An Introduction To Chemicals: A Dude Awakening
For years my amazing European wife, Andreea (who never fails to surprise me with her talents, both obvious and hidden) developed gorgeous organic skin care products for herself. Driven by a personal need for clean, effective solutions she could not find in the marketplace, she would, with her strong scientific background, mix and mingle, tinker and toy with this essential oil, or that botanical butter and concoct balms and masks and serums, which she would test and modify endlessly in pursuit of absolute perfection. When she would present them to me proudly with exclamations of, “Look what I made! It’s awesome!,” I would nod my head and give the requisite, “That’s great, honey,” replies of any good husband wanting to be supportive… yet having absolutely no clue what was being shown to him.
I was just being polite (and she knew it) but what was I to say? I knew nothing about skin care or personal care products in general. My whole life I had been branded to a small number of very basic items: Crest for the teeth, Head & Shoulders or Prell (remember Prell?) for the hair, and Irish Spring for the body. (And as a high school hippy who spent years on the road with the Grateful Dead, the world around me was lucky when I used even those.) When I got out of college and wanted to present a more sophisticated picture to the world, I considered myself incredibly mature when I upped my shaving game from Edge Gel to Neutrogena or Clinique. I was hopelessly uneducated on the subject of personal care products. But when the friends and family with whom Andreea shared her beautiful skin care creations became raving fans clamoring for more and more, my immediate reaction was, “Let’s start a business!”
For the purposes of this article we’ll put aside the massive shock and awe that came from following through on that particular stroke of genius (and having to learn every aspect of running a beauty company — a learning curve I am still very much riding) and focus solely on my most important discovery — the one that makes me the most passionate and excited to get up every day and crow from the mountaintops about what it is we do: Our government is not in the business of protecting us! They are in the business of serving corporate interests! There are literally over 1000 unregulated chemicals put into all manner of personal care products in the United States that are banned outright in the EU and other countries! This organic-vegetable-munching prep school hippy had found a ‘why’ he could get behind when it came to learning about chemicals in skin care, and if this dude can do it, so can you.
EU Chemical Bans vs. United States FDA Chemical Bans: Seriously?… Seriously
Now years into building the 10 Degrees Cooler line I can expound at length on the rarity of Corsican immortelle, the seemingly endless benefits of baobab or buriti oils, or the aroma-therapeutic values of French lavender or raw, organic cocoa butter (I’ve become something of a green beauty nut), but it never ceases to amaze me what the United States FDA allows into conventional beauty products that the European Union and other nations say are unsuitable for their citizens. What also blows me away is how few people realize that when we put these chemicals on our skin they not only get absorbed directly into the bloodstream, many of these chemicals accumulate in our tissues and organs as we expose ourselves to them a little bit every day… after day, after day, after day.
In many ways exposure to a lot of these chemicals has become a nearly unavoidable hazard of modern living (they’re in everything from our shower curtains to our steering wheels). But when it comes to personal care products we have a choice what we put on our bodies, and with a bit of education and diligence we can begin today to make healthier choices for ourselves and our families, even with lack of government regulation as an obstacle.
Here’s A List Of 7 Potentially Harmful Chemicals Americans Have In Their Personal Care Products That Europeans Don’t
1. Phthalates (a.k.a. DBP, DEHP, DEP, MEHP, and more) — Set aside the annoying shortage of vowels in this class of chemicals and focus instead on their nasty properties. Found in skin care, hair care, nail polish, and other personal care products, phthalates original use was to make plastics more pliable. Unfortunately, phthalates have been shown to be endocrine disrupters, are linked to certain cancers, and a recent study showed children with higher levels of asthma and allergies had higher levels of phthalates in their homes than did healthy children.
2. Petroleum (a.k.a. petrolatum, paraffins, and mineral oil) — As in the stuff I put in my car? Yes. They’re derived from the same source commonly referred to as… oil. Typically found in moisturizers and lip balms, petroleum may be toxic to organs, an allergen, and trouble for your respiratory system. The main problem lies in the ‘may be’ part. Simply not enough is known to consider it safe. One thing that is known, however, is that paraffin based moisturizers have now been blamed in hundreds of fire deaths coming from people’s clothing absorbing the paraffins and then coming in contact with cigarettes, heaters, or open flames. Scary stuff, no?
3. Formaldehyde (a.k.a. methylene glycol) — Your best (and darkest) memory of formaldehyde may be having to fish a frog out of it in high school biology class, but surprise! It’s also in your hair and nail care products! You know the Brazilian blowout? Well in addition to being banned in the EU, aspects of the process permitted in the US are banned in (wait for it…) BRAZIL! Why? Because it’s a known carcinogen and allergen! In addition to other methods of exposure, one particularly nasty one is when it comes in contact with the heat of a flattening iron it becomes a gas that both you and your stylist inhale. Not good. And anyway… Don’t you just know instinctively that whatever they’re using to preserve dead frogs simply can’t be good for you?
