by Abigail Haines Smith, Biological Medicine Network Manager
With longer daylight hours but brisk temperatures outdoors, March is the perfect month to start spring cleaning! On my list is the usual washing windows and cleaning floors, but most importantly, this is the time when I go through all of my bathroom cabinets to check ingredients and expiration dates, dispose of what I don’t use anymore and reorganize my shelves.
While many people understand the importance of eating organic to avoid chemicals and pesticides, most people do not think about their exposure to chemicals via personal care products. However, these should not be overlooked, because what we use – lotion, deodorant, make-up, sunblock, etc. – is absorbed by our largest organ, our skin, and contribute to our toxic load. In addition, many of these products have a negative environmental impact. Personal care products are highly unregulated and the FDA does not have a pre-approval process for most products.
Parabens are one of the main preservatives used in almost all personal care products. The most commonly found parabens in personal care products are methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isobutyl-, butyl- and benzyl-paraben. Known hormone disruptors, parabens mimic our natural hormones, specifically estrogen, and have been connected with increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive problems in women, and decreased sperm counts, prostate and testicular cancer in men (care2.com).
Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea are additional synthetic preservatives that the American Academy of Dermatologists have established as the primary cause or contact dermatitis (organicconsumers.org).
Because most organic and natural products do not have preservatives, and may expire more quickly than their chemical-laden counterparts, my first step is always to check expiration dates. Organic and natural products can be expensive, so this step always reminds me to think about my next purchase before I make it and only buy what I really need. I also try to think of how I can re-use the container after the product runs out.
Shampoo, Conditioner, Lotion, Hand Soap, Face and Body Wash:
The foaming agent in many of these products are Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). These commonly used surfactants are well-documented skin, lung and eye irritants. On the cellular level, “a condition known as protein denaturing is another result of exposure to SLS. The chemical structure forms a bridge between the fat and water soluble portions at the cellular level. This reduces or eliminates the cell’s ability to heal itself. Over time, the destruction of cellular tissue is irreversible. New protein is affected during the construction process and existing protein is damaged. When the protein is damaged, the body has to expend extra energy to try to heal the distressed cells” (slsfree.net). There are also concerns in the scientific community that it may have cancer-causing effects based on its interaction with other chemicals.
Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical, is a skin irritant and endocrine disrupter mimicking thyroid and reproductive hormones (huffingtonpost.com). In addition, studies show that triclosan may be contributing to antibacterial-resistant bacteria and “super germs.”
Under U.S. regulations, fragrances in cosmetics (which according to the FDA is, “anything applied to a person’s body to make the person more attractive”) do not need to be individually listed on labels and can be listed simply as Fragrance. This is because of an restriction in the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. “This law is not allowed to be used to force a company to tell “trade secrets.” Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be “trade secrets” (fda.gov).
Even products labelled “unscented” may have fragrances to mask the smell of other ingredients. Fragrance therefore, as a category is to difficult to define, as it includes complex and varied mixtures of chemical ingredients, but has been widely linked to allergic reactions, skin irritation and respiratory problems. I look for products that explicitly state that they do not contain synthetic fragrances or voluntarily list their individual components of their fragrance.
In addition to fragrance and parabens, products frequently contain phthalates, a group of chemicals known to be endocrine disrupters. The most commonly used phthalate in personal care products are diethyl- and dimethyl-phthalate, which have been linked to reproductive birth defects as well as an increased risk of breast cancer (sciencedaily.com and huffingtonpost.com). Because phthalates are commonly used in fragrances, they fall under the same labelling protections from the FDA and are frequently not listed on the ingredient lists.
Many exfoliating soaps and scrubs contain microbeads, tiny plastic pieces that are especially detrimental to the environment of our lakes, rivers and streams. These tiny beads are too small to be filtered out in the water treatment process and are ending up in our fresh water, where fish ingest them as they look like food. The plastics are killing fish and scientists suggest that the chemicals could be passed to humans and wildlife as well (npr.org).
