing via the lungs.

Phthalates are esters of phthalic acid. They are used as plasticizers (substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility). Some reports indicate that these substances can, in sufficient concentrations and over a prolonged period of exposure, cause asthma and cancer.

The new finding is based on a formal study. Researchers examined six participants, who were exposed to elevated air concentrations of the chemicals diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di(n-butyl) phthalate (DnBP). DEP is used as a solvent in personal care products, like moisturizers, DnBP is used as a plasticizer, such as in nail polish.

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