Adding insult to injury, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tasks the companies that manufacture and market cosmetics and other personal care products with ensuring their safety.
Not only does this pose an obvious conflict of interest, but “neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients.”2
The average US women uses 12 personal care products and/or cosmetics a day, containing 168 different chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). There are other chemicals risks as well, like those lurking in your household cleaning products, food packaging, furniture, and carpeting.
Dr. Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute, is among those speaking out against environmental chemicals and the risk they pose to human health, and in particular to women’s health.
About 80 percent of the women who develop breast cancer, for instance, have no family history of the disease. Environmental chemicals, including those that disrupt your body’s hormone systems (endocrine-disrupting chemicals) are thought to play a significant role.3
Which Household Products Should You Avoid?
Silent Spring has identified multiple chemicals groups that you’re better off avoiding to protect your health. This includes chemicals common in household items you may currently be using everyday:
1. Fragrances in Cleaning and Personal Care Products
Fragranced products are almost always loaded with synthetic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies, and more. Some common offenders lurking in “fragrance” include:
- Parabens: Synthetic preservatives known to interfere with hormone production and release.
- Phthalates: Another synthetic preservative that’s carcinogenic and linked to adverse reproductive effects (decreased sperm counts, early breast development, and birth defects) and liver and kidney damage.
- Synthetic musks: These are linked to hormone disruption and are thought to persist and accumulate in breast milk, body fat, umbilical cord blood, and the environment.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG):4
“An analysis of the chemical contents of products reveals that the innocuous-looking ‘fragrance’ often contains chemicals linked to negative health effects.
Phthalates, used to make fragrances last longer, are associated [with] damage to the male reproductive system, and artificial musks accumulate in our bodies and can be found in breast milk. Some artificial musks are even linked to cancer.
And if you’ve got asthma, watch out – fragrance formulas are considered to be among the top 5 known allergens, and can trigger asthma attacks.
The same kinds of chemicals are often used for fragrances in cleaning products, scented candles, and air fresheners. To avoid those unpleasant side effects, choose fragrance-free products, but beware labels that say ‘unscented.’ It may only mean that the manufacturer has added yet another fragrance to mask the original odor.”
2. Vinyl Products
You know the smell that seeps out when you take a brand new plastic or vinyl shower curtain out of its package? That’s due to the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) it’s made out of.
This is a significant source of exposure to chemicals known as phthalates, which are used as plasticizers in everything from vinyl flooring to detergents, hoses, raincoats, adhesives, air fresheners, and toys — and even in some soaps, shampoos, lotions, and nail polish.
Phthalates are one of the groups of “gender-bending” chemicals causing males of all species to become more female.
These chemicals have disrupted the endocrine systems of wildlife, causing testicular cancer, genital deformations, low sperm counts, and infertility in a number of species, including polar bears, deer, whales, and otters, just to name a few. Scientists believe phthalates are responsible for a similar pattern in humans as well, and they have been linked to:
|Impaired ovulatory cycles and polycystic ovary disease (PCOS)||“Decreased dysgenesis syndrome”: A syndrome involving cryptorchidism (undescended testicles), hypospadias (birth defect in which opening of urethra is on the underside of the penis instead of at the end), and oligospermia (low sperm count), and testicular cancer|
|Interference with sexual differentiation in utero||Enlarged prostate glands|
|Disturbed lactation||Numerous hormonal disruptions|
|Early or delayed puberty||Breast cancer and uterine fibroids|
Research conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered high levels of phthalates in all 289 adult Americans tested, and the levels of some phthalates in women of childbearing age exceeded the government’s safe levels set to protect against birth defects, leading scientists to conclude phthalate exposures are “much higher and more common than previously suspected.5
This is why it makes sense to choose a fabric shower curtain (or install glass doors) in lieu of a vinyl one, as well as avoid other common vinyl products in your home.
