What’s Lurking in Your Bath and Body Products?

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I had a client this past month, actually a family of four, that found out that the bathroom wipes they were using were recalled because they contained Burkholderia cepacia (B. cepacia), a bacteria known to cause respiratory issues. The Mom was beside herself. The whole family came in to get screened and the bacteria was showing up in two of the family members. They thought they had an ongoing cold, but within a few days of being on the correct immune-building protocol, they were feeling better.

This scenario may be a little more extreme, but did you know that there are toxic ingredients in many of the bath and body products you use on a daily basis? This includes shampoo, soap, lotion, deodorant, sunscreen, perfumes/colognes, toothpaste, baby powder, wipes, nail polish, hand sanitizer, etc.

Bath and body products (including cosmetics) are not regulated like food. These products and most of their ingredients do not require FDA approval before going on the market. Rather, it is the companies and individuals who market the products that have the responsibility to ensure their safety.

If you are not using truly natural products, these toxic ingredients are getting absorbed into your skin. Your skin is considered your largest organ. Unlike your digestive system, where various organs process and filter the foods you eat, what you put on your skin gets directly absorbed into your blood stream. (Spray-type products get breathed in and go directly into your lungs too.)

If you are diligent about the foods you eat – eliminating food preservatives, staying away from genetically modified (GM) ingredients, eating organic produce and grass fed meats/eggs, drinking filtered water, etc. – but still using conventional bath and body products, find out below how to make some changes.

Ingredients to Eliminate
Just like the foods you eat, you should read the labels on your bath and body products carefully. If you don’t recognize and/or can’t pronounce an ingredient, you probably don’t want it on your body. In fact, many common ingredients are made from chemicals and are harmful to you and the environment – chemicals that are typically synthetic (man-made) and created in a lab. Consider the gradual, cumulative effects of long-term and repeated exposure to these chemicals.

The following list of ingredients appears in many conventional bath and body products. The general scientific consensus is that they should be avoided. In fact, some are banned by the European Union (EU). Be aware that the process of creating these chemicals can often make other toxic by-products, such as dioxin and formaldehyde, which are generally not included in an ingredient list. (These same chemicals also get washed down the drain and ultimately get into our drinking water.)

Parabens – Parabens are a synthetic preservative and antimicrobial agent commonly found in bath and body products with high water content such as shampoo, conditioner, lotion, cleansers, and body wash. They also turn up in solid products like deodorant. Known as a “endocrine disruptor”, studies have found that parabens mimic estrogen in the body and disrupt normal hormone function in both males and females. Parabens have also been found in breast-tumor biopsies.

The EU restricts the concentration of parabens in cosmetics. In the US, parabens can appear on the label as methyl-, ethyl-, butyl- or propylparaben, however, it can also be hidden in the ingredient “fragrance.” (See Parfum below.) Growing awareness about parabens has inspired a number of manufacturers to banish them in favor of safer preservatives, so you can often find personal-care products labeled “paraben-free.”

Phthalates – Phthalates are a class of chemicals that are used as plasticizers to stabilize scent in perfume and color in cosmetics, to help lotions penetrate the skin, and to keep nail polish from chipping. (It is also used in many other products such as varnishes and inks, plastics and PVC, pesticides, and even medications, so exposure can add up fast.) And, since phthalates are not chemically bound to the product, they easily off-gas and can be inhaled too.

Like Parabens, phthalates are considered “endocrine disruptors.” Multiple studies have linked phthalates to depression of normal thyroid function and birth defects, mostly affecting the genital development of young boys and sperm counts in adult men. Some phthalates are known to cause cancer and can also cause liver, kidney, and lung damage.

There are over 20 different types of phthalates. Although they can be found in almost every type of bath and body product, you will not typically see it listed on a label. Instead it is often hidden in the ingredient “fragrance.” (See Parfum below.) Some phthalates commonly found in cosmetics are banned in the EU and others used in toys and plastic have been banned in Canada. In the US, you can purchase from companies that have pledged not to use phthalates. Look for labels that say “phthalate-free.” (You also need to consider the packaging since plastic containers can contain phthalates too.) When using nail polish, water-based polishes are the most benign.

