Chemicals can be dangerous and it’s only prudent to be wary of them. But just like with chocolate, too much of a good thing can be bad for you.
A recent email I got from a reader provides a nice example. Here’s the relevant part of the email:
I’ve been looking through the five topical antioxidants you recommend—and this has become so habitual because of my wariness of “dangerous chemicals”—but I always check each ingredient contained in a product on www.ewg.org/skindeep to make sure the product is safe. Most of them (I haven’t gotten around to checking the dark spot corrector or toner) have some ingredients that receive a 3 and one I believe got an 8 (out of 10), pointing to studies showing that they are skin irritants. I’m not sure if I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but whenever I see something like that I automatically don’t want to give the product a try. Which then makes me upset, because I really want to try topical antioxidants based on all the evidence that they’re helpful. Even when I try to do searches for my own, most of them come back with ingredients that aren’t all deemed safe. I’m not sure if I really have an actual question for you about this, but basically I feel like I’m greatly limiting myself because of this fear I have, which I would think is legitimate, yet so many people use these products and seem perfectly fine (yourself and your readers included).
She raises valid concerns regarding the safety of chemicals in skincare products. But she also realizes that this concern is holding her back. She has read my posts about the proven benefits of topical antioxidants, and seen the free skincare product resource guide.
Her concerns are probably rooted to the chemical phobia rampant in the natural health field. And if I think back to my natural health days, I can see myself perusing the SkinDeep database and looking for dangerous chemicals lurking in my products.
In this post I want to take a stab at rationally addressing some of these concerns, and hopefully bring some balance to the.. let’s say enthusiastic objection of chemicals some natural health bloggers engage in.
I want to warn you that some of what I say may rub you the wrong way – depending on how long you’ve been in the natural health world. I ask you to keep an open mind, especially if you don’t agree with everything I say. Feel free to share your objections and views in the comments section below, but hear me out first.
Being too paranoid about chemicals can and will hold you back, and objective, fact-based discussion can only help you.
Shocking chemicals found in every-day foods
I sometimes wonder that some celebrated personalities in the natural health field must live in a dark and scary place. According to these people, the food industry is trying to poison you with dangerous chemicals. And that food scientists and government regulators are evil enough to allow them. They, of course, courageously expose these schemes.
But when you dig below the surface, the fear-mongering and reality are related only by coincidence. Let me give you a relatively recent example.
You are probably familiar with the Subway yoga mat chemical debacle? A food blogger called Food Babe charged that Subway uses a chemical azodicarbonamide (ADA) in their breads. She claims that this chemical is used in yoga mats, implying that you are eating yoga mats. She also claims that the chemical is dangerous, that in the UK it’s recognized as a cause of asthma, and that you’ll get heavily fined in Singapore if you have it. Very scary sounding stuff. And utter BS.
Technically, what she says is correct. But what’s she’s doing is stringing factoids out of context into a scary narrative. A common theme in chemical fear mongering, as we’ll see.
ADA can cause asthma in exposed factory workers who breathe in it in as fine dust, but even in that case it’s not a particularly strong asthma trigger. The keyword being exposed factory workers who breathe it in. This has no bearing on trace amounts in foods.
What she doesn’t tell you is that flour also triggers asthma, more so than ADA. Should we also call for Subway to remove flour from the bread?
So yes, it’s not a good idea to expose yourself to tons of pure ADA, but the same could be said of any chemical – even vitamin C.
Many chemicals have both food and non-food uses. Take vitamin C as an example. Photographers used it in development of films, it’s used to dissolve metal stains from fiberglass swimming pool surfaces. By the Food Babe logic we should also get rid of vitamin C from our foods.
But you can make bread without ADA
When pointed out that trace amounts of ADA in foods are not dangerous, the fear-mongers move the goalposts and claim ADA has no nutritional value and you can make bread without it. Therefore it shouldn’t be in bread.
True, but irrelevant.
You could say the same thing about baking soda. Baking soda has no nutritional value, and it doesn’t do anything good in the body. Plus it’s a chemical. By the same logic we should also ban baking soda.
Why stop there? Why not just mix water and flour and eat the paste? After all, most other ingredients in bread have little to no nutritional value.
Sounds absurd? That’s because it is.
We use baking soda to make baked goods rise. You could make bread without baking soda but you’ll get better results with baking soda. Similarly, using ADA gives breads qualities consumers appreciate. Some chemicals prevent spoilage and reduce food waste, all very admirable goals.
So why shouldn’t we use a harmless chemical that makes the end product better?
