When I started to be more conscious of what I put in my body – carefully choosing the most nourishing, unprocessed, and often organic, foods – I also started to wonder about what I was putting on my body.
It didn’t seem to make much sense that after all of that effort, I would then slather myself with a whole lot of unnatural chemicals, even if the packaging was very beautiful and promised the world. Of course (and please excuse the cliche), we all know that the best way to nourish your skin is from the inside out. Enjoying a diet filled with plenty of good quality fats (fish oils, avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil), vitamins, minerals and healthy hydration is the most effective way to beautiful, glowing skin. But from time to time, we may all need a little help.”
However, as with so many things wellness, there was a lot of conflicting information and I wanted to know as best I could in amongst this confusion, where the facts lay. I hope that perhaps some of you may find it helpful to.
We live in a world where man-made chemicals are very much part of our everyday life. It is now clear that some of these chemicals can effect our hormonal system and development, as well as interfering with wildlife. These are known as ‘endocrine disruptors’, and seem to be the primary reason why so many people are concerned about the safety of the chemicals we come into contact with.
What is an ‘endocrine disruptor’?
They are chemicals which can interfere with any hormone system in our body (endocrine is really just another word for hormones). They come from all sorts of places, including food, food packaging, paints, textiles, cleaning and cosmetic products. They get into us from eating or drinking, inhalation of particles from the air, and also through the skin (1).
What problems might they cause?
It is likely that they can cause alterations to fertility and reproductive function (for both men and women), weaken the immune system, possibly increase the risk of breast cancer, and may cause a variety of developmental problems (1). The most vulnerable people are pregnant ladies, babies and children, adolescents, those who are considering starting to try for a baby soon and the elderly (2).
Surely if they weren’t safe they would already be banned?
There are thought to be around 800 chemicals which could be endocrine disruptors, acting by mimicking hormones at their receptor points or altering how they are made and converted. Although in the UK we are lucky that there are strict laws to help protect us from many of the chemicals in cosmetics known to cause harm, unfortunately, the vast majority of chemicals in overall commercial use have not been tested at all for these effects. This means that there is a lot of uncertainty about the extent of the potential risks that they may pose (2), or the effect that low levels to hundreds of different endocrine disruptors may have on us overall. The World Health Organisation published a report in 2012, which said that the disease risk from these chemicals may be significantly underestimated (2), but there is still a lot of research to be done until we fully understand their impact.
So, what could I do to reduce my exposure?
As there is still so much uncertainty, I feel personally I would prefer to err on the side of caution. Some chemicals, of course, we cannot avoid – such as those in the air we breathe, but others – particularly those in cosmetics or cleaning products, are quite a lot easier to steer clear of. As a basic rule of thumb, I try to use products that are as close to nature as possible, even better if they could be edible!
Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
- Try experimenting with organic coconut, rosehip, almond or even olive oil as a moisturiser rather than using face or body creams. Remember that anything that goes over a large surface area, or stays on your skin for a long time, gives more opportunity for chemical absorption. You might need to experiment a bit to find what works best for you, but these DIY options are often just as effective and often cheaper than their synthetic alternatives.
- Try thinking about how you could reduce the number of products that you are using overall. Do you really need all of them?
- Look at the ingredients, and be careful that lots of claims on the front of the packaging (‘pure’/ ‘green’ / ‘natural’/ ‘dermatologically tested’) do not necessarily mean that they are chemical free and are largely unregulated as advertising terms. Try buying products with the simplest ingredients list and fewer synthetic chemicals.
- Search out companies who do the hard work for you. There are some great, well-established organic brands who avoid putting unnatural chemicals into their products, meaning that you are able to buy with more peace of mind.
- Don’t forget your home. Try using organic castile soap (just decant some into an old spray bottle and top up with water) as your multi-purpose cleaner. It works brilliantly, and is made just from vegetable oil and essential oils. This is particularly good for bathrooms – as cleaning products on bathtubs will often end up in your bathwater. Good old fashioned soap, hot water and a bit of elbow grease is a very effective way of removing bacteria and germs too, so don’t worry about it not being ‘antibacterial’.
- Avoid putting bubbles or other products in baths (especially for babies and children). This dries out skin, and means that you then need to put back all the moisture you have stripped off with yet another product!
- Be conscious of fragrance – for example, burning scented candles fills the atmosphere with chemicals, even if it does smell nice! Try spraying perfume onto your clothes rather than your skin. Pick unscented, or naturally scented, products wherever possible.
- Be informed. Research your products and search out the safest ones you can find.
What about specific products?
This website, although USA based, gives you a safety rating for over 80,000 branded products, which might help you get some more information, and is certainly an interesting browse! ewg.org/skindeep/
- WHO (2015) Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Available at: http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/cehemerging2/en/ (Accessed: 12 February 2016)
- Bergman, Å., Heindel, J.J., Jobling, S., Kidd, K.A. and Zoeller, T.R. (2012) State of the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals 2012 summary for decision-makers INTER-ORGANIZATION PROGRAMME FOR THE SOUND MANAGEMENT OF CHEMICALS. Available at: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/78102/1/WHO_HSE_PHE_IHE_2013.1_eng.pdf?ua=1 (Accessed: 12 February 2016).