How much do you know about the chemicals that can be found in the deodorant you used this morning or in the toothpaste you brush your teeth with every night? Many of us assume that the products we get from the beauty store are perfectly safe and appropriate for human use, we ignore, forget, or dismiss the notion that air pollution could have any serious adverse effects on our health, and when we get a prescription for antibiotics from our doctor we tend to just accept his professional opinion instead of doing any real research on the possible effects and side-effects of the drug ourselves.
Even if we do consider the fact that many of the hard-to-spell ingredients listed on the facial cream, painkiller, and cleaning detergent in our bathroom closet could be less than completely safe, we tend to just accept the risk. After all, it can’t be that bad, can it?
A new way of life
Our ancient ancestors didn’t have mirrors or knowledge about pathogenic microorganisms, and they clearly didn’t burn fossil fuels to get around on the African savanna. Throughout most of our evolutionary history, drugs, facial creams, and toxic air pollution were not a part of our world. That doesn’t mean that our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t come in contact with substances that could harm their health, but in comparison to today’s standards, they clearly led a very “organic” lifestyle.
A lack of medical assistance isn’t without its consequences though, one of which being that hunter-gatherers typically have high rates of infant mortality. As we move forwards in time and into the first epidemiological transition – the Agricultural Revolution – the lack of medical assistance really starts to rear its ugly head.
The transition from a life as hunter-gatherers in small tribal communities to the unsanitary, often crowded conditions that characterized larger farming populations set the stage for virulent pathogens. In today’s industrialized world, few of us think about infectious diseases as a big concern, but the fact is that up until the invention of antibiotics and other antimicrobials, infectious diseases were a major cause of death worldwide.
As for air pollution, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that introduction of particulates, biological molecules, and other harmful materials into the Earth’s atmosphere started becoming a major issue. Ever since, the problem has gotten progressively worse, and a growing part of the population worldwide now live in highly polluted areas.
Cultural innovations and technological progress have also allowed us to design drugs and supplements for virtually every condition known to man, plastic bottles, fancy cosmetics, cleaning detergents, and a wide array of other products that contain ingredients that even those with a PhD in chemistry can’t spell. Some of these innovations have benefitted us in various ways, but they also come with some potential adverse effects.
A day of exposure
Imagine getting up early in the morning for an important day at work. After breakfast you jump into the shower where you wash your hair with your favorite shampoo, apply some foamy soap to your pubic region and armpits, and wash your face with a sensitive facial cleanser. When you get out and dry up, you apply some moisturizer to your face, use your favorite roll-on deodorant, style your hair with some paste, brush your teeth with your regular toothpaste, and since you’re a female, you spend some additional time in front of the mirror applying various beauty products.
Suddenly you realise that the clock is nearing 8 and you head out into the street outside your apartment, feeling the familiar smell of traffic and polluted air as you rush off to the office. When you get into the workplace you take a quick sip from the plastic water bottle you brought with you from home before you head off for today’s first appointment.
After endless hours of meetings and work, lunch arrives, and you apply some of the hand sanitizer you always have in your bag before you dig into today’s lunch, which is composed of a plastic-wrapped sandwich, diet soda, and energy bar.
Several hours later the work day is finally over, and two painkillers give you immediate relief from the nagging headache that has been with you since the first meeting of the day. Next up is a quick trip to the gym where the rest of the bottled water is consumed, and a new round of showering and soap afterwards ensures that you are sweat-free and ready for the last part of the day.
As you finally arrive home at night you realise that dirty clothes have been piling up in the bedroom all week and that the apartment is looking filthier than ever; so you decide to bring out your arsenal of cleaning detergents to hygienize your clothes and surroundings.
A growling stomach signals that dinner time is approaching, so you bring out your favorite non-stick teflon pan, add some margarine to the pan, and assemble the ingredients you need for today’s dinner, which all come neatly packed in plastic containers or tin cans.
At the end of the day you’re totally beat, and you almost forget to apply the facial lotion you bought yesterday before sleep is coming over you.
How cosmetics, antimicrobial products, and plastic bottles could impact our health
The painkillers, cosmetic products, and cleaning detergents many of us use every day have clearly not been with us throughout the majority of our evolutionary history. Just because they are novel introductions to human life doesn’t necessarily mean that they pose a health risk, but as is often the case, an evolutionary outlook gives us many clues as to how we should live our lives if we’re looking for optimal health and vitality. The reason for this is simple. If a drug, food, or cosmetic product has been with us for millions of years it’s likely that our bodies are well-adapted to the stimuli they provide.
Let’s do a couple of examples to illustrate the issue at hand:
- Antibiotics are a cultural buffer that have helped saved countless lives since they were first introduced. In the beginning – and to a certain extent still today – most of these drugs were considered relatively harmless, and for a long time antibiotics were “given out like candy”. However, what we’re now learning is that the overuse of antibiotics – both in livestock and humans – has profound and far-reaching adverse effects. These effects include the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and perhaps more importantly, changes to the microbiome and suppression of the immune system in both humans and animals (1, 2).
- Cosmetics/beauty products come in many shapes and forms, and their effects on human health differ depending on the ingredients. What we do know is that many of the ingredients – such as dioxane, formaldehyde, lead/lead acetate, parabens, and phthalate – we put on our skin and in our hair could disrupt he hormone system and in other ways adversely affect our health (3, 4, 5, 6).
- Soaps and anitbacterial gels help decrease the spread of pathogens, but they also alter the skin microbiome in ways that we are just beginning to understand (7).
- Plastic bottles release estrogenic chemicals that could mess with your hormone levels (8, 9, 10).
- Sunscreens are typically used to avoid excessive sun exposure, and many people are oblivious to the fact that SPFs – even the “natural” ones – contain many potentially problematic ingredients (11, 12, 13, 14). Research also suggests that “protection against sunburn does not necessarily imply protection against other possible UV radiation effects, such as enhanced melanoma growth” (15, 16).
Bottom line: Many drugs, cleaning products, cosmetics, and other types of man-made, “modern” products can negatively impact gene expression and alter the human microbiome. The stimuli these products provide fall in the category of being too new and/or too much for our bodies to “handle”.
The question really becomes: Do we trust that the levels of potentially harmful chemicals in the products we use every day don’t harm our health, and if not, do we accept the risks? If the answer to both of these questions is no, the next step is to look for more “natural” alternatives; or eliminate many creams, cleansers, and drugs from your health and beauty arsenal altogether. For most men, the latter alternative probably seems fairly viable, and that’s if there even is an arsenal to take from. However, for women, giving up beauty products altogether usually isn’t on the table as an acceptable alternative, and looking for more natural products ends up being the solution.
Since the cost of transitioning to a more “organic” lifestyle tends to be small, there’s usually no reason not to make the leap…
Strategies you can use to reduce your exposure to harmful substances:
- Avoid using antibiotics and other pharmaceutical drugs unless you have to.
- Stay away from harsh cleaning agents and antibacterial products.
- Seek out non-toxic, “natural” beauty and cleaning products from reputable brands.
- Seek out a high-quality source of drinking water, and avoid plastic bottles if possible.
- Restrict your consumption of foods that come in containers that leach potentially harmful compounds.
- Reduce your use of cosmetic products.
- Substitute conventional chemical-laden products with natural alternatives.
- Prepare your food using “safe” cookware.
- Gently cook your food to reduce the production of harmful compounds such as advanced glycation end products.