The average woman uses 12 personal care products on her skin every day, which contain around 168 unique ingredients, says the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. Add to that the fact that one of every 13 women are exposed to ingredients that are known or probable human carcinogens every day through their use of personal care products, and you have to wonder what we’re doing to ourselves long-term—and why the industry isn’t more regulated.
Because there hasn’t been real legislation restricting the personal care industry since 1938, we’re regularly exposed to potentially harmful chemicals in our shampoos, face washes, body lotions and makeup. The lack of regulation also extends to products we use in our homes—laundry detergent, dish soap, carpet cleaner, grout brightener and more.
At WELL Summit Boston in April 2018, six experts gathered to facilitate a discussion about how we can take these toxins out of our everyday products without tearing apart our homes in sheer terror. These women shared their expertise on what these toxins are doing to our bodies, and how we can start to detox our homes with a few easy steps.
Our Chemical Exposure
Says Dr. Elizabeth Zulick, assistant teaching professor and lead faculty for the Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and Biotechnology Programs at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, this is a really complex topic to talk about. “What happens to your body is impacted by everything you do, every day. And, how chemicals impact you varies from person to person because we all have different DNA.” In her research into potential carcinogens, she studied just one chemical at a time, demonstrating that the impact on the body isn’t the same across the board. “Our research helps create broad guidelines that will help protect everyone, and then that gets filtered through the FDA,” Elizabeth says.
Mia Davis, director of mission at Credo Beauty and former organizing director at The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, says another reason the situation is complex is that we’re exposed unequally. “We’re exposed differently, depending on where we live, what we’re eating and drinking and what we have access to.” She also points out that small amounts of toxic chemicals can actually make a bigger difference in our bodies than large amounts. “When our bodies are exposed to large amounts of a hormone-disrupting chemical, it triggers a red flag, and our bodies try to block the chemicals,” she says. “But in a small amount, the body might not recognize the toxin, and let it in.”
Plus, not all toxins react the same way once inside our bodies. They may start out as harmless, but once they’re inside our bodies, they can change and morph into something that’s unsafe, says Mia.
How We Can Avoid Toxins in Everyday Products
Says Tara Foley, founder and CEO of Follain, the science and hard facts behind what’s in our products shouldn’t be scary or overwhelming. “It doesn’t have to be a terrible experience to switch out your conventional products for safer options,” she says. “Since I began researching what was in our products in 2009, so much technology has been applied to greener products and ingredients that we have amazing options now.”
The first step is to acknowledge that you can’t trust what’s on the front of the labels of what you see on the shelves. Companies can use words like “natural” and “green” in their marketing campaigns, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually safe. Instead, says Tara, you have to find brands and retailers you trust. “You might need to try a few different products before you find the perfect swap for you, but it’s worth it,” she says. “It’s a journey and we’re here to help.”
Emily Kanter, co-owner of Cambridge Naturals, recommends using outside resources like the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database and ProtectOurBreasts.org to help guide you to brands and products that are safer. Elizabeth adds that its also important to find brands “that make you feel empowered.”
Marilee Nelson, co-founder of the nontoxic cleaning brand Branch Basics and a dietary and environmental consultant, says there are a few important ingredients to watch out specifically: Synthetic preservatives that are classified as EPA regulated pesticides, like methylisothiazolinone; synthetic fragrance, which is composed of phthalates and can be hormone-disrupting; and anything that’s labeled as a potential lung, ear or eye irritant. “Many of these show up in household cleaning products,” she says, “even those labeled ‘nontoxic.’ And those are the things that follow you around all day—laundry detergent is in your clothes, which are on your skin all day, and in your sheets, which you sleep on every night. Dish soap residue is on your dishes when you eat. Detoxing your home can help decrease your toxic exposure overall.”
Says Janis Covey, founder of Kosmatology and former pharmacist, “If you can get rid of preservatives and alcohol in your products, you’ve made a great step forward. Both inflame and irritate skin, and we need to take a whole health approach to our treatments.”
Elizabeth adds that it’s impossible to clear your life of all toxins. “You’re going to be exposed, but instead of worrying about that, you can focus on what you can control. You’ll see positive health benefits over time as you make small changes to the products in your life that you choose.” Now that’s what we call empowerment.