Personal care products have become a multi-billion dollar industry here in the United States. Every day, new products are introduced that smell great and promise miraculous results, but what are the real costs of putting these products on your body? Through treatment, I work with my patients to to give them the tools to address and reduce their toxic burden.
Sometimes we focus so much on what we put into our bodies that we sometimes forget to look at what we put onto our bodies. The average American adult uses nine to fifteen personal care products each day, containing hundreds of different individual chemicals. Just like with our food, we need to pay attention to what’s on the labels of our beauty products, and how these products contribute to our toxic burden. As you’ll learn, some of these ingredients have been linked to cumulative and long-term side effects like cancers, allergies, neurological disorders, and reproductive issues. Part three in our comprehensive series on eliminating toxins covers self-care and beauty products, and some of the common toxic ingredients we should be avoiding.
First, you need to understand just how important your skin is. As your largest organ, it serves many protective functions that help your body to maintain a healthy homeostasis. Your skin protects your organs from injury and infection, helps eliminate wastes through perspiration, provides a protective barrier to viruses and bad bacteria (as well as a friendly habitat for good bacteria), helps to maintain your body’s temperature and delicate fluid balance, produces essential vitamin D, and sends sensory feedback to your brain so that you can react to conditions around you. Porous yet protective, healthy skin is your body’s first line of defense against infection, and is often the first place imbalances will manifest in poor health.
From a health perspective, none of us really need cosmetics, colognes, or most skincare products, and in fact many of the personal care products on the market today could be putting you at risk for damage to hair, skin, or eyes, immunological problems, and possibly even cancer. My advice is simple: if you wouldn’t put it IN your body, don’t put it ON your body. Here are some of the most common toxins found in our beauty and personal care products. For optimal health, avoid them at all costs:
Talcum Powder is carcinogenic and a risk factor for ovarian cancer, as well as being a known lung irritant.
Alcohol is drying and irritating, and regular exposure to alcohol-based products strips skin, allowing water and cleansing agents to penetrate beneath it. Losing your skin’s natural oil barrier renders you more vulnerable to bacteria, molds and viruses. It could be called SD alcohol, ethanol, denatured, isopropyl, methanol or ethyl alcohol. Look out for it in skin and hair products, fragrances and antibacterial hand washes.
Ethanolamines are found in soaps, shampoos, lotions, shaving creams, paraffin, and waxes as well as numerous cosmetics. Already restricted in Europe due to known carcinogenic effects, ethanolamines are used freely in the United States. Look out for these chemicals under names like DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine) amongst others.
These cause skin lesions and liver and kidney tumors in mice from repeated skin applications of DEA-based detergents. They also caused testicular degeneration and reduced sperm motility and sperm count in animal studies, through oral exposure to diethanolamine.
DMDM (dimethyl-dimethyl) Hydantoin is a white crystalline solid used as a preservative in shampoos, conditioners, skin products, moisturizers, nail and eyelash glues and other cosmetics.
There are concerns that this chemical releases formaldehyde which may cause joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches, chest pains, chronic fatigue and dizziness. It’s also thought to cause irritation to the skin, eyes and lungs. DMDM is restricted for use in cosmetics in Japan and Sweden.
FD&C Color Pigments are synthetic colors made from coal tar and contain heavy metal salts that deposit toxins into the skin, causing skin sensitivity and irritation. Animal studies have shown almost all of them to be carcinogenic. While many are now illegal, five of the still-legal colors in the USA have been linked to both ADHD and cancer in European studies.
Look out for these in shampoos, toothpastes, body washes, baby products, deodorants, lotions, creams, and more. They’ll usually be listed as a color followed by a number (e.g. FD&C Red 40).
Mineral Oil is used in many cosmetic and skin care products, and is actually derived from petroleum. It coats the skin, clogs pores, and interferes with the skin’s ability to eliminate toxins. These actions all increase the risk of acne and other skin conditions. Some studies suggest that mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body. Replace mineral oil with another oil like Sweet Almond, Grapeseed, Coconut, or Avocado.
Parabens are used as preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast. Sadly, there aren’t many products today that you CAN’T find parabens in. These chemicals interfere with the body’s endocrine system and wreak havoc on our developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems, as well as those of wildlife. Endocrine disruptors pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming. I counsel all patients, but especially pregnant and nursing women, to avoid parabens wherever possible. They may come under the names of butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, or propylparaben.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are detergents used in 90% of personal care products – particularly those that foam, as that’s one of their primary functions. Animals exposed to SLS experience eye damage, depression, labored breathing, diarrhea, severe skin irritation, and even death. When combined with other chemicals in the manufacturing process, SLS can be transformed into nitrosamines, a potent class of carcinogens.
Synthetic Fragrances are derived from petrochemicals such as benzene derivatives and aldehydes. They also commonly contain parabens, phthalates, and synthetic musks that can disrupt hormones, cause reproductive problems, and are even linked to cancer. Use natural scents like organic essential oils instead.
Phthalates are endocrine disruptors found in many fragrances, perfumes, deodorants, and lotions. Phthalates are banned from use in children’s toys in both the EU and California. The main phthalates in cosmetics are dibutyl phthalate in nail polish, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, and dimethyl phthalate in hair spray so keep an eye out if you are purchasing these products. Unfortunately, this category of chemicals is not always disclosed on labeling as it’s sometimes included under the generic banner of synthetic ‘fragrances.’
