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We all know that a healthy mind and body is equal parts what you put in and what you don't. But did you know this concept extends to much more than just the products you eat and drink? In the post-industrialized era, synthetic compounds became much cheaper to produce and use than natural ones, thus many of our common household items actually contain harmful ingredients, hidden in plain sight. This is no more evident than in our hygiene products—products designed to clean, purify, and detoxify are often doing everything but.
Don't believe me? Consider this: many Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations have been in place for decades (often longer than the science proclaiming such hazards) and are infrequently, if ever, updated. For personal care products this is especially true. The law regulating these essential products was created in 1938—81 years ago! (That's before the era of the Slinky, Superman movies, M&Ms, Penicillin, and the Mark I Computer!) and hasn't been updated since!! Even more horrifying, under this law the FDA doesn't have the legal authority to screen personal care products for harmful chemicals. Safety standards of each product are left up to the companies that manufacture them, and any 15-year-old with a C- in Economics can tell you what that means (U.S. FDA, 2013).
Now think about your morning routine. After you've chugged a pot of coffee it's time to make yourself look human. What do you start with? There's likely deodorant, body lotion, face cream, toothpaste, mouth wash, hair styling products, chapstick, maybe even shaving cream or makeup. If you're a morning showerer then add shampoo, conditioner, face wash, and body wash to the tally. Top it off with a spritz of perfume or cologne and you've got a grand total of 14 products, each with their own list of hidden evils, usually camouflaged under the sneaky guise of "fragrance," all waiting for the opportune moment to poison you.
The Environmental Impacts
A study conducted in Boulder, Colorado by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (McDonald et al, Science, Vol. 359, 2018) found that volatile chemicals from our everyday personal hygiene products contribute as much air pollution as car emissions. Essentially, your face is as dirty as your car's tailpipe (before it fails the emissions test). Due to the rate at which the petrochemicals found in most personal care products are being released, (hint, it's the same rate as your car!) your daily self care routine contributes HALF of all the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to worsening air pollution. So when you look up the temperature on your weather app and notice that, instead of a single word telling you how much of anything is falling from the sky at the present moment, the banner instead reads "unhealthy air quality for sensitive groups," you can thank your face. Or more accurately, the products you put on your face before stepping out into the pouring rain.
But wait, there's more! Ever heard of reef safe sunscreen? That's because the regular kind of sunscreen contains the chemical UV filter oxybenzone aka bad news for coral reefs. We've all been told countless times by our parents to lather up on sunscreen and wait the agonizing 15 minutes to let it soak in before jumping into the ocean or pool, but that 15 minutes doesn't actually mean the sunscreen isn't leaving your skin the second your pasty ass hits the water. And it's not just the obvious oily film that collects on the surface of the ocean at popular beaches. If you shower anywhere within 500 miles of a coastline, the sunscreen you wash off will inevitably reach the ocean, and since oxybenzone's single purpose in life is to filter UV, the UV lights occasionally employed in sewage treatment plants as "purification" methods do absolutely nothing to eliminate the culprit. One way or another, the oxybenzone ends up in the oceans, and when it does it causes several serious problems: the bleaching of coral fragments and coral cells from various species of hard coral, the induction of the lytic viral cycle in symbiotic zooxanthellae with latent infections (think the Plague, just as fugly, but in coral), damage and deformation of coral larvae, and damage to coral DNA and to their reproductive success (Swedish Ministry of the Environment and Energy, 2018).
And that's not all. Many personal hygiene products, especially body and face wash and sometimes even toothpaste, contain microbeads, tiny less than 5mm in diameter, plastic balls made of petrochemical plastics like polyethylene, polystyrene, and polypropylene. Their purpose: add an abrasive quality to the products they're found in to help removed dead skin cells. Their problem: like all plastic products, they don't decompose so much as they break down into smaller and smaller pieces until they are no longer visible to the human eye, but that doesn't mean they're out of mind. Microplastics, as they come to be called, are frequently mistaken by seabirds, fish, and other marine organisms for the small plankton they feed upon and are ingested, but not digested. Over time, these tiny pieces of plastic accumulate within their host organism, effectively choking them from the inside, out.
And they're choking you too. Through a process called bioaccumulation, the chemicals and even the plastics themselves catch back up to you in what is known as the circle of life (thanks, Elton) whenever you consume wild caught seafood. And that's just counting the kinds of plastic you eat, not the many different forms it takes in packaging, wrappings, bottles, appliers, etc. that end up in landfill, when not reused, recycled, or deposited on the side of the road, accidentally or purposefully.
