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Microplastics carry toxic chemicals that are easily absorbed by skin

Let’s be honest, the world loves plastic as it’s cheap, durable, and easy to manufacture. However, scientists have uncovered a shocking truth: toxic chemicals from microplastics can seep through the skin, entering our environment and bodies in unexpected ways.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic, each typically measuring less than 5 millimeters in length. These tiny fragments originate from two main sources: the gradual breakdown of larger plastic items and the intentional addition to consumer products.

Over time, larger plastic items such as water bottles, grocery bags, and packaging materials degrade due to exposure to environmental factors like sunlight, wind, and water abrasion.

This degradation process breaks the plastics into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microplastics. These fragments are often so tiny that they go unnoticed to the naked eye, but they accumulate widely in the environment.

Microplastics in daily lives

Certain products, particularly personal care items like face washes and toothpastes, have microplastics added deliberately. These are usually in the form of microbeads, which are designed to serve specific functions such as exfoliating the skin.

While some countries have started regulating or banning microbeads, various products worldwide still contain them.

Microplastics are omnipresent in our daily lives, infiltrating more than just water bodies. The fabrics of the clothing we wear embed microplastics, releasing fibers with each wash. Similarly, products like synthetic fleece are significant contributors to microplastic pollution.

Toxic chemicals in microplastics

Many plastic products incorporate additives known as flame retardants. These chemicals are designed to slow the ignition and spread of fire, enhancing the safety of products ranging from electronics to furniture.

However, flame retardants pose a variety of health risks. Research has linked these chemicals to several adverse effects including hormonal disruptions, neurological issues, and even certain types of cancer. This makes the presence of these chemicals in everyday environments a significant concern for public health.

Adding to these concerns, a recent discovery by University of Birmingham sheds new light on another hazard posed by plastics.

Accumulation of toxic chemicals from microplastics

Microplastics are known to accumulate in the bodies of marine organisms, and when humans consume seafood, they can ingest these particles.

The concern here is not only the physical presence of microplastics but also the chemicals that these plastics carry, including those banned substances from older products.

However, this startling study revealed that the threat posed by microplastics is not limited to ingestion. The researchers discovered that microplastics can interact with the human body in another, more insidious way: through our skin.

Chemical cargo released by microplastics

The team found that when microplastics come into contact with human sweat, they can release their chemical cargo.

This process occurs because many of the chemicals bound to microplastics are not firmly attached; they are merely blended or added to the plastic matrix and can leach out when conditions change, such as when exposed to moisture from sweat.

Once in the sweat, the skin can absorb these chemicals. This way, they enter the bloodstream, potentially causing harmful effects.

Even routine contact with microplastics — such as wearing synthetic fabrics that shed microfibers, or touching surfaces coated with degraded plastic dust — could pose a health risk.

Skin and toxic chemicals from microplastics

Using these realistic skin models, the researchers conducted experiments where they exposed the skin to microplastics that were laced with flame retardants.

The results of their experiments were striking. Within just 24 hours of exposure, up to 8% of the flame retardants had migrated from the microplastics into the skin model.

Furthermore, the study revealed that the rate of absorption was even higher in conditions that simulated sweaty skin. This is particularly alarming as it suggests that in real-world scenarios, such as during physical activity or in hot climates where people sweat more, the skin may absorb even more toxins from microplastics.

“Microplastics are everywhere in the environment and yet we still know relatively little about the health problems that they can cause. Our research shows that they play a role as ‘carriers’ of harmful chemicals, which can get into our bloodstream through the skin,” explained Dr. Ovokeroye Abafe, one of the study’s researcher.

Health impacts form of microplastics chemicals

When these harmful chemicals enter the body — whether through ingestion, inhalation, or absorption through the skin — they can start to interfere with the body’s internal systems.

As the concentration of these chemicals increases, their toxic effects become more pronounced. For instance, they might start interfering with liver function.

The liver is crucial for detoxifying the blood and processing chemicals. But, when overloaded with toxins, its efficiency can diminish, leading to liver damage.

Similarly, these chemicals can affect the nervous system, which controls everything from muscle movement to memory. Exposure to certain chemicals can result in neurological impairments, ranging from decreased cognitive function to more severe neurological disorders.

Moreover, many of these chemicals are known to be carcinogenic, meaning they can contribute to the development of cancer. They can alter the DNA or cause other forms of cellular damage, leading to uncontrolled cell growth.

Additionally, these chemicals can disrupt hormonal balance, leading to reproductive issues such as infertility or developmental problems in offspring.

“These findings provide important evidence for regulators and policymakers to improve legislation around microplastics and safeguard public health against harmful exposure,” said Dr. Mohamed Abdallah, Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

Future directions

There’s a pressing need for more research on microplastics and their health implications. Scientists are still unraveling how these particles enter our systems — whether through skin, inhalation, or ingestion — and the full spectrum of health risks associated with them.

Understanding these aspects is crucial for assessing the potential dangers and developing strategies to mitigate exposure.

There are things we can do to reduce the number of microplastics out there, but ultimately, minimizing our exposure is crucial.

This means making more careful choices about the products we use and supporting policies that reduce the use of plastics altogether.

It’s not going to be easy, but it’s a step towards a healthier future for all of us.

The study is published in the journal Environment International.


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