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Why it's dangerous to use hand sanitizer before handling receipts

Over the course of a day, how often do you handle receipts? Think about it: You stick one in your pocket after stopping at an ATM, toss one in the trash after grabbing your morning coffee, and sign your signature on the check at dinner.

Well, these proofs of purchase have a dirty little secret: The chemical BPA is present in the thermal paper used to create receipts, as well as bus, plane, and train tickets. It helps dyes bind to the paper better to make printing more visible—but it can also heighten your risk of developing cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other diseases, as the chemical can sink into your body via the skin on your hands, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. 

Your first instinct may be to pour on the Purell, but think again. Hand sanitizers, as well as cosmetic products like hand lotions, actually make your skin more permeable. The study found that hand sanitizers increased BPA absorption by a factor of 100 or more.

The researchers first observed people at fast-food restaurants among other establishments in Columbia, Missouri. They noticed a large percentage of shoppers use hand sanitizer—it’s something millions of people habitually do every day. In the study, researchers had a portion of volunteers handle receipts with dry hands, and others to do the same after using Purell brand hand sanitizer. Those who used Purell absorbed 10 times more BPA from the receipts. What’s more, scientists also observed higher levels of BPA in blood serum and urine levels when subjects ingested food after handling receipts—another action millions of people unthinkingly do every day.

BPA exposure through food, though, is not as dangerous as contact through the skin; 99% of the chemicals ingested are quickly eliminated by the liver, study author and University of Missouri researcher Frederick vom Saal told Newsweek. No such luck with skin exposure. When BPA comes in contact with your skin, it travels into the bloodstream where it stays—for much longer. Repeated high exposure can lead to a range of conditions from liver abnormalities to heart attacks.

Saal didn’t say whether or not absorption could be entirely prevented, but he did suggest staying away from permeability-aiding chemicals like isopropyl myristate, propylene glycol, and ethanol. In short, keep your hands sanitizer-free. Instead, stick to old-fashioned soap and water, or take a tip from Jake Gyllenhaal and become a modern-day Bubble Boy, which is suddenly becoming much more appealing. Good luck out there…

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