Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Chemicals to Avoid Part 3: Neurotoxins

Neurotoxins are chemicals that cause damage to the cells of the brain and nervous system, and, in addition to temporary symptoms, can lead to chronic disease. Neuron bundles in the brain transmit information through conducting electrical energy. When they are damaged, they can no longer correctly conduct this energy and do their job. Different areas of the brain control different functions. Parkinson's disease ocurrs when neurons of the substantia nigra become damaged, and fine motor control is affected. When other areas of the brain are affected it can lead to chronic depression, chronic anxiety, ADD & ADHD, chronic panic attacks, chronic insomnia, chronic fibromyalgia, chronic dimentia and a number of other disorders and diseases.

Neurotoxins are found everywhere--from the drugs we take, household chemicals, and personal care products.

A few neurotoxins in personal care products:

DEET, a common mosquito repellent ingredient is a neurotoxin.

p-phenylenediamine, found in hairsprays

Propylene glycol is in many products, from shampoos to lotions. It is also an industrial anti-freeze and a neurotoxin.

Artificial Colors--names like FD&C Aluminum Lakes and such. Most are neurotoxins.

"Fragrance" can be made up of over 3000 different compounds, many of which are neurotoxins.

For a definitive list of neurotoxins, visit this page.

Up next: Formaldehyde Donors

Monday, June 28, 2010

Chemicals to Avoid: Part 2 Xenoestrogens

Xenoestrogens are synthetic chemicals that enter the body and mimic estrogen. There are many sources of xenoestrogens, from air pollution, plastics, and water pollution. This article will cover the common estrogenic compounds found in personal care / cosmetic items. 
Estrogen receptors are complex molecules within certain cells in our bodies. They have a complex shape that is designed to accept estrogen—just like a lock and key.

Estrogen receptor molecule
Estradiol, one of the body's forms of natural estrogen

Estrogen receptors are designed to accept estrogen molecules. When estrogen locks in to a receptor, certain things happen—particular cells are spurred to grow and divide, other levels of hormones are signaled to release. It's a very complex process that affects many parts of our body, the heart, our bones, as well as our reproductive organs (men too!) When estrogen has done its job in the receptor, it's released and metabolized (broken down) and leaves the body.

When a xenoestrogen enters the body, it's different. Because these chemicals are similar in shape to estrogen, it locks in to these receptors--but not quite correctly. Because they're shaped differently, the all of the chemical bonds aren't formed correctly. The receptors are stimulated in negative ways, creating cells where they shouldn't be. This can lead to reproductive disorders such as:

  • Anovulatory Dysfunctional Uterine Bleeding (having a period without ovulating)
  • Uterine Fibroids
  • Ovarian Cysts
  • Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
  • Endometriosis
  • Adenomyosis
  • Reproductive cancers, uterine, ovarian, breast, etc.

There are a number of xenoestrogens in personal care products. One is a group of chemicals that you've probably heard of, parabens. They're listed on labels as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, etc. Parabens have been studied numerous times and have been found to act estrogenically in cells, and to accumulate in breast cancer tissue. They are used in a wide variety of products as a preservative. For expanded information on parabens, visit this page.

Methylparaben. Note the similar ring-like structure to the estrogen.

Phthalates—phthalates are a very harmful group of synthetic chemicals that can mimic estrogen. The problem is that phthalates aren't usually listed in the ingredients list—they're used as fragrance compounds, so whenever you see the listing for “fragrance” you don't really know what it is. There are over 3000 different chemicals used in fragrances, and many of them are phthalates. Also found in plastics--avoid heating foods with plastic wrap (or using it altogether.)

Aluminum is a known metallogestrogen and a toxin in all its forms. (More info here) Aluminum chlorohydrate found in anti-perspirants is what we usually think of, but did you know there's a higher concentration of aluminum in "the crystal" deodorants? They're pure aluminum salts! Other sources of aluminum include vaccines and some antacids. 

