Turnout gear provides protection against dermal exposure to contaminants during firefighting; however, the level of protection is unknown. We explored the dermal contribution to the systemic dose of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other aromatic hydrocarbons in firefighters during suppression and overhaul of controlled structure burns. The study was organized into two rounds, three controlled burns per round, and five firefighters per burn. The firefighters wore new or laundered turnout gear tested before each burn to ensure lack of PAH contamination. To ensure that any increase in systemic PAH levels after the burn was the result of dermal rather than inhalation exposure, the firefighters did not remove their self-contained breathing apparatus until overhaul was completed and they were >30 m upwind from the burn structure. Specimens were collected before and at intervals after the burn for biomarker analysis. Urine was analyzed for phenanthrene equivalents using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and a benzene metabolite (s-phenylmercapturic acid) using liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry; both were adjusted by creatinine. Exhaled breath collected on thermal desorption tubes was analyzed for PAHs and other aromatic hydrocarbons using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. We collected personal air samples during the burn and skin wipe samples (corn oil medium) on several body sites before and after the burn. The air and wipe samples were analyzed for PAHs using a liquid chromatography with photodiode array detection. We explored possible changes in external exposures or biomarkers over time and the relationships between these variables using non-parametric sign tests and Spearman tests, respectively. We found significantly elevated (P < 0.05) post-exposure breath concentrations of benzene compared with pre-exposure concentrations for both rounds. We also found significantly elevated post-exposure levels of PAHs on the neck compared with pre-exposure levels for round 1. We found statistically significant positive correlations between external exposures (i.e. personal air concentrations of PAHs) and biomarkers (i.e. change in urinary PAH metabolite levels in round 1 and change in breath concentrations of benzene in round 2). The results suggest that firefighters wearing full protective ensembles absorbed combustion products into their bodies. The PAHs most likely entered firefighters’ bodies through their skin, with the neck being the primary site of exposure and absorption due to the lower level of dermal protection afforded by hoods. Aromatic hydrocarbons could have been absorbed dermally during firefighting or inhaled during the doffing of gear that was off-gassing contaminants.