We invest in a lot in the upkeep of our homes and our bodies. Last year, the annual average expenditure on personal care products and cosmetics was $199 in the US. For housekeeping supplies, it was $836!
With so much devoted to maintaining our abodes and ourselves, it’s worth considering what’s in these products and how they might influence our health. Over the years, research has shown that some manufactured ingredients in household and personal care items can be toxic and harmful to human and wildlife health.
Let’s review, then, some of these potential offenders:
Formaldehyde is a strong-smelling chemical frequently used in manufactured wood products and adhesives as well as tobacco. But beyond tobacco, it may be found in hair straightening products, fingernail polish, household disinfectants and detergents, fabric softeners, pesticides, and glues. Exposure can occur by breathing in formaldehyde fumes or from absorption through the skin. Because of its ubiquitous presence in the home, particularly through home building materials and tobacco smoke, formaldehyde can be a common indoor air pollutant.
Unfortunately, formaldehyde is also a carcinogen. Studies have shown that in high levels, it causes leukemia, nose and throat cancers, and reproductive health problems. In lower doses, it can also cause respiratory problems and skin irritation.
Endocrine disruptors consist of a variety of chemicals that mimic the body's hormones, altering the endocrine system and natural hormonal production. They have been linked to lower fertility rates, increased risk of cancers, and problems of the neurological and immune systems in humans and wildlife.
Below is a list of endocrine disruptors and the products in which they can be found:
Bisphenol A (BPA) - plastic products and the plastic liners of canned food
Dioxins - herbicides and bleached paper
Essential oils - concentrated plant extracts
Perchlorate - drinking water and fireworks
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) - non-stick pans, plastic-coated paper for food packaging, and stain or water-resistant materials
Phthalates - food packaging, cosmetics, and plastic toys
Phytoestrogens - soy products, like tofu or soy milk
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) - flame retardants for household products like furniture and carpets
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) - electronics, mechanical lubricants, and oil-based paints
Triclosan - personal care products with anti-microbial properties, like liquid soaps
Even at low doses, endocrine disruptors may cause adverse health effects. The endocrine system functions based on incremental shifts in hormone levels, which in turn can lead to substantial biological changes. Given this sensitivity, it is presumed that small amounts of exposure to endocrine disruptors can contribute to illness and health issues.
Nanomaterials are materials that have at least one dimension less than 100 nanometers. They are so small that oftentimes they can’t even be seen under a conventional laboratory microscope.
While some nanomaterials occur naturally in the human body and in nature, technology has advanced to allow humans to create engineered nanomaterials, which are found in numerous products including sunscreens, cosmetics, and stain-resistant clothing. Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and nano silver are common nano ingredients that improve the stability and longevity of products.
Although engineered nanomaterials may provide some benefits to products, little is known about the potential effects on human health and the environment. Because they’re so minute, nanomaterials can be inhaled, consumed, and absorbed through the skin. And research thus far has shown that exposure to nanomaterials can lead to lung inflammation.
A pesticide is any chemical used to kill unwanted plants or animals. They consist of fungicides to control molds and mildew, herbicides for eradicating undesirable weeds, insecticides for killing insects, disinfectants to eliminate bacteria and germs, and other substances used to kill rodents.
Given the broad use of pesticides, people can be exposed in a variety of ways and in various places. Pesticides can be inhaled, consumed through eating or drinking, or absorbed through the skin. And in terms of pesticide sources, one frequent way people are exposed is through our diets. Only 1% of crops in the US are certified organic and don’t use pesticides, meaning that pesticides are pervasive in our food system. Pesticide exposure can also happen in other common locations like work, school, and home.
While the health effects of pesticides aren’t fully understood, research suggests that children, in particular, may be susceptible to developmental issues and other adverse effects from pesticide exposure.
Styrene is a chemical found in latex, synthetic rubber, and in the creation of polystyrene resins (i.e., Styrofoam, building insulation). It is also a byproduct that’s emitted into the air when operating photocopiers and laser printers and in cigarette smoke.
In its polystyrene form, styrene serves as the base for foam drink cups or food takeout containers. While lauded for its ability to preserve the temperature of food or beverages in addition to minimizing leaking, small amounts of the chemical are known to leach into food and drink through these containers.
At high levels, research has shown that styrene augments the risk of cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, and pancreatic and esophageal cancer. Plus, it can have deleterious effects on the nervous system, causing health problems such as headaches, weakness, depression, and fatigue. Lower doses can lead to respiratory and gastrointestinal issues.
Chemists will argue that the harm incurred from any toxic exposure varies by the amount of exposure, which is true. The higher your level of exposure, the greater the risk that an adverse condition will develop. However, depending on gender, age, individual sensitivity, and other factors, some people are more at risk and susceptible at lower exposure levels than others.
So with all of these nuances related to toxic chemical exposure from household and personal care products, it’s better to err on the side of caution and avoid these toxins as much as possible. Instead, opt for products with natural, organic ingredients. For a helpful guide to navigate the toxicity of products, check out the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database. A little bit of product label reading and research will pay off in the long run.