Triclosan is also a common xenoestrogen. Triclosan is a compound used in hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial hand soaps. It has become a major problem because so many people are using these anti-bacterial soaps and washing them down the drain. Downstream the waters become polluted with triclosan, which then acts like estrogen in aquatic life—then you have fish and frogs and other animals that die off because they can't reproduce. We think that we need these antibacterial agents, but we don't. It's not about killing the bacteria, but washing it away. Triclosan only kills 99.9% of bacteria--that .1% ends up surviving and getting stronger. We then have more resistant strains of bacteria that lead to higher incidence of staph infections in hospitals, schools, and even homes.

Phenoxyethanol is a preservative commonly used in place of parabens, but it also exhibits xenoestrogenic activity. (More info here.)

Salicylic acid, commonly used as an anti-aging or anti-acne treatment, is a suspected xenoestrogen.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Chemicals to Avoid

Our skin is our body's largest organ and is highly absorbent. What we put ON our bodies ends up IN our bodies. Chemicals in personal care products can and do affect our health, from skin issues, allergies, asthma, headaches, hormonal imbalances, and even increased cancer risk. The big companies like to tell us that "it's just a small amount" so the chemicals pose no risk, but think about everything you use every day--shampoo, body wash, face wash, moisturizier, body lotion, makeup, hair products--this is multiple daily exposure, and the toxic load can build up. Over the years I've made "top five" or "top ten" lists about which chemicals to avoid, but there are just so many! Today, I've narrowed it down to five major risk categories.


Ethoxylated compounds are synthetic chemicals created using the known carcinogen ethylene oxide. Chemical manufacturers are able to create synthetic chemicals that have skin-conditioning or cleansing products similar to oils, soaps, and natural butters but at a much cheaper price. Many times these chemicals are made out of cheap petroleum or animal by-products. These are the parts of the animals from the bottom of the barrel, literally, that no one wants. First, they take out the meat that they sell to people, then they take the lesser cuts and use them for hot dogs and other low-grade meats. Then, the pet-food companies have their pick. The leftover sludge of fats and cartilage is then processed and sold to cosmetic companies to make ingredients like stearic acid and cetearyl alcohol.

So, where does ethylene oxide come in to play? Well, companies can turn a fatty acid like stearic acid in to an emulsifier, steareth-20, which is able to combine water and oil. Using the ethoxylation process, chemists can design chemicals that are able to do things that they otherwise would be unable to do.

The problem with the ethoxylation process is that trace amounts of ethylene oxide can remain in the product. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen, and can be absorbed by the body through the skin. Other compounds like sodium lauryl sulfate and propylene glycol are penetration enhancers, and break down the protective barrier of skin, delivering these carcinogenic chemicals further in to the skin and bloodstream.

Additionally, the ethoxylation process can create 1,4-dioxane, also a known carcinogen.

Recently a study done by the State of California and the Organic Consumers Association found that a number of personal care products that were supposedly "natural" contained higher than acceptable levels of 1,4-dioxane from ethoxylated compounds. In fact, once the state of California found out about the contamination, it sued the companies that it had tested. Every product sold in California that contains a carcinogen must have a warning label. The brands were forced to reformulate and most of them fixed the contamination problem. But this was only a handful of “natural” companies—the big brands have gone untested and unregulated for 1,4-dioxane contamination.

How to spot an ethoxylated compound

There are three easy ways to spot an ethoxylated compound. First is looking out for "PEG." PEG stands for polyethylene glycol. Polyethylene Glycol is used in cosmetics as a skin conditioner and emulsifier. It usually is followed by a number, reading PEG-200. The number following the PEG is the number of moles (a unit of measure in chemistry) that the glycol has been treated with. So PEG-40 is polyethylene glycol treated with ethylene oxide 40 times. The higher the number, the more ethylene oxide

Second, look for the suffix "eth." Sodium laureth sulfate or ceteareth-20 are two examples. The "eth" indicates it has been treated with ethylene oxide.

Third, look for dashes followed by a number, as in steareth-20.

One last ingredient to avoid: "vegetable emulsifying wax." This is a blend of fatty acids and polysorbate 60 and steareth-20, which are ethoxylated compounds.