BPA and Skin Exposure: Chemical Easily Moves from Receipts into Your Body

BPA is seriously the worst, but a $10 billion industry stands in the way of banning it for good.

February 27, 2014


What do stopping for your morning coffee, grabbing a sandwich at noon, filling up your gas tank, and making an after-work trip to the grocery store all have in common? Although we wish that was the intro to a really bad joke, the truth is they all expose you to concerning levels of bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical that acts like estrogen and harms everything from your brain and heart to your reproductive tract.


While canned food usually gets most of the blame when it comes to our contact with the hormone-altering chemical, more studies are finding that skin exposure to BPA is a real threat, too.

The latest research, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that handling thermal paper used for movie and airline tickets and ATM, gas-pump, and store receipts reliably leads to BPA transfer into your body.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center researchers asked 24 volunteers to handle thermal receipts for two hours. Half did so wearing gloves, while the other half touched receipts without gloves. Scientists collected urine samples before and after the experiment to see if touching receipts led to an increase in bodily BPA levels. It did. On average, BPA levels tripled after touching receipts without gloves.

The spike in levels wasn't as high as what scientists see when people eat a can of soup, but the increase was significant, especially considering how many times a day we touch receipts or just toss them into our bags with other things we touch daily like keys, lip balm, and lipstick.

While the average person can cut down on this unnecessary BPA exposure by saying no to trivial receipts, the researchers are even more concerned about cashiers who may spend 40-plus hours a week handling chemical-coated receipts.

BPA in Receipts? Why?
Heat-sensitive thermal paper is coated in colorless BPA powder because it helps bind to dye to form the letters and numbers you see on receipts. "When you touch thermal paper, you're getting exposed to massive amounts of BPA," explains veteran BPA researcher Frederick vom Saal, PhD, Curators' Professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "Until recently, we didn't know that. It's just one example of BPA being used in a way that I never would have thought about."

Although vom Saal wasn't involved in the latest receipt study, his team just published another important BPA paper finding that small doses of chemical—traces that vanish in less 3 hours—readily pass through a mother's placenta and into her unborn child, creating multi-systemic, abnormal changes in the fetus' brain, mammary glands, uterus, lungs, and ovaries.

"A lot of people think of the placenta as a fortress, protecting the fetus from environmental insults," explains BPA researcher Laura Vandenberg, PhD, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at University of Massachusetts–Amherst. "But we know from conditions like fetal alcohol syndrome that all kinds of things can reach the developing fetus and have drastic effects there."

The Upside of Dry Skin?
While the biggest concern for BPA-related skin exposure may be for cashiers, a 2010 study published in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry suggests we should all be careful.

Scientists found BPA transferred from paper to the skin after handling a receipt for just a few seconds. People with greasier skin due to moisturizers or oils absorbed 10 times more BPA compared to people with drier skin. Using alcohol-based hand sanitizer also increased absorption, so rely on hand-washing, not sanitizers, to remove chemical residues after touching receipts.

Get to a sink as soon as you can, too. The longer hands go unwashed, the more BPA researchers say is absorbed through the skin and into the body. In the 2010 study, 75 percent of BPA vanished from the skin after two hours, leading researchers to think it migrated into the body.

That's concerning given that the nonprofit Environmental Working Group has found in its own testing that some receipts harbor BPA levels up to 1,000 times higher than those detected in the linings of metal cans.

BPA's Ill Health Effects
So why does BPA and skin exposure matter, anyway? Hundreds of scientific, peer-reviewed, studies have linked the chemical to numerous health problems, including:
• Infertility
• Breast cancer
• Polycystic ovarian syndrome
• Abnormal sperm
• Birth defects
• Obesity
• Cardiovascular disease

Protect Yourself
The U.S. does not have strong laws in place that require long-term testing of chemicals to figure out their impacts on human health. Despite that, there are several things you can do to drastically cut down on your exposure to BPA:
• Say no to receipts you don't need.
• Place receipts you do need to save in an envelope or zip-top bag—not your wallet or the bottom of your purse.
• Opt for fresh or frozen food instead of canned.
• Avoid #7 polycarbonate plastic containers for food and water.
• Avoid heating plastic in the microwave—the heat makes it break down faster.
• Don't always trust BPA replacements. Some have been shown to be just as toxic as BPA.

For more details on how BPA creates trouble inside of us, read 5 Weird Things BPA's Doing to Your Body.