Your grill is a cancer risk (in more ways than one)

by Shannan Rouss ; Updated May 25, 2018

Just being around the grill this Memorial Day weekend could increase your cancer risk.

You probably already knew that grilled meat contains cancer-causing chemicals. But now a new study has found that some of those same chemicals — namely polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, in barbecue smoke — can be absorbed through your skin. What that means is that just being around the grill this Memorial Day weekend could increase your cancer risk. (Great timing, right?)

According to the National Cancer Institute, barbecue-related PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat you’re cooking burn on the grill. The toxic chemicals are in the smoke, which stick to your charred burger or steak. Just to give you a little more context, PAHs are also released when wood, coal, tobacco and oil or gas are burned: They’re in everything from cigarette smoke to car exhaust.

While eating grilled meat will obviously expose you to PAHs, as will breathing in the smoky, meaty scent, researchers were surprised to discover that you can also absorb the chemicals through your skin.

In the latest study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, participants were divided into groups and exposed to varying degrees of grilled food and barbecue smoke at an outdoor cookout. Researchers then tested the amount of PAHs in their system (by way of urine samples) and found that the grilled-food group had the highest amount of PAH exposure — no shocker there. But the second-highest exposure rates came from skin contact, not inhaling the smoke.

As the American Chemical Society explained on Science Daily, the researchers determined that “the oils in barbecue fumes likely enhance skin uptake of PAHs.” Researchers also found that your clothes may initially provide a buffer against PAHs. But once your garments are “saturated with barbecue smoke,” all bets are off, and you may take in even more PAHs.

To limit your exposure to PAHs, researchers suggest washing your clothes promptly after a big cookout — that and avoiding hovering near the flames if you can help it. If you’re the chef, there are still ways to reduce the amount of PAHs released at your next barbecue. Writing on Harvard Health Blog, Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., suggests marinating meat in a thin sauce to protect it from PAHs in smoke, precooking meat in the microwave (and tossing out the resulting juices that can burn on the grill) and flipping your patties frequently, which cuts down on dripping juices. Trust us — your guests will thank you.

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What Do YOU Think?

Are you planning to host or attend a barbecue this weekend? Will you do anything differently now that you know PAHs can be absorbed through skin? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author

Shannan Rouss is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She has written for magazines including Self, Prevention, Glamour and Cosmopolitan, and her work has appeared online at, and elsewhere.