Did you know, many of the personal products that we use on a daily basis are full of potentially harmful chemicals that can have implications for our health?
When looking to optimise your health and wellbeing, some of the first steps you may take are to adjust your diet, nutrition, exercise and relaxation routines. But what about making changes to your perfumes, skincare, makeup and personal toiletries? Could shaking up your beauty regime also improve your health and wellness?
Scientific studies are increasingly highlighting the association between the environmental chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis, and poor health outcomes. 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 chemicals in our bodies, which can potentially damage our health.
Given that the average woman uses 12 personal care products each day, the ingredients these contain should be an important consideration when looking to make health-boosting 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 chemicals 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. Studies have shown BHA and BHT act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with our normal hormone systems, having oestrogenic (mimicking oestrogen) and anti-androgenic (testosterone-blocking) effects. This can mean shorter menstrual cycles, which could impact our ability to conceive, and can also cause symptoms such as hot flashes in pre-menopausal women, and earlier age onset of menopause.
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.
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 scented candles. Butylphenyl methylpropional is a known dermal and respiratory irritant, and can also be harmful to developing foetuses exposed through their mother’s use of products containing the chemical.
Although use is regulated, a discussion from The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety published in May 2019 indicated the aggregate exposure to this chemical arising from the use of multiple products meant that at the current regulated concentrations, butylphenyl methylpropional could not be considered as safe.
Label lookouts: butylphenyl methylpropional, lilial, lily aldehyde.
Parabens: Parabens are synthetic compounds used in many health and beauty products as a preservative to prolong shelf-life. Parabens are endocrine-disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), that can mimic oestrogen, interfering with the body’s normal hormone function. This can impact egg and embryo quality for those trying to conceive, and parabens have even been linked to increased risk of developing breast cancer.
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 creams, perfumes and shampoos! The simplest rule of thumb is to go for products specifically advertised as ‘paraben-free’.
Label lookouts: parabens, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben.
Phthalates: Phthalates are a group of chemicals known as plasticizers as they are mainly used to soften plastics. Although most phthalates are now banned from use in cosmetics as they interfere with hormone function, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still used in many beauty products to help fragrances last longer. Phthalates may not always appear in ingredient lists, however, if you find ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on a label without further explanation as to the source, there may well be phthalates lurking.
Phthalates can decrease thyroid hormone levels in the body, which could be particularly problematic during early pregnancy, when the foetal brain depends entirely on its mother’s thyroid hormone supply. Data has even linked the risk of hormonally-mediated disease, such as endometriosis, to phthalates.
Aside from being used in perfumes and personal care products, phthalates are also commonly found in cleaning products. As a general rule, avoiding heavily perfumed products all round is a good move.
Label lookouts: diethyl phthalate (DEP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), ‘fragrance/parfum’ where source has not been clarified, for example ‘natural essential oils’.
Polyacrylamide: Polyacrylamide is sometimes used as a thickener, foaming agent or lubricant in cosmetic lotions. Although not considered risky in itself, the controversy surrounding polyacrylamide usage comes from its potential to secrete acrylamide molecules as it breaks down. Acrylamide is a known toxin and has been associated with problems in foetal development. It is also a suspected carcinogen, and several studies have found an association between acrylamide exposure and risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers, as well as risk of a specific type of breast cancer in post-menopausal women.
Although acrylamide itself is banned from use in cosmetics in the EU, and use of polyacrylamide is regulated to strict levels to ensure exposure to residual acrylamide is reduced, it might be worth avoiding polyacrylamide altogether, and switching to lotions that don’t run the risk of containing acrylamide.
Label lookouts: polyacrylamide, acrylamide, polyacrylate, polyquaternium and acrylate.
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.
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 impacts brain function and behaviour.
Pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers should especially try to avoid TSC containing products as there has been evidence to suggest that TSC accumulates in breast milk, as well as it being present in blood samples taken from infants’ umbilical cords – meaning foetuses and babies are also at risk of being exposed to TSC’s health-disrupting effects.
Label lookouts: triclosan (TSC), triclocarban (TCC).
Toluene: Found in nail varnishes and hair dyes, toluene is used to give your polish a smooth finish on your nail. Some studies have indicated toluene has been linked to reproductive damage in females, as well as pregnancy loss. Breathing in toluene vapours can also cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, headache, sickness, memory problems, and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Not overdoing the manicures and pedicures (especially when TTC and during pregnancy) is a good start, as well as switching to polishes that don’t contain toluene.
Label lookouts: toluene also listed as methylbenzene, phenylmethane or toluol; toluene-2,5-diamine, toluene-2,5-diamine sulfate, toluene-3,4-diamine (hair dyes).
