More than Skin Deep

assorted personal hygiene products on white background

There’s great news from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in their mission to help consumers make healthy choices! From mascara to shampoo to toothpaste, more than 400 products will now carry the EWG VERIFIED mark. When you see it on a product, you’ll know that that item meets the EWG’s strict standards for health. Any item with the EWG VERIFIED mark has submitted a list of ingredients which EWG has tested for health hazards.


Unfortunately, too many personal care products contain harmful or dangerous chemicals. The skin is the body’s largest organ, and anything placed on the skin is absorbed into the bloodstream, sometimes within seconds. According to a study by the EWG, most people use nine different products daily. These include shampoo, hair conditioner, soap, deodorant, body lotion, sunscreen, lip balm, make up and shaving products. Many of us feel safe, believing that product safety has been verified by the government. In fact, no pre-testing or health studies are required.


Personal care items are manufactured with 10,500 chemical ingredients, some of which are known or suspected carcinogens, or are known to disrupt the endocrine system. A listing called Skin Deep has long been available on the EWG website, representing the EWG’s attempt to rate products for safety.


The EWG VERIFIED mark takes this work one step farther, allowing consumers to see on any product whether it has been verified by the EWG as having gone above and beyond the green standards set by the industry. That’s good news for all of us.


Don’t Just Sit There


Whenever we sit down, to work, to eat, to meet with others, or to relax, we don’t tend to think much about what we’re sitting on. A sofa or a chair or an ottoman all have been engineered for our comfort over the years, with fabric, foam filling, and a sturdy structure to support our bodies as we rest. And since 1975, according to the Green Science Policy Institute, upholstered furniture has been designed for our (supposed) safety as well, with the introduction of flame retardant chemicals.


The chemicals intended to keep our homes from going up in flames have been linked to cancer, neurological defects, developmental problems, and impaired fertility. Manufacturers first began adding fire retardants to furniture due to a California law that required foam cushions to withstand a candlelike flame for 12 seconds. A now defunct group known as Citizens for Fire Safety, led by chemical manufacturers, was instrumental in getting the law passed, according to a Chicago Tribune article. (Read it here.)

Broom, Dust & Fur Ball on Parquet Floor

In 2004, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) warned of high levels of toxic fire retardants found in house dust, in every single home sampled. The average level of brominated fire retardants measured in dust was more than 4,600 parts per billion (ppb). Like PCBS, the fire retardants known as PBDEs (polybrominated biphenyl ethers) are persistent in the environment and build up in people’s bodies over a lifetime. In minute doses they impair attention, learning, memory and behavior in animals.


Recently the EWG released a new study done with Duke University, where they found evidence of exposure to a cancer-causing fire retardant, TDCIPP, in the bodies of all 22 mothers and 26 children tested. The children had an average of nearly five times as much as the mothers of a chemical formed when TDCIPP breaks down in the body.

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I’ve shared my concerns about chemically laden upholstered furniture before. In addition to PBDEs, your furniture likely contains formaldehyde, polyurethane and dioxins. All of these toxins infiltrate your home and the air you breathe through “offgassing,” the release of chemicals into the air through evaporation.

Today, we can choose soy-based versus foam cushions, recycled filling for pillows, water based stains and organic upholstery fabric.

In addition, the EWG shares these tips:

  • Do your homework before buying baby products. Many kinds of baby products still use harmful chemicals. Find out before you buy.
  • When buying a new sofa, choose one made without fire retardants. New regulations make it much easier for furniture manufacturers to sell products that have not been saturated with chemicals. Contact the manufacturer to ask if fire retardants are in its furniture.
  • Want to reupholster your sofa? Replace the foam, too. The old foam likely contains fire retardants. Ask your upholstery shop to find retardant free foam, or choose an organic filling.
  • Inspect foam cushioning for damage. Exposed foam can cause fire retardant chemicals to leach out more quickly. Items such as car seats and mattress pads should always be completely encased in protective fabric.
  • Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. These vacuums will remove more contaminants and allergens from your home.
  • Be careful when removing old carpeting. The padding is typically made of scrap foam that contains fire retardants. Old carpet padding can become somewhat pulverized by the time it is exposed for replacement. Isolate the work area from the rest of your home.

There’s a petition to the Consumer Product Safety Commission asking for national furniture flammability standards that do not encourage or require fire retardants. Find it here, and get toxic chemicals out of our couches!

The Blue Sky of July: Choosing Safe Sunscreen


We wait all year for the blue skies of summer, but time at the beach and on the boat can take a harsh toll on our skin. The dangers of overexposure to the sun have been amply documented, along with the need to use sunscreen to protect skin from both burning and accelerated aging. That sounds like a simple instruction to follow, but it’s important to remember that sunscreen is a chemical preparation applied to the body’s largest organ.

