What you should know about all those personal care products

What you should know about all those personal care products

Have you ever counted the amount of personal care products you slather on every morning? A 2015 study by the Environmental Working Group found that the average woman uses nine to twelve products per day.

This translates into 168 chemicals per day, about twice as many as men. Most of us have seen the terms “Phtalates” or “BPA”, as they are common in product labels these days, but what does it all mean?

Phthalates and BPA are some of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that we’re most commonly exposed to. These chemicals act by mimicking or interfering with hormones.

Just what do these chemicals do? Like hormones, endocrine disruptors can act in every organ system. Studies have linked exposure to EDCs with many poor health outcomes such as infertility, polycystic ovarian syndrome, heart disease and hypertension, endometriosis, some types of cancer such as breast and testicular as well as obesity and diabetes. Health agencies such as the World Health Organization and the National Toxicology Program have expressed concern about the impact of BPA in fetal brain development and behavior. Unfortunately, these chemicals are difficult to study because they are found in so many products and the level of exposure can be very different among individuals, so more research is needed.

We are usually exposed to EDCs through food and skin, but fetuses can also be affected when these chemicals cross the placenta. The majority of exposure to BPA and phthalates comes from food, personal care products and dust. Food items that are the most likely offenders are those that are high in animal fats, canned or highly processed.

The list of personal care products containing EDCs includes nail polish, cosmetics, shampoo and lotion, but don’t forget about candles, air fresheners and detergents. Anything with the word “fragrance” is likely to contain an endocrine disruptor. Other household exposures can include building materials like flooring, paint, glue and some art supplies. BPA and phthalates can leach out of plastics containers and can liners, particularly when they are heated. Keep in mind that plastics labeled as “BPA free” may contain an alternative called BPS which is not known to be any safer. Other EDCs can also be found in fabrics treated with flame retardants (you may have noticed that many kids’ pajamas labels note that the fabric was treated in these). Some chemicals commonly used in the home as pesticides for insects or rodents as well as herbicides (such as atrazine, 2,4-D, and glycophosphate) are also EDCs.

Fortunately, there are many ways to decrease our exposure to EDCs. In fact, levels of BPA have been known to decrease rapidly after simple interventions like avoiding canned foods. Here are some tips from the Environmental Health Specialty Units, a network of experts who provide medical information and advice on environmental conditions that influence reproductive and children’s health.

  • Buy low-fat dairy products such as skim milk and low fat cheeses.
  • Buy fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables when possible. Avoid canned and processed foods.
  • When possible, purchase items that are phthalate free or BPA free. Materials such as glass, stainless steel or wood are your best bets.
  • Minimize personal care product use. Keep it simple – less is more.
  • Do not microwave food/beverages in plastic.
  • If using hard polycarbonate plastics (found in some water bottles/baby bottles/sippy cups), do not use for warm/hot liquids.
  • If plastics cannot be avoided, use the following guide to avoid particularly dangerous plastics. Check the symbol on the bottom of plastics containers and try to avoid the plastics marked 3 (PVC or vinyl), 6 (polystyrene foam, commonly called ‘Styrofoam’) or 7 (can contain BPA).
  • Encourage frequent handwashing.
  • Minimize handling of receipts.
  • Take shoes off at home to avoid tracking in dust that may contain these chemicals.
  • Keep carpets/windowsills clean – vacuum and wet dust frequently to minimize dust that may contain these chemicals.
  • Consider making your own detergents from safe ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.

I get it – I also don’t have all the time in the world to research every single product I use, which is why these days, I try to buy less and make my own when I can (for example, mouthwash and cleaning products). That way, I know exactly what goes in. Antibacterial products are largely unnecessary and commonly found ingredients such as triclosan have been linked to endocrine disruption as well as antibacterial resistance. Some clues that a product may contain triclosan are claims like “fights odors” and “fights germs.”

Dr. Marie Cabiya is the medical director for Obstetrics and Gynecology Resident Clinic at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.

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  1. What is the danger in handling receipts? Are they imbued with chemicals? Does this warning pertain to all receipts?

  2. Most receipts are printed on thermal paper which is coated with BPA plastic. It’s reasonable to take the precaution of hand washing after handling and try to avoid repetitive exposures.

  3. Thank you Dr. Cablya! This was a very interesting and informative article.

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Dr. Marie Cabiya