What are the toxic three and why do we end up using them everyday?

David Suzuki, a Canadian scientist is a prominent leader in the worldwide movement fighting climate change and environmental hazards. His foundation has published an important study of the dangerous chemicals found in everyday cosmetics and cleaning products. The study, evocatively called the “dirty dozen” lists twelve chemicals and sheds light on their harmful effects to the environment and human health. A disturbing statistic of that study (which was conducted in Canada) tells us that more than 80 per cent of commonly-used cosmetics contain the “dirty dozen” in various combinations.

What is the relevance of this study for Indian citizens? The entire list of harmful chemicals is also commonly found in products sold in India. This is a direct result of globalization where companies use the same chemicals in their operations across the world. Indians however are at a distinct disadvantage due to the lack of strict government regulations on the composition of cosmetic products, which is not the case in Europe or North America. For example a category of frequently-used preservatives called “parabens” are limited in Europe to a maximum of 0.8 per cent of the product. There is also a debate on whether parabens should be completely banned. No such public debate is happening here and the companies that cannot use parabens in Europe, are allowed to in India.

The toxic three

Monitoring a list of 12 ingredients every time you visit the supermarket is impractical. Therefore, for the readers of this column, I have created a quick checklist of chemicals to be wary of. I call this the “toxic three”. These are commonly found across many everyday products and ongoing research is unearthing the potential harm caused by them. The “toxic three” for our discussion are Triclosan, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and Parabens

Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent and will find its way into your home in a surprising number of products. It is likely to be found in over 140 products like mattresses, toilet seat covers, toothpaste, soap, moisturizers, rain-coats and so on. Triclosan is an endocrine disruptor and is also being linked to cancer. A new concern is that uncontrolled use of Triclosan is leading to several strains of bacteria developing resistance to it. These are the new “super-bugs”.

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, commonly called, SLS is an extremely common surfactant used in cosmetics and cleaning products to remove stains and create lather. A closely related compound is Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLeS). Several studies have linked SLS to eye and skin irritation, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption and cancer.

The third chemical is Parabens. They are a group of compounds like ethyl parabens, methyl parabens, used for anti-bacterial and anti-fungal actions. They have a property of mimicking the female sex hormone oestrogen thereby interfering with hormone function. In an English study between 2005 and 2008 on 40 breast cancer tumour samples, 99 per cent of them contained at least one type of paraben.

While a scientist would call this study inconclusive, let us take home the point that parabens are not 100 per cent safe either. The burden of proof of safety lies with the companies that use these potentially toxic chemicals. Unfortunately most safety studies are done on rats or rabbits in the lab for a few months and then these products are launched worldwide for human use. The human safety perspective emerges over several years of accumulated use and the “scientific” debate rages on inconclusively while consumers continue to suffer consequences.

Further we must remember that chemicals like the “toxic three” do not offer any real benefits that outweigh their long term risks. SLS in some products is used for the trivial purpose of providing more lather and nothing more.

The intelligent Indian consumer has no choice but to be proactive and avoid the dirty dozen or the toxic three and become responsible for their safety. The next time you are in a supermarket read the labels carefully. I will warn you that you will be hardpressed to find SLS-free or Paraben –free products. Therefore your safest alternative is to use natural plant-based products devoid of any chemicals.