I recently started looking into what chemicals go on our skin every day and what effects these chemicals are known to have due to a conversation I had with a doctor. Think of it this way: What is the body’s largest organ? Answer: The skin! And while the skin is the body’s first line of defense in the immune system, it is also designed to absorb. Think of the transdermal patches – the patches we put on our skin to deliver medicine. Skin patches can deliver medicines used for motion sickness, severe morning sickness, nicotine, contraception, hormone therapy, etc. The effectiveness of medicinal skin patches proves that our skin is an effective way to absorb medicine.
So if our skin absorbs medicine so well, what else does it absorb? What chemicals are in the things we put on our skin every day? My goal became to switch to products that were safe, easy to find in stores, yet no more expensive than what I was already using.
I am in no way a chemist, so reading ingredient labels is like reading a foreign language. I needed help. I found a website that breaks it down well enough for me to understand – The Environmental Working Group. With this site, you can either enter in a chemical name or a product name to learn its rating in five categories:
2. Skin Allergies & Irritation
3. Developmental & Reproductive toxicity (endocrine system)
4. Cancer (carcinogens)
Tips for using EWG’s Website
When searching for a product’s rating on EWG, make sure you are in their “Skin Deep Guide to Cosmetics” section or their “Guide to Healthy Cleaning” section according to what product you are researching.
If all these categories are as important to you as they are to EWG, go ahead and rate products by following their ratings. Personally, I am mostly concerned about allergies, cancer, and development/reproductive toxicity, so I research each ingredient or product individually rather than relying on EWG’s score. (For instance, a product might have no risks in the first 4 categories, but it doesn’t biodegrade easily, so it receives a low score. Personally, I would still use that product.)
It is also important to note that you cannot rely on a single company for all your cleaning/cosmetic needs. For instance, Burt’s Bees Ageless Hand Cream has several ingredient concerns while Burt’s Bees Farmer’s Friend Hand Salve has very few ingredient concerns. It all depends on the individual product – not necessarily on the company.
Likewise, different fragrances can make a difference. Once you find a product you like, double check to find the safest fragrances. For example, a product’s lavender fragrance may have more ingredient concerns than the same product’s lemongrass fragrance.
If your sunscreen is spray-on, toss it. Sunscreen should never be inhaled, and spray-on sunscreen particles will be inhaled no matter how careful you are.
If your sunscreen contains Oxybenzone in the active ingredients, skip it. Oxybenzone is absorbed by the skin, has been found in breast milk, is suspected to be absorbed by an unborn baby and cause low birth weight, causes sperm production issues in men, and causes endometriosis in women. Other chemicals to be avoided are Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, and Avobenzone. You can read more information about these chemicals by clicking here.
Remembering all those long words is hard. To make it simple, look for a mineral-based sunscreen. If Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide is the main ingredient, your sunscreen will be much safer to use. Titanium Dioxide has little-to-no skin absorption, while Zinc Oxide has a very small amount, but Zinc Oxide has better sun coverage. Some sunscreens I found to use only Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide as main ingredients are:
- Aveeno Baby Naturals (not to be confused with Aveeno Baby) – Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide
- Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby – Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide
- California Baby – Titanium Dioxide
- Honest Company – Zinc Oxide
- All Terrain – Zinc Oxide (I bought this off Amazon because I got the most ounces for the least amount of money)
- Badger – Zinc Oxide
Women – you will also want to check your cosmetic products for Oxybenzone and other toxic sunscreen chemicals commonly found in makeup such as foundation, concealer, powder, primer, and bronzer.
I wash my hands very frequently – after every trip to the bathroom, after every diaper change, before and during cooking, etc. I put soap on my hands constantly. So what was the soap putting into my skin – and into my body? I was using Softsoap Soothing Aloe Vera because I assumed it would be the most moisturizing and gentle on my flaking, cracking, bleeding, itchy hands. How wrong I was! Softsoap has an antimicrobial preservative that contains formaldehyde, which can cause irritation, immune system issues, and cancer.
I also used antibacterial soaps, especially when I was working in a daycare. I used antibacterial everything – even body wash. However, I was still constantly sick, constantly missing work, and stopped responding well to antibiotics. Antibacterial soaps have triclosan, which may cause allergies and interfere with the thyroid hormone, causing obesity, infertility, and early puberty. We know it is absorbed into the body through the skin because it shows up in urine tests. The overuse of triclosan can also build resistance to antibiotics. The FDA is requiring that manufacturers either prove their products are safe or remove triclosan from their products. Minnesota has already banned the use of triclosans. After my experience and my research, antibacterial soaps are banned from my house, too! To learn more, click here.
I switched to Seventh Generation Natural Handwash Free and Clean and Clearly Natural Essentials, Unscented. These products are not on the EWG website, so I researched the product’s individual ingredients on EWG. Within only three days of switching, my hands had completely healed, were no longer itchy, and no longer felt rough! (Honest Company Hand Soap also has safe ingredients, but my sensitive hands couldn’t handle the fragrances.) I was able to find these three soaps at Walmart, Target, and/or Meijer for a decent price.
Because my hands were constantly cracking and itching before I switched my hand soap, I tried several lotions. I decided to research these using EWG’s website and again was shocked. I was using Gold Bond Ultimate Healing with Aloe. Turns out it is packed full of parabens (preservatives), retinyl palmitate or Vitmain A palmitate (a well-known carcinogen), and urea (a type of formaldehyde). No wonder neither my soap nor my lotion seemed to help my skin condition! I switched to Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion and Honest Company Face and Body Lotion. (Be careful, though – not all of Aveeno’s lotions are as safe as their daily lotion.) Now that my hand soap isn’t irritating my hands, I use lotion a lot less, but I have been using these two lotions on my ever-expanding pregnant belly and have been able to avoid stretch marks so far (25 weeks along). The Aveeno Daily is easy to find in stores, but I have only seen the Honest lotion at Target.