There are many concerning ingredients in toothpaste. SLS (described above) and microbeads are frequently in toothpaste, advertised to increase the cleaning and scrubbing power. Functionally, toothpaste just needs to be a paste, but because of the commonly included SLS, most of us expect our toothpaste to create foam or lather when we brush.
Another hotly debated issue is the inclusion of fluoride in almost all toothpastes in the mainstream market. I personally choose not to use toothpaste with fluoride but do understand that it does kill enzymes in the mouth that can contribute to tooth decay. More information about this discussion is available here.
The concerns over sunscreen and sunblock are two-fold, as the active ingredients in most commercial products have been shown to cause health problems and there is a growing debate over whether the public health crisis of Vitamin D deficiency is caused in some part by limited sun exposure.
In addition to often containing the chemicals already discussed, sunscreen and sunblock frequently contain two or more of the following chemicals: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Some of the health effects linked to these chemicals include allergic reactions, hormone disruption, increased risk of endometriosis and decrease in sperm production (ewg.org). The Environmental Working Group website has a very good list of the active ingredient toxicities of these chemicals.
Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency is now considered a global public-health problem, affecting an estimated 1 billion people worldwide and resulting in increases in many diseases including rickets, osteomalacia, skeletal diseases, metabolic disorders, cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, infections and cognitive disorders (medicinenet.com). Our body needs sunlight in order to produce Vitamin D. Our culture is increasingly spending more time indoors and when we do go outside we are fearful of developing skin cancer, so apply sunscreen. Therefore our skin rarely is exposed to the sun’s rays.
Personally, when spending time outdoors, I expose my skin to the sun for about 20 minutes and then either find shade, put on a hat and cover-up – or if I can’t help but be in the sun, apply a mineral-based sunscreen.
Also used in other personal care products, synthetic colors and dyes are very common in makeup and cosmetics. Synthetic colors are labelled FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and number. Synthetic colors have been linked to cancer as well as ADHD in children (organicconsumer.org and huffingtonpost.com)
Important to note, in addition to the chemicals previously discussed, an increasing number of foundations, lip balms and powders now include sunscreen as an active ingredient.
Nail polish specifically is made up of some surprisingly dangerous chemicals including formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, toluene, camphor and dibutyl phthalate, a mix of toxic chemicals known to be carcinogenic and have detrimentally effects on immune, respiratory and nervous system functions (rawlifecoaching.com). While we are not necessarily “absorbing” these chemicals through our skin as we do with other personal care products, many women absent-mindedly put their fingers near their mouth or may even bite their fingernails while wearing nail polish. I became especially concerned with nail polish chemicals watching my now 10 year old niece’s interest in nail polish begin at just a 3 years old when she still put her fingers into her mouth frequently.
Deodorant vs. Antiperspirants:
Many of the chemicals explained above are also in most deodorants and antiperspirants, including high amounts of frangrances. The difference between the two products is that deodorant neutralizes or masks armpit odor, while antiperspirant containing aluminum, clogs your pores so that you do not sweat. Dr. Joseph Mercola explains, “Not only does this block one of your body’s routes for detoxification (releasing toxins via your underarm sweat), but it raises concerns about where these metals are going once you roll them (or spray them) on” (mercola.com). Studies have shown an increase in aluminum in the breasts of women with breast cancer, causing discussion of whether antiperspirant may increase your chance of developing breast cancer. Dr. Mercola’s article provides a great review of this argument.
These are some of my quick tips and are by no means an exhaustive list of all of the potential harmful chemicals. The Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep website is a wonderful resource to research the ingredients in your favorite products.
Read the ingredients when you dispose. Most organic products can be composted or flushed down the toilet. However, if the product has chemicals, you don’t want it to end up in your septic tank and leech into the ground water and soil, so unfortunately the trash is the only option.
Rinse containers and try to think of alternate uses for the bottles and jars. For example, I find a lot of use in the garden, using shampoo bottles and spray bottles to mix and apply natural pest control or fertilizers and small jars to save seeds. If you can’t find a second use for your container, check for a recycling symbol and dispose of accordingly.