Dr. Steven Novella did a more thorough takedown of this silliness. I highly recommend you read it, and the comments. Here are some hilarious bits from the comments section:
Did you know websites like “The Food Babe” and “Natural News” use the same internet that is used to view pornography?? thats pretty much the level of logic she is using…
Did you know that cold air can trigger asthma? Cold air can also freeze a bucket of boiling water thrown into the air on a cold day. Cold air can also cause the death of nearly every living creature exposed to it. Yet LG sold me a product that keeps cold air in my very own kitchen. I wish someone had warned me ahead of time with a facebook post or email.
And I also recommend reading the followup post: More Yoga Mat Hysteria. The comments on that post also make for a good reading.
Next up, related food-chemical silliness.
You should not eat anything you can’t pronounce
You’ve probably heard you should avoid eating anything you can’t pronounce. Usually accompanied by stories of the pure foods your grandmother ate.
Let’s say you take this advice to heart. Guess what you can eat?[CRICKET CHIRPING]
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Because every single natural food contains chemicals you can’t pronounce.
Take thyme as an example, take a look at that chemical soup.
Ughh.. Suddenly McDonald’s burgers start look delicious.
Next up, basil.
Shocking, I say shocking!
And let’s not forget the chemical horror known as apple. Seriously. Look at all the chemicals in apples, I even had to reduce the font size to fit them all in (click the image to make it bigger).
Data source for the above images: Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases.
Would you like some jet fuel, nail polish remover, and toiler bowl cleaner in your apples?
Using the string-of-factoids-out-of-context technique popularized by Food Babe, it’s easy to ‘prove’ how dangerous those foods are.
This list contains true facts of just some of the chemicals found in apples:
- Formic acid – Used in production of leather, including tanning, and in dyeing and finishing of textiles, as well as in production of rubber. It’s an important part of ant venom, and known to cause blindness. Oh yes, it’s an integral part of some cleaning products, including toilet bowl cleaners. Yummy.. toilet bowl cleaner..
- Propanol – Chemically similar to ethanol, but 2 to 4 times more lethal. Can be used as high octane fuel. Hmmm.. jet fuel.. yummy..
- Glutamic acid – Used as a flavor enhancer. Known excitotoxin and animal studies show it can cause brain damage. Linked to the Chinese restaurant syndrome, and a close cousin to MSG. Due to the toxic effects EU law requires food companies to declare glutamic acid in food labels.
- Acetone – Most people know this as nail polish remover, also frequently found in paints and varnishes. Industrial uses include heavy duty degreasers, production of the infamous BPA, and a component of automatic transmission fluid. Exposure causes almost immediate eye and throat irritation, may also cause neurological damage. Hmmm… degreaser… yummy..
See how easy that was. All it took was 10 minutes and Wikipedia to produce that scary list.
How easy it would be to shock people by saying there’s nail polish remover, jet fuel, and degreasing agents in every day foods they eat? And the government does nothing to stop it. The bastards! All paid by the Big Apple!
And imagine the collective noise Food Babe and other bloggers would make if they found all these chemicals in processed foods. But there they are in apples.. brought to you by nature.
These people should heed the wise words Paracelsus uttered in the 16th Century:
Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.
Learn the ‘Shocking Truth’ about kale
Melissa McEwen from Hunter Gather Love did a more comprehensive piece on kale. In her post, Just Kale Me: How your Kale habit is slowly destroying your health and the world (Go read it now. Seriously. Like. Right. Now.), she demonstrates how dangerous kale is both to your and environmental health. Using scientific references she ‘proves’ the following sins:
- Causes goiter in lambs
- Exposure to kale caused stillborns and problems in brain development of young lambs
- Kale is rich in sulfur, a chemical known to cause “kale poisoning”, a life-threatening breakdown of red blood cells
- Kale defends itself against insects by producing toxic chemicals, some of which are neurotoxic and linked to autoimmune diseases
- Chemicals in kale damage the detoxification pathways in the liver and could lead to hormonal imbalances
- Studies have shown broccoli, a close cousin to kale, causes DNA damage in the colon. Kale is also a rich source of FODMAPs, and many people have found relief from IBS after ditching kale
This is just a small sample of how dangerous kale is. It also wrecks environmental destruction like nothing else.
Towards the end of the article she makes these very salient points:
Yes, Kale does contain chemicals, all foods do. In very large amounts or in certain vulnerable people could cause problems. Many of the studies I chose involved animals with a diet almost completely based on kale, which I think anyone will agree is a bad idea. Most also involved varieties not sold for human consumption and consumed in ways that humans might not consume- uncooked, un-marinated, etc. A lot of the rest involved just scary language about various chemicals and studies involving isolated chemicals.
But when you see an article that demonizes a food, think about whether or not there are citations and follow those citations. Ask yourself whether they apply to human beings eating a diverse diet with adequete calories. Or whether they involve very high concentrations no human being eats, isolated chemicals, or preparations that no normal human would put on their plate. I see narratives like this, not as satire, in many diet books and on a lot of diet blogs.
