We’re kind of used to the idea that it’s ok to spray a liberal dose of chemicals on a cockroach or a spider. And God help you if you’re an Aussie fly at a BBQ. But have we considered that we might be doing the same things to ourselves, simply by the products we shower with, wash our hair in and rub into our skin? What if the everyday cosmetics we use to make ourselves look and feel better are in fact akin to absorbing chemicals that are no better for us than a can of Mortein?
Some of the main chemicals we are ingesting unknowingly into our bodies are found in our personal care and beauty products. There’s a list that would make for an encyclopaedia of chemical terms, but these are a few of the main ones.
Parabens – these chemicals are great for preventing bacterial growth and they are inexpensive to boot. You’ll find them in about 85% of cosmetics. The downside is that they are xenoestrogens, agents that mimic oestrogen in the body. Oestrogen Displacement has been linked with cancer and reproductive issues. In a 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, Dr Philippa Darbre, PHD, a British cancer researcher, was finding parabens present in malignant breast tumors1.
Triclosan – that’s the chemical you use to reduce or stop bacterial contamination, it’s been used in antibacterial soaps, regular soaps and some cosmetics.
But the FDA in the USA banned this antibacterial chemical from soaps in 2016.
Animal studies were showing that exposure to high doses of triclosan were contributing to a decrease in the levels of thyroid hormones. The not so good news is that it’s still in your toothpaste, mostly because of its excellent ability to reduce gingivitis. The FDA reviewed Colgate Total toothpaste, one of the few companies still to use triclosan and deemed triclosan’s properties to be valuable enough to let it be continued for use in toothpaste.
“We put soap on our hands, and a small amount gets into our body,” said Rolf Halden, a director for environmental security at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, who has tracked triclosan for years. But through the gums, “chemicals get rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.”
Phthalates – these chemicals are in pretty much in every product imaginable, from household cleaners to cosmetics to personal care products and perfume. This chemical acts as a binding agent and is also used to make plastics more flexible.
In 2003 researchers at the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) commentated on the widespread exposure to phthalates. In 2008 a report was finalized by The National Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine causing a bill to be passed in the US banning the use of some phthalates in children’s products and imposing an interim ban on others requesting further research into the chemicals2. In 2014 the CDC finalised a report on the damaging effects of phthalates regarding phthalates and their calmative risk assessment3.
In a nutshell phthalates have been linked to pretty much every health disorder imaginable. They’ve been linked to asthma, ADHD, breast cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, low IQ, developmental issues, behavioural issues, autism spectrum disorders, reproductive development and male fertility issues. Phthalates is a huge class of chemicals and nowhere near every chemical in the class has been studied. But enough distinct phthalates have been studied to show that caution should be applied when using the chemicals in products for pregnant women or young children. The later being the most vulnerable to the effects of phthalates.
Oxybenzone – that’s your sunscreen chemical. It’s in around 80 percent of chemical suncreens. What it very effectively does is absorb UV light. What it is also absorbed by it, is our skin. The Federal Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has found oxybensone in more than 96% of the US population, this percentage is even higher in summer. What we don’t know is how long it stays there. But what we do know is once your skin has absorbed it, we can measure it in your blood, breast milk and urine. You’ll also find oxybenzone in nail polish, fragrances, hair spray and cosmetics.
Why is it a problem? Well it’s an endocrine disrupting chemical. It, like parabens, mimic hormones in the body. It can cause endometriosis and pose a risk to reproductive health. It’s been linked to early puberty in girls, low sperm count in males, male infertility and hormone related cancers in both sexes. A study published in 2016, in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, concluded that benzophenones (oxybenzone is a derivative) were endocrine disruptors and were involved in the disruption of the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal system and found them to have an oestrogenic disruptive effect.
The list goes on. Currently the FDA have banned 11 chemicals, the rest are simply up to the cosmetics industry to self-regulate. But what you’re thinking is what sort of effect does this have on our health? And more overly, if so many of these chemicals are mimicking hormones in the body, what is it doing to our endocrine systems?
A study by researchers, from the University of California, Berkeley, and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, compared body chemical levels with usage of chemical-containing products. The researchers noted that adult women but most especially female teenagers are at a greater risk of exposure as they are the largest group of cosmetic users and personal care items.
“Because women are the primary consumers of many personal care products, they may be disproportionately exposed to these chemicals,” said study lead author Kim Harley, associate director of the UC Berkeley Centre for Environmental Research and Children’s Health. “Teen girls may be at particular risk since it’s a time of rapid reproductive development, and research has suggested that they use more personal care products per day than the average adult woman.”
The study5 published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives reviewed 100 teenagers who were given personal care products that were free of typical chemicals found in cosmetics and personal care products, phthalates, parabens, triclosan and oxybenzone. These chemicals are ubiquitous in everything from cosmetics to hair products, soaps and sunscreens. Previous studies had already shown interference from exposure to these chemicals in animals, those exposed presenting with endocrine issues.
The researchers took urine samples before the products were removed from the participant’s exposure. Then they gave the teenagers the low-chemical products to replace the chemical ones and tested their urine samples again, three days later.
The results were substantial.
The report noted.
Metabolites of diethyl phthalate, commonly used in fragrances, decreased 27 percent by the end of the trial period.
Methyl and propyl parabens, used as preservatives in cosmetics, dropped 44 and 45 percent respectively.
Both triclosan, found in antibacterial soaps and some brands of toothpaste, and benzophenone-3 (BP-3), found in some sunscreens under the name oxybenzone, fell 36 percent.
“We know enough to be concerned about teen girls’ exposure to these chemicals. Sometimes it’s worth taking a precautionary approach, especially if there are easy changes people can make in the products they buy,” said Harley.
What this tells us is that the personal care products that teenage girls put on their bodies is absorbed by their bodies. But what it also indicates is that if we take the time to educate ourselves as consumers, by reading the labels on products and then making a choice to purchase lower chemical products, we can radically reduce our exposure to these toxins. Sometimes ignorance is not necessarily the bliss it’s cracked up to be.
 Phthalates and Cumulative Risk Assessment: The Tasks Ahead (2008) Committee on The Helth Risk of Phthalates Board on Enviromental Sutdies and Toxicology National Reearch council of the national Academies
 Report to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission by the CHRONIC HAZARD ADVISORY PANEL ON PHTHALATES AND PHTHALATE ALTERNATIVES July 2014 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Directorate for Health Sciences Bethesda, MD 20814
 Recent Advances on Endocrine Disrupting Effects of UV Filters Jiaying Wang,1,2 Liumeng Pan,1 Shenggan Wu,3 Liping Lu,1 Yiwen Xu,1 Yanye Zhu,1 Ming Guo,4 and Shulin Zhuang1,2,5,* Huixiao Hong, Academic Editor Int J Environ Res Public Health 2016 Aug; 13(8): 782.
 Reducing Phthalate, Paraben, and Phenol Exposure from Personal Care Products in Adolescent Girls: Findings from the HERMOSA Intervention Study Kim G. Harley,1 Katherine Kogut,1 Daniel S. Madrigal,1 Maritza Cardenas,1 Irene A. Vera,1 Gonzalo Meza-Alfaro,1 Jianwen She,2 Qi Gavin,2 Rana Zahedi,2 Asa Bradman,1 Brenda Eskenazi,1 and Kimberly L. Parra3 Environmental Health Perspectives, Oct 2016, Vol 124, Iss 10