3. Antimicrobials (Triclosan)
Some animal studies showed that triclosan caused fetal bone malformations in mice and rats, which may hint at hormonal effects. Triclosan has also been found to cause estrogenic activities in human breast cancer cells, which may stimulate the growth and development of cancer cells.6
Further, as noted by Professor Caren Helbing Ph.D. at the University of Victoria in Canada, the chemical structure of triclosan is similar to thyroid hormones and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
This similarity allows it to attach to hormone receptors. Helbing’s research shows that tadpoles exposed to triclosan suffered stunted development and leg deformations. The metamorphic process these frogs undergo is mediated by thyroid hormones.
Her findings were published in the Journal of Aquatic Toxicology in 2006, which concluded, “Exposure to low levels of triclosan disrupts thyroid hormone-associated gene expression and can alter the rate of thyroid hormone-mediated postembryonic anuran development.”7
4. Stain-Resistant Furniture Sprays and Clothing
Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) include PFOA, which was widely used to make non-stick cookware, and PFOS, which was a key ingredient in stain-resistant fabrics. These chemicals have been linked to so many health problems – cancer, miscarriages, thyroid problems, and more – that they’ve been phased out in the US and essentially banned in Europe.
The problem is that PFCs, which are scientifically known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), are a familyof chemicals, and PFOA and PFOS make up only two of them. The products being used in their place are structurally similar and likely pose many of the same health and environmental risks.
Parabens are chemicals found in deodorants and other cosmetics that have been shown to mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen, which can drive the growth of human breast tumors. A study published in 2012 suggested that parabens from antiperspirants and other cosmetics indeed appear to increase your risk of breast cancer.8
The research looked at where breast tumors were appearing and determined that higher concentrations of parabens were found in the upper quadrants of the breast and axillary area, where antiperspirants are usually applied. Parabens inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeast, and molds, and are used as preservatives in countless consumer products, including:
|Deodorants and antiperspirants||Shampoos and conditioners||Shaving gel||Toothpaste|
|Lotions and sunscreens||Make-up / cosmetics||Pharmaceutical drugs||Food additives|
Bisphenol-A (BPA) Linked to Prostate Cancer
BPA, widely used in plastics, cash register receipts, and canned goods, has been linked to a number of health concerns, particularly in pregnant women, fetuses, and young children, but also in adults, including:
|Structural damage to your brain||Changes in gender-specific behavior and abnormal sexual behavior|
|Hyperactivity, increased aggressiveness, and impaired learning||Early puberty, stimulation of mammary gland development, disrupted reproductive cycles, ovarian dysfunction, and infertility|
|Increased fat formation and risk of obesity||Stimulation of prostate cancer cells|
|Altered immune function||Increased prostate size and decreased sperm production|
BPA coats about 75 percent of cans in North America, which means if you eat canned foods, it’s likely a major source of BPA exposure for you. Even BPA-free cans and plastics may not be safe, as they often contain a similar chemical known as BPS. However, aside from being a known endocrine disrupter, BPA also appears to play a role in prostate cancer. Research involving an “organoid” grown from embryonic stem cells, which has all the same biomarkers as an adult organ, found low-dose exposure to BPA lead to a proliferation of prostate stem cells.9
An abnormally high number of stem cells is a known risk factor for cancer development. Study author Professor Gail Prins, from the University of Illinois in Chicago, told Yahoo:10
“The higher number of stem cells we saw in developing organoids given very low doses of BPA may be the underlying mechanism by which BPA increases the risk for prostate cancer… This is as definitive as it gets, when it comes to the effect of BPA on the developing prostate. It produces an abnormally high number of prostate stem cells in the tissue, and these nests are a strong candidate for why exposure to BPA during development has been linked to prostate cancer later in life.”
