As you might guess for someone who writes a health column, my house is relatively free of harmful chemicals – with one exception. My daughter’s bathroom contains some pretty nasty compounds. Tub and tile cleaner? Nope. Toilet disinfectant? Not that either. Surprisingly, the most chemical-laden items in my daughter’s bathroom are her cosmetics and bodycare products.
What could possibly be so harmful about a little squirt of lotion or facial scrub? Many of the ingredients in these products have been linked in studies to cancer and hormone disruption. Add together the oodles of body care products the average person uses on a daily basis and multiply that by years of use, and the cumulative effect may be harmful. Skin, after all, is porous, and allows many substances to pass into the body, where they can be stored in fat and remain for a long time.
Teenagers are at particular risk for two reasons. During adolescence, teens go through a stage of accelerated development with critical, hormonally-driven changes to their immune and reproductive systems, brain structure, metabolism, and bone growth. The hormones triggering these important changes are sometimes present in infinitesimal amounts (even as low as one part per trillion), which is why a teenager’s exposure to even trace levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals can pose problems. Secondly, teen girls love to experiment with body care products, typically using more products on a daily basis than adults. I’m pretty sure my daughter owns more make-up at age 13 than I have owned my entire life.
How do we know our bodies absorb these risky chemicals? In 2008, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested blood and urine samples from 20 girls, aged 14 to 19, from various backgrounds and locations around the country. The girls were found to harbor an average of 13 hormone-disrupting chemicals, including a class of widely used artificial preservatives known as parabens, and a family of chemical plasticizers known as phthalates (‘THA-lates’).
Almost every cosmetic and body care product on the market contains parabens, usually in the form of methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, or butylparaben. In the teen girl study, methyl- and propylparaben were found in every one of the 20 girls tested. Studies of adults show similar findings.
Some parabens can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions. But the real concern with parabens is their ability to mimic estrogen. In women, natural estrogen is essential for maintaining the reproductive system, developing female characteristics, and regulating many other body systems. In men, estrogen helps certain cells mature into functional sperm.
Lab studies indicate that parabens interfere with these critical hormonal developments in the body, possibly leading to reproductive problems and even cancer. Parabens were shown to stimulate the growth of estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells; in a study of 20 women with breast tumors, researchers found five different parabens in the tumors of 19 of the women.
Phthalates’ role as a plasticizer is to add texture and luster to lotions and moisturizers, make skin appear smoother, and help chemicals absorb into the skin. They also make hair sprays and nail polish more flexible, and help disperse fragrances.
In human studies, phthalates appear to increase the risk of birth defects of infants’ reproductive systems. In adult men, phthalates are linked to sperm DNA damage and reduced sperm concentration and motility, as well as obesity and insulin resistance. In both men and women, phthalates are linked to thyroid irregularities, and in children, to skin allergies and asthma.
Animals exposed to phthalates during pregnancy experienced infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects to their offspring. These are frightening findings, considering that the Centers for Disease Control found the highest level of phthalates in women of childbearing age.
When it comes to regulation of the cosmetics industry, the phrase ‘free-for-all’ comes to mind. Though the FDA oversees cosmetics safety, it does not approve products before they hit the market. Cosmetic companies aren’t required to test products for safety, register with the FDA, or notify the agency if their products are found to cause injury or adverse reactions.
Not until the FDA receives repeated negative feedback will they investigate a company, product, or ingredient. Even then, a problematic ingredient might be allowed to remain in a product as long as it’s listed on the label. Very rarely is an ingredient completely prohibited. In fact, the U.S. has banned a total of eight substances in cosmetics, while the European Union (E.U.), with its much stricter standards, has banned more than 1,000.
It’s daunting to think about the number of questionable ingredients we may be exposed to on a daily basis. The typical woman uses 12 bodycare products every day, containing an estimated 168 ingredients. The girls in the teen study used an average of 17 products a day. Just for kicks, I added up my own daily regimen, thinking I’d come in much lower since I don’t wear makeup. But even my simple regime includes shampoo, conditioner, bar soap, face soap, hair gel, toothpaste, deodorant, lotion, and chapstick. That puts me at ten a day. On other days, shave crème, sunscreen, and salve for my cracked heels put my total at 13. What about women who use perfume, nail polish, foundation, mascara, eye shadow, blush, and lipstick, not to mention day and night moisturizers, facial masks, peels and scrubs? They’d exceed 20 products a day. Men undoubtedly use fewer products, but let’s hope they still use shampoo, soap, deodorant, toothpaste and sunscreen.
The Environmental Working Group believes that the more ingredients you’re exposed to, the higher your risk, since some chemicals amplify the activity of others. And beauty aids aren’t the only way we’re exposed to these chemicals. Phthalates are also found in food storage containers, plastic wrap, building materials and medical equipment. Parabens are used as preservatives in food, beverages, and some medications. Both chemicals have been found in household dust.
To reduce your risk, choose products that are free of parabens and ‘fragrance,’ which can indicate the presence of phthalates.
(A trade secret loophole allows companies to conceal phthalates under the term ‘fragrance.’ When the EWG tested 72 brand name bodycare products, they found phthalates in three-quarters of them, yet none listed phthalates on their label.) Start by replacing products that you use most frequently or that are designed to be absorbed by maximum amounts of skin, such as lotion.
Look for nail polish labeled ‘free of phthalates and formaldehyde.’
Be wary of terms like ‘natural’ and ‘hypoallergenic.’ ‘Natural’ can be used if a product contains just one natural ingredient, such as vitamin E or an herb, even if the rest of the product is full of harmful ingredients. ‘Hypoallergenic’ is not a regulated term, and can be used at the discretion of the manufacturer.
In general, many of the products found at natural foods stores contain healthier ingredients, but not always; you still need to read labels. Products carrying the USDA Organic label adhere to the same standards as organically-certified food.
Unfortunately, many products on the market are falsely advertised as ‘organic.’
To make shopping easier, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics maintains a list of about 1,000 companies that voluntarily adhere to E.U. standards, avoiding any ingredient known or suspected of causing human harm (safecosmetics.org). Another resource is EWG’s ‘Skin Deep’ cosmetic database, which lists the ingredients in over 42,000 products (ewg.org/reports/skindeep).
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