Warning: Things Can Change
Beware of Greenwashing
Everything Natural isn't Safe, and Vice Versa
Learn to Read the Labels
Routes of Exposure
Pollution in People
Nanoparticles - Something New to Watch Out For
Essential Oils - Tips & Cautions
There are thousands of ingredients used in the types of products covered in this guide. Product formulations change frequently. Scientific understanding of the hazards of various substances is constantly developing. The products we have included in the Guide are ones which, on the basis of information available at the time of writing, were less toxic than most of the other products of the same type. Changes in product formulation or scientific knowledge could make the information contained here out of date.Return to Menu
Natural, Green, Eco-friendly, Botanical. Hypoallergenic. You will find these words on many
product labels. But in fact, there are no legal definitions for these words.
Often manufacturers of hazardous products dress up their containers with pretty
pictures of flowers and fruit to play on our desire for more natural products. A
company may promote one healthy sounding ingredient (“With Goat’s Milk”, “With
Vitamin E”) in a product whose other ingredients are not healthy at all.
Some companies will list ingredients as being derived from plants, like coconut or corn. But this does not necessarily make them healthy products. The original plant may have gone through so many chemical processes, sometimes involving toxic solvents, that the resulting ingredient bears little resemblance to the original plant material. Look beyond advertising claims to determine if a product is healthy.
Natural is not always non-toxic. Some natural ingredients have proven harmful effects. For example, d-limonene, found in orange peels, is a powerful solvent. It has been found to be a sensitizer and causes severe reactions in some people. Sodium lauryl sulfate, often derived from coconut, is a known skin irritant which enhances allergic response to other toxins and allergens. Sodium laureth sulfate may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen. The U.S. government has warned manufacturers of unacceptable levels of dioxin formation in some products containing this ingredient. In some cases petrochemical ingredients, particularly those which are not volatile, can be good less toxic choices.
It’s important to know how to read a label. Although we are providing brand
names of less-toxic products, our list is by no means complete. And the
formulation of a product could change for better or for worse at any time. If
you know the hazards of some key ingredients, you are better equipped to
evaluate for yourself the products on store shelves.
In Canada and the US, ingredients are listed in order of quantity. The first ingredient in the list makes up the greatest amount of the product, the last ingredient is present in the least quantity.
In Canada, manufacturers are now required to list ingredients on labels of personal care products. You can use the List of Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products to find less toxic products. However, be aware that ingredient lists may not contain all ingredients. For example, companies are not required to disclose the many ingredients that make up fragrances, including potential harmful ingredients such as phthalates.
For cleaning products, there is no requirement for companies to list ingredients. On some products, only the "active" ingredients -- those whose primary purpose is to achieve the main objective of the product -- may be listed. Other ingredients that may have harmful effects may not be listed at all. Some labels say "this product does not contain x, y, or z". However, they do not state what ingredients the product does contain. Many companies using less-toxic ingredients are eager to make their ingredients known, and provide this information on labels or on information sheets or posters in stores.
The route of exposure is the pathway by which a chemical enters the body. There
are three principal routes of exposure: through the skin (absorption), through
the lungs (inhalation), and via the mouth to the digestive tract (ingestion).
The type of exposure can affect the impact a chemical has.
A chemical which is not volatile (thus is not inhaled) but can be absorbed may be a good choice in a furniture polish, but more hazardous in a skin cream. A chemical which is less toxic as a liquid may become more toxic when it becomes a spray, or a vapour when heated or mixed with hot water.
- Many people believe that the skin is an effective barrier to toxins, but what we
put on our skin all too often passes through the skin and into the blood. From
there it is carried to various organs including the brain, liver and kidneys, where
it may have immediate or long term effects. Absorption can be a significant
source of exposure to the chemicals in personal care products, since they may be
applied to the skin frequently and in large amounts. The scalp is an especially
absorbent part of the body.
The skin is one of the most common routes of exposure. If a chemical can penetrate the skin, its toxicity depends in part on how much absorption takes place. The greater the absorption, the greater the potential for a chemical to exert a toxic effect. Although chemicals are absorbed much more readily through damaged or abraded skin, chemicals can penetrate intact, healthy skin. Some chemicals are added to personal care products specifically to increase absorption. Skin irritation is a common result of skin contact with certain chemicals. But of greater concern are effects which result from substances which are absorbed and circulated throughout the body and can damage many body systems.
- Another source of exposure is inhalation. Unlike the skin, lung tissue is not
meant to be a protective barrier against chemical exposure. Lung tissue is very
thin and allows the passage not only of oxygen, but also of many other chemicals
directly into the blood. Once in the blood, inhaled chemicals pass to the heart
and are then distributed to other organs without first passing through the
detoxification process of the liver. In addition to causing systemic damage,
chemicals that pass through the lung surface may injure lung tissue and
interfere with its vital role of oxygen supply.
Some ingredients in personal care products, and many ingredients in household cleaning products become airborne and become part of the air we breathe at home, at work and in schools. Any substance which is airborne can have an impact through inhalation. Some substances are volatile in any state, others become airborne when heat is applied, and still others become airborne when used as sprays. Aerosol sprays are of particular concern, as the particles they produce are very small.
Chemicals can become airborne either as tiny particles, as gases or as vapours. Inhalation of particles depends upon their size and shape; the smaller the particle, the further into the respiratory tract it can penetrate. Gases and vapours, being smaller, are more deeply inhaled. Some of the particles breathed in will enter the gut directly and may affect the gut by reacting with it chemically. Chemical laden particles may be absorbed from the gut and cause effects in other parts of the body.
