Toxic ChemicalsAn increasing number of scientists, those in the environmental movement, and everyday people are questioning the safety of the chemical products that we ingest and put on our bodies daily. The question is not whether toxic substances can be found in consumer products.  They are there.  They are supposed to be present in amounts too small to harm anyone.  But it is within the realm of possibility that even these very small quantities can have negative effects. Some recent research seems to conflict with conventional wisdom about product safety.  Environmental activists are now keeping some very common consumer products in their sights.

We have long trusted in the assumed safety of certain products, using them regularly and never thinking about it.  But we are exposing ourselves to many chemicals every day, the long-term health risks of which are unknown. Some personal care ingredients are used so much that they are in measurable amounts in our blood, with the CDC now monitoring their levels in the bloodstreams of random Americans. Consumers are beginning to ask questions about what exactly is in their personal care products.

Antibacterial Products

You would think that a product labelled as “antibacterial” would be better at germ killing than a conventional product.  But this is only true for professional grade antibacterial products used by hospitals, not the more diluted products made for home use. Consumer antibacterial products don’t kill germs or prevent the spread of diseases any better than hand washing with regular soap. Research suggests using the products over the long run may help to develop “super” germs resistant to antibiotics.  While this has not been proven, many feel it needs to be a consideration in the dialogue about the products. Other experts are concerned about the environmental impact of the millions of pounds of antibacterial agents that find their way into the water supply annually.

Harm to aquatic life forms has been observed by the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, and the environmental risks are likely growing greater as people continue to use large quantities of these products. Last time the CDC checked, 75% of both adults and children had positive urine tests for the most commonly used antibacterial agent, triclosan.  Higher income subjects tended to have the most triclosan in their systems. In most cases levels were low, but some scientists argue that given proven damage to the environment, potential negative health effects, and no demonstrated benefit, there is no case for using the products.

You can avoid buying products with the most widely used antibacterials: triclosan and triclocarban.  Not all products specifically list these ingredients, but you can avoid any product labeled as “antibacterial.”  Wash your hands and clean your house with plain old soap and water.


Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are often used in the fragrance ingredients in personal care and household products.  They are also found in plumbing products, vinyl flooring, and many different products. Some phthalates have been found to act as hormones inside the human body, and high doses of phthalates generally have interfered with hormonal production in research on animals.

The smaller amounts people are exposed to from individual products they use were thought to be safer.  But phthalates are present all around us, even in household dust we inhale, which has convinced the CDC to monitor them, finding that most people’s blood registers low levels of phthalates.

Recent research has associated exposure of pregnant women to phthalates with a slightly unusual formation of genitals in their male babies and indicates phthalates may also be associated with a low quality or quantity of sperm in men. While the jury is out on phthalates, it is reasonable to stay away from them whenever you possibly can.  This is particularly important in the case of children or pregnant women.  It may be difficult to determine which personal care products include phthalates, since they often appear on the label simply as “fragrance.”  Products that are free of fragrance, or which are scented with essential oils such as lavender, citrus, etc., are good options.  You can look up product ingredients on the Cosmetics Database.


Parabens are commonly used preservatives in cosmetic products.  They stop bacterial and fungal contamination by keeping microorganisms from growing.  Parabens are part of the formula in most personal care products for shaving, hair care, etc., and most makeup.  They can also be found in drugs and food products.

In the human body, parabens behave weakly like estrogen.  Some researchers have found parabens present in breast cancer tissue samples, but causation of cancer by parabens hasn’t been established.  According to the FDA, more research is needed, but parabens currently appear safe.

You can avoid parabens anyway, by looking on the labels for “methylparaben,” “propylparaben,” “butylparaben,” and any other ingredient name with the suffix “-paraben.”  Although parabens are widely used preservatives, you can purchase products without them.

Synthetic Musks

People are up for anything that has the capacity to make us sexier, and for centuries, natural musk from the male musk deer was regarded as an aphrodisiac. Nowadays, that musky scent is artificial and comes from a laboratory.  “Nitro musks” and “polycyclic musks” are very commonly used, both in scents people wear and the scents used in laundry products.  In the 1990s, it was demonstrated that some kinds of synthetic musks can build up in the body to the point that they are toxic and damage tissues.

This research prompted a lot of manufacturers to use less musk.  But since safety studies of musk are a work in progress, many companies are continuing to use synthetic musks in laundry soap, fabric softener, and perfume and cologne.

Look for the trade names Tonalid and Galaxilide, which refer to types of polycyclic musk.  However, musks are often lurking on the label as just “fragrance.”  You may write to manufacturers for complete listings of their products’ ingredients, or just use fragrance-free choices.

The Cosmetic Database lists ingredients of products.  Or the Skin Deep website, courtesy of the Environmental Working Group, has a searchable database that can direct you to safer products, which are either free of, or contain much less of, toxic ingredients.

Similar Posts: