Growing up, we would watch the Wonderful World of Disney on TV every Sunday night as a family. We’d all pile into the living room and the 6 of us kids would vie for a strategic and comfortable viewing spot in front of our black and white TV. There were no remote controls, no flat or big screens, no amazing sound – just an old set of rabbit ears that often needed adjusting!
During the program there were commercials, and I still remember quite a few of them. Dupont Chemical Company commercials promoted the concept of “better living through chemistry”. Those messages suggested that we could improve the quality of our lives with chemical advancements, with the underlying message that chemicals were “progress” and were not only beneficial, but safe, and something to be welcomed.
In the decades since, there have been horrific incidents of environmental contamination, and many human and animal deaths, diseases and health challenges connected to chemicals. Public awareness of the potential dangers of chemicals has risen, but is something we often leave to others. We have been led to believe that there are policies in place and agencies overseeing the safety of chemicals, especially when it comes to the products we regularly purchase. What comes to market and is available for purchase has been thoroughly tested and perfectly safe for us to use, right? Sadly, this is not the case.
In the U.S., the personal care product industry is industry-regulated, meaning they set their own standards (my translation: no regulation!). There are no requirements for manufacturers to test any individual ingredient for safety, nor do they have to test combinations of ingredients for safety. (If you’ve ever taken chemistry, you know that a single substance can be fine on its own but disastrous when combined with other substances!)
Manufacturers don’t even have to list all of their ingredients on product labels. So even if you are a master chemist and could understand the long list of ingredients on most personal care products, you could still purchase and use something that is potentially problematic without realizing.
There are stricter standards in place in other parts of the world, including the European Union, and international companies have to play by those rules if they want a piece of that market. So the big companies are capable of making safer products when they have to, but because it’s cheaper and easier not to, most of them don’t!
Everything you put on your skin gets absorbed into your body. “The average woman uses 12 personal care products daily, exposing her to an average of 168 chemicals EVERY DAY! Teens use even more.”1 If you haven’t yet transitioned to non-toxic products, your morning routine of washing, moisturizing, deodorizing, fixing your hair and applying your makeup is likely to be a “chemical bath”. The good news is that more and more non-toxic options come to market every day, so finding safe products is highly achievable.
Sometimes I see comments from people who aren’t concerned about toxins. They reason that we have the ability to detoxify chemicals within our bodies through our liver, kidneys and other mechanisms. While this is true, we are currently exposed to more chemicals than ever before. This interferes with proper function, reducing our body’s ability to remove toxins, leaving us vulnerable to health challenges. Given the messy circumstances we live in, I believe it is incredibly wise to reduce or eliminate exposure to as many toxins as possible. This approach can significantly reduce the drain on your body and help maintain its ability to continue working hard at detoxifying the things you have little to no control over.
You may suspect that I’m overstating the risk, especially since it’s likely that you’ve been using multiple personal care products for years and are seemingly fine. However, toxins build up over time, and your body will work hard to continue functioning no matter what. It can take years, even decades, of exposure to toxins before you experience health challenges.
Here are 10 common toxins that are likely lurking in your personal care products, and the threat(s) they pose:
~Parabens: Parabens are widely used preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast in cosmetic products. “Parabens possess estrogen-mimicking properties that are associated with increased risk of breast cancer.”
~Synthetic Colors: If you take a look at your product labels and notice FD&C or D&C, they represent artificial colors. “These synthetic colors are derived from petroleum or coal tar sources. Synthetic colors are suspected to be a human carcinogen, a skin irritant, and are linked to ADHD in children. The European Classification and Labeling considers it a human carcinogen and the European Union has banned it.”
~Fragrance: This particular category is pretty scary, because what does “fragrance” mean anyway? This term was created to protect a company’s “secret formula.” But as the consumer you could be putting on a concoction that contains tons of chemicals that are hazardous to your health. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Database, fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system. It can be found in many products such as perfume, cologne, conditioner, shampoo, body wash and moisturizers.
~Phthalates: A group of chemicals used in hundreds of products to increase the flexibility and softness of plastics. The main phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products are dibutyl phthalate in nail polish, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, and dimethyl phthalate in hair spray. They are known to be endocrine disruptors and have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, early breast development in girls, and reproductive birth defects in males and females. Unfortunately, it is not disclosed on every product as it’s added to fragrances (remember the “secret formula” not listed), a major loophole in the law. They can be found in deodorants, perfumes/colognes, hair sprays and moisturizers.
~Triclosan: Triclosan is a widely used antimicrobial chemical that’s a known endocrine disruptor, especially for thyroid and reproductive hormones, and is a skin irritant. Studies raise concerns that triclosan contributes to making bacteria antibiotic-resistant. There isn’t enough evidence to support that washing with antibacterial soaps containing triclosan provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water. Triclosan can be found in toothpastes, antibacterial soaps and deodorants.
~Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) / Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): This surfactant can be found in more than 90% of personal care and cleaning products (think foaming products). SLS’s are known to be skin, lung, and eye irritants. The biggest concern regarding SLS is its potential to interact and combine with other chemicals to form nitrosamines, a carcinogen. These combinations can lead to a host of other issues such as kidney and respiratory damage. They can be found in shampoo, body wash/cleanser, mascara and acne treatment.
~Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRP’s) are used in many cosmetic products to help prevent bacteria growth. This chemical was deemed as a human carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC) and has been linked to occupational related cancers, namely nasal and nasopharyngeal. It is known to cause allergic skin reactions and may also be harmful to the immune system. It can be found in nail polish, body washes, conditioners, shampoos, cleansers, eye shadows and nail polish treatments.
~Toluene: A petrochemical derived from petroleum or coal tar sources, you may see it on labels listed as benzene, toluol, phenylmethane or methylbenzene. Toluene is a potent solvent able to dissolve paint. It can affect your respiratory system, cause nausea and irritate your skin. Expecting mothers should avoid exposure to toluene vapors as it may cause developmental damage in the fetus. Toluene has also been linked to immune system toxicity. It can be found in nail polish, nail treatments and hair color/bleaching products.
~Propylene glycol: Propylene glycol is a small organic alcohol commonly used as a skin-conditioning agent. It’s classified as a skin irritant and penetrator. It has been associated with causing dermatitis as well as hives in humans. These sensitization effects can be manifested at propylene glycol concentrations as low as 2%. It can be found in moisturizers, sunscreen, makeup products, conditioners, shampoo and hair sprays.
~Sunscreen Chemicals: These chemicals function as a sunscreen agent, to absorb ultraviolet light. They are endocrine disruptors and are believed to be easily absorbed into the body. They may also cause cellular damage and cancer. Common names are benzophenone, PABA, avobenzone, homosalate and ethoxycinnmate. They can be found in sunscreen products.2
And this is only 10 of the potential hazards out of the 168 chemicals that the average woman is exposed to EVERY DAY! I hope it helps you understand how critical it is for you to review what you are currently using and be motivated to find the best quality, least toxic personal care products you can find.
If this is all new to you, you are probably feeling pretty ticked off about what you’ve unknowingly been exposing yourself to. And it’s also likely that you’re overwhelmed right now and unsure about what to do next. Take a deep breath – I’ve got your back!
One of my all-time favorite resources is the Environmental Working Group and their Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. This is available to everyone free of charge and lists a huge number of personal care products in many different categories.
Your first step is to take inventory of every product you use and look them all up in the EWG database, or download their app and use the bar code scanner on your phone. If it’s in their database, the product will pop up quickly on your screen and show you the rating. Their personal care product rating system is like traffic lights: 0-2 is green and least toxic, 3-6 is yellow and has potential risks, 7-10 is red and the most risky. It will also list the ingredients in the product and rate whether each individual ingredient is non-toxic or risky. What EWG has undertaken with this database is an enormous task. I imagine there are weaknesses or gaps in their review process, but it is the best tool we consumers have for evaluating and finding less toxic options in personal care products.
Don’t panic if you have a lot of products that show up as a 3 and above! You don’t have to change everything at once. I suggest you start hunting for better solutions to your most toxic products so that you’ll have a new, non-toxic option ready to purchase as your current products start to run low. You can use the EWG database to find better options, or take a look at my comprehensive list of my current favorite non-toxic options here.
There can be a fair amount of trial and error with the process of switching products, as it can take several tries to find products that will work well for your skin and hair type. While patience is required, replacing any toxic options in your personal care products is well worth the effort! There are so many toxins in and around us that we can’t control, and all toxins can create and contribute to health struggles, so controlling the things you can is both money and time well invested! And since high quality food is expensive and non-negotiable, I try to be more frugal with my personal care product purchases. There’s a wide range of prices and I see no reason to buy a $50 skin product when there are plenty of $20 and under options out there. I also like products that only require a small amount in order to be effective. The initial price tag may be a bit higher, but if it lasts for months, then it’s still an economical option.
Don’t forget to include feminine hygiene products in your evaluation! Regular pads and tampons can contain plastic, pesticides, bleaches (to make them bright white), and GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). The bleaching process can create dioxins, a heavy duty industrial toxin. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose their processes and ingredients, so it’s likely that there are other potential hazards as well. In addition to contributing to toxic overloads, these substances can also disrupt other bodily functions, including hormone balance. And they can be skin irritants, which you may have already experienced. My personal favorite options are on my comprehensive product list.
Non-toxic options are becoming easier to find, and more choices become available every day. At the same time, the potential insults to our bodies and our amazing Mother Earth are more prevalent than ever. Your choices matter deeply, but it is possible to be well manicured with stylish hair, makeup and other fun options while still being true to a clean, healthy lifestyle that supports your precious health!
1, March 2018, https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/05/13/toxic-chemicals-cosmetics.aspx
2, March 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/vanessa-cunningham/dangerous-beauty-products_b_4168587.html