This article is the fourth in a series of posts exploring the Essential Six Elements of Whole Health, the core of our health philosophy and the foundation for our work with our nutritional therapy clients. This article is in three parts, this is part one. Learn more about the Essential Elements and find the rest of the series here.

So far in our Essential Elements series, we’ve covered A Real Food Diet and The Physical Body (parts one, two and three). While the food we choose to eat and the health status of our physical body are extremely important factors, neither one will get us very far towards whole health if we are overcome with toxins in our daily life.

The Non-Toxic Lifestyle Essential Element includes opting for personal care & household products that are low in chemicals, making conscious health-care decisions, appropriate detoxification and reducing electromagnetic radiation exposure.

Let’s start with personal care products.

Today we are absolutely inundated with personal care products in the form of cleansers of every variety for each and every body part. There are toners, lotions and moisturizers, sunscreens, soaps (most are antibacterial), bath gels, bath salts, deodorants and fragrances, exfoliators and scrubs, a dizzying array of cosmetics and makeup, hair styling aids, polishes, pastes, anti-aging tonics, potions, powders and more.

Women have historically been targeted more aggressively than men for these types of products, but in recent years, men have become a brand new market for the beauty industry. According to The Story Of Cosmetics, the average woman uses about 12 personal beauty products while men are currently using an average of 6, with each and every product containing at least a dozen ingredients (do the math on that one!!) We are literally bathing, lathering, brushing, spraying, powdering and rubbing ourselves and our children with hundreds of chemicals every day. Nearly all of these chemicals can penetrate the skin, which is our largest organ and an expert at absorbing substances applied to it. Some chemicals are ingested directly from our lips or hands, or through mucous membranes from powders and sprays.

What’s wrong with these chemicals? Why should we be concerned?

While some of the chemicals used in common personal-care products are benign, many are known carcinogens, neurotoxins or reproductive toxins. Others are endocrine disrupters that upset the body’s hormonal balance (leading to weight gain and other hormone-related health problems), including chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body and can cause problems in sexual development and adult sexual function, as well as increase the risk of breast and prostate cancer.

More than one-third of all personal-care products contain at least one ingredient linked to cancer. So if you are using 12 products per day, that’s over 4 exposures to AT LEAST one cancer-causing chemical- each and every day.

Why are these dangerous chemicals allowed in our personal care products?

The cosmetics industry is wildly unregulated, and less than 20% of the products in most of our personal care routines have been evaluated for safety. And that doesn’t include any studies of COMBINED effects when dozens (or hundreds) of chemicals are mixed together or applied to the same body in a short time period. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate or limit the use of chemicals in personal-care products or require that all of the ingredients be listed on the label.

Over 100,000 chemicals have been introduced since World War II, barely over 60 years ago. The average person is contaminated with between 100-200 chemicals, with newborn babies still showing contamination with, among many other chemicals, DDT- a pesticide that was banned over 30 years ago. Personal care products are just one of the ways we are exposed to this huge onslaught of chemicals, but it’s a cause for concern because we’re slathering this stuff on our skin every day, where it absorbs into our bodies, and the repeated exposure adds up quickly.

So we just need to choose personal care products that do not contain these chemicals, right?

Well, trying to choose less toxic beauty products isn’t always easy- as terms like “herbal”, “natural”, “hypoallergenic” and “nontoxic” used on these products have no legal meaning. Even “organic” claims are completely unregulated. For example, Herbal Essences, the #2 shampoo in the country, produced by the company Proctor & Gamble, sounds innocent enough, but among the chemicals it contains are petrochemicals- that is, ingredients made from petroleum (oil) which are known carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) and endocrine disrupters.

One particularly upsetting example of the lack of regulation (and proliferation of cancer-causing chemical use in personal care products) is apparent in the “pink-washing” of brands that have campaigns to fight breast cancer while continuing to use chemicals that have been linked to cancer.

So how can I be sure I am choosing better personal care products?

• Read the list of ingredients on your personal-care products (see list below on what to avoid and why).

• Create a safe shopping list by looking up your favorite products at the Environmental Working Group’s database of personal-care product safety ratings at http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com. Decide which number you won’t go above (I recommend 3) and choose products lower than that on the Skin Deep scale.

• Make your own products using healthy, nontoxic ingredients. We have some recipes on our website  and we’re always adding more.  Other resources include http://www.naturalhomeandgarden.com/body-care, and the book Natural Beauty at Home by Janice Cox.

• Spread the word about toxic ingredients in personal-care products. Visit http://www.safecosmetics.org to see The Story of Cosmetics, a great video about identifying toxic ingredients, finding safe products and helping to bring about industry reform.

Ingredients to Avoid in Personal Care Products

Prefixes Ethyl, Methyl, Butyl or Propyl
What It Is: Parabens
Health Risks: Endocrine disrupters that mimic estrogen; linked to weight gain and breast cancer
Found In: Lotions and shampoos

Fragrance, DEHP, DHP, DBP 5, Dibutyl Phthalate
What It Is: Phthalates
Health Risks: Sperm damage, infertility
Found In: Nail polish, shampoo, deodorant, lotion

Dyes: Blue 1, Green 3, Yellow 5 & 6, Red 33
What It Is: Coal tar
Health Risks: Carcinogenic
Found In: Hair color, medicated shampoos

Triclosan, Chloro, Phenol, Irgasan
What It Is: Triclosan
Health Risks: Endocrine and thyroid disrupter; promotes antibiotic-resistant bacteria; bioaccumulates in the body
Found In: Antibacterial soap, shampoo, facial cleanser, toothpaste, deodorant

3-(4-methylbenzylidene)-camphor (4-MBC), octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC), octyl-dimethyl-PABA (OD-PABA), bexophenome-3 (Bp-3), homosalate (HMS)
What It Is: Sunscreen chemicals
Health Risks: Estrogenic activity; enhances the potential for pesticides to penetrate the skin
Found In: Sunscreens

Polyethylene glycol (PEG, PPG, Cocoate), propylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, polyethoxyethylene, polyethoxyethylene mineral oil
What It Is: Petroleum byproducts
Health Risks: Carcinogen; liver and kidney effects
Found In: Lotions

Petrolatum
What It Is: Derivative of petroleum
Health Risks: Endocrine disrupter; carcinogen
Found In: Lotions

Lead acetate, thimerosal, mercurius solubilis, mercurius sublimates, mercurius corrosives, mercuric chloride
What It Is: Lead and mercury
Health Risks: Found in higher levels in women with breast cancer; neurotoxin
Found In: Hair color, wound treatments, artificial tears

Isobutene
What It Is: Propellant made from petroleum processing
Health Risks: Carcinogen
Found In: Moisturizer, shaving cream, foot spray, breath freshener

Placenta
What It Is: Placenta, placental enzymes, placental extract
Health Risks: Filled with hormones that upset your own balance and increase estrogen
Found In: Skin and hair conditioner

Hydroquinone
What It Is: Hydroquinone
Health Risks: Can cause a skin disease called ochronosis
Found In: Skin whitener

Nano zinc oxide <100mm
What It Is: Nanoparticles
Health Risks: The safety of nanoparticles has not been tested, but they can cross the blood/brain barrier and move along nerves.
Found In: Sunscreens, lotions

In our next installment, we move from personal care products to household cleaners and other common toxins. Find that here.