Parfum and Synthetic Fragrances – There are some 3000 chemicals used in fragrances and most have not been tested for toxicity. One product alone can contain over 100 chemicals to create its fragrance. These chemicals are not required to be disclosed by the manufacturer since they are protected as proprietary information (trade secret). You are not safe with “fragrance-free” or “unscented” products either because masking chemicals are typically used to cover any residual scent. (The chemicals are used to trick the brain into not being able to identify the scent.) Multiple studies show a correlation between synthetic fragrances and allergies and/or asthma.

When “fragrance” is listed on an ingredient label, there is a good chance that phthalates are also present since phthalates are used to enhance the scent. Parabens may also be grouped in with the fragrances. Instead, be sure to look for products that clearly state “no synthetic fragrances” or “natural essential oil fragrance only.” If you are a perfume or cologne user, you may want to consider good quality essential oils instead, or using nothing at all. (Other highly scented products to stay away from include conventional laundry detergent, dryer sheets, candles, and air fresheners.)

Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS/SLES) – SLS and SLES are synthetic detergents and foaming agents used in products such as shampoos, shower gels, facial cleansers, and bubble bath. They also act as penetration enhancers, allowing products to penetrate deep into the skin. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is converted to sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) by a process called ethoxylation, where ethylene oxide is added to the SLS to make it less irritating in a product.

SLS and SLES are connected to skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, dermatitis, and dryness. Depending on how it is manufactured, SLS can also create the byproduct 1-4 dioxane, a suspected carcinogen and ground water contaminant. And, the ethylene oxide used to convert SLS to SLES is a known carcinogen and possible developmental toxin and neurotoxin.

The oil used to make SLS can come from a number of sources including petroleum and coconuts. Even if the raw material seems more natural, it still goes through the same chemical process so one is not necessarily better than another. Many companies have quit using ethoxylated ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate to avoid 1-4 dioxane contamination as well as allergic reactions. Look for “-eth” at the end of other ingredient names to detect this process.

Propylene Glycol (PEG) – Propylene glycol is a petroleum-based compound commonly found in cosmetic cream bases. It can act as a thickener, softener, solvent, and penetration enhancer. PEG keeps products from melting in high heat or freezing when it is cold. Also used as a coating on medications and certain foods, it can be a skin irritant and cause allergic reactions, especially after continuous exposure from multiple sources.

Diethanolamine (DEA) – DEA and related chemicals triethanolamine (TEA) and monoethanolamide (MEA) are emulsifiers and foaming agents typically found in creamy and sudsy products such as moisturizers, shampoos, and body washes. Additionally, it acts as a pH adjuster, countering the affect of other acidic ingredients. DEA can cause skin and eye irritation and other allergic reactions as well as hair and skin dryness. All versions can also react to the nitrates in cosmetics to form carcinogenic compounds called “nitrosamines.”

Diazolidinyl and Imidazolidinyl Urea – Urea is what you naturally excrete from your body but diazolidinyl and imidazolidinyl urea are synthetic and are frequently used as preservatives, especially in moisturizer creams. They appear in sunscreen, moisturizer cream, lotion, shampoo — the same places you’ll find parabens. The synthetic raw materials include ammonia and carbon dioxide. Imidazolidnyl urea can cause contact dermatitis. Both types are known to slowly release small amounts of formaldehyde.