4. Hydroquinone — I recently met with a cosmetics distributor from an Asian country seeking to work with Apothecary 90291. She asked if any of our products had skin whitening properties (as, she informed me, whiter skin is considered a sign of wealth in her country). Uncomfortable with (but nonjudgemental about) the cultural matter at hand, I explained to her that, while some of our products aid in balancing skin and helping with issues like hyper-pigmentation, we do not use any skin whitening agents such as… hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is one of the most common ingredients in skin lightening products sold in the US despite the fact that it is a known cytotoxin (which means it kills your cells). Prolonged exposure to it can prime your body for various cancers which is why it is banned in the EU and most other countries. But surprise, surprise… it’s legal at both prescription and over the counter concentrations in the United States!
5. Beta Hydroxy Acid (a.k.a. BHA, salicylic acid) — This one is particularly personal to me as I know I have had extensive exposure to it. In my younger days I battled both moderate acne and occasionally severe seborrhoeic dermatitis. I can hardly count the number of different products I used — from acne pads, to face creams, to dandruff shampoos — in which salicylic acid was a primary ingredient. Honestly, this is a hard one for me because the issues I had were so uncomfortable and unsightly that I appreciated what these products did for me, but the real truth is that it was my ignorance that kept me using them. Now that I know that (among other things) BHA’s are potential skin, eye and lung irritants, and due to their prevalence in so many products there is high risk of repeat exposure to them… count me out!
6. Parabens — Clean product companies almost always make a point of mentioning their products don’t contain parabens (and our 10 Degrees Cooler line is no exception… we don’t use ‘em!) for a reason… they are known to be bioaccumulating estrogenics used in countless products as preservatives. Bioaccumulation is a subject for a whole other blog post, but in general it means that continued exposure over time to certain chemicals allows them to build up in organs and fatty tissues. Estrogenics (as you might guess) raise the body’s levels of estrogen. This is obviously a bad thing for the hormonal balance of men and boys, but elevated levels of estrogen have also been linked to breast cancer in women. There has been some legit criticism of paraben studies linking the chemicals to breast cancer, but the larger issue is that, at best, not enough is known about the harm they can do to make it worth all that bioaccumulation. In short, avoiding them is a good idea. That’s why they’re banned abroad. Why not here? As with most of these chemicals… follow the money.
7. Fragrance — I find this one to be particularly insidious because it really is a corporate sneak attack. When you see the word ‘Fragrance’ on a list of ingredients this is a legal workaround for hiding over 3,000 different chemicals as ‘proprietary formulas’ in perfumes and personal care products. While not all of these chemicals have proven to be dangerous, according to the Environmental Working Group (a consumer watchdog group that maintains the Skin Deep List — an invaluable database of ingredients and products, both clean and dirty) 1 in 20 of these chemicals made their “high hazard” list, and still more didn’t fare much better. The main thing to understand is that ‘Fragrance’ is a crap shoot — they legally don’t have to tell you what’s in it, so you just don’t know what you’re getting.
So How Can You Protect Yourself And Your Loved Ones?
As with most things in life, nothing beats a strong education when it comes to knowing how to do… well, anything really. This subject is no different, and you can take heart that if you’ve made it this far in this lengthy blog post you’re already doing it (bravo!). Learn about how your skin (your body’s largest organ) functions. Read about bioaccumulation. Know how your government does (or more importantly, does not) protect you.
Don’t Go It Alone!
We will be posting more on these topics to help you learn more and stay up to date on the latest trends in clean products, so please subscribe because we want to help you on this journey. But there are other great resources out there to help you identify the clean products and companies that make them from the not-so-clean ones. Three of our favorites are consumer advocate, Debra Lynn Dadd’s, “Debra’s List”, the shopping application, “Think Dirty”, and the previously mentioned, “EWG Skin Deep List”.
And if you want to grow your knowledge while driving to work don't forget there are a host of podcasts out there that delve into all kinds of topics for
cleaner living. One we particularly love, "Food Heals Nation", addresses these topics on a weekly basis. We were honored and fortunate enough to be featured on an episode you can hear... here!
Apply Your Knowledge!
This can be the hardest part (believe me — I know from my own, ever evolving experience). If you’ve ever had too much to drink, been a smoker, or spent time in a city with particularly bad air pollution you know quickly and for sure you’re doing something bad for you. You’ve heard bad things about these activities your whole life, and, what’s more, you can feel it! But that’s what’s so pernicious about hidden chemicals in products being absorbed through your skin (and in other ways) — most of the time you aren’t aware you are doing it, and the affects can either go unnoticed or won’t be traced to the source. So getting in the habit of reading labels and letting go of familiar products that you see everywhere can be a challenge at first. But if you stick with the education and continue to make small changes in your purchasing and usage behavior it will snowball into a habit. I’ve been doing it myself more and more, and I feel every day it’s a habit I can live with.