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Can Fentanyl Be Absorbed Through the Skin? | Safety Measures

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Mar 12, 2024 • 8 cited sources

Yes, fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin, though it is rare for someone to accidentally absorb the drug through their skin. 

Fentanyl comes in a variety of forms, including patches, powders and pills. While it is technically possible to absorb fentanyl through the skin, accidental exposure is more likely to occur when someone accidentally breathes it in or takes a pill without realizing that it contains fentanyl than if they were to actually have it brush against their skin.

Ohio State University reports that fentanyl can only be absorbed through skin contact when it comes in patch form. Powdered forms pose minimal risks unless accidentally inhaled or swallowed.[1] 

To limit exposure risks while handling any form of fentanyl, use gloves and appropriate protective gear. Try not to touch your face when handling the drug.

How Common Is Exposure Via Skin Contact?

While accidental exposure to fentanyl is a significant problem due to its potent opioid properties, illicit powdered fentanyl rarely penetrates through skin even if there is direct contact with the drug.[2] 

The bigger risk might be accidental inhalation or ingestion of fentanyl when it comes into direct skin contact. That is, if someone were to have the drug on their hands and not realize it and then rub their eyes, wipe their nose or eat something and accidentally ingest the drug that way, it could be problematic. 

Risk of Skin Exposure With Each Type of Fentanyl

The risk of skin exposure will vary with each type of fentanyl, but again, it is unlikely to cause significant harm due to accidental exposure. For example, the risk of significant exposure to first responders who may unknowingly handle fentanyl is deemed “extremely low.”[5] An average person would have to be in continual direct content with fentanyl for days in order to be affected by the drug via skin absorption.[7]

Here is how risk breaks down according to the type of fentanyl:[3,5,6]

  • Pills, tablets or capsules: The risk of absorption via skin exposure is very low.
  • Liquid: There is a greater risk of skin exposure than with tablets or pills, but the overall risk still remains low.
  • Powder: This can also result in a greater risk of skin exposure than tablets or capsules, but the larger risk with powder is in regard to accidental inhalation.
  • Patches: Since these patches are designed to administer fentanyl dermally, there is a risk of exposure if they are touched. However, it takes hours for this to present a significant risk, particularly since the patches are designed to slowly release the medication over a period of many hours or days. If patches are touched accidentally and briefly, the risk of exposure is extremely low.

The Dangers of Fentanyl Exposure to the Skin

Fentanyl exposure, whether accidental or purposeful, poses serious risks of overdose and respiratory depression. If you must handle the drug, it is a good idea to wear gloves and a mask if you have concerns and then to dispose of those items carefully when you are done.

If you accidentally come into contact with the adhesive side of a fentanyl patch, which is designed to adhere to the skin and release doses of fentanyl throughout the day, it could potentially put you at risk. These patches are medicinal and available only by prescription, so using them is as risky as taking a pill or breathing in the powder.[3] 

However, absorption of fentanyl via a patch occurs slowly over time, not instantly or immediately. As long as you remove the patch promptly and wash thoroughly, the risk of exposure is considered low. 

How to Protect Yourself From Fentanyl Exposure

Protecting yourself from exposure to fentanyl is paramount due to its extreme potency and risk of harm. 

Here are some things that you can do to protect yourself from accidental fentanyl exposure:[4,5] 

Avoid Illicit Substances

Avoiding exposure to fentanyl is best achieved through abstaining entirely from illicit drugs, including any substance obtained from unknown or unregulated sources. It is common for people to believe that they are purchasing heroin or even prescription pills on the street but find out that these illicit drugs actually contain fentanyl.

Increase Understanding of How Fentanyl Is Misused 

Fentanyl poses serious threats to people whether it is received through a prescription or purchased on the street, due to its widespread presence in counterfeit pills and illicit street drugs. Always protect yourself when using or handling any substance. Fentanyl test strips serve as a harm reduction measure for those purchasing illicit drugs.

Receive Training

If your profession involves potential contact with fentanyl, such as if you are in the healthcare industry or law enforcement, make sure you receive sufficient training on how to handle the drug safely. 

Use PPE 

When in situations where there is the possibility of exposure to fentanyl, wear disposable nitrile gloves as a measure to protect yourself. Additional personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and goggles, may also be necessary depending on the situation. In some cases, full gowns may be recommended.

Practice Hand Hygiene

After handling substances that could contain fentanyl, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly. Avoid touching your face, mouth or eyes until you are sure they are clean.

Dispose of Fentanyl Safely 

Follow all hazardous waste disposal regulations when disposing of gloves, PPE and any materials contaminated with fentanyl or when disposing of the drug itself. Used fentanyl patches should always be folded sticky side in and disposed of in trash bins that can’t be accessed by pets or children.

Keep Naloxone on Hand

If you or anyone in your circle are at risk of accidental exposure to fentanyl due to line of employment or substance misuse, carry Narcan (naloxone). This opioid overdose reversal medication can save your life. 

Ask for Help

If you believe you may have come into contact with fentanyl or are in an environment in which exposure could occur, immediately alert others and seek medical help. Even if you are uncertain of your level of risk, it’s best to seek help.

Symptoms of Fentanyl Exposure

Fentanyl exposure symptoms vary based on the dosage, route of ingestion (inhalation or skin contact) and individual sensitivity to the drug. A “safe” dose for one person may be fatal for someone else.

While fentanyl intoxication or overdose is very unlikely via skin exposure, you should still take steps to promptly wash your hands thoroughly if you are exposed to the drug. Look for these signs of fentanyl exposure as well:[3,5,8]

  • Respiratory issues
  • Drowsiness and confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Facial and throat swelling
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Pinpoint pupils 
  • Low blood pressure
  • Bluish skin or lips
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Cardiac issues

If you notice these signs and symptoms, call 911 immediately.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Hall T. Can you overdose from fentanyl from having it touch your skin? The Ohio State University. Published August 4, 2022. Accessed August 20, 2023.
  2. State departments issue guidance around fentanyl exposure. Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Published August 24, 2022. Accessed August 20, 2023.
  3. Connolly L. Can fentanyl be absorbed through your skin? UC Davis Health. Published October 18, 2022. Accessed August 20, 2023.
  4. Preventing occupational exposure to fentanyl. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published April 23, 2018. Accessed August 20, 2023.
  5. Fentanyl safety for first responders. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Published December 2017. Accessed August 20, 2023.
  6. Fentanyl: Emergency responders at risk. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Published February 11, 2020. Accessed January 31, 2024.
  7. Fentanyl exposure in public places. Washington State Department of Health. Published September 26, 2023. Accessed January 31, 2024.
  8. Accidental exposures to fentanyl patches continue to be deadly to children. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Published January 26, 2022. Accessed January 31, 2024.

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