People who applied lotion or hand sanitizer before handling thermal paper receipts showed in follow-up blood tests elevated levels of the controversial compound bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, a new study finds.

BPA has been heavily researched since the early 1980s, but it’s only been within the last decade that federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority have started looking into its effects on personal health. As a hormone disruptor, it’s been implicated as a factor for impaired fetal development, obesity, and certain cancers.

“Use of BPA or other similar chemicals that are being used to replace BPA in thermal paper pose a threat to human health,” said Frederick vom Saal, professor in biological science at the University of Missouri, in a statement. In 2008, for instance, the National Institutes of Health held a panel to weigh the risks of BPA. Ultimately, the organization determined it had “some concern” about the compound’s effects on fetal brain development. Two years later, the FDA upheld the panels’ conclusions.

To better understand how BPA gets into the body, vom Saal and his colleagues gathered a small group of people to handle receipts after having used hand lotion and hand sanitizer. These products are designed essentially to make the skin more porous, allowing drugs and other substances to sink through the dermal layers of skin. Some subjects also handled French fries after touching the receipts, leading them to digest the BPA. Follow-up urine tests showed BPA levels spiked after both cases.

“BPA from thermal papers will be absorbed into your blood rapidly,” vom Saal said, especially when the person’s hands were recently sanitized. Subjects who held the receipts for as little as two seconds had 40 percent of the maximum BPA left on their hands. This level peaked at around the one-minute mark, before tailing off until the four-minute cap — presumably due to absorption into the skin. Urine tests showed total absorption after 90 minutes fell at around 20 micrograms of BPA.

Prior research has found the so-called Tolerable Daily Intake for BPA, for a 60-kilogram (132-pound) person, is 3,000 micrograms a day, or 50 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day. For some, that risk is negligible. But for others, specifically those who work retail jobs and handle BPA-laced receipts all day, exposure is rampant, which means they face a greater risk for illness. “At those levels,” vom Saal said, “many diseases such as diabetes and disorders such as obesity increase as well.”

BPA didn’t start off as a vilified substance. It began as an honest estrogen supplement. But then scientists discovered it disrupts certain hormone signaling processes, and meanwhile, manufacturers began using it in their plastic and paper products because of its high industrial quality. Now, researchers like vom Saal worry the daily exposure to BPA-containing products may pose serious threats to certain populations, particularly pregnant women, as their daily exposure also threatens healthy brain development in the growing fetus.

Unfortunately, as the team points out, alternatives to BPA are few and far between. Its industrial use value is simply too great to abandon for “some concern” over negative effects. But for consumers wanting to avoid BPA in the course of their daily lives, avoiding lotion or hand sanitizers before working with plastic or receipts may be a good place to start.

Source: Hormann, vom Saal F, Nagel S, et al. Holding Thermal Receipt Paper and Eating Food after Using Hand Sanitizer Results in High Serum Bioactive and Urine Total Levels of Bisphenol A (BPA). PLOS ONE. 2014.