Did you know, many of the personal products you use on a daily basis are full of chemical toxins that may have implications for your health?
As a busy mum constantly on the go, you’re often exhausted by the end of the day, and left with little time to focus on your own beauty, nutrition, and exercise regimes. But by making some simple changes to your perfumes, skincare, makeup and personal toiletries you could actually help to boost your health and wellbeing.
This is important not only for keeping you in tip-top condition in your role as a super-mum, but as children may use these products directly (like shampoos the whole family share), and can absorb many of the ingredients you put on and in your body through close contact (like breastfeeding), making these changes also keeps them safe too.
Scientific studies are increasingly highlighting the association between the environmental chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis and poor health. Although the European Commission regulates the use of chemical ingredients in cosmetic products, the worry voiced by many health professionals is that cumulatively – with exposure from multiple personal care products – we are building up extensive levels of these damaging toxins in our bodies. Given that the average man uses 6, and the average woman uses 12 personal care products each day, the ingredients these contain should be an important consideration when looking to make any potentially health-improving lifestyle changes.
Googling every ingredient in your bathroom cabinet does perhaps sounds a little mind-boggling, so to help you get started, here’s a handy checklist of seven of the key chemical nasties linked to poor health that you should try to avoid wherever possible:
BHA/BHT: BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are synthetic chemical compounds that have antioxidising effects. They are often found in cosmetic products such as lipsticks, deodorants, hair gels/creams, and moisturisers where they act as a preservative – prolonging shelf-life. There is increasing concern that BHA and BHT act as endocrine disruptors, and some studies have shown BHA and BHT to have oestrogenic and anti-androgenic (testosterone-blocking) properties. Endocrine disruptors that are either oestrogenic or anti-androgenic can play a role in our reproductive cycles, resulting in shorter menstrual cycles, which can impact our ability to conceive, as well as causing symptoms such as hot flashes in pre-menopausal women, and leading to earlier age of menopause onset.
BHT also irritates the eyes, skin and respiratory system; with long-term exposure to high doses of BHT linked to liver, thyroid and kidney problems, impaired lung function, blood coagulation issues, and (in certain situations) tumour growth.
Label lookouts: BHA, butylated hydroxyanisole, BHT, butylated hydroxytoluene, dibutylhydroxytoluene.
Ethanolamines: Ethanolamines such as diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), act as an emulsifier (allowing combined liquids to make a smooth mixture without separating) or a degreaser. Since they remove oil and dirt, they are often found in cleaning products and creamy products such as hand soaps and shampoos.
When ethanolamines are used in a product alongside certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen they can form compounds called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are classed as possible carcinogens. DEA may also react with other ingredients to form N-Nitrosodiethylamine, a known carcinogen which can be absorbed through the skin. Although the use of DEA is prohibited by the European Commission for use in cosmetics due to concerns about nitrosamines, it can still be found in other cleansing and care products so be sure to check your labels.
Label lookouts: diethanolamine (DEA), cocamide, ethanolamines, lauramide, triethanolamine (TEA).
Parabens: Parabens are synthetic compounds used in many health and beauty products as a preservative to prolong shelf-life. Known endocrine-disruptors, parabens can mimic oestrogen, interfering with the body’s normal hormone function. This can impact egg and embryo quality for those trying to conceive again, and parabens have even been linked to increased risk of developing breast cancer, with one study finding traces of five different parabens present in the tumours of 19 out of 20 women.
Moreover, long-term daily use of skincare products containing parabens, and especially methylparaben, can lead to changes in the skin’s natural cell growth, weakening it and causing issues such as premature skin ageing.
As Parabens are readily absorbed through the skin, be sure to check the labels on those body lotions and shampoos – especially those the whole family are using! The simplest rule of thumb is to go for products specifically advertised as ‘paraben-free’.
Label lookouts: parabens, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben.
Triclosan: Triclosan (TSC) is an antibacterial agent most often found in hand soaps, toothpastes, hand sanitisers, deodorants and mouthwashes. Studies have shown that exposure to triclosan can impact oestrogenic activity, and decrease thyroid hormone levels – which can lead to tiredness and weight gain.
Research has also indicated that TSC can disrupt the gut’s microbiome (the naturally occurring bacteria found in our intestines) which plays a crucial role in helping to control digestion, boosting immunity, and on brain function and behaviour.
Breast-feeding mothers should especially try to avoid TSC containing products as there has been evidence to suggest that TSC accumulates in breast milk– meaning babies are additionally at risk of being exposed to TSC’s health-disrupting effects.
Label lookouts: triclosan (TSC), triclocarban (TCC).
UV Filters: UV filters such as octinoxate and oxybenzone are often found in sun cream and other cosmetics offering an SPF (lipsticks, skin creams, hair products, etc). While they offer protection from UV light, they are also endocrine disruptors, which could cause early puberty in children. They also reduce the amount of thyroid hormones in the blood stream, which can have implications for energy levels and weight management, so be sure to check those suncreams – especially those you are using on the whole family.
