I recently attended a talk by Dr. Sarah Evans of Mount Sinai Hospital's Children's Environmental Health Center at Sprout San Francisco in New York. The focus of the talk was reading product labels and identifying potentially harmful chemicals and additives in personal care items we use everyday. (These include soaps, shampoos, cleaning products, cosmetics, skin products, etc.) The information shared was incredibly informative and I wanted to share it here with you; after all, a healthy, functioning body depends not only what we put in it, but what we put on it. There are tens of thousands of products on the market, and the number of chemicals added to the manufacturing repertoire increases by thousands each year. Being mindful of the compounds found in the products we expose ourselves to everyday is a good way to continue setting ourselves on a solid track to whole-life wellness, and a great way to decide what we want to say 'yes' to with our spending dollars.
As a bit of background, an endocrine disruptor is any compound that disturbs the hormonal balance in the body (including estrogen, testosterone, stress hormones, and thyroid hormones). Because these control a number of essential processes within the body, and because their concentration is equivalent to a grain of sand in a swimming pool, any slight disturbance to their natural balance can have far-reaching adverse effects on proper functioning. This is especially true for developing little ones, but these can also impact adults. Because these chemicals are relatively new, there is not enough evidence to show the effects on adults from prolonged exposure; however, there are signs present in children who are exposed at a young age (and those not-yet-born) that are physiological markers that something has changed in their development.
Below is some information Dr. Evans shared, ingredients to be watchful of, and some ways to take action in our own lives. Feel empowered to choose the best products possible for you -- we have a lot of options and a lot of information at our disposal.
The FDA does not regulate chemicals used in products. There is currently no legislation that requires manufacturers to list every ingredient used in household or personal care products, nor to prove the safety of those chemicals. The good news is that senators from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are currently working to have a bill passed to mandate this. When safety data is collected, it is based on the safety for a 150lb man (not a child, pregnant woman, or any other at-risk demographic).
The average American's body has accumulated over 200 chemical compounds by absorption, ingestion, or inhalation. The Center for Disease Control conducts bi-annual studies on varying populations and has found these compounds in all bodily fluids, including breastmilk, amniotic fluid, and cord blood. (Have you heard of babies being born 'pre-polluted'? That's what this means.) While not all of these compounds are damaging, they might be; there is still not enough long-term research to confirm.
There are standards for organic personal care products (but not 'natural' products). The National Sanitation Foundation will certify products as 'organic' that have a 70%+ makeup of organic ingredients. There is no set of criteria for 'natural', so always read labels.
The average woman uses 12 personal care products daily. The average teen uses 17. Because many of these products can cause damage to the same systems within the body, the effect of using multiple products has a cumulative effect. Particularly for younger women, whose endocrine system is still regulating during sexual maturation, this can pose problems for development and future disease risk. By reducing the number of products we use, we can reduce the potential risk for endocrine disruption.
Ingredient labels can tell us a lot. But not everything. As mentioned above, manufacturers do not have to list everything used in a product (and they are allowed 'trade secrets', meaning they don't have to disclose the formulas for fragrance or signature components of what they make). Have an eye out for:
- Phthlates: this compound has been linked to endocrine disruption, reduced testosterone production, anxiety and depression in women, and attention/ conduct disorders (like ADHD) in children. It is used to soften PVC or vinyl plastics, as well as to 'carry fragrance' in many personal care products. Because the individual ingredients for 'fragrance' do not have to be disclosed, you can be fairly certain a product with fragrance has phthlates added. It is becoming recognized as a dangerous additive, and its inclusion has been limited in baby products. There is currently no legislation for products for kids older than 3 years, nor pregnant women. We can reduce exposure by choosing fragrance-free items (instead, look for those scented with essential oils), nail polish, and PVC plastics.
- Triclosan: this is an antibacterial agent found in many hand soaps and sanitizers -- it is essentially a pesticide. In addition to promoting bacterial resistance, it can also disrupt thyroid function and cause imbalance to thyroid hormone levels. It can also be found in plastic cutting boards and certain clothing, particularly anything marketed as 'antibacterial', like Microban fibers. The FDA is reviewing the potential harmful effects of triclosan but has not yet released a report.
- Parabens: this preservative in cosmetics has been linked to growth of breast cancer cells. Avoid ingredients ending in '-paraben' (methyl-, ethyl-, or butylparaben are the most common ones).
- Formaldehyde: this can be the by-product of other chemicals used in hair products, particularly for perms or straightening treatments.
- 1,4 dioxane: if you've heard about the controversy with sodium laureth sulfate, you may have heard about 1,4 dioxane. It is the by-product of certain foaming agents used in toothpaste, soap, detergent, and shampoo. Because many of these ingredients were developed to clean industrial aircraft and machinery, we should try to avoid ingredients ending with the suffix '-eth', including sodium laureth sulfate and ceteareth, as well as polyethylene glycol.
- Nanoparticles: these are tiny particles of metal included in products like sunscreen to promote absorption; it's what makes the difference between the zinc oxide sunscreen of the 60s and the quick-absorbing sunscreen we have today). The FDA continues to look into the effect of these nanoparticles on the body. Until more evidence is available, look for products that are 'no nano' or that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as these have low absorption rates, are non-endocrine-disrupting, and filter UVA/UVB rays. The Environmental Working Group has a comprehensive sunscreen report, which lists the ingredients and potential problems with brands. It's worth checking out before your next purchase. Powders and sprays containing nanoparticles should also be avoided, as we are at increased risk for inhaling these particles when they are dispensed this way.
The good news is that reducing our exposure to products containing these chemicals can have an almost immediate positive effect on the body. While we are all walking around with a relatively high baseline of toxicity in our bodies, tests have shown that the body is able to eliminate the stored toxins within seven days if we don't continue to add our accumulated stores each day. This applies to the ingredients above, as well as pesticides accumulated from inorganic produce.
There are many options available to us as consumers to make the best choices possible for our bodies. By choosing to support companies that do not include these harmful chemicals in their products, we can say 'yes' to a certain way of living. Let's increase the demand for products that are free of endocrine disruptors so the cost to purchase them will decrease.
Check out the links included above to support the Safe Chemicals Act, check out the products you have at home, and consider reducing the number of products you use daily.
For more information, please check out the CEHC's website. It - and Dr. Evans - are a valuable resource!