iPhone app checks products for potentially harmful chemicals
In the quest to minimize toxic exposure, many people have started transitioning to more organic fruits and vegetables, but fewer people think to look for toxins in baby shampoo, cosmetics or toothpaste.
Personal hygiene products are drawing increasing attention from physicians and scientists who are growing alarmed by what they are finding.
"In the last 50 years, the introduction of new chemicals has grown exponentially. If they are not ingested, they are not so rigorously reviewed. We are swimming in a toxic pool, and we can each start to lessen our exposure," said Dr. Jill Carnahan, a Peoria, Ill., physician at the Methodist Center for Integrative Medicine.
"For me, it started with switching shampoo, soap and then makeup. Anything that goes on the skin or hair should be the first item on your agenda."
Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the task, she suggests people visualize toxic exposure as carrying a load of bricks. Each brick removed from the pile lightens the load and makes it easier for the body to carry the remaining weight.
Each brick added to the load approaches a tipping point that could lead to adverse health effects including disease, obesity or chronic conditions.
The liver works to remove toxins from the body and like a car filter, it can become clogged and unable to continue its cleansing function, Carnahan said.
"There is a huge increase in the pharmaceutical drugs applied to the skin and absorbed. If you use a lotion every day, that can be significant exposure," she said. "Cancer patients especially want to reduce their exposures. They want a clean environment."
Carnahan uses an app on her iPhone called the GoodGuide. She uses it while shopping to scan in the bar code on items she's interested in purchasing and receives a score on the product's relative safety.
She also goes to the GoodGuide website at www.goodguide.com for a more detailed analysis.
GoodGuide was started by Dara O'Rourke, a professor of environmental and labor policy at University of California, Berkeley.
The idea behind the site came when O'Rourke was applying sunscreen on his young daughter's face and realized he didn't know what was in it.
Back in his office, he checked out the ingredients in the lotion and found that it contained an endocrine disrupter, two skin irritants and a carcinogen activated by sunlight. While he was able to access that analysis, he knew most consumers could not.
Through GoodGuide, 70,000 products are analyzed and scored.
Ryan Aipperspach, director of engineering at GoodGuide, said products are evaluated using credible scientific studies.
"The bar code application is one of the top app downloads," Aipperspach said. "What's really interesting is the high repeat user rate. We have a high and growing base of users."
GoodGuide rates products in four categories: personal care, household, toys and food.
Carnahan said, "We are all exposed to thousands of chemicals, and we can start cutting down our exposure with our water and food, what we apply to our skin and what we clean with. It's a step-by-step process to make changes. We can start using vinegar and water rather than chemicals for home cleaning."
Currently, federal law does not require all ingredients be listed for household cleaning products.
"When I see cancer patients, I know they have an oncologist. My job as a holistic practitioner is to look at nutrition and chemical exposure. I can help patients clean up their diet and clean up their personal care products," Carnahan said.
Dr. Michele Couri, a Peoria physician in obstetrics and gynecology, said toxins enter the body through ingestion, absorption through the skin and inhalation.
"If we look into our cabinets and closets at home, we will find chemicals that can be quite harmful. What really worries me are the infant care products. Many of the leading baby shampoos have formaldehyde and dioxane. That alarms me," she said.
Antibacterial soaps containing triclosan is another red flag. She advises using regular soap and water. A study analyzing urine samples found triclosan in 75 percent of samples.
"The FDA does not know the longterm affect of this," she said.
However, the FDA is reviewing triclosan based on animal studies that show it alters hormone regulation. The FDA's findings are expected in spring 2011, according to the FDA website.
Not all ingredients are listed
One problem for consumers is that chemical ingredients like formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane are not listed on the product label. Consumers have to search online for the analysis of ingredients.
"Many of the top brands sold in the United States have endocrine disrupters. Europe is light years ahead of us on banning these chemicals," Couri said.
Many products like olive oil and corn starch can be substituted for chemical-based products, she said.
For years, her mother has made her own deodorant using four tablespoons corn starch, two tablespoons boric acid powder, two tablespoons zinc oxide powder and four tablespoons talcum powder and storing the mix in a glass jar.
As natural as possible
Dr. Roberta Van Zant, a physician at Methodist Center for Integrative Medicine, said she advises patients to choose the most natural products they can afford, read labels and look up any chemical names they are uncertain about.
"Be cautious," she said. "The less chemicals we put on and in our bodies, the less our bodies have to detoxify."
Clare Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.