The idea that your current beauty products might contain these chemicals and in some way be affecting your 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, checking your labels and switching to products that don’t contain the harmful ingredients listed above is a great first step.
Report on Carcinogens (acrylamide), Fourteenth Edition, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (2016). Available online: HTTPS://NTP.NIEHS.NIH.GOV/NTP/ROC/CONTENT/PROFILES/ACRYLAMIDE.PDF
BHA and BHT:
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
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.
,2,6-di-tert-butyl-p-cresol (BHT) Screening Information Data Set: Initial Assessment Report, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), (March 2002). Available online: HTTPS://HPVCHEMICALS.OECD.ORG/UI/HANDLER.AXD?ID=6D30349E-EF9F-496C-A2AF-6D497D4F1CCA
Baur, A K, et al., ‘The lung tumor promoter, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), causes chronic inflammation in promotion-sensitive BALB/cByJ mice but not in promotion-resistant CXB4 mice’, Toxicology , volume 169:1, (December 2001), pages 1-15.
The Science and Safety Behind Your Favorite Products, Butylphenyl methylpropional, Cosmetics Info. Available online: HTTPS://COSMETICSINFO.ORG/INGREDIENT/BUTYLPHENYL-METHYLPROPIONAL-0
Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) opinion on the safety of Butylphenyl methylpropional (p-BMHCA) in cosmetic products – Submission II, the European Commission, (May 2019). Available online : HTTPS://EC.EUROPA.EU/HEALTH/SITES/HEALTH/FILES/SCIENTIFIC_COMMITTEES/CONSUMER_SAFETY/DOCS/SCCS_O_213.PDF
Chemicals use in cosmetics:
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, Official Journal of the European Union, (February 2006). Available online: HTTPS://EUR-LEX.EUROPA.EU/LEGAL-CONTENT/EN/TXT/PDF/?URI=CELEX:32006D0257&FROM=EN
Environmental Working Group EWG’s Skin Deep® Cosmetic Database: HTTP://WWW.EWG.ORG/SKINDEEP/
European Commission Cosmetics and Cosmetic Notifications Portal (CPNP). Available online: 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. Available online: HTTPS://EC.EUROPA.EU/GROWTH/TOOLS-DATABASES/COSING/INDEX.CFM?FUSEACTION=REF_DATA.ANNEXES_V2 CoSing EU commission database annexes
The Toxic Twenty Chemicals and Contaminants in Cosmetics, Environmental Working Group, (April 2019). Available online: HTTPS://CDN3.EWG.ORG/SITES/DEFAULT/FILES/U352/TOXIC%20TWENTY%20REPORT_2.PDF?_GA=2.106952779.951857771.1587139595-1280782283.1587139594
Diamanti-Kandarakis E, et al., ’Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement’, Endocrine Reviews, Volume 30:4, (June 2009), Pages 293–342.
Endocrine Disruptors: from Scientific Evidence to Human Health Protection; Policy Department for Citizens PE 608.866, Rights and Constitutional Affairs Directorate General for Internal Policies of the Union, The European Parliament, (March 2019, updated May 2019). Available online: HTTPS://WWW.EUROPARL.EUROPA.EU/REGDATA/ETUDES/STUD/2019/608866/IPOL_STU(2019)608866_EN.PDF
Darbre P D, ‘Environmental oestrogens, cosmetics and breast cancer’, Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, volume 20:1, (March 2006), Pages 121-143.
Endocrine disruptors: from scientific evidence to human health protection, Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs Directorate General for Internal Policies of the Union,
(March 2019). Available online: HTTPS://WWW.EUROPARL.EUROPA.EU/REGDATA/ETUDES/STUD/2019/608866/IPOL_STU(2019)608866_EN.PDF
Endocrine Disruptors,The European Commission, (August 2019). Available online: HTTPS://EC.EUROPA.EU/ENVIRONMENT/CHEMICALS/ENDOCRINE/INDEX_EN.HTM
Microbiome function and immunity:
Rooks M G, and Garrett W S, ‘Gut microbiota, metabolites and host immunity’, Nature Review Immunology, volume 16:6, (May 2016), pages 341-352.
Levy M, et al.,‘Dysbiosis and the immune system’, Nature Review Immunology, volume 17:4, (April 2017), pages 219-232.
Cryan J F, and Dinan T G, ‘Mind-altering microorganisms: the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behaviour’, Nature Review Neuroscience, volume 13:10, (October 2012), pages 701-712.
Wu H-J, and Wu E, ‘The role of gut microbiota in immune homeostasis and autoimmunity’, Gut Microbes, volume 3:1, (January 2012), pages 4-14.
Parabens and Phthalates:
#ChemicalCallout – Phthalates: HTTPS://WWW.MADESAFE.ORG/SCIENCE/HAZARD-LIST/PHTHALATES/
Chow, E T, and Mahalingaiah S, ‘Cosmetics use and age at menopause: Is there a connection?’ Fertility and Sterility, volume 106:4, (September 2016), pages 978-990.
Hunt P A, et al., ‘Female Reproductive Disorders, Diseases, and Costs of Exposure to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in the European Union’, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, volume 101:4, (April 2016), pages 1562-1570.
Boas M et al., ‘Childhood exposure to phthalates: associations with thyroid function, insulin-like growth factor I, and growth’, Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 118:10, (October 2010), pages 1458-1464.
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.
Darbre P D, and Harvey P W, ‘Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks’, Journal of Applied Toxicology, volume 28:5, (July 2008), pages 561-578.
Ishiwatari S, et al., ‘Effects of methyl paraben on skin keratinocytes’, Journal of Applied Toxicology, volume 27:1, (January-February 2007), pages 1-9.
Upson, K, et al.,‘Phthalates and risk of endometriosis’, Environmental Research, volume 126, (October 2013), pages 91-97.
Boas M, Feldt-Rasmussen U, Main K M, ‘Thyroid effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals’, Molecular and Cell Endocrinology, volume 355:2, (May 2012), pages 240-248.
Oishi S, ‘Effects of butylparaben on the male reproductive system in rats’, Toxicology and Industrial Health, volume 17:1, (Feb 2001), Pages 31-9.
Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) opinion on phthalates, the European Commission, (March 2007). Available online: HTTPS://EC.EUROPA.EU/HEALTH/PH_RISK/COMMITTEES/04_SCCP/DOCS/SCCP_O_106.PDF
‘Should People Be Concerned about Parabens in Beauty Products’, Scientific American, (October 6, 2014), Available online: HTTPS://WWW.SCIENTIFICAMERICAN.COM/ARTICLE/SHOULD-PEOPLE-BE-CONCERNED-ABOUT-PARABENS-IN-BEAUTY-PRODUCTS/
Young A S, et al., ‘Phthalate and Organophosphate Plasticizers in Nail Polish: Evaluation of Labels and Ingredients’ Environmental Science and Technology, volume 52:21, (October 2018), Pages 12841-12850.
Toulene Health Hazards and Protective Measures, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Available online: HTTPS://WWW.OSHA.GOV/SLTC/TOLUENE/HEALTH_HAZARDS.HTML
Toulene General Information, Public Health England, (2017). Available online: HTTPS://ASSETS.PUBLISHING.SERVICE.GOV.UK/GOVERNMENT/UPLOADS/SYSTEM/UPLOADS/ATTACHMENT_DATA/FILE/659914/TOLUENE_GENERAL_INFORMATION.PDF
Ono A, et al., ‘Reproductive and developmental toxicity studies of toluene. II. Effects of inhalation exposure on fertility in rats.’ Journal of Environmental Pathology Toxicology and Oncology, volume 15:1, (January 1996), Pages 9-20.
Crofton K M, et al., ‘Short-term in vivo exposure to the water contaminant triclosan: Evidence for disruption of thyroxine’, Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology, volume 24:2, (September 2007), pages 194-197.
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.
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.
Paul K B, Hedge J M, Devito M J, and Crofton K M, ‘Developmental triclosan exposure decreases maternal and neonatal thyroxine in rats’, Environmental toxicology and chemistry, volume 29:12, (December 2010), pages 2840–2844.
Paul K B, Hedge J M, DeVito M J, and Crofton K M, ‘Short-term exposure to triclosan decreases thyroxine in vivo via upregulation of hepatic catabolism in Young Long-Evans rats’, Toxicological Science, volume 113:2, (November 2009), pages 367–379.
Wang X, Ouyang F, et al., ‘Maternal Urinary Triclosan Concentration in Relation to Maternal and Neonatal Thyroid Hormone Levels: A Prospective Study’, Environmental Health Perspective, volume 125:6, (June 2017), pages 067017-7.
Sanidad K Z, Xiao, H, and Zhang, G, ‘Triclosan, a common antimicrobial ingredient, on gut microbiota and gut health’, Gut Microbes, volume 10:3, (November 2018), pages 434-437.
Bever C S, et al., ‘Effects of triclosan in breast milk on the infant fecal microbiome’, Chemosphere, Volume 203, (March 2018), pages 467–473.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aimée has a background in Forensic Psychology, working as a family therapist before becoming an editor for Penguin Random House. Specialising in non-fiction, she has edited bestselling books from world-class experts in their field. Most recently she has commissioned self-help titles covering natural remedies, parenting, and mindfulness.