A Toxic Day In the Life

Over the course of a day, we use many products that we don’t give two seconds worth of thought. Nor do we ever think about what is in them, where they come from and who they are affecting. But after taking a closer look at my own daily habits, I was not only confronted by some of the poor choices I have been making, but was also horrified when I looked into what chemicals I was exposing my self to, and subsequently, the environment and countless others as well. After slightly less than a week of documenting my beauty and hygiene product use, I was forced to think about my consumer habits, as well as my long term health in terms of my purchases.

I have always been aware of the products I was using, but I never realized how superficial that knowledge was until I started keeping tabs on what I used and how often in a condensed time period. Although I think the brands and specific products themselves could be improved and replaced with local, natural, healthier ones, I feel that I don’t use superfluous amounts of anything. That is something that I was generally satisfied with. I may shower everyday, but I usually only use a very small amount of shampoo/ conditioner/ body wash because most are very condensed. I also only use very little makeup and lotion. However, the quality and type of the products I was using was what bothered me the most and I am now planning on investigating local, more natural products that would be healthier for me and the environment. I do worry that I am at risk from the chemicals in these products for how long I’ve been using them. But since there is nothing to be done about that now, I can only work on making better choices for the future. Comparing to others my age in America, using Dickinson as a sample, I probably fall somewhere in the middle between those like the Tree Kids who are very conscious about their choices and others who may care more about their physical appearance and use a larger amount of products. But compared to the rest of the world, I probably use much more than average, given my socio-economic background. This leads me to think about who my use and disposal of these products is affecting. I started wondering where the waste and pollution from the water and trash goes after it leaves my immediate environment. The people it affects are probably those not using products such as these and that is extremely environmentally unjust. This was a very interesting experience and has caused some serious self-reflection. I have slowly been making changes to what I have been putting in and on my body and I feel like this is a good next step.

The product I chose for my toxicology research was my Soft Soap Coconut Body Scrub. I chose to focus on the 3 worst ingredients and what their long term, short term, body, occupational and environmental health effects were. As a whole product it ranked a 6 on the hazard scale set up by the comprehensive Cosmetics Database. This rating system “adds up the hazards of all ingredients, and is scaled higher if the product has penetration enhancers or other ingredients that increase skin absorption…[and] now accounts for more safety references and we show it on a 0-10 scale (with no decimals, 10 corresponding to highest concern).” It is said as a whole product to cause allergies and immunotoxicity and, over a long period of time to a lower degree, has neurotoxins, and causes organ system toxicity (non-reproductive), irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs), enhanced skin absorption, contamination concerns, occupational hazards, biochemical or cellular level changes. These effects are considered when combining all of the ingredients together at the recommended exposure rates for the consumer:

The first ingredient I looked at was DMDM Hydantoin, which scored a 7-9 on the hazard scale. It causes allergies/immunotoxicity, irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs) and organ system toxicity. DMDM hydantoin is an antimicrobial formaldehyde releaser preservative. In the U.S., about 20% of cosmetics and personal care products contain a formaldehyde-releaser and the allergy from frequency of contact to these ingredients is much higher among Americans compared to in Europe. But the main concern was the inclusion of Formaldehyde in this ingredient, which scored a 10 out of 10 on the hazard scale.

Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic impurity released by cosmetic preservatives, including DMDM hydantoin, among many other compounds. The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC) classified formaldehyde as ‘carcinogenic to humans,’ and the U.S. National Toxicology Program classified it as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,’ based on evidence in human studies, as well as evidence in animals. “Even the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel recommends that cosmetic products not contain more than 0.2% formaldehyde, and does not consider formaldehyde to be safe in aerosol products (CIR 2006). However, as it stands in the U.S. there are no restrictions on the levels of formaldehyde allowed in any body care products, no requirement to test products made with formaldehyde-releasing preservatives for levels of formaldehyde, and certainly no obligation to inform consumers that the products they use each day are likely to contain a cancer-causing chemical that does not appear on the list of ingredients.” Don’t I feel safe and informed.