The Human Side
This isn't just Bad News Barton for the planet, VOCs have been linked to many health issues, including migraines, nausea, dizziness, memory loss, nervous system damage, and even cancer. Though you usually don't go around sniffing gasoline, most of us enjoy the occasional waft of tasteful perfume/cologne, but each whiff of scent is essentially us snorting VOCs. Not a party trick scientists or doctors would recommend.
Problematic ingredients commonly found in personal hygiene products include the formerly mentioned oxybenzone, mineral oils (all petroleum-based products and not as healthy as they would seem), butylated hydroxanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), phthalates, parabens (butyl, ethyl, methyl, and propyl), diazolidinyl urea (urea being, if you've ever taken a biology class, the compound you will recognize as bird poop), isopropyl alcohol, toluene, and artificial fragrances listed under the "fragrance" and sometimes even "natural fragrance" masks. These fragrances are derived from a host of petroleum byproducts and chemicals that aren't legally required to be disclosed. These undisclosed chemicals have been known to cause skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation, migraines, nausea, liver damage, and neurotoxicity (Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 106, 1998).
Towards the end of last year, a study conducted at UC Berkeley demonstrated that early exposure to parabens and phthalates (found most frequently in nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, and perfumes/colognes) can impact people's hormones and sexual development. Most at risk are pregnant women and their children. Over the course of the 13-year study, the concentration of phthalates and methyl and propyl parabens were measured in the urine of the pregnant womyn and their nine-year-old children. Then the children were monitored every nine months from 9-13 years of age to determine the onset of puberty. Out of the 179 girls, those from mothers with higher concentrations of parabens in their urine were found to experience puberty at a younger age, which included earlier breast development and earlier onset of menstruation. Of the 159 boys, similar results were found with earlier genital development exhibited by those with higher chemical concentrations in their urine. And while early puberty might not be the end of the world (though every year without a period is a blessing, ask any wommon) the doctors conducting the study were concerned by the results, since earlier ages at puberty have previously been linked to increased risk of mental illnesses and breast, ovarian, and testicular cancer (Harley et al, Human Reproduction, Vol 34, 2019).
These compounds, referred to as endocrine disruptors because they interfere with your body's natural hormones, have been found to reduce sperm count and quality (Larsson et al, Environmental International, Vol. 73, 2014) (is it any wonder that couples are finding it harder to conceive than ever before? (Southern California Reproductive Center, 2018)), disrupt thyroid function (Kim et al, Thyroid Vol. 29, 2019; Kim et al, Environmental International, Vol. 107, 2017), change reproductive hormones in women, and have been found to stimulate the proliferation of breast cancer cells and the metastatic growth of tumors (Darbre & Harvey, Journal of Applied Toxicology, Vol. 34, 2014).
In a survey conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), it was found that for 2,300 people, the average wommon uses 12 different daily personal hygiene products containing 168 unique chemicals, while the average man uses 6 daily products containing 85 unique chemicals (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003), many of which can be found lumped together under the heading "natural" (read unregulated). In a world where harmful chemical compounds are ubiquitous and unregulated, what is one to do if they don't want to poison themselves, starve the fishies, give birth to a child with five eyeballs, but still want to smell nice and flash them pearly whites? Never fear! The age of innovation (or rather, getting back to the basics) is here!
Some Possible Solutions
For those of you that wield a smartphone, there's a very handy app called Think Dirty that allows you to learn about the toxic ingredients in your cosmetics and personal hygiene products. It's quick, easy, and user friendly. All you do is scan the barcode of the product in question and Think Dirty searches its database of 8,000,000+ products to come up with an easy to understand 'Dirty Meter,' and recommend safer alternative products that accomplish the same level of cleanliness, but with less side effects.
If you're not keen on going the app route, there are a host of organic ingredients to be on the lookout for. This is especially important when shopping for babies and children as many products marketed as "kid friendly" or "no more tears" are not, in fact, any more gentle or non-toxic than what you'd find in your grandfather's medicine cabinet. Next time, swap out those nasty mineral oils for cocoa butter, shea butter, honey, tea tree oil, aloe, or calendula (a Mediterranean plant in the genus containing the marigold).
When shopping for face and body washes, instead of grabbing the brightly-colored, microbead-toting varieties, instead look for options that contain sea salt, crushed shells, sugar, sand, or ground bark as a natural and harmless exfoliant. It'll do wonders for your skin (shocker, I know!). Some skin and planet friendly brands to try are Freeman, Ives, Burt’s Bees, and Bioré. If you're hardcore, or at least hardcore passionate about purifying your body and/or the planet, you can always try making your own facial scrubs and masks. Most require nothing more than a bowl and spoon and no more than three common pantry items. Some of the more successful, and easy to create, options are honey+oat+whole milk, coconut oil+baking soda, and oatmeal+coconut oil (for recipes, see my previous article The Only Face Masks You'll Ever Need).