Toluene is a clear liquid which is usually found in nail products and hair bleaches or dyes. This is a potent neurotoxin that can impair breathing and cause nausea. In studies, toluene has been associated with toxicity to the immune system, with a possible link to blood cancer. It’s also believed to be linked with disruption to the immune and endocrine systems and abnormal fetal development. It might be listed on labels as benzene, toluol, phenylmethane or methylbenzene.
Triclosan is a synthetic antibacterial agent which is also registered as a pesticide with the EPA, and is flagged as a risk to both human health and the environment. Animal studies have shown that triclosan alters hormone regulation and contributes to the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Research has also shown that triclosan may interfere with fetal development in pregnant women, and has been linked with allergies, weight gain, inflammatory responses, and thyroid disfunction. Remove this product from your home by avoiding ‘antibacterial’ face and body washes and dental hygeine products.
Evaluating Your Toxic Toiletry Burden
Daily use of conventional personal care products can add five pounds of toxins to your body. This toxic load can become a significant contributing factor to health problems and serious diseases, especially if your diet and exercise habits are lacking.
Women seem to be predisposed to more autoimmune disorders than men. Thyroid disease, fibromyalgia, and multiple sclerosis are far more common in women. Perhaps one of the major contributing factors is that women tend to use far more personal products than men. If you are a woman, acting on the information in this report is particularly important. Is your makeup cabinet a toxic wasteland? It is especially challenging to establish a link between these routine chemical exposures and health problems down the road, because the cumulative adverse effects might not show up for years.
Are your self-care products truly “clean?”
Shampoos and conditioners: Many conventional consumer beauty products—even those labeled “natural” or “organic”—contain ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) that generate cancer-causing byproducts when used. Other carcinogenic additives commonly used in hair care products include FD&C red #4 , polyethylene glycol (PEG), cocamide DEA, and formaldehyde (which is also neurotoxic). A list of the safest and most eco-friendly shampoos on the market can be found at SafeCosmetics.org.
Antiperspirant deodorants: Avoid antiperspirant deodorants that contain aluminum chlorohydrate, which is absorbed by the skin and literally blocks pores from releasing perspiration. It has been suggested to promote the formation of breast cancer and contribute to diseases of the brain (like Alzheimer’s). Other toxic additives in antiperspirant deodorants include parabens, a class of artificial preservatives that mimics estrogen in the body and promotes the growth of cancer cells. Parabens have also been linked to gastrointestinal damage, nausea, and central nervous system depression. We recommend Primal Pit Paste or Herbal Magic deodorants.
Foundation Makeup: The biggest selling drugstore brands of liquid and powder foundation makeup contain parabens (endocrine disruptors), fragrance (skin irritants), BHA and talc (carcinogens), triethanolamine (which interacts with nitrites to form carcinogens), and processed lanolin (which is often contaminated with DDT and other carcinogenic pesticides). We recommend Dr Hauska and Aubrey Organics products for makeup and beauty products.
Toothpaste: Even products designated as “safe” to ingest contain toxic chemicals. Make sure your toothpaste and mouthwash does not contain FD&C Blue #1 or saccharin (carcinogens). There is growing evidence to suggest that fluoride, too, may cause cancer. Avoid toothpastes containing triclosan, which in addition to being a harsh antibiotic reacts with chlorinated water to form chloroform, a known hepatotoxin. We recommend Spry toothpaste.
At Home Permanent Haircolor: Home hair dye contains a slew of toxic chemicals that can cause skin and respiratory distress, including fragrance, quaternium-15 (formaldehyde-releaser, carcinogenic, neurotoxic; causes contact dermatitis and sensitivity), diethanolamine (DEA) (which is carcinogenic and interacts with nitrites to form a carcinogenic nitrosamine), phenylene-diamines (carcinogenic, and irritating to skin and respiratory tract), and propylene glycol (a liquid alcohol that is used as a solvent, in antifreeze, and in the food, plastics, and perfume industry that can cause irritation and burning). There is also evidence of causal relation of home box hair dye to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and other cancers.
How to Lighten Your Toxic Load
Look for the genuine USDA Organic Seal.
If you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want to put it on your body. Ask yourself, “Would I eat this?”
Opt for fragrance-free products or products scented exclusively with essential oils. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds—even thousands—of chemicals, and fragrances are a major cause of allergic reactions.
Pay attention to the order in which the ingredients are listed. Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order by volume, meaning the first few ingredients are the most prominent. If calendula extract is the last ingredient in a long list, your calendula body wash isn’t very natural.
Stick to the basics. Do you really need 20 products to prepare for your day? Simplify your life and rescue your bank account!
Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic, since chemicals can leach out of plastics and into the contents. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a serious concern; make sure any plastic container is BPA free.
Drink plenty of filtered water every day to assist your body in flushing out toxins.
Eat lots of vibrantly colored organic vegetables (and fruits, in moderation) to keep your body well stocked with antioxidants.
Look for products that are made by companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly and green. For more information about how to buy cruelty-free, go to Group for the Education of Animal-Related Issues (GEARI) and check out safecosmetics.org.