Dozens of studies have documented the potential health hazards associated with the chemicals in sunscreen.  Beyond possible skin irritation, these chemicals can create skin damage and even hormone disruption.  Most sunscreens include a combination of three to six of the following ingredients:  oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.

Why is it important to know about the chemicals you put on your skin?  Mark Hyman, M.D., has said that personal care products are the next frontier in health risks and awareness. A nicotine patch applied to the skin calms the craving for a cigarette, demonstrating that our skin is a protective barrier, but also extremely porous.  Transdermal absorption means that what you put on your skin also gets into your bloodstream.

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Our sunscreen may cause us some concern, but we are also seeing skin cancer rates increase.  Melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer, has tripled over the past 35 years.  Although many sunscreens claim to provide broad spectrum, or both UVB and UVA protection, U.S. sunscreens often have inadequate protection against UVA rays. Without an effective labeling program, consumers are unable to determine whether their sunscreen provides low, medium or high levels of protection. (SPF factors only assess protection against UVB rays.)  Consequently, many people think they are better protected than they are, and stay out in the sun far too long.


What You Need to Know

  •  Mineral versus Chemical Filters:  There are two kinds of active ingredients in sunscreen, mineral and chemical filters.  Each protects skin differently, though both may pose health hazards.  
  • Chemical Filters Contain Avobenzone: Avobenzone is the best agent for filtering UVA rays, but it can break down when exposed to sunlight.  Chemicals such as octocrylene must be added to stabilize the product.
  • Octocryclene May Disrupt the Hormonal System: Some research suggests that oxybenzone and two other sunscreen chemicals–4-MBC and octinoxate–could be toxic to reproductive systems. Another chemical, oxybenzone, which is found in 80 percent of chemical sunscreens, can cause allergic skin reactions and also may disrupt hormones.  The Center for Disease Control has detected oxybenzone in more than 96 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Mineral Sunscreens Filter UV Rays with Nanoparticles: The active ingredients in mineral sunscreens are usually zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, in the form of “nanoparticles.”  The Environmental Working Group tends to favor mineral sunscreens, because they are stable in sunlight.  Some nanoparticles, however, may be small enough to penetrate the skin and accumulate in body tissue. 
  • UVRays Mainly Cause Burning:  SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is the degree of protection a sunscreen provides against UVB rays.
  • UVRays Mainly Cause Aging:  UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin, and contribute to wrinkles, sagging and dark spots.
  • The FDA Uses Weak Criteria: Half the U.S. sunscreens would not make it to the shelves in Europe, which adheres to stricter standards.  Americans may be getting a false sense of security from high SPF numbers, and staying out in the sun too long.
  • Anti-aging Retinol May Be Risky: Although it’s a common sunscreen ingredient, studies show that vitamin A (Retinol, or Retinyl palmitate) could speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied in sunlight.  It’s present in nearly 25 percent of all sunscreens. Keep it in your night cream!

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Here’s What to Do

  • Don’t Get Burned: Plan around the sun.  Go outdoors in the early morning, or late afternoon, when the sun is lower.  Wear protective, loose-fitting clothing:  it’s the best protection from UV rays.  
  • Protect Your Eyes:    Sunglasses do more than make you look fabulous.  They protect your eyes from UV radiation that causes cataracts. Invest in a high-quality pair.
  • Choose Your Sunscreen Carefully:   You want to choose broad spectrum protection with ingredients that cause the fewest health concerns.  Avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone, a synthetic estrogen.  Remember that high SPF sunscreen can encourage you to overdo your time in the sun.  
  • Use at Least Two Ounces of Sunscreen: Most people don’t apply enough.  Two ounces is enough to fill a shot glass.  Make sure you reapply every two hours, or after swimming. 

The Environmental Working Group, an environmental health research and advocacy organization which provides information to consumers to make healthier choices, has posted a guide to the best 2013 sunscreen products.  Check out their list of 184 products here. 

One of my favorite, safe sunscreens is made by MDSolarSciences.  Their products are approved by the Environmental Working Group, and are created with the intent to cause the least amount of potential harm from an environmental standpoint.  I like their products because they’re non-greasy, and non-comedogenic (meaning they won’t clog pores and cause breakouts), and the lotion smooths on like silk.  It’s fragrance free–so important in a world where we are constantly bombarding our senses.  They make a sensitive skin formula for the face, which is also suited for Acne or Rosacea prone skin.  And, it’s very water resistant!

The summer sunshine is beautiful.  Protect your skin, and enjoy every moment of it!

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