How to Reduce Your Toxic Chemical Exposure

Susannah Shmurak

Every time you shampoo, wash your hands, or put on lotion, you may inadvertently expose yourself to some of the more than 80,000 industrial chemicals currently in use in the United States. You read that right. Eighty thousand. But here’s the really astonishing part: only a few hundred of these chemicals have been studied for safety.

We go about our business generally giving little thought to what we put on our skin (and eventually send down the drain) because we assume that in this day and age, measures exist that ensure our safety. While this may be true in a number of areas of our lives (think traffic lights, pasteurization), chemical regulations in the United States do little to protect us.

Here’s why: U.S. chemical manufacturers don’t have to prove that compounds are safe before putting them in products that millions of people use daily. Testing happens only after the fact, when people are unknowingly exposed, and independent studies evaluate the health consequences.

In some cases compounds shown to be hazardous are voluntarily phased out and in others they’re banned. Minnesota just became the first state to ban triclosan, an ingredient linked to endocrine disruption and antibiotic resistance that we encounter in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste, and numerous other consumer products. We’ve been exposing ourselves to triclosan for years, and while many companies have voluntarily phased it out, it still remains in plenty of products, as well as in our water supply.

The more forward-thinking European Union has for many years followed what’s known as the precautionary principle, and requires manufacturers to prove the safety of a product before it goes to market. In the U.S., the FDA only responds to acute problems reported after these products reach consumers.

One of the many problems with this approach: we simply can’t know the effects of long-term low-level exposure to these chemicals. Or the nearly-impossible to study interactions between the hundreds of chemicals we’re exposed to every day. Your moisturizer or shampoo may contain small amounts of suspected carcinogens or hormone disruptors. But proving that this exposure causes fertility issues, developmental problems, obesity or cancer is well nigh impossible.

Our babies now enter the world pre-polluted, with traces of nearly 300 synthetic chemicals detectable in their cord blood. The breast milk they drink likewise contains chemicals absorbed by their mothers. The CDC has begun monitoring exposure in the general population and has found that most subjects have detectable levels of phthalates, parabens, and numerous other synthetic chemicals.

Our notoriously “broken” Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is currently being reevaluated in Congress. Bill s. 725, proposed by Barbara Boxer, would amend the TSCA to follow the more precautionary EU model and require companies to demonstrate the safety of chemicals before bringing them to market. In the likely event that it doesn’t pass, for the foreseeable future, protecting yourself and your family from the array of poorly-understood chemicals in our lives remains your responsibility. Below are some tools to help.

Tox-In, Tox-Out

The Environmental Working Group is a fantastic resource for information on toxic substances. So far their Skin Deep Cosmetics Database includes over 60,000 personal care products that you can search to find the safest alternatives. The least toxic products get a score of 0, the mos,t a 10. Look up your favorite lotion, sunscreen, deodorant, and your kids’ bath products to check that you’re not unwittingly exposing yourself to chemicals linked to increased cancer risk, fertility problems, or organ toxicity. You can also browse a whole category and pick options with the lowest scores. They even have an app for your phone so you can check out safety data while you shop.

Some of what you find might surprise you. Several popular “natural” brands (even pricey department store lines) include products with higher scores, while many inexpensive drugstore brands scored lower. If something you’ve been using has ingredients of higher concern, you can probably find a satisfactory replacement with a lower score without too much trouble.

Another easy way to avoid chemicals is to use ingredients from your kitchen. Almond, olive, and coconut oils can be used as moisturizers and hair masks. Apple cider vinegar works as a hair rinse. DIY recipes for food-based cleansers, lotions, and deodorants abound on the internet.

Can we expect to completely rid our lives of chemicals? Of course not.  Unfortunately, we live in a world riddled with toxins that come into our homes in cleaners, toys, furniture, food, and water. Many persist in the environment long after they’ve been banned, and they turn up in the chemical profiles of people who have have no known contact with the substances.

We shouldn’t drive ourselves crazy trying to eliminate them. Until common sense prevails and industries are prevented from using dangerous chemicals, no matter how “green” our practices, we’re still likely to get exposed to toxins.

Outraged by the triumph of industry interests over human (and environmental) health? Take action to help tighten regulations on the chemical industry. Join the Environmental Working Group’s mailing list to be notified of petitions and opportunities to contact your representatives.

Further Resources

Great overview film from The Story of Stuff
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
Scientific American article on cosmetics safety
Environmental Working Group’s overview of endocrine disruptors

Head to the Front Porch


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This post was syndicated with permission to BonBon Break Media, LLC.

Susannah Shmurak is a freelance writer and enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at her new blog, Healthy Green Savvy.