Do all those ‘scientific facts’ prove kale is dangerous? No, it just proves that using PubMed and the string-of-factoids-out-of-context technique you can demonize anything. Even Food Babe’s most beloved health foods.
It also proves you shouldn’t listen to scare mongering spewed by scientifically-illiterate food bloggers.
Cosmetics are full of dangerous chemicals
The cosmetics aisle of your local grocery store is a scary place. The Environmental Working Group says so. They publish and update a massive database of cosmetics products and ingredients. You can search the SkinDeep database to find out the safety data of over 68,000 cosmetics products and ingredients.
I should say that cosmetics has a broader meaning than makeup. In this context it includes makeup, skincare, acne treatment, personal care and related products.
They claim to put the power of information into your hands, so that you can make informed decisions about cosmetics.
Awesome idea. But, based on my limited checking, they fall short on actually informing consumers. This seems to be another case of string-of-out-of-context-factoids. This time in massive scale. Leading to what skeptics call misinformed consent.
Case study: Retinol
Out of curiosity I checked what EWG says about retinol, animal form of vitamin A that’s been shown to be helpful in acne, hyperpigmentation (like post-acne marks), and to reduce signs of aging. It’s the key ingredients in countless skincare and anti-aging products, and one of the products in my recommended skincare products resource guide contains retinol. So I was curious to see what EWG has to say about it.
EWG rates it as 8 (out of 10), with overall hazard level rated as ‘high’. They also claim it’s a known to cause birth defects and accelerate development of skin cancer.
All of which are true, sort of. But here again we see that they string together factoids out of context to spin their narrative.
It’s true that overdose of oral vitamin A can cause birth defects and other problems. That’s why derms are careful when prescribing Accutane, and that’s why women taking Accutane must use birth control.
This is not applicable to retinol used in acne and personal care products. Studies have shown that the vast majority, if not all, of topically applied retinol is metabolized in the skin, i.e. it never makes it to the bloodstream and thus cannot cause birth defects.
In one study 14 women applied creams containing various forms of vitamin A on a large skin surface area (0.3 m2) for 21 days. Btw, 0.3 m2 is enough to cover almost the entire back for many people. So we are talking about a far larger scale application than what’s commonly used.
Despite large scale application, blood levels of vitamin A didn’t increase.
In conclusion, our results provide evidence that human topical exposure to retinol- or retinyl ester-containing cosmetic creams at 30,000 IU/day and maximal use concentrations do not affect plasma levels of retinol, retinyl esters or RAs, whereas single oral doses at 10,000 IU or 30,000 IU produce significant increases in plasma retinyl esters and RAs.
Nohynek GJ et al. Repeated topical treatment, in contrast to single oral doses, with Vitamin A-containing preparations does not affect plasma concentrations of retinol, retinyl esters or retinoic acids in female subjects of child-bearing age. Toxicol Lett. 2006 May 5;163(1):65-76.
And yes, there are test tube studies that show exposure to UV indeed degrades retinol and this could lead to increased oxidative damage. Studies that EWG likes to make a big hoopla about. But it’s not exactly clear how much of an issue this is in humans. A 2009 review showed that properly formulated tretinoid products don’t make the skin more sensitive to sunlight.
That said, it’s still a good idea to limit retinoid use to evenings and wear sunscreen.
The Cosmetics Ingredients Review program Expert Panel regularly reviews safety data on cosmetics ingredients. Their conclusion is that retinol is safe in concentrations currently used. You can read the assessment that includes retinol here.
Finally, 1999 safety review of retinol in cosmetics found no cause for concern (bolding mine).
Based on the published literature, the assessment of nonclinical and clinical data on retinol indicates absence of any systemic effects after topical or cosmetic use. Hypervitaminosis A that may be produced by the ingestion of excessive amounts of retinol or retinyl esters has never been associated with topical application. In rabbits treated with retinyl palmitate at about three times a prospective human dose level, no systemic toxicity was observed. Retinol, retinyl esters, and retinaldehyde are devoid of sensitization potential and no evidence of phototoxicity or photoallergy has been obtained. Although retinoids may be degraded to some extent by sunlight, their biological activity appears to be largely retained. In fact, topical retinoids have been shown to improve the conditions of photodamaged and photoaged skin. Topical retinol is absorbed into the epidermis and extensively metabolized, particularly by keratinocytes. Studies in human volunteers provided no evidence that topically applied retinol or retinoid metabolites are percutaneously absorbed, inducing any detectable changes in their constitutive plasma levels. In the absence of systemic exposure, topical application of the retinoids is not associated with birth defects that have been related to excessive oral intakes. Retinol and its metabolites are not only nongeno-toxic but also exert antimutagenic activity. Likewise, retinol and retinoids have antiproliferative and differentiation-inducing effects that are used effectively in the treatment of human cancer. Retinol is considered to be a safe cosmetic ingredient in the present practices of use and concentration.
