Have you noticed the rise in “paraben-free” skin care products? Or the rise in “BPA-free” plastic food and drink containers? What’s this all about and how does this link to our health?
Unfortunately, we are exposed to a huge number of chemicals and toxins every day such as parabens, BPA (bisphenol-A) and many others from the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the air we breathe and of course – what we put on our skin.
Everyday toxins found in skin care products, food packaging and household products can influence our risk for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, liver disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). One such mechanism is via the ability of these toxins to alter the composition of bacteria in our gut. This is very concerning! We want to look after the bacteria living in our gut because it is central to so many areas of our health, as I will explain. And that’s why, as consumers we need to be aware of these toxins so that we can make better choices when it comes to certain products and food, to protect our health.
In this post I’ll share with you:
- The main toxins to be aware of and why, and which products they are lurking in. I’ll be discussing toxins in skin care products as these are less well known
- How these toxins impact on your gut health and risk for diseases, and
- Alternative products to use to reduce your exposure to toxins for improved gut health, lower inflammation and lower risk of many inflammatory diseases
Toxic ingredients to avoid
Our skin absorbs toxins from skin care or personal care products such as moisturisers, sunscreen, shower gels and hand sanitizers. Household cleaning products and food containers can also be a source of toxins. (1).
The worst offending toxins found in everyday skin/body care and household/food products are: (2)
- Parabens: (Propyl-, Isopropyl-, Butyl-, and Isobutyl- parabens) stop bacteria growing in products such as cosmetics, face and body creams, bubble bath, shower gels.
- Phthalates: carry fragrances in products such as lotions, nail polish, shampoos, soaps and perfumes. They are also found in plastic packaging and can leach into the products they contain. If you see “fragrance” or “perfume” on a label, it may contain phthalates unless it’s listed as organic.
- Bisphenol-A: used for its preservative properties in cosmetics and used in plastic packaging and the lining of food and drink containers such as cans/tins
- Triclosan: a common anti-microbial (bacteria-killing agent) used in toothpaste, deodorant, hand sanitizers, disinfectants and soaps.
- Perfluorinated chemicals: used for their water-resistant properties. Found in certain lotions and nail polishes.
- UV filters: such as oxybenzone, oxy methoxy methyl cinnamate, and methylbenzylidene camphor. Found in sunscreens.
- Lead: up to 61% of lipsticks contain mineral metals such as lead. Science indicates there is no safe level of lead exposure. Lead is a neurotoxin and can be dangerous at small doses (13)
The toxins listed above are “xenobiotics”: substances that are not usually found in the human body (3).
These toxins are endocrine disruptors, as they disrupt the body’s own hormones by mimicking them. Many of these are “xeno-estrogens” because they mimic estrogen in the body and cause hormonal imbalances. Xenobiotics impact on all functions and systems within the body (4).
“These toxins are endocrine disruptors, as they mimic and disrupt the body’s own hormones, impacting on all systems and functions within the body”
Endocrine disruptors are linked with: cancer, diabetes, obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, disturbances in reproduction and foetal development and thyroid dysfunction. Brain disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as auto-immunity, stroke, heart disease and asthma have also been linked to endocrine disruptors (5) (6).
How does this impact the gut?
Many of you reading this will know that the collection of bacteria living in your gut (known as the “gut microbiome”) control and impact many areas of your health. One of the ways that gut bacteria influence our health is through increasing or reducing inflammation, directly in the gut and also elsewhere in the body. They support and regulate our immune system; they provide a protective barrier lining the gut; they are involved in nutrient absorption and digestion, and some types of bacteria even produce vitamins for us (such as B vitamins and K2).
A healthy gut microbiome means having the right balance of beneficial bacteria to keep the non-beneficial or pathogenic bacteria in check. Needless to say, having healthy gut bacteria are central to not just our gut health but many other areas such as our ability to fend off infections, metabolism and weight management, heart health, the risk of autoimmunity, bone health, mood and behaviour, sleep patterns, regulating hormones, and so much more.
So, toxins that can impact on our gut bacteria in a disruptive way – causing a reduction in beneficial bacteria and an increase in pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria are very bad news indeed and we want to avoid these toxins. Especially now that there is emerging evidence for their potential role in inflammatory diseases.
“Toxins in everyday skincare and household products can disrupt our gut bacteria, causing inflammation and an increased risk of inflammatory diseases”
Triclosan – as mentioned above, this chemical is used in household cleaning and personal care products. Animal studies have found that exposure to triclosan alters the composition of bacteria in the gut, in particular, increasing Proteobacteria – a major class of bacteria that have been associated with intestinal disease (7). Proteobacteria have been linked with an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If our gut bacteria become resistant to antibiotics this could mean that we won’t be able to rely on antibiotics to help us fight off major infections when we really need them. Proteobacteria have also been linked with diabetes, colitis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) (8).
