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Reimaging ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’

By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder

Like many women of our age, I grew up keeping an avid eye on the latest beauty products being advertised in fashion magazines. Over the years, the options have grown exponentially--as have the marketed “benefits” of using these products. 

Just think about the claims of skin products now readily available on your local supermarket’s cosmetics aisles. Anti-aging! Plumping wrinkles! Shrinking pores! Evening skin tone! Firming saggy skin! Easing the ravages of dry skin. Add to that the self-tanners, hair products, nail polishes, and facial procedures such as Botox that weren’t readily available when we were growing up. 

Many--if not all--of these products’ beneficial claims are due to chemistry. And personal care products encompass only a small fraction of these types of products that are now regularly part of our personal environment. 

A Changing World

I don’t know about you, but I never saw a dryer sheet growing up and scented candles and furnace inserts weren’t “a thing” in my childhood home. That means our exposure to chemicals also has grown exponentially over the years. 

As a result, more and more individuals are developing chemical sensitivities—and older women aren’t immune.  A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that middle-aged women are at risk of developing multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a chronic condition characterized by the appearance of symptoms that are caused by chemical compounds that don’t trigger reactions in the general population. 

The study looked at 210 participants, 94% of which were women. Researchers found that MCS symptoms first showed up in airway and mucus membrane alterations in approximately 69% of the participants. Additional symptoms, such as cognitive alterations, heart or chest problems, neuromuscular problems—could eventually develop. 

Rash Decisions

Over the past 15 years, I’ve noticed the effect that personal care and household products have on my body. My reactions started subtly in perimenopause when I began developing skin rashes, something I never had earlier in life. Knowing that my body was changing and realizing that as a result I was getting reactions to things in my environment, I started tinkering with my shopping decisions. I started forgoing scented laundry detergent for versions for sensitive skin and traded in scented dryer sheets for wool laundry balls. I also stopped using certain shower gels and selected ayurvedic oils to use as skin moisturizers.

A few years later, a friend walked into my home—and suddenly turned around and walked outdoors. Her respiratory system had been triggered by the smell of scented products that I used in my house. I started considering what my product choices meant her health. And a few years later, I found that I had a similar response when I opened a box of kitchen garbage bags that had been scented to mask trash odors. I nearly gagged and immediately put the bags out in my garage to get them out of the house. 

Making Better Choices

As these experiences have taught me, it is worth it to start paying attention to what we slather on our skin, bring into our household or other personal environments, or use to cook our food because our health could be placed at risk. For example, research has found that exposure to some chemicals has been linked to hormone disruption, cancer and neurogenerative diseases.

With that said, it’s important to be a realist, because chemicals are part of our everyday life. “While we don’t live in a chemical-free world—chemicals are all around us—environmentally friendly products are available,” said Dr. Natalie Johnson, an environmental toxicologist for Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health. 

She recommends limiting exposure to seven chemical substances:

  • Parabens, which are chemical preservatives in lotions, cosmetics and shower gels.

  • Sulfates, which are chemical substances that create lather in shampoos.

  • Oxybenzone, which are found in sunscreens. 

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC), which are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids, including personal care products, rugs, gasoline, furniture, electronics, cleaners and room deodorizers, and paint.

  • Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)be that are found in a variety of products such as Teflon.

  • Heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic seen in some water supplies. 

  • Pesticides and herbicides that contain some harmful chemicals such as glyphosate that, in large amounts, can be detrimental to the health of both humans and pets.

(For a deeper understanding of these hazards, please click the link to the story about my conversation with Dr. Johnson.)

Selective Chemicals=Better Health

The good news is that we can become more informed consumers, thanks to the Environmental Working Group. This organization, which is perhaps best known for its annual “dirty dozen” list of produce to avoid purchasing, is a nationwide group of scientists and advocates who have been promoting safer product choices since 1993. 

The group has created multiple databases that you may want to peruse to make more informed choices in the products you buy:

  • EWG’s Skin Deep, which lets you look at what’s in all sorts of personal care products.

  • EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which gives you updates on the safety of products you use in your home. 

In addition, EWG has created an app that provides easy access to this information while shopping.

Chemical substances are part of our lives—and these discoveries will continue to abound in the future. Many of these substances will make our lives better. 

With that said, I think it’s important for our own health as well as for that of our loved ones to take the time to make informed choices. That involves not just being swayed by marketers’ lovely words; instead, read the labels, check EWG’s database and readily available research, and buy from trusted sources. 

And most importantly—listen to your own body and see what happens when you use a specific product. Whether it’s a rash, a headache, or difficulty breathing, that’s a sign that the product isn’t right for you. That knowledge puts you in the driver’s seat so you can make a better choice!

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