by Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC, & chemical conscious trainer!

You probably don’t realize it, but on a daily basis you are exposed to a variety of “hidden” chemicals that pose a threat to your health. And it’s not just from the foods you are eating or the environment where you live and work. In your quest for improving your health, have you ever thought about the ingredients in the soap you use each time you shower, the toothpaste you brush your teeth with multiple times a day, the lotions you use for moisturizer or sunscreen, or the makeup you apply each morning? It took me awhile to realize that even though I was making strides toward a healthy lifestyle when it came to the foods I was eating and my exercise routine, there was an entire area of healthy living I had ignored, mostly because I was ignorant that the products I used on a daily basis could be harmful to my health. So I slowly began to clean out my bathroom cabinet, replacing my favorite products for safer ones to use that were less toxic but still effective.

In the US, unfortunately the regulations for the personal care products we use each day, and sometimes multiple times per day, are not as stringent as they should be. In fact, the government does not require any health studies or pre-market testing of chemicals used in personal care products! One example is in cosmetics where the FDA, aside from a short list of banned substances, merely requires the cosmetics industry to self-police ingredient safety through its Cosmetics Ingredient Review panel. As of 2012, this industry panel has rejected only 11 ingredients as unsafe, while the European Union has banned hundreds of chemicals in cosmetics. You’re more than likely to have at least a few products from one of the well-known companies that utilize harmful ingredients in the products we use daily on our bodies. These ingredients have been shown to disrupt our endocrine systems, affect our reproductive health, cause allergic reactions, create developmental issues in pregnant women, or are known carcinogens.

One organization has made it their goal to help consumers become more aware of the safety of products they purchase. The Environmental Working Group has a handy tool on their website where you can search products to learn their level of safety based upon the listed ingredients and the research done on the affects of those ingredients. I’ve used this tool to help me find better products for our home and personal care. You can also search for just a single ingredient. This tool has an extensive database of nearly 67,000 products from almost 2,000 brands and they have almost anything you can think of from the following categories: skincare, fragrances, makeup, nail products, men’s products, hair care, oral care, baby products and more. The guide is called EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database and can be found by following the link here:

Just like packaged foods have an ingredient list that you can inspect, you may now want to start checking the ingredient list on your personal care products. Limiting the number of toxic chemicals that you and your family are exposed to is another step toward improving your health and quality of life. EWG has listed a few specific substances that should be avoided if at all possible. The next time you are purchasing your next bottle of shampoo or other products to be used on your body, be on the lookout for these ingredients to avoid, among many others:

  • BHA: The National Toxicology Program classifies butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” In animal studies, BHA produces liver damage and causes stomach cancers such as papillomas and carcinomas and interferes with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels. It is found in food, food packaging, and personal care products sold in the U.S.
  • Coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (including Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine): Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, is a known human carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Hair stylists and other professionals are exposed to these chemicals in hair dye almost daily. While FDA sanctions coal tar in specialty products such as dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, the long-term safety of these products has not been demonstrated.
  • Formaldehyde: A potent preservative considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde, also an asthmagen, neurotoxicant and developmental toxicant, was once mixed into to many personal care products as antiseptic. Some hair straighteners are based on formaldehyde’s hair-stiffening action and release substantial amounts of the chemical. Many nail polishes and cosmetics are also known to use formaldehyde.
  • Parabens (specifically Propyl-, Isopropyl-, Butyl-, and Isobutyl- parabens): Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives used widely in cosmetics. The CDC has detected parabens in virtually all Americans bodies. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, parabens may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders.
  • Phthalates: A growing number of studies indicate that this chemical family damages the male reproductive system. Pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phathalate. Everyone should avoid products with “fragrance” indicating a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates.
  • Toluene: Volatile petrochemical solvent and paint thinner and potent neurotoxicant that acts as an irritant, impairs breathing, and causes nausea. A pregnant woman’s exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may impair fetal development. In human epidemiological and animal studies, toluene has been associated with toxicity to the immune system. Some evidence suggests a link to malignant lymphoma.
  • Triclosan & Triclocarban: Antimicrobial pesticides in liquid soap (triclosan) or soap bars (triclocarban), are very toxic to the aquatic environment. They are often found as contaminants in people due to widespread use of antimicrobial cleaning products. Triclosan (found in many toothpastes) disrupts thyroid function and reproductive hormones. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Microbiology say that soap and water serves just as well to prevent spread of infections and reduce bacteria on the skin. Overuse may promote the development of bacterial resistance.
  • Fragrance: It may help sell products from face cream to laundry detergent, but do you know what’s in it? Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant to lotion. Federal law doesn’t require companies to list any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. Recent research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products, none of them listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top 5 allergens in the world. EWG’s advice? Buy fragrance free wherever possible.
  • You’ll also want to avoid ingredients that start with “PEG” or have an “-eth” in the middle (for example, sodium laureth sulfate). And make sure to look for these words: “FRAGRANCE,” “FD&C,” or “D&C.”

*The chemicals listed above can be found on the Environmental Working Group website.