What You Put ON Your Body Is as Important as What You Put IN It

Functional Medicine Doctor By Amy Myers, M.D.
Functional Medicine Doctor
Amy Myers, M.D. is a renowned leader in functional medicine living in Austin, Texas. She is a New York Times best-selling author of both The Autoimmune Solution and The Thyroid Connection, and received her doctorate in medicine from the LSU Health Sciences Center.
Woman wiping her face during a waterless beauty routine

Image by Bisual Studio / Stocksy

You’ve heard the old adage, “you are what you eat.” Now, I’d like to add another to that: “You are what you apply.” To your skin, that is! Substances that affect your overall health and wellbeing don’t simply work their way through your system by travelling the gut alone. An often-overlooked route – the transdermal (through the skin) route – allows substances ranging from the beneficial to the bad to enter your bloodstream and circulate throughout your body. So, if you are what you eat, and you are what you apply, the question is: What are you?

Whether you are a man, woman or child, it is likely that you use some form of personal care products daily. From the moment you stumble out of bed, the routine begins: you brush your teeth with toothpaste; cleanse your skin with soap or shower gel; wash your face with face wash; suds your scalp with shampoo and conditioner; use shaving cream and aftershave; apply lotion, deodorant, perfume or cologne, sunscreen; and, if you are a woman, you can add makeup into the mix. Stop for a moment and think about how many personal care or cosmetic products you use in a day. How many did you come up with – two, five, ten or fifteen?

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington DC-based advocacy organization, the average American uses approximately 10-15 personal care products with a total of 126 different ingredients daily. This figure doesn’t even take into account re-applications of products throughout the day. We brush our teeth three times a day. We wash our hands 6-12 times a day. We re-apply sunscreen every few hours that we are in the sun. We may even shower more than once per day. When you do the math, it’s incredible to consider the number of items that we slather across our skin every day. However, the number of products used isn’t the issue; rather, it’s the ingredients in those products and what they do once in our bloodstream that is cause for concern.

The cosmetics or personal care product industry in the United States is estimated to be a $50 billion-dollar per year industry. That makes it one of the largest and most profitable industries in the country; it spends millions annually on marketing and advertising. It seems that the industry has no limits to its target audience – just turn on your TV for a few minutes, and you will see ads appealing to men, women, children and babies. From lavender scented baby wash to glittery nail polish and lip gloss aimed at young girls to colognes and perfumes with names like Obsession and Passion, no market’s left untapped.

An average of seven new industrial chemicals get approval by the US government daily, and 80 percent of these are approved in three weeks or less with little or no safety testing. Many of these industrial chemicals are the basic ingredients in our cosmetics and personal care products.

What is most shocking about the cosmetic industry is that our government doesn't regulate the safety of its products. You read that correctly – the FDA does not investigate or test for the safety of personal care products before consumers buy them! Instead, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an industry-appointed and funded panel, reviews the safety of cosmetic ingredients. According to EWG, there are approximately 10,500 ingredients used in cosmetics in our country, and in its 30-year history, the CIR has screened only 11 percent of those ingredients. This means that, if we do the math again, nearly 90 percent of cosmetics ingredients are left, un-reviewed and un-tested for safety.

The cosmetic industry argues that it’s okay to put these toxic ingredients into products because only tiny amounts are used in each product, and therefore they are not harmful. However, as you already know, each of us is using ten or more products a day. If you add to that several applications a day and multiply that over a lifetime, then these toxic chemicals do add up and wreak havoc on our bodies and our heath!

And what’s even worse is the number of loopholes that the cosmetic industry has in place to make it difficult for even the most educated consumer to read and understand its labels. For example, the industry is not required to use the FDA’s ingredient name convention guidelines. Therefore, one ingredient can be spelled and labeled many different ways in different products. Any product with the word “fragrance” could have virtually anything in it and need not be disclosed to the consumer, because the chemicals that go into making a fragrance are considered “trade secrets.” In one study by the EWG, phthalates, a known toxin, were found in 75 percent of all products yet was not listed on the label but rather hidden in the word “fragrance.”

Another of the “dirty dozen,” parabens, a ubiquitous ingredient in hair care products, lotions and other skincare items, are known estrogen mimickers; that is, once applied to the skin, they travel through the bloodstream, appearing to the body to be estrogen. This incognito approach causes the body to react as if true estrogen is present in excess. Too much estrogen can cause a decrease in muscle mass, an increase in fat deposits throughout the body, early onset of puberty in boys and girls, reproductive difficulty in men and women, and a host of other issues. While estrogen is an important hormone that regulates many functions in the body, just as we know “we are what we eat,” we also know that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Infants and young children with developing endocrine systems have an even greater risk of being adversely affected by these harmful chemicals. Using a lotion to moisturize a baby after a bath can mean that, simply because of his or her size, five to ten times as much of the product and its chemical make-up are being absorbed into the bloodstream. And, because the infant’s endocrine system is working non-stop, hormone disrupters and estrogen mimickers are sending mixed signals to the child’s body on how to develop. Boys may develop breasts; girls may have their first menstrual period before hitting ten years of age; children of both genders may become overweight or obese – all of these can be external manifestations of the hormone disrupters that are present.

Here is what you can do to protect yourself and your family from exposure to harmful cosmetic ingredients:

  • Permanently avoid any products that contain “the dirty dozen” toxic ingredients: parabens, phthalates, sodium laurel sulfate, propylene glycol, DEA, diazolidinyl urea, butyl acetate, butylated hydroxytoluene, ethyl acetate, toluene, triethanolamine, petrolatum and “fragrance.”
  • Read all ingredient labels carefully! The US government does not regulate the words “natural” or “organic.” To carry USDA Organic Seal of Approval, at least 95 percent of the ingredients must be organic. No seal, no purchase!
  • If you can purge the products, throw away everything in your bathroom, kitchen, etc. that contains the ingredients listed above, and replace them with toxin-free alternatives.
  • If the idea of tossing everything is too overwhelming, or cost prohibitive, set a goal of replacing one item per week or month until you have replaced everything.
  • Check out the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website: www.ewg.org, which has a comprehensive cosmetics database called its “Skin Deep Report,” which ranks over 25,000 products on a 0-10 scale of toxicity.

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