Other Suspect Ingredients
The ingredients discussed above are some of the main culprits, most of them chemically-based. Conventional bath and body products can contain many other suspect ingredients as well. Examples include:

  • Nanoparticles – Also called “microfine particles,” nanoparticles consist of taking common ingredients and converting them into ultra-tiny particles. They are used in a variety of everyday products like anti-microbial clothing. Examples of body products include sunscreen, to make it transparent instead of white, and anti-aging products, to help them penetrate deeper skin layers. These “penetration enhancers” are worrisome when used in combination with the chemicals discussed above because it allows these toxins to penetrate deeper into the skin and get into the body at the cellular level. The making of nanoparticles can also change the property of the original substance. If a product is made with nano technology be sure the ingredients are pure. (Click here to search a database of nanotechnology products.)
  • Gluten – If you are gluten sensitive, you need to be aware that you can get gluten from certain ingredients in body and bath products too. Examples include starch, dextrate, maltose, etc. (See this previous blog for a more extensive list.) Also know that you may react more strongly to the gluten in the body product (versus eating it), since it can enter your blood stream directly from your skin (skipping the digestion phase).
  • GMOs and Pesticides – When you start moving towards more natural body products, ones made from foods and botanicals (not chemicals), you will want to consider using certified organic (or wild crafted) to avoid pesticides. You will also want to stay away from genetically modified (GM) ingredients. To be absolutely sure you are getting a product that is GMO-free, look for products with the “NON-GMO Project” label. A list can be found here.
  • Culprit Food Additives – Other food-like ingredients can be found in bath and body products. So, if you are sensitive to certain food ingredients, be sure to look for those ingredients on bath and body product labels. Carrageenan, BHA, and nitrates, for example, can be common irritants.
  • Antibiotics – Products labeled as antimicrobial will have its own unique ingredients. Triclosan is a common antibacterial agent used in many antimicrobial products. Keep in mind that your skin contains a host of beneficial bacteria, just like your gut. If you continually use antibacterial bath and body products, you are disturbing the balance of good bacteria on your skin, bacteria that is there to naturally protect you.

Finding Alternative Products
When it comes to body and bath products, words like “natural,” “herbal,” and “organic” have no legal definition. Bath and body products are not regulated like food. Therefore, even a product labeled as “organic” can still contain synthetic and petrochemical ingredients such as those described above. A great resource is the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. This list is quite extensive but easy to navigate, rating personal-care products by the safety of their ingredients. You can use this database several ways, you can:

  1. Use the search function to look up a product you are currently using to see where it rates on the list. What you find can be very eye-opening, especially if you have not yet considered the ingredients in your body products.
  2. Find safer alternative products, the ones with the fewest and healthiest ingredients, by selecting a category and reviewing the list. You will want to look for products that have a rating as close to zero as possible. (The ratings of 0, 1 and 2 are considered “low hazard.”)
  3. Look up a particular ingredient or company name to obtain additional information.

Fortunately, in the last few years, many more truly natural products have become available. The key is to do your research and read labels. For example, some conventional personal-care products may contain only one or two ingredients that are organic yet the package states “Made with Organic Ingredients” (and sometimes just “Organic”) so there will still be other suspect ingredients. To find products that are truly organic, look for the “USDA Organic” seal on the package. At least these products have been reviewed and certified by a third-party. Products with the seal and the words “100% Organic” are fully organic. Standard “USDA Organic” products are allowed to have up to 5% non-organic ingredients.

Making You Own Products
If you really want to know what you are putting on your body, consider making your own body and bath products. There are many recipes on-line for everything from lotions to toothpaste and deodorants. It can be as simple as substituting your body lotion with good quality coconut oil or shea butter.

If you are interested in making your own products, here are some helpful links to get you started: DeodorantToothpaste, and Baby wipes.

. . . . How many bath and body products do you use on a daily basis? When you start making your list, you may be surprised. Start with the products you use most often. Find (or make) an alternate and replace what you are using, one product at a time. You may even find that some products you can do without – such as bath wipes, body sprays, perfume, and cologne.

Remember, eating healthy is great but only part of the puzzle. To be truly healthy you need to consider what you put on your body as much as what you put in your body.

Note: Bath products intended to treat or prevent disease, or affect the structure or function of the human body, are also considered drugs and must comply with both the drug and cosmetic provisions of the law. Examples include “fluoride” toothpastes, suntan lotions intended to protect against sunburn, antiperspirants that are also deodorants, and antidandruff shampoos (source). These are more closely regulated but often still have suspect ingredients.

This article was written by Sharon Harmon, founder of Life Design for Health. She has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website.

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