The colourless liquid xylene occurs naturally in petroleum and coal tar, and is included as a solvent in fingernail polish, paint, paint thinners, shellac, and varnish. Workers in the printing and leather industries may come into regular contact with xylene. People can develop negative effects from breathing large amounts of xylene vapours, but xylene usually does not cause significantly harmful effects through skin contact with the liquid or the vapor, according to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Skin irritation is possible when people come in contact with xylene, as noted by the ATSDR. There may be redness and a burning sensation, which typically resolves within one hour after washing off the substance, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS). Some individuals may experience skin dryness and scaling afterward, because xylene has degreasing properties. People who repeatedly get liquid xylene on their skin, or do not wash it off quickly, can develop skin defatting in the affected area. This leads to more extreme drying effects, such as red, itchy, cracking, and peeling skin.
Xylene can be absorbed through the skin, but the CCOHS notes that significant harmful effects are unlikely because the body rapidly breaks down xylene and eliminates it through urine. Children are more susceptible to toxicity from chemicals absorbed through the skin, as noted by the ATSDR. If xylene toxicity were to occur through skin absorption, symptoms could include dizziness, drowsiness, excitement, headache, nausea, tremors, and unsteadiness. Xylene poisoning can result in irregular heartbeat, respiratory depression, reversible liver damage, and coma.
Allergic Skin Reaction
One case report exists of an allergic skin reaction known as contact urticaria, or hives, occurring after an individual was exposed to xylene vapor, according to the CCOHS. This individual later tested positive for xylene allergy in a patch test. The CCOHS notes that the potential for xylene to cause allergic skin reactions cannot be predicted since only one report has been received.