Microplastics have been implicated in virtually every single disease you can think of, from autism to Alzheimer’s

In recent decades, rates of skin diseases, from cancer to allergic diseases like eczema, have skyrocketed across the world.

Skin cancer is already one of the most common forms of cancer. In Germany, for example, it’s predicted that cases will double every ten years if cases continue to increase at their current rate of 10% a year.

We’re used to being told, in the case of skin cancer, that sun exposure is one of the main causes, and so those of us with lighter skin tones especially must do as much as we can to protect our skin, including oiling ourselves, like a Thanksgiving turkey, every time the sun pokes its head out from behind the clouds.

But what if our rising exposure to plastics, especially through synthetic clothing, could be a significant part of the problem? That’s what a new study in the journal Environmental Pollution suggests, and I think we have good reason to pay attention.

As the researchers behind the study note, this is the first study to look at the effects of microplastics on skin cells in particular. We’ve had studies of microplastics entering the body through the gut and the lungs, and their effects on these tissues, but not the skin.

Could microplastics be driving the skyrocketing rate of autism diagnosis?

A new study suggests that polystyrene microplastics make a common fungus, candida albicans, more infectious, and that means microplastics might have a role to play in the development of autism. 👇 pic.twitter.com/5BhMhScxsv

— RAW EGG NATIONALIST (@Babygravy9) January 16, 2024

Although this study wasn’t carried out on living creatures (humans or rodents), we can assume that the findings will hold for us and for other animals. In the near future, it’s likely that we’ll have studies of direct microplastic exposure to the skin of animals, whether under experimental conditions in the lab or in the wild, among creatures that are habitually exposed to microplastics in significant quantities on the surface of their bodies—fish and sea creatures, for example.

It’s worth noting that microplastics can probably and do migrate into the skin cells via an internal route too. By that I mean, microplastics enter the body through the gut or lungs, pass into the blood and from the blood end up in skin tissue. Studies have already shown the extent to which microplastics penetrate our tissues once they are inhaled or swallowed. There appears to be no part of our body they can’t reach.

This will make it more complicated, at least in the wild, to determine the extent to which microplastics enter the body via the skin, as opposed to through the mouth or nose. In order to do that, experiments will have to be devised to quantify the exact proportion of microplastic particles that make it through the skin.

Let’s talk about the study.

Skin cells in vitro (in cell culture) were exposed to microplastics and it was shown:

1) that microplastics are absorbed into skin cells in a time- and dose-dependent manner (i.e. more get into skin cells the longer the time of exposure and the larger the amount of exposure);

2) that exposure increases levels of inflammation within the skin cells and damages the mitochondria (the cell machinery responsible for energy production); and

3) that exposure causes an increase in cell senescence, a process which is linked to aging of skin cells and also cancer.

An in vivo model was then used to investigate the effects of microplastics on skin-cell function. It was shown that microplastics inhibit skin-cell regeneration and aggravate inflammatory reactions in the skin.

So what does this mean?

One thing it might mean is that the explosion of skin cancer in recent decades is a result of increased exposure to plastic particles. I’m thinking synthetic clothing, in particular, which is in direct contact with the skin. The more you wear synthetic fibers, the more gets into your skin, the higher the risk of cancer.

The risk might be further aggravated if you have a diet rich in seed and vegetable oils, which are one of the principal components of modern processed foods of every kind. A 1984 study showed that chickens fed corn oil containing high quantities of polyunsaturated fats developed skin tumours at a much higher rate than chickens fed hydrogenated corn oil, which has a fat profile more similar to butter or animal fats.

There’s no need to go into the science in too much detail here, except to say that the composition of the fats in your diet affects the composition of the fats in your body, and the polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils are unstable and readily suffer damage (oxidation) by UV light. This is why bottled oils quickly go rancid if exposed to sunlight.

But it’s not just skin cancer. Microplastic exposure could also be driving the massive rise in allergic skin conditions.

If microplastics are interfering with the skin’s normal immune mechanisms, as the new study suggest, then that might explain why more and more people have extremely sensitive skin. Again, I don’t think plastic would be the only explanation in this case. Diet and the use of copious amounts of personal-care products are two other obvious factors I can think of.

Microplastics are vectors for harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals that reduce testosterone, but according to this new study microplastics also reduce testosterone themselves by quite literally absorbing it and preventing your body from using it. pic.twitter.com/hxdFep2kC6

— RAW EGG NATIONALIST (@Babygravy9) January 12, 2024

Personal-care products like deodorants, fragrances, moisturisers and toners contain enormous quantities of harmful chemicals, many of which are proven to have endocrine-disrupting effects. This means that these chemicals alter the body’s natural hormone balance, with effects ranging from reduced fertility and libido to obesity, diabetes, cancer and even neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s.

The health of the skin microbiome, which is compromised especially by the use of chemical-laced personal-care products, is another factor to consider. As with your gut, if the bacteria aren’t healthy, you aren’t healthy. Skin bacteria are part of the body’s first line of defence: they prevent the invasion of harmful pathogens and help regulate the skin cells.

There are already lots of studies of the interactions between microplastics and bacteria, many of which show that microplastics can encourage the growth of pathogenic bacteria and the spread of antibiotic-resistance genes between species, so it would be interesting to see what effect plastics have on the kinds of bacteria that live on our skin. I would be very surprised if microplastic fragments on the skin didn’t have similar effects.

The new study raises as many questions as it answers, if not more, but that’s no bad thing. In the near future, I hope we’ll have further studies that reveal exactly what these tiny pieces of plastic are doing to our skin and why. In the meantime, my advice would be simple: reduce your reliance on plastics as much as you can. Ditch synthetic fabrics, and not just in your clothing but also in your bedding. Eight hours is a long time every day to spend sweating and rubbing against plastic fibers. Instead, return to the natural fabrics our ancestors wore for the longest stretch of time—cotton, wool, maybe even silk or fur if you’ve got cash to splash.

Whatever you choose, if you don’t reach for the convenience of plastic, your health can only benefit.

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