Spring is here and it’s time to clean out those cabinets! It’s also a great time to continue taking your health and wellness to new levels. One easy and impactful way to do that is to make sure the products you use don’t contain chemicals that might not be good for you. The bad news is that there are many personal care products including shampoos, conditioners, lotions, etc. that contain known carcinogens, or ingredients that can cause hormonal disruption and toxicity. The good news is that it’s becoming much easier to find products that don’t contain these harsh chemicals, and the selection gets better all the time.

Just as with food, the first caution to take with your product selection is not to give much credence to the word “natural.” Natural is an unregulated description, and these days, most companies are vying to use it on their labels. It is important to note that the word “herbal” is also unregulated and a product can contain a miniscule amount of a botanical, sometimes alongside 20 chemicals, and still be labeled as herbal. Unfortunately, assuring that you truly are using natural products requires studying the small print and being aware of the ingredients to avoid.

Manufacturers will often argue that exposure to these chemicals are in such low amounts that they don’t truly cause any physical or biochemical harm, which is true to an extent, but factor in that most women use 12 or more products daily (men average six), exposing themselves to more than a hundred chemicals each day, and your exposure might be higher than you realize. As with everything, moderation is likely the key, but if there are places where you can easily switch out harmful ingredients for safe ones, why wouldn’t you? Here are some ingredients to watch out for:

Triclosan and Triclocarban: Commonly found in soaps and hand-sanitizers, but also in toothpastes, cleaning agents, and detergents, these chemicals are used for their anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. However, they have been linked to liver toxicity and thyroid dysfunction. Recent studies also confirmed that the increased use of these antimicrobials is likely contributing to antibiotic resistance. In other words, we may have become so fearful of everyday bacteria exposure that we are actually contributing to the development of superbugs. Skip the hand sanitizer if you can, and choose soaps that don’t contain these ingredients.

Fragrance, Perfume, or Parfum: Found in products of nearly every kind, the biggest problem with fragrance in products is that we don’t really know what chemicals make them up. Many constituents can be listed as “fragrance” and by law don’t require any further explanation. Aside from causing common dermatological and allergic reactions, some fragrances may cause hormonal disruption or be carcinogenic. And guess what? Many botanicals and naturally occurring compounds smell great, so when you can, pick products that glean their pleasant fragrance naturally.

The Three Ps – Petroleum, Parabens, and Pthalates: Petroleum can be found in topical products as well as mascara, and has been linked to cancer in high amounts. Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives used widely in all kinds of cosmetics. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, parabens may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders. Phthalates found in nail polish, hairspray and other products are also endocrine and hormone disruptors, and this group of chemicals seems to be especially problematic for men. You will often see these listed as acronyms beginning with D and ending in P (DBP, DNOP, etc.) on an ingredient list.

PEGs: Sometimes listed as Ceteareth or Polyethylene Compounds, this is a family of conditioning and cleaning agents. These synthetic chemicals are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a chemical the U.S. government considers a human carcinogen and which readily penetrates the skin, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Coal Tar: Coal tar can be found in hair dyes and is often listed as aminophenol, diaminobenzene, or phenylenediamine. Coal tar, which sounds disturbing enough, is a byproduct of coal processing and is a known human carcinogen.

Formaldehyde: The use of formaldehyde has greatly decreased through consumer demand. However, certain chemicals still release formaldehyde, resulting in possible exposure to its neurologically toxic effects. These include bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, and diazolidinyl idinyl urea.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), is a detergent and surfactant found in many personal care products including soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, etc. SLES is basically what makes your soap or shampoo foam. Like other constituents, the problem is that the manufacturing process for SLES often leads to the additional contaminant 1,4-dioxane, a human carcinogen that is easily absorbed into the skin. This is one of the more studied additives, and information is conflicting, but I would suggest at least decreasing exposure while the jury is out.

If you are just beginning to monitor your products for safety, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the information at hand. Unless you are a chemist, you likely won’t be memorizing the above list of ingredients any time soon. And frankly, even if you could, there are so many chemicals, your information could be obsolete fairly quickly. It is estimated that chemicals used in foods, make-up, hygiene, and cleaning products number in the tens of thousands at this point, and many are fairly unregulated. Most of this nonregulation is because it is assumed that you can’t possibly expose yourself to enough of any one chemical for it to have the kinds of toxic effects that we worry about. This is probably true to an extent (let’s hope). However, if there are places where you can decrease your exposure, then why take the risk at all? On the other hand, if there are products that you don’t want to give up, as with all things, moderation becomes key.

There are a few user-friendly consumer sites to help you to determine whether or not the products you like are okay. My personal favorite is the Environmental Working Group (ewg. org), where you can input ingredients, or even products, for a review, and get a ranking for how concerned you should be about each ingredient. Even if you can only get yourself to switch to a few alternatives, you have lightened your toxic load.

Stay healthy & be well!

– Amy Whittington, NMD