Shampoo, Conditioner, and Body Wash
I am having a hard time finding less irritable shampoos and conditioners that aren’t terribly expensive or impossible to find in stores. I was previously using Pantene Pro-V Aqua Light Shampoo and Conditioner because it is paraben free. It generally scored well except in allergies/immunotoxicity. Johnson’s baby shampoo used to have formaldehyde, but they are taking that ingredient out in their newer products. However, their products also score a high risk of allergies/immunotoxicity. I was also previously using Aveeno Skin Relief Body Wash, Fragrance Free (liquid) because I assumed it would help my sensitive skin, but it scored very poorly when it came to allergies! The following had decent scores:
- Honest’s Shampoo and Body Wash (this had the best scores I could find)
- Burt’s Bees Baby Shampoo and Body Wash, Fragrance Free
- Dove Sensitive Skin Bar Soap (not the liquid)
- Aveeno Moisturizing Bar Soap (not the liquid)
Some research has suggested that underarm deodorant could be linked to cancer or unsafe for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Whether this is true or not, deodorant is something many of us put on our skin at least once every day, so it’s worth looking at the ingredients.
Here are few easy-to-find brands that scored well:
Almay Roll-On Fragrance Free
Tom’s of Maine, Fragrance Free
Ban, Satin Breeze roll-on (high in allergies/immunotoxicity)
Ban, Powder Fresh roll-on (high in allergies/immunotoxicity)
Ban, Simply Clean roll-on (high in allergies/immunotoxicity)
Speed Stick Stainguard, Fresh (men’s)
Tom’s of Main, Woodspice (men’s)
Laundry Detergent and Stain Removers
At first, I didn’t think much of chemicals in my laundry detergent. But then I realized that our clothes and bedding are cleaned in detergent, and we are wrapped in our clothes all day and our bedding all night. A friend then mentioned to me that she breaks out in acne when she uses certain brands of laundry detergents. Being pregnant, I also wanted to know what the deal was with Baby Detergent, and why so many people switch to it when they have a newborn. Once again, I was shocked once I stopped reading advertising labels and started reading ingredient labels. I was using Purex Liquid Laundry Detergent and Cheer for Darks, and Woolite for Darks, all which scored several ingredient concerns. Dreft Detergent for Babies and Babyganics Detergent had extremely high risk in developmental/reproductive toxicity. I decided to thoroughly wash out my washing machine (letting it soak in hot water and vinegar). Then I switched to Ecos Laundry Detergent. I have been able to order the Ecos Magnolia and Lily scent online from Walgreens in bulk, shipped for free to my house the next day, and I’ve been able to find the Ecos Unscented at Walmart.
When I wanted to brighten my whites or disinfect, I added a little Clorox Bleach to my laundry. Now, I use Honest Oxy Boost, which not only brightens and disinfects successfully using peroxide, but there is no risk of spilling bleach and ruining colors, and there is no harsh odor. The Honest Oxy Boost is safer than Oxiclean, too. These should be safe for cloth diapers, also (but correct me if I am wrong). I did have to order this from the Honest website, though, since I couldn’t find it in stores.
The best stain removers I found were Babyganics Stain and Odor Remover, Fragrance Free. This has some allergens and no information on asthma and respiratory, however. A second choice is Earth Friendly Products Stain and Odor Remover, which has about the same concerns as Babyganics. This is the same brand as the Ecos Laundry Detergent.
I was using Finish Powerballs for my dishwasher, but discovered it has several risks, especially concerning development/reproductive toxicity. I think about this as I see some dried-on powdery residue that didn’t rinse off my dishes. Wave Liquid scored well, and I found it at Meijer. Seventh Generation Pacs also scored well, and I found them in several stores, but I felt like there weren’t many pacs for the price being asked. Seventh Generation Powder scored well and is easy to find. However, with both the powder and the pacs for Seventh Generation, the free and clear is much safer than the scented.
For dish soap, I used Dawn and was somewhat surprised by how high its risks are in respiratory problems, allergies, and environmental concern. However, there were no cancer or reproductive risks. Dishmate (found at Meijer) and Seventh Generation Dish Liquid scored about the same. From what I saw, dish soaps bought in stores all come with risks, and the ones that claim to be “natural” were the worst. Babyganics Foaming Dish Soap scored the best.
I was using Clorox Anywhere. After working in daycares and schools, this became a popular product in my home. But I wasn’t impressed with the risks involved once I did the research. I now disinfect with hydrogen peroxide (which is also super useful for getting out blood stains). Just make sure you keep it in a dark container. I also use vinegar, especially when cleaning produce. Hydrogen Peroxide can also be mixed with baking soda to make a scrub for tough grease and stains. Why use chemicals that are harsh and expensive when vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, and baking soda are cheap and safe?
A lot of products are now advertizing “Paraben Free!” Parabens are preservatives. There really is no reason to have preservatives in our hygienic products and cleaning supplies, and no reason to be rubbing them into your skin every day. If you do buy paraben-free products, just make sure to use them up by the expiration date because light, air, and moisture will make them break down sooner and allow bacteria to grow. To learn more, I found this article helpful.
Of course we can’t completely cut off all exposure to toxins. There are going to have to be allowances. On the other hand, it’s not good to completely ignore the ingredients lists on the products we buy, especially when so many people are suffering from cancer, reproductive system issues, and increased allergies. If there is a possible link that is easily avoided, why not avoid it? My biggest message in this entry is this: Do your research on what you consume, breathe, and put on your skin. Look at ingredients, not advertising labels. Then, using that research, make your decision.