Ingestion - Chemicals which are ingested enter the body via the mouth, either directly or when cleared from the lungs. Obviously, chemicals can be ingested when they are on or in products we eat or drink. They can also be ingested from substances which are applied near the mouth, eg. lipstick or lip gloss. Or they can be transferred to the mouth through hand to mouth activity. Children, who put their hands everywhere including in their mouths or chew on a variety of objects, are particularly likely to ingest chemicals this way. Chemicals that are ingested enter the body by absorption from the gastrointestinal tract. Absorption of chemicals can occur anywhere along the digestive tract, from the mouth to the rectum, but the major site for absorption is the small intestine.
Scientists now have the ability to monitor minute quantities of chemicals
in our bodies by taking samples of urine, blood, breast milk and tissue. Studies from around the world
confirm that all people carry household, agricultural and industrial chemicals (or their breakdown
products) in our bodies -- often referred to as the "body burden of chemicals".
Since 2007 the Canadian government has been gathering data on pollution in Canadians although the information has not yet been fully released. Environmental Defence, in its Toxic Nation reports, has provided information on Canadian body burdens. In a 2005 study, 60 of the 88 chemicals tested for were found in almost all 12 of the participants. The chemicals included 18 heavy metals, 5 fire retardants, 14 PCBs, insecticide metabolites, and 7 volatile organic compounds.
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control have done extensive biomonitoring and reporting. To date, their reports have shown detectable levels of 212 contaminants in human tissue. These include phthalates, lead, mercury, benzene, oxybenzone, Bisphenol A, polybrominated biphenyls and perfluorinated compounds like those found in non-stick cookware. Many of the chemicals found in our bodies are found in common everyday products used in our homes. Canadian body burdens are likely to be similar to Americans.
Nanoparticles are tiny particles of chemicals as small as atoms and molecules. Nanoparticles
have been introduced intro hundreds of consumer products with no testing of their potentially
harmful effects on human health or the environment. Research by Friends of the Earth shows that
nanoparticles are now used in almost every type of personal care product on the market,
including deodorant, soap, toothpaste, shampoo, hair conditioner, sunscreen, anti-wrinkle
cream, moisturizer, foundation, face powder, lipstick, blush, eye shadow, nail polish,
perfume and after-shave lotion. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are often the main
ingredient in sunscreens.
The few studies that have been done by independent scientists show cause for serious concern. A 2009 study by Japanese researchers showed the transfer of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide from pregnant mice to their offspring. The offspring were found to have brain damage and nervous system damage, as well as reduce sperm count in male offspring. A 2010 Swiss study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found for the first time that plastic nanoparticles can cross the human placenta, exposing the developing fetus to nanoparticles to which the mother is exposed.
Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are now used in food packaging, paints and dirt repellant coatings in addition to personal care products. The European Union passed a regulation in March 2009 requiring cosmetic manufacturers to label nanoparticles on ingredient lists e.g. titanium dioxide (nano). In Canada and the United States, there are no labelling requirements to specify that an ingredient is present in its nanoparticle form. As well, there are no requirements that nanoparticles be tested for health effects before they are used in products.
Essential oils are extremely concentrated plant derivatives, and if used should
be used with caution. Here are some basic tips.
Do not use essential oils undiluted or in too high a concentration. Essential oils are very concentrated. If some is good, MORE IS NOT BETTER. Using too much can result in sensitization, and may burn or irritate skin or mucus membranes.
Oil and water does not mix. Recipes with essential oils must include an emulsifier to make sure the oil is dispersed equally throughout the product. If not, there is danger of sensitization. Shaking up an essential oil in water does not disperse it sufficiently. Some recipes are still circulating from a time before this was understood, and should not be used.
Salts, fat or alcohol can function as emulsifiers. Vodka, witch hazel, aloe vera gel, cornstarch and vinegar can also be used. Sea salts are especially good for bath products. Add oils to the salts first and let sit. Then add salts to bath. Whole milk can also be used as an emulsifier (not skim, its the FAT that is needed for the oil to mix with.) Fractionated sweet almond oil is a good emulsifier, and is available at most health food stores and stores which sell essential oils.
Essential oils used incorrectly can become sensitizers. Any essential oil used undiluted on the skin can have sensitization effects. Essential oils can become sensitizers over time if they are used without an emulsifier, and so are not actually dispersed in water. This can be true for essential oils used in baths, cleaners, or any product used on the skin or in the mouth. Undispersed oils can also burn skin and mucus membranes. No essential oil should be used on open cuts, to avoid oils entering the bloodstream directly.
Some oils are more powerful than others. Tea tree oil is very powerful and has to be properly blended. If not fully diluted, or used at concentrations which are too high, it can cause sensitization. Some essential oils are known sensitizers and should not be used at all. These include sweet birch, benzolin and cajuput. Other oils have known health hazards. Lemon and orange oil contain d’limonene which is a sensitizer and neurotoxin. Sage (salfia officinalis) can tend to be sensitizing and can be a problem for people who are pregnant, as well as those with high blood pressure or epilepsy. (Clary sage is less toxic.) Cinnamon oil can be irritating to skin. Although they are natural products, oils need to be used carefully.
Many people with chemical sensitivities are sensitive to even small quantities of essential oils, especially the stronger smelling ones including tea tree, lemon and patchouli. Others find they can tolerate them. Strong smelling scents, even natural ones, are not appropriate for scent-free workplaces.
Essential oils come in different grades. Therapeutic grade is the most pure and will not have pesticide residues or contain any synthetic oils. Cosmetic grade oils may contain pesticide residues and may be diluted with synthetic chemicals.
Equivalencies: Although each oil is different, on average 20 drops equals 1 mil, and 100 drops equals 1 tsp.
Thanks to Casaroma Wellness Centre, Dartmouth N.S. for assistance with this section.