Gerd Ries & Robert Hess. Retinol: Safety Considerations for its Use in Cosmetic Products. Cutaneous and Ocular Toxicology. 1999, vol 18, no. 3, pages 169 – 185.
At this point I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. EWG’s ‘safety assessments’ seem to have no connection with reality. All the credible data I found shows retinol is safe in current cosmetic usage, yet EWG rates it as high hazard.
Human studies have given no reason to believe topical application increases the risk of birth defects or other internal problems, yet EWG gives it the highest possible rating for ‘Developmental & reproductive toxicity’. They do this based on what happens when you overdose with oral vitamin A.
They like to focus on scary looking test tube and animal studies, yet don’t mention anything about actual human studies that don’t support their narrative.
I know some of the papers I cited have been written by scientists with industry connections. That in itself doesn’t invalidate them, any more than EWG’s bias against chemicals invalidates their conclusions. Especially since these papers have been published in peer reviewed journals and checked over by independent scientists. And their conclusions line up with existing evidence. However, if you have evidence to show retinol is dangerous, please send it over and I’ll be happy to take a look at it.
SkinDeep – Awesome idea with biased execution
I want to say I fully support the idea behind the SkinDeep database – making cosmetics safety data easily accessible. Big corporations are known to use shady tricks to boost their bottom line, and I fully support any and all independent checks and balances. I just wish they would spend at least as much time on informing consumers as they spend on scaring them.
It seems I’m not the only one who thinks like this. Real cosmetic chemists also don’t seem to put much faith into EWG: 3 reasons the EWG is dubious resource.
It seems to me that EWG is more ideologically than scientifically motivated organization. Cosmetics product safety is a real concern, and something we should keep an eye on. However, I can’t see EWG as a reliable source on this, and I wouldn’t conclude that a product or ingredient is dangerous just because EWG says so. I would dig deeper. Check the studies they cite. Are they human studies? Are the conditions in the studies relevant to human use? What other sources say of this?
What scientists think of the health risks of chemical exposure
Interestingly, in 2008 George Mason University researchers surveyed what toxicologists, scientists who study the adverse effects of chemicals on humans, think of these issues. Key findings, based on 937 responses, include:
- Advocacy and green organizations, like Greenpeace and EWG, often overstate the risks.
- Industry bodies and organizations often understate the risks, however they are still closer to truth than advocacy organizations.
- About 50% of the surveyed toxicologists say that Wikipedia and WebMD provide accurate information on chemical safety. In contrast, only 15% said the same of the national print media.
- Toxicologists see government bodies and professional associations as accurate sources of chemical safety information.
- Regarding cosmetics, 66% of the toxicologists say they don’t pose a significant health risk vs. 26% who say they do (8% answered don’t know).
Chemical safety is an important issue and something everyone should take seriously. Often in the natural health field this legitimate concern swings too far, into full blown paranoia.
I believe that the chemical paranoia stems from misunderstanding of the ‘dose makes the poison’ rule. Some people seem to believe any exposure is not only harmful but also unacceptable, a naive rule broken the moment they eat anything.
Every single thing you eat contains dangerous chemicals, even organic health foods. What matters is the dose. In the vast majority of cases minor doses have absolutely no effect, because humans have evolved effective ways to neutralize toxins.
It pays to keep in mind that this misunderstanding, and the scare mongering it fuels, is not based on science and not shared among scientists who study the harmful effects of chemicals.
Related articles worth reading (I don’t claim all of these are necessarily correct, but it’s not a bad idea to also read more skeptical coverage on important issues):
- Why it’s so easy to believe our food is toxic.
- Joe Schwarcz: The Food Babe is anything but an expert on GMOs.
- Chemical paranoia: are they really going to get you?
- Bisphenol A (BPA) Found Not Harmful, Yet Again — So Why Did So Many Reporters and NGOs Botch Coverage, Yet Again?
- Retinol: Safety Considerations for its Use in Cosmetic Products.
- Repeated topical treatment, in contrast to single oral doses, with Vitamin A-containing preparations does not affect plasma concentrations of retinol, retinyl esters or retinoic acids in female subjects of child-bearing age.
- Annual Review of Cosmetic Ingredient Safety Assessments: 2005/2006.
- Reappraising the phototoxicity of tretinoin: a report of four controlled clinical trials.
- Are chemicals killing us?
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