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Massage Today
May, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 05

Toxic Exposure

By Rita Woods, LMT

As massage therapists, we are constantly on the lookout for the latest and greatest products to benefit our clients' various skin types. One client has sensitive skin and so only a certain lotion or oil will do. Another prefers lotions that don't give off any scent, while another wants to smell like a garden after a treatment. While there are some great products on the market, there are others that might contain chemicals some clients are trying to avoid at all costs.

So, what ingredients should we look for when preparing to purchase the various lotions, oils and topical creams we use in our practices? What does the federal government have to say about these chemicals and what is the research behind the movement to limit or eliminate our exposure?

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act defines cosmetics as items intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness or altering one's appearance without affecting the body's structure or functions. This definition includes skin-care creams, lotions, powders and sprays, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup, permanent waves, hair colors, deodorants, baby products, bath oils, bubble baths and mouthwashes, as well as any material intended for use as a component of a cosmetic product.

The products we use every day in our practices could fall under this definition. As you can imagine, we are exposed to hundreds of these products daily. How do we know if what we are using is harmful? That question would appear to be simple to answer. As it turns out, however, it's one of the most complicated issues we face today.

Several ingredients in our personal care products have come under fire recently thanks to the work of avid watchdog groups such as the Environmental Work Group ( One chemical in particular comes from the family of "phthalates" (pronounced THAY-lates). This one has prompted the state of California to ban its use in toys and baby products beginning in 2009. This is important to you because it can be hidden in the products we use.

A woman enjoying aroma therapy. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark In general, phthalates are known as plasticizers. There are eight members of this family, and they are used in just about every industry in the world to make plastic pliable. Another important thing they do is make scents last longer in products. This characteristic puts them in our personal care products: makeup, nail polish, body washes, lotions, air fresheners, laundry soap, dryer sheets and shampoo, just to name a few.

But here's the catch - you won't see phthalates listed as an ingredient. They often are included as a part of the fragrance ingredient, which is exempt from the same labeling laws. Full disclosure of "fragrance" may jeopardize company trade secrets, so a company doesn't have to divulge that information. The real problem here is that this loophole can be used to "hide" other potentially harmful ingredients. Reproductive and birth defects are the main concern for people highly exposed. Some advocates are trying to get phthalates removed from all cosmetics and products that fall under the personal care definition. The loophole is under investigation.

Another area of concern is the use of preservatives such as "methylparaben" and "proylparaben" in cosmetics. The same preservatives often are used in foods. The food supply is under even greater scrutiny. As you can image, it affects everyone, not just those who use personal care products. If you eat a lot of processed foods, you could be increasing your exposure. According to most scientists, we just don't know the long-term effects of many chemicals. While there still is no concrete evidence they pose a health threat, there is some supportive evidence that they can elicit an allergic response in some people.

A container of body lotion with a toxic warning label. - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board (CIR) Expert Panel issued an amended final report in 2006, concluding, "Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, and benzylparaben are safe as used in cosmetics." The CIR provides information on the safety of chemical ingredients and issues safe recommended percentages of each chemical it tests. Some chemicals will be banned altogether, while others must be used only within certain levels. Formulating chemists use these guidelines when they make certain products.

Some factors in daily living can complicate the exposure issue. For instance, people exposed to "toluene" (a harmful chemical found in nail polishes) are at higher risk of toluene toxicity if they drink large amounts of alcohol or take over-the-counter pain-relieving salisylates such as aspirin or acetaminophen. Toluene is processed in the liver (as are most chemicals), which then overworks the liver. The overburdened liver can no longer do a good job and toxicity can occur.

Healthy people with healthy lifestyles are better equipped to deal with the onslaught of chemicals to which they are exposed. Unfortunately, people with certain diseases or sensitivities are at greater risk of having adverse reactions. Most adverse reactions are classified as allergic reactions. Regulations from other countries actually may put U.S. companies on the fast track to changing their ingredients. The worry is that the substitutions used may be as harmful as the ones they remove. We may not know about their toxicity until they start showing up in tissue samples a few years down the road.

So, what's a body to do? Here are some tips to help minimize your exposure to chemicals in the products you and your clients use.

Learn to Read Labels

Now is a good time to start reading cosmetic labels, if you don't already. The list of ingredients must appear on the label in descending order of predominance. The lower an ingredient is on the list, the less there is of it in that product. I have seen "fragrance" listed as high as ingredient number 22 out of 45, and I have seen it as the last ingredient. The same concept is true for parabens as well.

You don't have to be a chemist to figure out that either the raw product smells really bad and the manufacturer used a lot of fragrance to cover it up, or the fragrance may be hiding other chemicals. While it might not be an exact science, it's still your best defense in the cosmetic aisle.

Watch for "Greenwashing"

Some companies are trying to jump onto the green wagon train when it comes to naturals and organics. You'll see them supporting cancer research and yet continuing to offer some of the most toxic cosmetics on the market. Again, has listings of products and companies. Watch out for the color green and natural scenes in ads. It's an attempt - and an effective one - to get you to see them as part of the natural movement. Their ad may say one thing, but their ingredients could say another. It's becoming increasingly difficult to pick out green abusers.

Check Out Other Sources

Be open-minded and look at all sides of the story. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have Web sites with consumer-friendly information. You'll also find links on their sites that will lead you to lists of known and probable carcinogens. Look to current research from other countries, as the U.S. government doesn't exactly lead the pack on these changes.

Get Healthy and Stay Healthy

Make healthier choices about the foods you eat. Reducing your overall exposure is key. Get plenty of exercise. Reduce your use of perfumed and dyed laundry soaps. Use dryer balls instead of dyer sheets. Dryer sheets coat your clothes with chemicals. By the way, this also makes your towels less absorbent. Wear less makeup. Become aware of the chemicals in your home and work to reduce their impact on you, your family and the environment. And share all this information with your clients. We may not be able to control what goes in products, but we can control what products we use.

Click here for previous articles by Rita Woods, LMT.


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