Are My Beauty and Cleaning Products Killing Me?

Tamey McIntosh and Patti Murphy have plenty in common. They live on the same street in Ottawa, their daughters are in the same grade at school and they both care deeply about their family’s health. It’s the last commonality that spurred them to create the website Pure Know How (blog) that looks at dangerous toxins in everyday products and offers safe alternatives.

The idea blossomed after Patti was diagnosed with breast cancer despite regular visits to a naturopath, exercise and a diet heavy on healthy organic foods. When her naturopath asked her if she was using products with parabins in them, Patti did some research and found they were estrogen mimickers (found in shampoos, conditioners, creams etc.) and they were the last thing she wanted in her body with her breast cancer history.

Patti’s health scare, combined with Tamey’s environmental background kick-started their joint mission to purge their homes of toxic products and replace them with healthy, natural alternatives. Their website was born out of their desire to share all of their new-found (albeit scary) knowledge with others. Find out what products in your home are the most dangerous, if your beauty routine will give you cancer and what you should look for when buying cleaning products after the jump.

Q: What scary things have you found since beginning your research?

A: Basically what we try to do is put manageable chunks (on our website.) If you pick everything, people will be scared. Because it is really scary. For example, we’ll do an E-bulletin on lipstick and include some of the issues with the ingredients in lipstick that people should be concerned about. We always begin our e-bulletins with ‘Why do you care’? For instance, there are things in lipsticks called BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene) as well as Polyethylene Glycol compounds (PEGs), petroleum and fragrances. Then the ‘Know How’ is always about what you can do. Don’t panic, it doesn’t mean you can’t wear lipstick, but just take these precautions, look for ones that are more natural with beeswax in them and vitamins. Then we always put a ‘Know and Tell,’ which is where we include the best and worst products that Patti and I have tested.

Q: What are some most dangerous toxins people have in their house?

A: We put our top six together on the website.

  • Formaldehyde was on the top of our list, which is a probable human carcinogen. Formaldehyde is sometimes found in mascara of all things. It’s crazy really.
  • Then parabens (there are five different kinds) and those again are estrogen mimickers so obviously they are not a good thing. They are in everything; shampoos, conditioners, creams. It’s a preservative. It’s in tons and tons of stuff. Keep in mind, this is what we didn’t want. Patti had breast cancer. I have endometriosis. I didn’t want more estrogen in my body either.
  • Then there’s petroleum, which is a possible human carcinogen. In Europe, they’re not allowed to use petroleum in anything. You know how we put Vaseline on a babies bums? Well that’s banned in Europe because it’s a petroleum bi-product so you’re basically putting real oil on your baby’s bum. But you don’t think of that. Why would you put an oil product on your child? But you do.
  • Then there’s things called phthalates. They’re a little harder to detect in that if you look at an ingredient list you won’t see the word phthalate. They’re often in fragrances. Any time you have a product with the word fragrance on it then it probably has phthalates in it. They are hormone disruptors and they can cause reproductive or developmental effects. Then there’s something called SLSs (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate). They’re not going to kill you or cause cancer but they’re skin irritants.
  • And then the last one as our top six is triclosan, the stuff that’s in anti-bacterial products. There’s theories that people are doing this too much and that a certain amount of bacteria is good for you and we’re killing the good bacteria as well as the bad bacteria with these products. Also, during manufacturing a known human carcinogen is formed so not that it gets necessarily to the person at the end of the road, but during manufacturing it’s created.

Q: What is the most crucial thing that we should purge from our homes immediately?

A. If you have kids with asthma, get rid of things with fragrance or phthalates. Formaldehyde is nasty but I don’t think it’s in as many things. Parabens and phthalates are in everything. Same with SLS. There’s SLS in most toothpaste. It’s the small dose, repetitive-use things that I don’t like in my house. There are no parabens in my house, no phthalates and so there’s no SLSs. I just think you can’t with little kids. Their bodies actually absorb it more quickly. I wish I would have known this years earlier. There are really good products and ever since we’ve started in 2006, there’s been a really great increase in products out there.

The other thing you need to be careful of is green washing. It’s companies saying that they’re green when they’re really not. So make sure you read the labels. The problem with cleaning ingredients is they don’t have to list them so that becomes trickier, but with beauty products and cosmetics, they have to list the ingredients. You don’t buy something without reading the ingredients. Pick a few at first, look for your parabens and look for fragrance and start avoiding those. Some of the words are horrendous. Print the list of ingredients out and bring it to the store with you.

