Reducing toxins: A beginner’s guide to cleaner beauty

We are very familiar with the terms ‘detox’ and ‘cleanse’ in relation to our diet. In fact, the consumption of highly processed foods containing additives and preservatives has been linked to significant health concerns. But what about our personal care products?

Humans have been using personal care products for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian women would paint their faces with grey galena mesdemet and malachite green; known today as lead sulphite and copper carbonate respectively. Similarly, the ancient Romans and other populations applied a deadly lead-based-formula to whiten their skin.1

In recent times, the personal care industry has come under fire for the widespread presence of potentially toxic ingredients such as synthetic fragrance, phthalates and parabens, as well as known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors within its products.2 Now, mounting evidence suggests that our daily cosmetic routine may be a significant source of toxic exposure.

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According to research conducted in France, the average pregnant woman uses eighteen cosmetics daily, with non-pregnant women using sixteen.3 Adult men use eight, girls seven, boys five and babies under three use six – with a combined 168 different chemical ingredients contained within.3

While many ingredients, once believed to be safe, are no longer permitted in cosmetics within the EU (e.g. lead), there are still a plethora of potentially toxic chemicals being used. Further still, the methods currently being used to assess the ‘safety’ of these chemicals may not be enough to determine our real-world exposure.

In this blog, we explore what these potentially harmful ingredients are, how they are processed in the body, the key health concerns highlighted in the research, as well as practical steps which you can take to minimise your exposure.

What are toxins?

If you google the word ‘toxin’ you will likely find a definition which is something like this:

‘a poison of plant or animal origin, especially one produced by or derived from microorganisms and acting as an antigen’

‘a poisonous or harmful non-biological substance such as a pollutant’

A toxin is anything that potentially damages the body and can come from numerous sources including our food, air, water, mould and clothing.

Detoxification in the body – processing powerhouse or sinking ship

Our bodies are designed to efficiently process and eliminate toxins and so the common assumption is that we are protected from toxic exposures in our environment…and yes, this is true – to an extent.

The term ‘detoxification’ essentially refers to ‘the cleansing of the blood.’ The liver is central to this process and consists of two detoxification phases. The first phase produces toxic intermediates which are rapidly acted upon by the second phase and rendered harmless. If phase 1 is overactive and phase 2 is sluggish (or there is another imbalance between phase 1 and phase 2 activity), we run the risk of build-up of the toxic intermediate products from the phase 1 pathway, which can often be more harmful than the original toxin itself. Further elimination pathways include the skin, kidneys, lungs, lymphatic system and gut.

While we are pretty lucky to have such a sophisticated and in-built detoxification system, there has been a significant rise in the number of chronic health concerns linked to toxicity such as allergies, immune dysfunction, cancer, neurological and behavioural conditions of late.4 There are several reasons why these toxicities may develop. Over-exposure to toxins or deficiencies in the nutrients required to support detoxification and protect against heavy metal uptake can contribute, while some individuals may also have a genetic susceptibility, whereby the presence of certain mutations (single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) render one more susceptible to toxicity and subsequent symptoms.

Toxins in personal care products: should we be concerned?

While toxins are present in virtually every aspect of our environment, research shows that adults absorb up to 60% of what is applied to the skin, with children absorbing up to 40-50% more than that – and so what we are applying to our skin is a significant point of entry for absorption into the bloodstream. While individual products often contain limited amounts of these chemicals within safe limits set by the EU regulatory committees,5 it is the cumulative exposure to these chemicals from several products at a time (known as ‘toxic load’) that could be overloading our bodies and contributing to a wide range of health problems.

Chemical vs. toxin
It is important to note that just because something is a ‘chemical’, doesn’t mean that it is a toxin. Many natural compounds are technically chemicals such as water (H20) and oxygen (02). For this reason, a chemical is only ‘toxic’ when it has the potential to cause damage to the body.

Some chemicals which have sparked notable concern include:

Parabens (PBs): a group of substances widely used as preservatives in moisturisers, makeup, toothpaste, hair and shaving products. The Danish Environmental Agency has banned their use in cosmetic products for children below three years of age, due to concerns over the effects of continued use at maximum levels.6

  • Main concerns: association between urinary paraben concentrations (butyl, methyl and propylparaben) and male reproductive health i.e. DNA damage in sperm cells,7 oestrogenic activity (intensified with increased chain length: methyl<ethyl<propyl<butyl),8 endocrine disruption,9 cytotoxic and genotoxic effects on human lymphocytes10
  • Examples: methylparaben, ethylparaben, benzylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben

Phthalates: derivatives of phthalic acid, these are added to various products to increase plasticity or decrease viscosity.11 Commonly used in perfumes, lotions, nail polish and hair care products.12

  • Main concerns: improper sexual development in children (premature breast development, adverse immune, neuronal and respiratory disorders),13,14 early puberty, embryonic loss, abnormal pregnancy duration/loss, rise in body weight/obesity, insulin resistance/diabetes, increased breast cancer risk, preterm birth and abnormal male pulmonary functions12,15,16
  • Examples: diethyl phthalate (DEP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), DnBP, butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DOP) and di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)

Triclosan: a synthetic antibacterial ingredient found in antibacterial soaps/hand sanitisers, toothpastes and other consumer products. It is registered as a pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency as it is believed to pose a risk to human health and the environment.17 It is also classified as a chlorophenol, a chemical suspected of causing cancer in humans.

  • Main concerns: potential contributor to antibiotic resistance,18 an oestrogen mimic with potential links to breast cancer.19

Synthetic musk: used as fragrances in numerous cosmetics, perfumes and aftershave (concentration restricted).

  • Main concerns: oestrogenic, endocrine disrupters,20,21 all synthetic musks bioaccumulate, break down slowly in the environment and have been found in human blood, fat tissue and breast milk22
  • Examples: polycyclic musks, galaxolide (HHBC), tonalide (AHTN) and nitro musk, musk ketone are the most widely used in the EU

Formaldehyde (FA) – releasing compounds: class of preservatives used in various cosmetics and personal care products including liquid soap, shampoo and shower creams/lotions. While the EU has banned the use of formaldehyde as a biocide, it is still permitted as an antimicrobial preservative along with formaldehyde releasing compounds.

  • Main concerns: pro-allergenic, carcinogenic and mutagenic nature of formaldehyde has provoked a pronounced public health concern.23 Higher levels of exposure have been related to greater risk of developing myeloid leukemia.24 Cytotoxic effects in human endothelial and bronchial epithelial cells and lymphocytes natural killer cells has been demonstrated25–27
  • Examples: Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, 1,3-Bis(hydroxymethyl)-5, 5-dimethylimidazolidine-2, 4-dione(DMDM)-hydantoin and 2-bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-diol

Aluminium: used in antiperspirants and deodorants, lipstick and some toothpastes.

  • Main concerns: aluminium chloride and chlorohydrate are oestrogen mimics28 and may be associated with an increased breast cancer risk,29 toxic at high levels30
  • Examples aluminium chloride, aluminium chlorohydrate. Potassium alum and ammonium alum (often found in natural or ‘aluminium-free’ deodorants) should be used with caution as it is possible that these work along a similar mechanism as standard aluminium, however further research is still required to confirm this

UV filters: added to sunscreen products to protect the skin against the damaging effects of UV light. They are also added to other products to protect from UV damage during storage.

  • Main concerns: oestrogenic,31,32 bioaccumulate and have been detected in breast milk;33,34 may also increase the skin penetration of other chemicals35
  • Examples: benzophenones, ethylhexyl, methoxycinnamate and homosalate

Toluene: a solvent found in nail polish (restricted to 25% in the EU), paint thinner and glue.

  • Main concerns: potential neurodevelopmental toxin.36

Trace metals (TMs): the addition of some chemical additives such as dye, shine, natural mineral mica and other colorants in lip cosmetics may result in exposure to TMs.37,38 Long-term use of lip cosmetics has been associated with a higher level of TMs reaching systemic circulation than unintentional contact through items such as dust or metal jewellery.

  • Main concerns: cadmium, chromium and nickel are classified as Group 1 human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).39 Several reports demonstrated that prolonged exposure to arsenic, copper, nickel, lead, cadmium and chromium has been related to a greater risk of many infectious diseases such as neurologic and cardiovascular disorders40,41
  • Examples: copper, nickel, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead and manganese

Reading the ingredients label – is it enough?

Research suggests that toxic compounds which have not been listed as ingredients may still be present in cosmetics as a result of contamination or reaction by-products.2,42 Ethoxylated alcohols (emulsifying agents used in creams) such as polyethylene glycol and polyoxyethylene or sodium laureth sulphate (foaming agent in shampoo), may contain ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane, a known and suspected carcinogen.42,43 Furthermore, polyacrylamide (a thickener), may contain acrylamide as a by-product – a neurotoxin and possible carcinogen.44

How are we protected: Government regulation?

Over 1,200 ingredients have been banned or restricted for use in personal care products in the EU, while only eleven such ingredients are restricted in the United States.5 The EU adopts the ‘precautionary’ approach to chemical regulation and so companies must generally demonstrate that a chemical poses no risk to human health before it is permitted for use. However, one of the main issues with this regulatory process is that the hazards and risks of chemicals are assessed substance by substance, and so the combination and/or accumulative risk of exposure is not currently being captured.

Practical tips for reducing your exposure

  1. Use fewer products: based on the evidence we have so far it is overall exposure which poses the greatest risk and so simply reducing the quantity of products used on a daily basis is a great way to minimise this.
  2. Avoid fragranced products: fragrance is one of the hardest things to track as multiple ingredients can be labelled under one heading of ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’. It is best to opt for unscented products or those which have clearly labelled all ingredients added to create their scent.
  3. The only product with SPF (UV filters) should be your sunscreen: SPF is important to protect the skin from sun damage and photo-ageing, however it is unnecessarily added to a plethora of beauty products such as foundation, primers and lipsticks. Not only can this be ineffective as the levels of SPF are rarely adequate for the amount of product used, but it is also exposing the skin to more UV filters. Instead, consider using a high-quality SPF moisturiser daily and opt out of cosmetics with added UV filters. Even better, try a mineral-based or physical SPF which sits on the skin rather than being absorbed.
  4. Say no to aerosols: inhalation was noted as a significant exposure mechanism for many of the chemicals analysed across the research. For this reason, switch to alternatives where you can for common aerosol products such as deodorant, hairspray and perfume.
  5. Read your labels: while not an exhaustive list (research is on-going), avoiding products with the chemicals listed above is a great precautionary step if you are concerned about exposure.
  6. Choose a brand you trust: if navigating the labels of your favourite cosmetics all seems a little overwhelming, then research brands instead. There are some wonderful companies out there who are devoted to creating high-quality, safe and effective products so you can save yourself some hassle and rest assured that they are doing the chemical analysis for you.
  7. Start with your most-used items: if you slather yourself in moisturiser every day, but only apply lipstick on occasion, then it makes sense to seek out a clean moisturiser first. The same is true for the products which sit on your skin all day versus those which you wash off immediately i.e. foundation versus face wash, as they have a greater chance of being absorbed by the skin.
  8. Nourish your body and support your liver: it is virtually impossible to completely avoid exposure to toxins and so it is important to support the body’s natural detoxification pathways to ensure that what you are exposed to is being efficiently eliminated – in fact, research highlights nutrition as a key modulator of the toxicity of environmental pollutants.45 Pay a little extra attention to your detoxification powerhouse by consuming liver-supportive foods such as cruciferous vegetables, beetroot and antioxidant rich berries. If you require extra support, consider a supplement such as milk thistle, curcumin, garlic or glutathione.

Key takeaways:

  • Evidence suggests that our daily cosmetic routine may be a significant source of toxin exposure for humans.
  • The average pregnant woman uses 18 cosmetics daily, with non-pregnant women using 16. Adult men use eight, girls seven, boys five and babies under three use six – with a combined 168 different chemical ingredients contained within.
  • A toxin is anything that damages the body. Just because something is a ‘chemical’, does not mean that it is a toxin. Many natural compounds are technically chemicals such as water (H20) and oxygen (02).
  • While we have a sophisticated and in-built detoxification system in the body, overexposure or deficiencies in the nutrients required to support detoxification and protect against heavy metal uptake can contribute to symptoms of toxicity. Further still, some individuals may have a genetic susceptibility to toxicity.
  • Adults absorb up to 60% of what is applied to the skin, with children absorbing up to 40-50% more than that
  • Some chemicals which have sparked notable concern include parabens, phthalates, triclosan, synthetic musks, formaldehyde releasing compounds, aluminium, UV filters, toluene and trace metals
  • Toxic compounds which have not been listed as ingredients may still be present in cosmetics as a result of contamination or reaction by-products.
  • One of the key issues with the current EU regulatory process for cosmetics is that the hazards and risks of chemicals are currently assessed substance by substance, and so the combination and/or accumulative risk of exposure is not currently being evaluated.
  • Reduce your exposure by using fewer products, avoiding items with fragrance, avoiding SPF in products other than sunscreen, choosing alternatives to aerosols and supporting your liver to aid the efficiency of detoxification pathways.

If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact me (Tracey) by phone or email at any time.

[email protected], 01684 310099

Tracey Hanley and the Cytoplan Editorial Team



Relevant Cytoplan Products

Organic Milk Thistle providing 400mg of whole herb organic milk thistle per capsule

Cell-Active Glutathione providing 250mg liposomal glutathione per capsule

Cell-Active Curcumin providing 250mg liposomal curcumin from turmeric per capsule, along with gingerols from ginger

Phytoshield a potent phyto-antioxidant nutrient formula providing 650mg of mixed flavonoids and 15mg mixed carotenoids per capsule

Detox Support a gentle and natural formula designed to support a programme of heavy metal detoxification, including key nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, garlic and spirulina

Organic Spirulina providing 500mg organic spirulina per capsule

Organic Garlic providing 400mg organic garlic powder per capsule

CoQ10 Multi comprehensive multivitamin and mineral, additionally containing 80mg of CoQ10 (ubiquinol) per two capsule dose


References

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  7. Meeker, J. D., et al (2011) ‘Urinary concentrations of parabens and serum hormone levels, semen quality parameters, and sperm DNA damage.’ Environ Health Perspect, 119(2), pp. 252-257.
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  39. (2019) Agents Classified by the IARC Monographs.
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2 thoughts on “Reducing toxins: A beginner’s guide to cleaner beauty

  1. Herbal ingredients may be toxic in their natural state, so don’t assume that because something is labelled “natural” it may be toxic, e.g. bergamot applied directly to skin may cause a reaction when skin is exposed to sunlight. Best advice in your blog is read labels and reduce the products used – keep things simple and find out about contra-indications and possible side effects of all ingredients, including herbal ingredients so you tailor your products to suit you.

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