Skin-deep dilemmas

July 28, 1995

The page in The THES allotted to research is, I am sure, generally appreciated by readers. However, I must object to the form of presentation of the article on "skin" (July 7) which was characteristic of the better known tabloids and likely to enhance "chemophobia" but, at the same time, improve the lot of the British rubber glove manufacturers!

The statement that "skin absorbs virtually any chemical that touches it", surely, needs qualification. It is quite frightening to make a blinkered extrapolation from the home and the aromatherapy parlour to other places where chemicals predominate which, of course, happens to be everywhere!

Many questions were surely raised at the Imperial College conference and readily answered by the St Mary's team. However, one would like to know how mankind, with this highly permeable skin, has lasted for so long bathed in a sea of biogenic and, more recently in geological time, anthropogenic compounds. Could it be that the tissue employed for this study was not covered with a normal, healthy layer of "grease" which, in vivo, would provide some kind of barrier to chemicals which would be renewable in the presence or absence of personal hygiene programmes. In the event of a "leak", no doubt the impressive array of internal biochemical protective mechanisms, would normally deal with the problem. If not, I can see no way in which the evolution of animal species could have progressed to its present level. Let us all try to remember that:

* chemicals are rather essential

* the word "chemical" is rarely synonymous with "poisonous"

* let us not frighten the public unnecessarily.

Until there is unequivocal proof to the contrary, I would not be too worried about skin absorption of wood from your tabletop, oxalic acid from your rhubarb or phenols from your mulch.


Emeritus professor of biochemistry

Royal Holloway

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