BPA – this chemical estrogen is found in everyday consumer products such as the lining of cans and tins and plastic packaging and Tuppaware. BPA is associated with cancers and reproductive problems. It is also associated with colonic and liver inflammation, “leaky gut”, and altered composition of bacteria similar to that found through eating a diet high in fat and high in sugar. BPA also reduces butyrate, a beneficial fatty acid produced by healthy gut bacteria that helps to protect against colon cancer. So we can start to see how BPA can increase inflammation in the gut and our risk of colon cancer (9).
Parabens – found in nearly all non-organic skin and personal care products, parabens have also been linked to altered gut bacteria, due to their antimicrobial i.e. “bacteria killing” properties (14). In order words, parabens can kill-off our good bacteria. Furthermore, there’s evidence linking triclosan and parabens to increased food sensitivity and allergies (10).
So, the bottom-line: we want to reduce our exposure to these toxins as much as possible to maintain a healthy microbiome!
Safer alternative skin and personal care products
The market for organic skin care, body care and cosmetics is growing fast.
Below are a few of my favourite natural or organic skin and personal care products. Check out your local health food store or find the following (or similar) online:
Skin and body creams: Green People, Handmade Naturals, Sukin, Face Theory
Body wash: Dr Bronner (use as a hand wash, laundry wash, pet wash, shampoo, and a household cleaner – so versatile!), Faith in Nature
Face wash: Handmade Naturals, Green People, Dr Organic, Organic Surge, Face Theory, or my current favourite: the Oil Cleansing Method
Make-up*: Jane Iredale, Lily Lolo, Inika, Green People
Lip balms: Burt’s Bees, Handmade Naturals
Sunscreen: Green People, Jason Naturals, Tropic, Badger, Odylique, Shade
Shampoo and conditioner: Faith in Nature, Avalon, Sukin
Deodorant: Schmidt’s, Tom’s of Maine, or make your own (recipe here). Note – avoid crystal salt deodorants which contain aluminium, a known toxin
Hand sanitizer: Young Living, Neal’s Yard
Feminine hygiene: Organyc, Natracare, menstrual cups like Moon Cup or Diva Cup
*Some of the natural makeup products, for example, mineral powders and eyeshadows contain nanoparticles such as titanium and zinc oxide. Although there are some health concerns with nanoparticles, topical application is considered safe as they do not penetrate through the skin easily (11). Inhaling titanium oxide is concerned with the increased risk of lung cancer (12).
The chemicals mentioned in this post are toxins that are ubiquitous in our environment, which means we come into contact with them on a daily basis. Although safe levels of exposure have been tested and established, animal studies indicate that ill-effects are observed at levels lower than the established “safe levels”. In my opinion, it’s crucial that we avoid these toxins as much as possible.
Switching to organic skin and personal care products and avoiding BPA-lined cans and plastics is a huge step in reducing your exposure to toxins. Reducing the number of toxins you absorb supports healthy liver and gut function via healthy gut bacteria. And having healthy gut bacteria is central to our overall health and reducing our risk for a number of diseases as mentioned.
It can be overwhelming to change all of your skin and personal care products at once. My advice is to phase out your current products and purchase a new face cream, body wash or item of makeup as and when needed. Look for the more natural or organic alternatives mentioned above. To avoid BPA, avoid buying canned or tinned food as much as possible, fresh food is best. And look for BPA-free food and drink containers for storage or use glass storage containers instead.
Your gut and your body will thank you!
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database contains data on many products and their toxic ingredients.
Think Dirty App can be used to scan barcodes to check the ingredients in products.
Safe Cosmetics Org contains a wealth of data and information on chemicals in cosmetics.
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- Nicolopoulou-Stamati, P., Hens, L. and Sasco, A.J., 2015. Cosmetics as endocrine disruptors: are they a health risk? Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders, 16(4), pp.373–383.
- Croom, E., 2012. Metabolism of xenobiotics of human environments. 1st ed. [online] Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science, Elsevier Inc. Available at: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-415813-9.00003-9>.
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- Thaddeus T. Schug, Janesick, A., Blumberg, B., and Heindel, J.J. 2011. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and Disease Susceptibility. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 127(3-5): 204–215.
- Coster, S. De and Larebeke, N. Van, 2012. Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals : Associated Disorders and Mechanisms of Action. Journal of environmental and Public Health. Article ID 713696, 52 pages.
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- IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 2010. Carbon black, titanium dioxide, and talc. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans/World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, 93, 1
- Safe Cosmetics Org. 2018. Lead in Lipstick. [ONLINE] Available at http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/regulations/us-laws/lead-in-lipstick/. [Accessed 4 August 2018].
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