What’s the health risk from bisphenols in receipts?


Great news that BPA (Bisphenol A) on till receipts and tickets are banned in the EU from January 2020.  Unfortunately, new coatings of other kinds of bisphenol, like Bisphenol S, described as suspected of ‘damaging fertility or the unborn child’ are replacing BPA and our investigations of what retailers use on their receipts reveals the chemicals that come with your shopping. Dr Becky Gait asks, ‘Is it OK to get bisphenol coated thermal paper on our skin?’

Here’s the Rub: Bisphenols from receipts can be absorbed through your skin

We’re not OK with plastics in our oceans or in our bodies and, thanks in part to Blue Planet II, there’s global concern about this issue. But did you know that our bodies, our oceans and our soils are also full of industrially made chemicals, that are used to make all the things we take for granted, like our clothes, our food packaging, our cosmetics and even the humble till receipt? Some of these chemicals are known to cause harm to people and wildlife and yet they are still being used, despite alternatives being available.

Are we ok with industrial chemicals in our blood?

PFAS in polar bears, flame retardants in puffins, bisphenols in fish and frogs, and in nearly 100% of humans in big biomonitoring studies [1].These chemicals get there because folks make stuff with them, we buy the stuff, and it gets into humans and the environment either when it’s made, when it’s used or when we’re finished with it. At Fidra, we’re not OK with that. The time has come for a step change in manufacturing, retail and regulation, to stop selling products containing these harmful chemicals so that you and the environment are not exposed.

It should be simple.   Alternatives exist.

Fidra are launching a Chemicals Pollution Programme to do our bit to try and reduce the chemicals that you’re exposed to in everyday life. From the PFAS on your paper food packaging, stain proofing on your clothing,  flame retardants on your furniture, and to the bisphenols on your receipts.  We want to show retailers and governments that safer alternatives already exist and that exposing us and the wider environment is not OK.

From January 2020, Bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disruptor, will be banned from use on thermal paper in the UK and EU. This means all receipts, tickets and sticky labels shouldn’t contain BPA. All good, right?

Sadly, it’s not. We’re concerned the ban on BPA in till receipts, which was brought in because of an occupational concern for cashiers’ health, won’t protect them because the BPA can just be replaced by a similar bisphenol chemical that has potential to cause the same health concerns.

What harm can a bit of paper do?

Aside from all the problems with cutting down trees to make receipts and other environmental issues with manufacture, we also know that bisphenols as a group are hazardous to human health and to the environment. Even Bisphenol S (BPS), the one that’s increasingly being used to replace BPA in thermal papers, is regarded as a ‘reproductive toxicant’ which means it’s suspected to cause harm to an unborn child, or damage fertility [2].  Bisphenols are also thought to cause eye, skin and respiratory irritation and have long term effects on aquatic species.

I can’t be exposed that much by just touching a bit of paper, can I?

So, we know that bisphenols have the potential to cause harm to human health, as well as to the environment. But in order to do harm, the bisphenol must first get into your body, so you need a route for exposure.

Whilst the first studies done on this by the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA), came under some criticism [3]; other studies suggest that you can pick up quite a lot of bisphenol through your skin by touching receipts [4]. Plus, if you’re working on a till all day long and printing off reems of paper, you’re clearly exposed to more of it, and more frequently, than someone just picking up one and throwing it straight in the bin. That’s not even considering exposure that might happen if a young child inadvertently chews on the receipt.

So, in short, your body can take in bisphenols just by touching paper, but how long your skin’s in contact for and how much of your skin touches the paper increases the amount your body might absorb.

But surely the dose you get from touching a paper receipt isn’t a problem?

Let’s put it in perspective. At Fidra we’re not saying you’re health is affected by picking up a single receipt. You’re exposed to bisphenols from lots of other sources too (like through food can coatings and other food packaging), so it’s just one more added exposure you could do without. Although one receipt alone is unlikely to cause you harm, we’ve got a few concerns:

Firstly, it’s not OK to accept that we’re all going to be constantly exposed to bisphenols and other potentially hazardous chemicals. Scientists just don’t know yet what the cumulative exposure to a cocktail of other chemicals is doing to our bodies. They’re starting to look, but just now, no one can tell you your individual risk from having bisphenols, mixed with other chemicals you’re exposed to, in your body. We think it is a good idea to take harmful chemicals out of stuff where we don’t need it.

Secondly the health of folks who work in industries making stuff with bisphenols [5],[6] is affected.  That’s not OK.

Finally, it’s not OK for the wildlife that are affected, or that bisphenols are widespread environmental pollutants [7],[8] .

Why bother doing anything about it if we don’t know for sure it’s going to cause harm?

For paper receipts particularly, we believe that this is an example of a hazardous chemical we don’t really need being used in a product that most of us don’t really want. Given the reproductive toxicant effect of other bisphenols, and concerns about the health effect on cashiers and their unborn children, governments should ban all bisphenols from use on thermal till receipts, not just BPA. The current process for banning chemicals one at a time is dangerously slow.

Pragmatic approach

Luckily, some UK retailers, such as the Co-op, have already stopped using all bisphenols in till receipts, a step in the right direction for environmental health. Others are following suit. So, here’s the simple win:

 We’d like to see Scottish and UK governments ban all bisphenols from thermal papers.  Retailers have shown they can manage without them, now let’s ensure the legislation follows suit.

Meanwhile, what can you do?

  • Say no to till receipts and tickets when you don’t need them
  • Ask for digital receipts instead
  • If you really need a paper receipt, try not to touch it too much, and don’t give receipts to little kids to play with


About the Author Dr Becky Gait:  With a background in General Practice and Public Health Medicine, Becky set up Fidra in 2013 to shine a light on emerging environmental issues and to deliver pragmatic, evidence-based solutions to achieve positive environmental change.



[1] http://www.umweltbundesamt.at/fileadmin/site/presse/news_2016/analytiknews/bimo2016_0002.pdf

[2] https://echa.europa.eu/substance-information/-/substanceinfo/100.001.137#OTHER_IDENTIFIERScontainer

[3] Bernier MR, Vandenberg LN. Handling of thermal paper: Implications for dermal exposure to bisphenol A and its alternatives. PLoS One. 2017;12(6):e0178449. Published 2017 Jun 1. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0178449

[4] Toner F et al.  In vitro percutaneous absorption and metabolism of Bisphenol A (BPA) through fresh human skin.  Toxicology in Vitro. 2018 March; 147-155

[5]  Heinalal M, Ylinen KTuomi TSantonen TPorras SP1. Assessment of Occupational Exposure to Bisphenol A in Five Different Production Companies in Finland. Ann Work Expo Health. 2017 Jan 1;61(1):44-55.

[6]  Ribeiro E, Ladeira C, Viegas S. Occupational Exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA): A Reality That Still Needs to Be Unveiled. Toxics. 2017;5(3):22. Published 2017 Sep 13.

[7] Chen D.; Kannan K.; Tan H.; Zheng Z.; Feng Y.-L.; Wu Y.; Widelka M. Bisphenol analogues other than BPA: Environmental occurrence, human exposure, and toxicity—a review. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2016, 50, 5438–545310.1021/acs.est.5b05387

[8] Wu HL et al.  Occurrence of bisphenol S in the environment and implications for human exposure: A short review.  Sci Total Environment. 2018 Feb 15;615:87-98

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