Another ingredient I investigated was fragrance, which is a undisclosed mixture of many scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance diffuser such as diethyl phthalate. It is known to be a neurotoxin, and cause allergies/immunotoxicity over a short period of time. It has also been associated with dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system. While this ingredient does not seem to be as bad as the other, it still scored a 8 on the hazard scale and is found in most hair and body products.

The final ingredient in the Soft Soap body wash I explored was Cocamidopropyl Betaine. It is a antistatic agent; hair conditioning agent; skin-conditioning agent; cleansing agent surfactant; a foam booster, and a viscosity increasing agent. It has been associated with skin irritation and allergy reactions that could be due to the ingredient itself or to impurities present in it, such as 3-dimethylaminopropylamine; it is also listed as being an “ecotoxic“. While I am not sure as to the specifics of this particular claim or what it entails, the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List states it as a suspected environmental toxin. It also has 2 main compounds in the ingredient itself that are also toxic: 3-dimethylaminopropylamine and Nitrosamines. Among other things they are responsible for occupational hazards, such as allergies, immunotoxicity, organ system toxicity, cancer, developmental and reproductive problems, endocrine disruption, and biochemical and cellular level changes for the workers exposed to them.

After some research, I discovered that SoftSoap is a branch of the Colgate-Palmolive Co. They have two factories near to where I live: one in New York City, and another in Morristown, NJ. And while I do not know the specifics of how these are affecting the communities surrounding them, I can only speculate as to the effect they are having on their workers. Most of the chemicals listed under the cosmetics database were listed as slight occupational hazards, meaning that it was recommended to them that workers only be exposed to the chemicals in small doses. However, this is per product; each individual worker is exposed to a small amount of each chemical for each product for a short time. Yet most likely, each worker is exposed to that product hundreds of times a day, six days a week for 40 or 50 years. That means that most of the effects that these chemicals have on the body for large doses over an extended period of time is affecting these people, which is socially and environmentally unjust.

It is easy to become overwhelmed with the horrific discoveries that are made when you investigate your daily product usage. But it’s also not that difficult to do something about it. While I feel it would be beneficial and wonderful to overhaul the whole system and create a society focused on health and community rather than personal possession and consumerism, this type of offensive approach is not very realistic. I feel that the first step is on a personal level. Making changes in your own life, especially if tons of people do it, is a good way to get attention and a good way to make healthier choices for yourself. By switching to homemade concoctions of locally and organically grown products is not only more affordable and a healthier practice for your body, it is also useful in letting the corporations know that they can not and will not continue to promote dangerous consumerism. On another level, we need rising bright minds that are heading into the workforce to be aware of these issues, to be educated and pissed. By putting more environmental, health and social justice minded people into positions of power and authority into corporations and the government, we can start making policy changes for the consumer, the workers and the surrounding communities and ecosystems. And finally, activist groups and small grass roots movements need to start speaking to their representatives, and reaching out to the government. While small movements aren’t a cure-all, they are not a bad start. And if the government is being pressured enough by the people and then changes to support it, policy and lifestyle changes will be much more successful.

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  1. #1 by Lynda on January 28, 2012 - 3:00 pm

    wow! that’s just crazy!!!

  2. #2 by Lynda on January 28, 2012 - 2:59 pm

    I am SO glad to see this info here! I started reading labels on my children’s shampoo/toothpaste etc and finding parabens UGH! This morning, before my shower, I thought, why haven’t I been checking MY products! I have Soft Soap shea butter….I was DISGUSTED to see formaldehyde in there!!! WTF!!!? I emailed the company (here in Canada) and told them how disgusted I was and that i will NEVER purchase their products again, and asked WHY that is in there!! Seriously, think about it, our skin is our largest living organ!!! What, are they TRYING to thin the heard by products!!? sick!

  3. #3 by Lisa on November 3, 2011 - 5:56 pm

    I have a bottle of the Vanilla Soft Soap body wash and the second last ingredient is formaldehyde. I called the 1-800 number and they told me that formaldehyde is not an ingredient, yet it is on the bottle!

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