Q: My hairdresser tells me hair dyes are safe, but what have you found in your research?

A. It’s not good. It’s pretty dangerous. If you’re blonde, you’re luckier because it seems to be the darker colors that are more dangerous. My grandmother died of cancer, and the cancer that she died of is the one that’s linked to hair dyes and she dyed her hair every few weeks her whole adult life. There are lots of studies that say it’s not good. I’ve died my hair for a long time so once I started into this I just stopped. Why would you do it even if there’s a 15% risk? It doesn’t make sense to me. Thinking back now I’d get my hair dyed and my scalp was burning as I’m getting it done. That’s kind of a clue that something’s not right. When I get my hair done now, there’s a natural place in Ottawa, my head does not burn when I get my hair colored. It’s the only place in Ottawa and she only got into it because she became deathly allergic to the chemicals in regular hair dye. If she wanted to keep her business she had to find an alternative. It’s not 100% the same. You can’t do the highlights the same way, but it still works.

Q: In terms of specific cosmetic brands, have you found some to be worse than others?

A. All mainstream cosmetics are the same, the high-end ones, the low-end ones, they all have the products that we don’t use (because of toxins). We’ve never named names on our website. If you go and look at the ingredients you will see that it doesn’t matter if it’s at Shopper’s Drug Mart or a higher-end store like Holt Renfrew, a lot of them have the ingredients that just aren’t great.

Q: Where do you buy your natural cosmetics?

A. I find now it’s getting better. I buy some online and some at health food stores. Dr. Hauschka is a good one. Some of the more upscale stores carry it now which is nice. Again, just because they say they’re natural, make sure you read the ingredient list.

Q: Do you notice a difference in the quality?

A. Sometimes. Mascara was the hardest one to find. Patti really liked Honeybee Gardens mascara. But I found some natural makeup is better now than the kind I used to use. I use mineral makeup for my foundation and powder stuff and with lipsticks I like the feel of them better. I feel my lips are moist but the mascara and lipstick don’t stay on as long. There’s no waterproof natural mascara or lipstick because the waterproof is the part that’s bad. You don’t find that in the natural ingredients because it’s natural stuff. So that’s probably one of the bigger differences. But for foundations, eyeshadows and that kind of stuff I would say I like the quality better. Deodorants are the one issue. It’s hard to find a really good deodorant that doesn’t make you stink. We’ve tried some nasty ones. I don’t know if it’s a chemical reaction. They may work well on one person, but depending on your chemical makeup it just may not agree with you. It’s trial and error. Best to try on your summer vacation when you’re away from people!

Q: Are there specific ingredients we should avoid when buying cleaning supplies and beauty products?

A. People can go to the list on our website and print it out and then take it shopping with them.

Q: What are some of your favorite alternative brands for non-toxic cleaning supplies/ beauty products?

A. I’ve always used vinegar and baking soda because of my environmental background. I’ve done that for ages. Not everyone likes to do that so Nature Clean is a good one. It’s found everywhere. For our shampoos, Aubrey Organics is a really good shampoo. Druid is a really good Canadian company. Rocky Mountain Soap Company – I really like them.

Q: Is there anything in your house that you haven’t been able to part with because it’s just too handy or you love it too much?

A. Not for me. Some of our readers have said ‘I’ll change anything but I can’t give up Mac brand lipstick.’ I just got rid of everything. Maybe if I didn’t have children I wouldn’t have. But I thought I just want to set a good example and make this normal in our home. So that we don’t think about it. Food was harder. I found that more difficult. Fresh foods and stuff are good but my kids go to school so they need snacks. And for ages I bought the granola bars that you can buy without nuts and I looked on the label one day they contained BHT. The World Health Organization says it causes cancer and I was like ‘why is this in my child’s granola bar’? So I started making my own. I found that a little bit harder. I didn’t get rid of all plastics in my house but I won’t use plastic now if my food is hot but I’ll store fruit in the fridge in plastic. I’m not going off the deep end. If I’m putting soup in a container that I just made, I’ll put it in glass as opposed to plastic.

Q: Do you find the natural products are more expensive?

A. Yes, they are generally quite a bit more expensive, which is unfortunate because you are limiting a large number of people. But you know again, with cleaning products you use vinegar and water, which is probably cheaper than a bottle of Mr. Clean. I find I use less things now so you sort of adjust. I used to squirt a whole bunch of shampoo in my hand whereas now I use little bits. I’m just more careful. It may cost more per item but I make it stretch more.