Did you know that, on average, women apply 168 different ingredients to the skin each day using an estimated 12 products? Soap, haircare, deodorant, moisturisers, perfume, make up and so on. Some cosmetic ingredients are designed to penetrate into the skin to delivery vitamins and other therapeutic agents. However, they aren't the only chemicals which are absorbed. Consequently, cosmetic ingredients which are harmful to health are now commonly found in our blood stream, including industrial plasticizers called phthalates; parabens, which are preservatives; and persistent fragrance components like musk xylene.
The cosmetics industry presents us with sleek images of beauty and would have us believe that their products are not only safe but good for us. However, the truth is they put profits before customer wellbeing - choosing ingredients which provide economical ways to colour, aromatise or extend product shelf life despite known risks to health. Many of the chemicals used have the potential to impact health in various ways - some are carcinogenic, others are neurotoxic or disruptive to our hormones.
Few human trials are carried out to test the impact of new ingredients and as a result, we, the consumer, become the gunea pig. The recent ban of the preservative methylisothiazolinone is one example of this. Added to thousands of products since 2006, it has caused an epidemic of allergies with an estimated 10% of the population sensitive to it. Yet, despite the fact this chemical causes a visible skin reaction, it has taken 7 years for a ban to come into effect. How long will it take for regulators to take action on chemicals which do not leave a visible mark but instead contribute to increasing the risk of chronic illness?
There is already sufficent evidence to label these chemicals as carcinogeninc or as hormone disruptors but regulators are slow to take action possibly because it is difficult to come up with clear data on safe levels of exposure. Scientists have also demonstrated that many of these chemicals, when combined are more damaging than they are in isolation, which is concerning given the population is being exposed to this cocktail on a daily basis. Personally, I work from the logic that if something is a known carcinogen, I don't want to be rubbing it on my skin every morning.
Statistics relating to cancer, fertility, obesity and Alzhiemers suggest that things have changed in our environment and this is impacting our immune and endocrine systems. A 'chemical revolution' took place around the mid 1900s which has seen pesticides, plastics and a variety of chemicals enter our lives - in our food, clothing, toiletries, furniture, gardens, cars, carpets, etc.
Fortunately, there is a lot that we can do to reduce our chemical burden and alongside eating organic, switching to natural cleaning agents, toiletries and cosmetics can make a big difference. This is relevant to us all but is of particular importance if you have hormone-related concerns (fibroids, cysts, infertility, endometriosis, diabetes, obesity, etc), a family history of cancer or concerns around cognitive decline.
It is worth noting that many companies present themselves as 'natural' or 'organic' even though they are little better than the next brand - a product which contains some organic ingredients or natural fragrances can still contain other ingredients which are damaging to health. Likewise, the cost of a product gives no indication of the safety of the ingredients used. Therefore, read labels and look at websites to get clarity on the claims being made and what a company truly stands for. As a general rule, almost all mainstream cleaning, cosmetic or toiletry brand which you can buy at the supermarket contain ingredients which are best avoided.
The Environmental Working Group - Skin Deep website is a great resource which lets you search for your favourite products by name and easily make sense of the ingredients and their level of risk to your health. Based in America, it may not list EU-only brands but you can manually enter a product which isn't in the database, along with its ingredients in order to see its rating - this will also help to expand their database.
Here is a short list of the main offending ingredients:
- Formaldehyde - a preservative and known carcinogen
- Fragrance - unknown chemicals can be used under this title
- Parabens - hormone disrupting preservative
- Petroleum distillates - linked to dermatitis and containing carcinogenic impurities
- Phthalates - plasticisers which disrupt male and female hormones
- Toluene - neurotoxic, immune disrupting and a respiratory irritant
- Triclosan & Triclocarban - hormone disrupting antibacterial chemicals
What are the alternatives?
The good news is that there are many high quality brands which specialise in clean, safe and sustainable cosmetics, toiletries and cleaning products which you will love to use. Some are quite affordable while others are luxurious. Start replacing each product as it runs out and before long, your home, family and body will be thanking you. If you have a man in your life, start making the switch for him too.
Coconut oil - one of the most versatile oils which has many uses - moisturiser, make-up remover, hair treatment and of course, great for cooking. Always go organic. See this list for 122 uses for coconut oil - i've tried coconut oil for many different purposes and so far, I've not been disappointed.
Natrissimo - All the favourite natural brands under one roof.
Weleda - produce a range of pharmaceutical and personal healthcare products since 1921 while following sustainable and ethical business practices. Clients can purchase many of their range from the Natural Dispensary and receive the 10% discount.
Green People - A wide range of personal care products, many of which I use and love. Clients can purchase many of their range from the Natural Dispensary and receive the 10% discount.
Dr Hauschka - another of my favourite natural skincare brands, produced in Germany. Not the cheapest but lovely ingredients spanning the full range of toiletries, cosmetics, hair and skincare.
Trilogy - Founded by two Kiwi sisters in 2002, this brand Trilogy has an international reputation for producing ethical, sustainable, high-performance natural skincare.
Liz Earle - another great brand which I have used over the years focusing on skincare, make-up, haircare and fragrances - for men and women.
Arbonne - Sell green/organic/botanically based skin care products, cosmetics, shampoos, perfumes as well as some supplements.
Faith in Nature - Make a wide range of personal care products, some of which can be purchased at Oxfam stores.
Electric Body - Another pricey but amazing product range by Electric Body - the main ingredient is new Zealand Colostrum.
Living Nature - Yet another New Zealand product range which has been in operation since 1987 manufacturing a range of personal care products
Neils Yard - a lovely range of health and beauty products.
Inlight - a natural range of cosmetics handmade in Cornwall.
Neways - Look up the book, Unreasonable Risk - How to avoid cancer from cosmetics and personal care products The Neways Story written by Smauel Epstein M.D. emeritus Porf. of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Illinois Uni.
Many of the chemicals in our homes come from cleaning products. If you do use strong cleaning agents, always be sure to wipe the area clean with a wrinsed cloth to remove any residue left behind on the surface. I find leaving things to soften for a minute or two with a little water makes most mess wipe off without the need for anything much stronger than Ecover surface spray or a simple vinegar spray.
You can make your own cleaning agent from vinegar, salt, citrus fruits, herbs and baking soda can replace many cleaning products. Many blogs and websites provide details on how, what and when to use various combinations. Try this one to get you started.
Ecover - readily available at most supermarkets and health food stores.
Bio D - health food stores and oxfam. They do a multi purpose cleaner which smells very strongly of orange peel which is lovely.