I recently wrote a blog about the negative impacts of plastics on health, where I mentioned that many personal care products (creams, shampoos, shower gels etc) have plastics in them which cause health issues. Today, I’m going to delve a little deeper into the contents of the things many people slather on their bodies every day, and how these might be causing problems. I feel like while these seem to be largely unknown about in the general population, it will soon be widespread knowledge just like most people are today aware of how nutrition, movement and stress impact health. I’ve been very careful about everything from hair conditioner to make-up to the soap I use to wash my hands, for at least a decade, based on the information below. This isn’t an exhaustive article on all the possible chemicals used in personal care products and all the research behind them but rather a brief overview of the top culprits, and what to do about it. I highly recommend the EWG Skin Deep database, where you can look up almost any chemical and a huge number of brands to see how they rank in toxicity and how much data exists on potential harms.
Let’s start with some common chemicals…
Parabens and synthetic oestrogens
Synthetic oestrogens are a huge issue with plastics in our environment because we are exposed to far more oestrogens than our bodies are adapted to, and above normal oestrogen levels cause problems in both men and women. While some foods are oestrogenic (particularly soy), they are certainly not the only source. Synthetic oestrogens have been shown to increase breast cancer risk in women and might decrease fertility in men, along with a loads of other health effects. Synthetic oestrogens behave differently in the body to natural oestrogens, for example by being more lipophilic so they accumulate in fat tissue, and are also harder for the liver to breakdown. Parabens (seen on labels as methylparaben, ethylparaben, or anything else that ends in -paraben) are xenoestrogens, meaning they imitate eostrogen in the body to cause the effects mentioned above. If you think putting things on your skin is less bad than eating them, consider that transdermal absorption of parabens results in higher blood levels than oral ingestion, due to the fact that at least with oral ingestion, the liver and kidneys can break them down to excrete them before they reach the blood.
These are compounds used in perfumes, aftershave, household cleaning products and also a lot of soaps/washes/hair products to make them smell nice. It is an umbrella term for many compounds which aren’t required to be listed. According to the EWG, approximately 80% of these compounds have never been tested for safety in human clinical trials. The fragrance industry pretty much self regulates – it does not have to disclose all ingredients to regulatory bodies, and the bodies themselves don’t really enforce laws or regulate these chemicals to a high standard.
Pthalates are used in fragrances to make them last longer, and like parabens they are major endocrine disruptions, but rather than affecting eostrogens, they affect androgens like testosterone, which have been shown to affect male fertility and male sexual development. Other compounds used in fragrances are aldehydes which are probable carcinogens and known toxins.
Fragrances are essentially pollutants, and are known to cause reactions in asthmatics. This is stuff that we clearly shouldn’t be breathing in, yet people use it on their skin daily!
Sodium lauryl sulfate
This is used as a foaming agent, and while there is generally probably more hype and scare about SLS than is actually evidence based, it is a harsh foaming agent that can strip skin of natural oils, cause irritation and disrupt some of the barrier function of skin, so this is something I generally avoid just to maintain health and balance of skin (especially as more gentle foaming agents do exist).
This is the UV blocking chemical found in sunscreens. It is another hormone disruptor, potentially neurotoxic and has been shown to kill coral reef, prompting places like Hawaii to ban sunscreens containing it. The good news is that safer alternatives exist such as zinc oxide suncreens.
This is used in antibacterial soaps, and is harmful for reproductive health, is toxic to aquatic life and can react in the environment to create dioxins which also have toxic effects. It may also contribute to antibiotic resistance It turns out that in 2016, the USDA banned the use of triclosan in soaps but is still used in other products in the US and UK.
So those are a few of the commonest culprits; I’m now going to address some questions you might have…
But the “experts” tell me my exposure is so small I have nothing to worry about
Here’s the thing – nobody *really* knows the exact effects of average long term cumulative exposure of these chemicals. We already have evidence of harm in animals. We understand some of the mechanisms by which they cause harm. It is almost impossible to do a large controlled double blind study in humans comparing “normal” chemical exposure to zero chemical exposure over time, because almost nobody has no exposure, and the number of people who really restrict their use of conventional self care products is vanishingly small. Pretty much all studies look at single compounds only, but we are all exposed to hundreds of chemicals every day. If one chemical at a “safe” dose is okay, what about hundreds all acting together? They likely act synergistically and cause even more harm together. We don’t know, because nobody has studied this in depth but the limited evidence available suggests the above prediction is correct.
Almost everyone has these chemicals in their body. They’re in your blood, in your pee, in your fat. They are showing up in umbilical cord blood, and this is scary because infants and children are FAR more susceptible to toxins than adults.
We are seeing huge increases in the rates of autism, male birth defects, cancers of all types, and many autoimmune diseases. I genuinely suspect our toxin exposure is one of many factors related to these epidemics. The science will come out in favour of this, and already is; for example the use of BPA in baby bottles has been banned by the EU, and numerous chemicals such as DDT have been banned or restricted. But things are slow to change, especially with industry pressure to keep using these chemicals. I’d rather new chemicals weren’t introduced until they have been proven safe but unfortunately this isn’t how it works. I don’t have time to waste, so I am going to err on the side of caution with my health. Will you?
Will I be safe if I just use natural or organic products?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Most of the products I’ve seen labelled “natural” or even organic still have things like SLS and fragrances in them, so you really *have* to read the ingredients. A lot of convetnional products use marketing gimmicks and say “all natural” and other buzzwords when 10% of the products is pure plastic. It’s a minefield choosing products that are non-toxic, but luckily more and more companies are stepping up to game and creating good-for-you products that actually work for their intended purposes. I’ll be posting a list of my favourite personal care products soon. A general rule I have is – if I can’t safely eat it, I won’t put it on my skin. If this sounds a bit extreme or unnecessary to you, think about how much we absorb through our skin (which is why nicotine, combined contraception and other medical patches exist), and the fact dermal absorption means chemicals go straight to your bloodstream, as opposed to things you eat which pass through your gut and liver before reaching your blood. I would recommend checking the EWG Skin Deep database to see if the products you use have been rated.
What about the cost?
Many people say they can’t use organic or natural personal care products because they’re too expensive or don’t work, but that”s not always the case. I’ve used A LOT of different brands over the years, and while some are better than others, I have found a huge number of non toxic personal care products that work great. Some are more expensive, but I think anything is worth the cost of not harming your health or the environment. In some cases, I even save money; for example I buy a big bottle of Dr Bronners soap every couple of months. This is concentrated so you can dilute it (I find diluting it with water 1:5 works well, and I use this as a body wash, hand wash, and hair wash. (You can even use it to clean your clothes). We likely don’t even need half the products we use… a lot of the special niche products are just marketing gimmicks, plus you can make your own products like face masks, exfoliators etc at home.
In summary…don’t be alarmed! Yes it’s worrying, but we can slowly and easily adapt our buying habits. Knowledge is power! All it takes is a few simple and small steps to radically reduce your exposure. I’m going to post about a few of my favourite skin, hair and makeup products soon to make the transition a little easier for some people, so keep an eye out!