Chemicals in Household Dust Linked to Obesity
When your home is filled with goods that contain potentially toxic chemicals, where do you think those chemicals end up when they come out of carpeting, couch cushions, and the like? Many of them end up in household dust, which is why those dust bunnies accumulating in the corners can be among the most toxic concoctions of all. Young children, in particular, may ingest about 50 milligrams of household dust a day, making it an important pathway by which people are exposed to environmental contaminants.11
New research published in Environmental Science & Technology even revealed that 28 of 30 semi-volatile compounds commonly found in indoor dust were PPARgamma (peroxisome proliferator-activated nuclear receptor gamma) antagonists. This means they could bind to and activate PPARgamma, which is involved in regulating fat metabolism, cell proliferation, and cell death.12 The researchers believe such chemical exposures may play a key role in the development of obesity. As reported by Futurity:13
“The researchers found signs of significant PPARgamma activation in more than half of the 25 dust samples collected from homes, offices, and gyms, at a level of exposure that would be similar to a child’s daily dose.”
Watch Out for Chemicals in Children’s School Supplies
Even back-to-school items geared toward children are not free from environmental chemicals, and such items may even be among the worst offenders. Shiny plastic backpacks are often made from PVC, for instance, and phthalates are widespread in backpacks and 3-ring binders.14 BPA is commonly used in lunchboxes and plastic water bottles for students, and even BPA-free models may contain similar endocrine disruptors.
Even some crayons imported from China may be contaminated with asbestos (best to stick with US-made crayons to avoid this). Finally, resist the urge to send your child to school with hand sanitizer, as many contain antimicrobial chemicals that may harm thyroid function and encourage antibiotic resistance. Teach your child that washing with soap and water is best. When selecting school supplies for your children, EWG recommends the following safer options:15
|Natural fabric backpacks||Stainless-steel lunchboxes||Glass water bottles|
|Notebooks and binders made from recycled cardboard or other natural fibers (look for “no PVC” on the label)||Recycled paper products||Water-based glues, glue sticks or “school glue” in lieu of stronger adhesives|
|Plain wooden pencils made from sustainable wood or recycled newspaper||Crayons made from soy or beeswax|
19 More Tips to Reduce Your Chemical Exposure at Home
A great way to identify harmful chemicals on a personal care product label, learn what the research says, and to begin choosing safer alternatives is to take the women’s health challenge from Naturally Savvy.
Additionally, implementing the following measures will help you avoid the worst endocrine-disrupting culprits as well as other chemicals from a wide variety of sources. To sum it up, try to stick with whole foods and natural products around your home. The fewer ingredients a product contains, the better, and try to make sure anything you put on or in your body – or use around your home – contains only substances you’re familiar with. If you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want it anywhere near your family.
- As much as possible, buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic meats to reduce your exposure to added hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers. Also avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
- Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat smaller fish or fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is about the only fish I eat for these reasons.
- Buy products that come in glass bottles or jars rather than plastic or canned, since chemicals can leach out of plastics and into the contents.
- Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
- Use glass baby bottles and avoid plastic sippy cups for your little ones.
- Eat mostly raw, fresh foods. Processed, prepackaged foods (of all kinds) are a common source of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates.
- Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
- Filter your tap water — both for drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants. To remove the endocrine-disrupting herbicide Atrazine, make sure the filter is certified to remove it. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), perchlorate can be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.
- Look for products that are made by companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly, green, non-toxic, and/or 100% organic. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, upholstery, and more.
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove house dust, which is often contaminated with traces of chemicals.
- When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, or carpet padding, ask what type of fire retardant it contains. Be mindful of and/or avoid items containing PBDEs, antimony, formaldehyde, boric acid, and other brominated chemicals. As you replace these toxic items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton.
- Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture, and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
- Minimize your use of plastic baby and child toys, opting for those made of natural wood or fabric instead.
- Only use natural cleaning products in your home or make your own. Avoid products that contain 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can damage fertility and cause fetal harm.16
- Switch over to organic brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. You can replace many different products with coconut oil and baking soda, for example. EWG has a great database17 to help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals. I also offer one of the highest quality organic skin care lines, shampoo, and conditioner, and body butter that are completely natural and safe.
- Replace feminine hygiene products like tampons and sanitary pads with safer alternatives.
- Avoid artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or other synthetic fragrances.
- Look for products that are fragrance-free. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds – even thousands – of potentially toxic chemicals.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric.