If you found my blog because functional/root cause medicine resonates with you, then you already have half the answer to this question. If you’re new to functional medicine and aren’t sure what I’m talking about, listen up!
My focus is root cause medicine, meaning I work to find the cause and trigger behind symptoms, whether that’s hidden infections, stress, trauma or environmental exposures, as examples. In our current world, we are exposed to more and more environmental toxins than ever before. Our bodies have excellent built-in detox systems—liver, lymph, kidneys—and in a healthy person, they filter out the offending toxins. But with constant assaults, these systems are overwhelmed and become sluggish. Then these toxins build up in our bodies and alter our normal function, sometimes minimally but sometimes enough to cause disease.
What’s a toxin? A toxin is essentially a poisonous substance. Colloquially, we use it to describe any poisonous substance, but if we are being completely accurate, toxins are only derived from natural substances, like poison mushrooms. Whereas toxicant describes any man-made substance that is poisonous. Because toxin is used colloquially to describe all poisonous substances, it is the term I use when describing these substances, and will be what I use going forward. (Semantics, right)?
When a living organism is exposed to poisons in a certain amount—the amount depends upon both the organism and the poison—it can cause disease or damage. Sometimes that is mild and reversible. Other times it is life-altering and deadly. We each have unique physiology and predicting our response to these exposures is not always possible. Anything we can do to minimize these exposures is protective to our health and the health of our future children, if we plan to procreate.
It’s easy to identify certain toxins. We now know asbestos is a material that can cause cancer, specifically mesothelioma. And at this point, most of us are familiar with bisphenol-A or BPA and its potential carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects. What about lead? We know this can cause neurological damage and we actually screen children for lead levels because of how detrimental it can be. And all three of these substances have some amount of regulation by the FDA to keep us safe and protected. So the natural progression of thought is the FDA is regulating all chemicals and products that have potential negative health effects, right?
In the United States, there hasn’t been a major federal regulation regarding the personal care industry since 1938 (it’s 2022 as I write this)! There are about two pages of legislation for this over 90 billion-dollar-a-year industry. Two pages! The United States has approximately 30 ingredients banned or partially banned from use in personal care products. Compare this to the European Union’s 1400. That discrepancy is unreal. Can you feel my outrage?
Why should you care? Because your skin is your largest organ and is one of the first barriers against outside invaders. It is not a solid barrier but instead is semi-permeable. It absorbs materials it comes into contact with, which is why there are medicines that are delivered transdermal—via skin, like a patch. When we apply products to our skin, our skin absorbs the ingredients which are then circulated through our body via blood and lymph and tissue.
Because we have such limited regulation in the personal care industry, there are ingredients in our everyday products that are known to cause adverse health effects or are highly suspicious of affecting our health. Some examples include parabens and phthalates. These have been buzz words in the industry lately—there are products now labeled as “paraben-free” or “phthalate-free,” so many people are conscious of these ingredients as potential hazards to human health.
But these aren’t the only examples! There are hundreds of ingredients and chemicals we have concerning data on and hundreds more where we don’t have enough safety information. There have been approximately 80,000 chemicals introduced into the market since WWII with only about 10% having adequate safety data. Unfortunately, the attitude of the regulating bodies is “safe until proven harmful,” versus “harmful until proven safe in human use.” And we suffer for it.
We are getting sicker and sicker. The most recent CDC data says 6 in 10 adults have a chronic disease and 4 in 10 have two or more1. A study from 2018 shows trends towards chronic diseases have been increasing2—but let’s be honest, I don’t think we need a study for us to know that.
And there are many reasons for this. It is multifactorial, like so many things. However, we know we are constantly assaulted by environmental toxins. One of the biggest offenders is from the personal care industry! According to a survey from the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization working to improve the safety and transparency of many industries, including the personal care industry, the average number of products anyone uses in a day is 9. For 1 in 100 (1%) men and 25 in 100 (25%) women, 15 or more products are applied daily3.
Our skin is absorbing all these chemicals and ingredients. It is not selective about which ingredients, so we get the good with the bad and dangerous. We are using ingredients that have known and potential human health effects—things like cancers, infertility challenges, hormonal imbalances, even neurological effects. We are not as protected as we want to imagine ourselves to be by our governing bodies. It is the sad state of the personal care industry in the United States. And it is only marginally better in our neighbor, Canada.
As a healthcare provider focused on root cause and prevention, this doesn’t sit well with me. How can we really be focused on health and wellness if we aren’t doing our due diligence and screening all the chemicals present in the market to ensure human safety? It’s backwards that we allow these ingredients to be used and assume they are safe until proven harmful. That would never be allowed in the medical community. Medications especially have to be tested and retested over and over to ensure they are safe and to list side effects and contraindications so patients and providers can make informed decisions. The personal care industry takes away our right to an informed consent because we don’t have enough data and we operate under the mistaken assumption we are being protected.
What does this mean for you? As the consumer, you have to make educated and informed decisions. While there are changes happening in the industry, they are slow. In the meantime, finding ways to make safer choices and slowly transitioning to a less toxic life is the best way to protect yourself. Using the Environmental Working Group database to lookup both products and ingredients is a great place to start. Another it to align with a company or companies fighting the safer beauty fight and walking the walk, so to speak. There are many companies out there doing this, in the personal care industry and other industries, like cleaning products. This is the reason I’ve aligned with Beautycounter—a safer personal care product company. Read more about Beautycounter here! And know that the transition to safer is slow, and that’s okay. It is easy to become overwhelmed and my advice is to make slow, steady, small changes over time.
Center for Disease Control. Chronic Diseases in America. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/chronic-diseases.htm. Updated October 23, 2019. Accessed November 11, 2019.
Raghupathi W, Raghupathi V. An Empirical Study of Chronic Diseases in the United States: A Visual Analytics Approach. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(3):431. Published 2018 Mar 1. doi:10.3390/ijerph15030431
Environmental Working Group. Why Skin Deep? https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/contents/why-skin-deep. Updated 2019. Accessed November 11, 2019.