Label lookouts: octinoxate, octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), oxybenzone, homosalate, benzonephenone-3, homomenthyl salicylate, 3,3,5-trimethyl-cyclohexyl-salicylate.
Butylphenyl Methylpropional: Often labelled as ‘lilial’, butylphenyl methylpropional synthetically replicates the aroma of the lily of the valley flower. It is found in everything from hair products and deodorants, to perfumes, hand soaps and even scented candles. Butylphenyl methylpropional can be damaging to male testes, impacting sperm quality, and can also be harmful to developing foetuses exposed through their mother’s use of products containing the chemical.This is an important one to check for both you and your partner when it comes to perfumes and colognes, as well as looking at the ingredients of any scented candles burning in the family home that your children will also be inhaling.
Label lookouts: butylphenyl methylpropional, lilial, lily aldehyde.
Retinoids and Retinol: Retinoids are chemical compounds related to vitamin A that are used in anti-acne creams to unclog pores, and anti-ageing medications to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Although retinoids are prescription-only, you can buy the over-the-counter-version – retinol – without a prescription, and it is often an ingredient found in commercial anti-ageing products due to the role naturally occurring vitamin A plays in skin health.
There is however a carcinogenic association with certain retinoids, and research has linked retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate usage, in combination with sunlight, to an increased risk of skin cancer.
Topical retinoid use has also been linked to birth defects, so avoiding their use if you’re trying for another baby is important – Why not try natural anti-ageing alternatives that are rich in Vitamin A such as mango butter or rosehip oil?
Label lookouts: retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene, and isotretinoin.
The idea that the products you use might contain these toxins and in some way be affecting yours, your children’s, and even your partner’s health may sound scary, but try not to panic! Remember: it’s all about making changes where you can to reduce your risk. Arming yourself with the right information can help you to make more health-friendly choices when it comes to your personal products, and the products you use with your children in the family home. Checking your labels and switching to products that don’t contain the harmful ingredients listed above is a great first step.
Butylated Hydroxytoluene National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), (Last Reviewed October 2019). Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0246.html
Chemicals of concern: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chem-of-concern/
Commission decision of 9 February 2006 amending Decision 96/335/EC establishing an inventory and a common nomenclature of ingredients employed in cosmetic products: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32006D0257&from=EN
Darbre P D, et al., ‘Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours’, Journal of Applied Toxicology, volume 24:1, (January-February 2004), pages 5-13.
Diamanti-Kandarakis E, et al., ’Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement’, Endocrine Reviews, Volume 30:4, (June 2009), Pages 293–342.
Environmental Working Group EWG’s Skin Deep® Cosmetic Database: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
Environmental Working Group Report: The trouble with sunscreen chemicals: https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/
Ethanolamines, Chemical Safety Facts. Available online: https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/ethanolamines/
European Commission Cosmetics and Cosmetic Notifications Portal (CPNP): https://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/cosmetics/
European Commission list of substances which cosmetic products must not contain except subject to the restrictions laid down: https://ec.europa.eu/growth/tools-databases/cosing/index.cfm?fuseaction=ref_data.annexes_v2 CoSing EU commission database annexes
Jeong S H, et al., ‘Effects of butylated hydroxyanisole on the development and functions of reproductive system in rats’, Toxicology, volume 208:1, (March 2005), pages 49-62.
National Toxicology Program report: Photocarcinogenesis study of retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate, National Institute of Health, (2012). Available online: https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/lt_rpts/tr568_508.pdf
Oishi S, ‘Effects of butylparaben on the male reproductive system in rats’, Toxicology and Industrial Health, Volume 17(1), (Feb 2001), Pages 31-9.
Paul, K B, Hedge, J M, and Crofton K M, ‘Developmental triclosan exposure decreases maternal, fetal, and early neonatal thyroxine: a dynamic and kinetic evaluation of a putative mode-of-action’, Toxicology, volume 300:1-2, (October 2012), pages 31-45.
Report on Carcinogens (nitrosamines), Fourteenth Edition, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (2016). Available Online: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/twelfth/profiles/Nitrosamines.pdf.
Sanidad K Z, et al., ‘Triclosan, a common antimicrobial ingredient, on gut microbiota and gut health’, Gut Microbes, volume 10:3, (November 2018), pages 434-437.
Schlumpf M, et al, ‘Endocrine Active UV Filters: Developmental Toxicity and Exposure Through Breast Milk’, CHIMIA International Journal for Chemistry, Volume 62(5), (May 2008) pages 345–351.
Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety SCCS opinion on the safety of Butylphenyl methylpropional (p-BMHCA) in cosmetic products – Submission II : https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_213.pdf
‘Should People Be Concerned about Parabens in Beauty Products’, October 6, 2014: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-people-be-concerned-about-parabens-in-beauty-products/
Skin deep exposures add up survey: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/2004/06/15/exposures-add-up-survey-results/ Exposures add up – Survey results
The trouble with sunscreen chemicals, Environmental Working Group, (2019). Available online: https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/