A generally body and planet friendly site to check out is Lush. Their products contain mostly naturally occurring ingredients, and even in the 134 products that contain "fragrance," their website breaks down what that entails, and gives decent and useful, if not particularly scientific, explanations as to what each ingredient is and what it's purpose is in each product. Not to mention Lush's commitment to sustainability and the environment, through their regenerative agriculture projects in Uganda, Peru, Guatemala, and Arizona, their plastic-free shampoo bars, and their refillable charity pots that donate to charitable causes that help heal the Earth while you soothe your dry skin. (As a side note, this is neither a paid partnership nor some kind of promotional deal for Lush (or any of the other brands I mention). I genuinely find their website to be informative and helpful when trying to reassess your personal hygiene products and find healthier, more sustainable options. I am in no way affiliated with Lush, but if they wanted to sponsor me in the future I definitely wouldn't scoff at that. *Hint, hint, winky, winky, Lush.*)
If you're in the market for cosmetics, there are a few brands that really take your health into consideration. Bite Beauty is the best for lipsticks, with their Clean seal and easy access online and at Sephora stores, they've eliminated nearly all the previously mentioned toxins from their lipstick line. Juice Beauty is another good one, with only certified organic products and no parabens, their facial creams are top notch. If you're in need of foundation or blush, 100% Pure is a, well, pure option. Their website lists absolutely every ingredient—and there are tons—but you'll notice most of them aren't fancy chemical terms, but rather plant names. You can also always make your own. I've seen several people have huge success with homemade foundations and eyeliners, and you always know you're getting just the right shade for your skin tone. Personally, I have never attempted to make my own makeup products, so for more on that I'll direct you over to Wellness Mama's site and thoughtful directions.
Skylar is a paraben and chemical free perfume brand that boasts hypoallergenic and vegan scents. Looking for something a little manlier? Skylar also has huskier scents for men. Or you could try out Phlur, a cruelty-free and vegan company that produces perfumes/colognes, candles, body washes, and lotions. They have a great page on their website that addresses the very "fragrance" issue their brand is built around, and even talks about their musks and candle waxes and explains their reasoning behind their ingredients.
A slightly trickier area to greenify is your shaving routine. To get right at the root of the problem, you could quit shaving all together and instead start body sugaring. It's an ancient hair removal tactic similar to waxing that removes the hair at the root. Body sugar is made from boiled sugar, water, and lemon juice so there are no harmful ingredients there. Or, if turning into Willy Wonka on the weekends isn't your thing, you could always take shaving back to its roots (too many root puns?) with a traditional safety razor. Preserve Products also makes an environmentally friendly razor from 100 percent recycled materials. As for the shaving creams, fellas, Aveda Pure-formance shaving cream and aftershave are your plant-based solution to the usual canned varieties. Ladies, Lush D’Fluff shaving soap is your way to go.
If your brain is spinning from all the chemical formulas, health conditions, and vegan alternatives you didn't know existed, I have simply one more word for you.
Grove is an online one-stop-shop for all your healthier home essentials. They are a Certified B Corporation, meaning they're recognized as a business doing good for people, animals, communities, and the planet. All the products they offer are gentler on the Earth, prioritize post-consumer materials for packaging, and offset carbon with every shipment that goes out the door. They even donate a portion of every shipment to the Arbor Day Foundation to plant trees across the United States. As if that weren't enough, all the products they sell, from their personal hygiene products to their detergents, cleaning supplies, and pet grooming essentials, are from companies that prioritize gentle non-toxic ingredients. As far as personal hygiene products are concerned, their products run the gamut, several features of which are their moisturizers, deodorants, mosquito repellents, and facial wipes. Grove even does scheduled deliveries so your favorite products practically replenish themselves! And with their carbon offset program, your scheduled deliveries come much greener than an Amazon order would.
Even if spring cleaning isn't your speed, there are plenty of reasons to greenify your personal care routine: your health, the health of the planet, the health of your unborn child perhaps. And in arguably the most environmentally conscious decade since the 60s (when Rachel Carson shocked the nation into action with the publication of Silent Spring) making the switch to personal hygiene products that actually clean, purify, and detoxify has never been easier. So what are you waiting for?
There's no day like today and no time like the present!