But what you put on your skin might be an even greater risk for toxin exposure than what you put in your mouth.
I’m sure many of you have used a drug or supplement that needs to be absorbed through the skin, whether that’s hormone replacement cream, magnesium oil, or something else. But think about all the other stuff you put on your skin that you might not want to be absorbed – soap, sunscreen, make-up, deodorant, lotion…the list goes on. You wouldn’t eat this stuff, so why would you put it on your skin?
What you put on your skin might be more toxic than what you put in your mouth.
In this series, I’ll take a look at some of the various skin care products we use, why they might be cause for concern, and the products you can use instead. We’ll start with the chemicals in some of the most commonly used personal care products: soap, shampoo, and lotion.
Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent often added to soap, shampoo, and other personal care products. It can be absorbed through the skin, and has been detected in human urine, serum, and breast milk. (1)
With the recent focus on the importance of our microbiome and the growing threat of superbugs, people are beginning to question its widespread use, especially in antibacterial soap. Studies as early as 2006 have expressed concern over bacterial resistance to triclosan, as well as the greater fear of triclosan-induced resistance to clinically important antimicrobial drugs. (2)
Triclosan came under fire back in November when a study was released linking triclosan exposure to liver cancer in mice. (3) In the study, triclosan acted as a cancer promoter, which means it didn’t cause cancer on its own, but it increased susceptibility to cancer and accelerated tumor formation after long-term exposure.
Triclosan has also been suspected as an endocrine disruptor, although a recent review of the literature concludes that triclosan exposure through the use of personal care products is unlikely to adversely affect endocrine function in humans. (4) Unfortunately, this review was funded by the Colgate-Palmolive Company, and although there’s limited or no evidence that triclosan exposure through personal care products has harmful effects in humans, several studies have shown triclosan to adversely affect thyroid and reproductive function in rats.
To top it all off, triclosan-containing soaps don’t appear to provide any benefit over regular soap for preventing the spread of disease, so there’s really no reason to use it. (5) I suggest avoiding tricolsan completely.
Phthalates and Parabens
Like triclosan, phthalates and parabens are found in a variety of personal care products, although phthalates are more common in lotions because they act as moisturizers and enhance skin penetration of other compounds. (6) Parabens can be absorbed intact through the skin, and both chemicals have been detected in breast milk, urine, and plasma. (7)
A big concern over phthalates and parabens is increased risk for breast cancer. One study found that an increased concentration of phthalate metabolites in the urine was associated with an increased risk for breast cancer, and intact parabens have been detected in breast cancer tissue. (8, 9) Phthalates have also been implicated in reproductive and endocrine disruption, although like triclosan, the evidence is preliminary and may not be relevant in humans at normal levels of exposure. (10)
And although personal care products represent only a small portion of total environmental exposure to phthalates, they are the main mode of exposure for parabens, indicating significant levels of absorption through the skin. (11, 12)
Sulfates, Propylene Glycols, and Fragrances
Other chemicals you’ll find in soaps and lotions include sulfates, such as sodium laurel sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, fragrances, and petroleum by-products such as propylene glycol.
Propylene glycol isn’t absorbed through the skin in large amounts, and the only reports of toxicity in humans have been in cases of extreme exposure through IV medication or through repeated application to second- and third-degree burns over a large area of the skin. (13, 14) Sodium lauryl sulfate, however, does penetrate the skin, at least in rat models, and can cause skin irritation. (15, 16)
The category of “fragrances” is so vast and non-specific that it’s difficult to evaluate them, but they’re a common cause of contact dermatitis. (17) One big problem with “fragrances” is that they’re poorly regulated, and “fragrance” on an ingredient label could mean just about anything. For this reason, it’s best to avoid them.
Further, there could be more chemicals in skin care products than those actually listed on the bottle. Analysis of shampoo and similar products has found contamination by 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen, and phthalates have been detected in products that don’t have them listed as ingredients. (18, 19)
Like many of the chemicals we’re exposed to from food and our environment, most of the chemicals allowed in our skin care products don’t show overt toxicity in humans, but may have concerning preliminary evidence linking them to cancer or endocrine disruption. Apparently this doesn’t warrant removing these chemicals from products, but considering how easy it is to switch to more natural products, there is reason enough to avoid using them.
Non-Toxic Alternatives to Conventional Soap, Shampoo, and Lotion
The great thing about soap is that it’s incredibly easy to find a natural alternative. Dr. Bronner’s castile soap is a popular choice, but there are tons of other options. Just look for soap that only contains oils and other recognizable ingredients. If you want to get a little fancier, here’s an easy recipe for non-toxic foaming hand soap.
Lotion is another easy one. Oils like coconut, jojoba, and even olive oil are great for your skin and widely available. And unlike petroleum-based lotions, they’ll actually moisturize your skin instead of drying it out! If you want something that feels more like “normal” lotion, Tropical Traditions sells lotions that are made from coconut and palm oils (they sell soap, too).
Shampoo can be a little harder to replace, but there are tons of resources online if you want to forgo traditional shampoo. Simple ingredients such as bentonite clay, apple cider vinegar, and even honey can clean and condition hair without the chemicals. This post has lots of helpful links and recipes to get you started.
Another option would be to forgo soap, shampoo, and lotion entirely. I know this might sound radical, but recent research has shown that our skin has a microbiome (much like our gut) which acts as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune-booster. The chemicals in skin care products can disrupt this microbiome, so going without them may restore your skin’s ability to take care of itself.
In fact, new companies like AOBiome now offer a product that contains Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria that was once commonly found on our skin—before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo. The idea is that these bacteria will help restore our skin’s natural protective, moisturizing and cleansing abilities, thus reducing or eliminating the need for skin care products.
I only use soap once every couple of weeks. Shampoo has been a little harder for me to eliminate; I do still use it about twice a week, but I use a brand with no harmful chemicals. And lest you think I’m crazy, there are many other people engaged in similar experiments. Check out this article in the New York Times for a good summary.