How to Use Think Dirty & Skin Deep to Choose Healthier Body Care Products

Using Think Dirty App to read label

If you’re just getting started on your journey to reduce toxins in your home, it can feel overwhelming because there are so many things you can do. Looking at your body care products (like soap, shampoo, make-up, skincare, deodorant, sunscreen, etc.) is often one of the first – but also one of the most frustrating – changes people tend to make. Let’s help you understand how to make these changes so your efforts are actually going to give you the results you want.

You can also listen to an expanded version of this post on The Missing Pillar of Health Podcast:

Do Ingredients in Body Care Products Matter?

Taking a look at the products you put on your skin is actually the first step in my courses and programs for a few reasons.

  1. The products you use regularly are replaced regularly too, so it’s easy to swap out when you’ve run out of what you’re using without feeling like you’re wasting something.
  2. Ingredients have to be included on the label, so it’s a great place to start practicing label-reading as a skill that I think is so important for every product in your home.
  3. What we put on our skin affects our toxic load so switching to healthier products is a great gateway to bigger changes down the road.

Now, I’m not going to quote some of those social posts that go around, saying things like “everything you put on your skin gets in your blood stream in 20 seconds” because there’s no credible science behind that.

However, while our skin can act as a barrier and protect us from some things, certain ingredients do penetrate the skin, and end up in our bodies.

One study done in California with 100 teenaged girls found that by switching cosmetics to those free of parabens, phthalates, and other hormone disruptors, the concentration of these chemicals in their urine dropped by 30 – 40% in just 3 days.

Hormone disruptors act in our bodies at much lower concentrations than other toxics and they are linked with such a wide range of health issues – from infertility to obesity to children’s development to autoimmune disease and more.

The other main concerns with skincare ingredients are allergens and irritants. Some ingredients cause a reaction in certain people immediately, others can build up a sensitivity over time. This makes it harder to identify the problem if you don’t know what to look for because the same product may be fine for a while but then all of a sudden trigger a reaction. Methylisothiazolinone is a common preservative that can have this effect and was actually listed as allergen of the year in 2013 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.

Another unintended consequence of some ingredients is that they can increase absorption of other ingredients. So some ingredients in isolation may not be a serious concern, but in combination with others may pose increased risk. PEGs and propylene glycol may have this property and are common in many skincare and baby products.

Carcinogens may also be found in skincare products. These are commonly in very low amounts as potential contamination from the manufacturing process of chemicals like coal tar dyes and petrolatum. Some ingredients can react with others in the environment to release small amounts of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Examples of these include DMDM Hydantoin and Quaternium-15.

There are thousands of different ingredients used in skincare products. It would be impossible and impractical to understand what all of them are and what their risk profiles are. The good news is, you don’t have to do that.

If you’re starting from scratch, it can quickly feel overwhelming to know what you should switch and what products will work.

If this is you, I suggest starting with 3 – 5 products you use every day and that sit on your skin – like lotion, deodorant, make-up, sunscreen, etc. Those are going to have higher exposure risks than products you use once and a while or that rinse off, like shampoo.

 

How to Avoid Greenwashing

Learning how to read labels might not be your favourite task, but it’s such an important skill that will serve you well throughout your whole healthy home journey. As I mentioned earlier, the benefit of starting with skincare products is that ingredients have to be listed on the label so you can start seeing patterns between what’s on the front of the label and what’s actually in the product.

Which brings me to my first tip. And that is to avoid getting sucked in by the claims made on the front of the label. Terms like “non-toxic”, “natural”, and even “organic” in certain cases aren’t regulated and could mean everything from fully non-toxic to containing a plant-based ingredient or two along with a bunch of conventional ingredients.

Another marketing trick is to put what isn’t in the product in a big list – like phthalate, fragrance, paraben, etc. free. This often ends of being a distraction. What’s in a product is more important that what isn’t in a product.

You might be surprised to learn that there’s a difference between fragrance-free and unscented. Unscented can mean that fragrance ingredients have been added to mask the smell of other ingredients. Fragrance-free means that fragrance or masking ingredients have not been added. I wrote a separate blog post with more details on synthetic fragrance and why it’s a concern – you can read it here.

OK, now that you know a few of the marketing tricks to watch out for, it’s time to learn how to read the back of the label. Yes, the detailed ingredient list. And for this, apps like Think Dirty & Skin Deep can help.

 

Think Dirty & Skin Deep Label-Reading Apps

One of the simplest ways to check how healthy a product is, is to use a label reading app like Think Dirty or EWG’s Skin Deep. They allow you to search products and see how they rank on a scale of 0 being non-toxic to 10 being the least healthy.

These can be incredibly helpful tools, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are tools – not your whole toolbox.

Some key things to keep in mind as you use these apps:

  • They don’t contain all products, so you may have to go ingredient-by-ingredient anyways. You can search by ingredient in Skin Deep online.

 

  • I always recommend drilling down into the ingredient scores in the apps, instead of just relying on the overall product score. Some ingredients like allergens don’t show up as a concern, but if you’re struggling with skin issues or allergies you’re going to want to pay more attention to these. On the flip side, some skin irritants are rated very poorly – but if this isn’t a big concern for you, it might not be something you want to focus on if there are other more important ingredients to avoid in other products.

 

  • Product formulations change over time as well, so compare what’s listed in the app with what’s on the product package or website to make sure you’re seeing an accurate rating.

 

The reality is, products will always be changing and depending on where you live and shop, you may have access to different options. This is why understanding labels and being able to confidently decipher their claims is such an important skill.

It will take time in the beginning. But once you’ve built the habit, it will be one that will serve you well for a long time to come. I hope this gives you some inspiration and confidence to start looking at your products a little differently.

I put together a free training with more details on reading labels, plus a video tutorial on how to use Think Dirty (it’s my preferred app). This training also includes lists of body care and cleaning product brands that are commonly thought to be green, and I tell you if they actually are or if they’re just greenwashed. You can grab that here.

“Not Enough to be Harmful” and Other Misconceptions About Environmental Toxins

myths about environmental toxins emma reading on couch

Doubt is the killer of dreams. And because of this, doubt has been the playbook go-to for industry to stall progress on public health decisions for decades.

From cigarettes to flame retardants to climate change, the facts have been obscured by seeding doubt in the public. Eventually, the facts prevail, but not without collateral damage to our health and the planet’s. 

 

 

Some of the biggest doubt campaigns: Cigarettes are now known to cause cancer. Many flame retardant chemicals are banned due to the environmental and health hazards they pose. Climate change is still a work in progress… These should have been no-brainers, but industry seeded doubt and lengthened the legal, social and political processes because of it. (Check out the book Merchant’s of Doubt for more on this.)

When it comes to the ingredients in the products you use every day, doubt is playing the same role to discredit the notion that environmental toxins are a serious concern.

Sometimes the doubt is internal – you may not be totally clear how harmful your skincare products really are. Often, it’s affected by external doubt – manufactured by industry as in the examples listed above, or because your friends and family don’t understand your concerns.

I’m here to help you overcome doubt. To share the facts, credible science, and enable you to make informed decisions. I’ve already written about ways you can get your skeptical partner on board, so in this article I want to address some of the most common misconceptions that lead to doubt and ultimately sabotage your success.

Let’s go…

Misconception #1: “I grew up using those products and I’m healthy.”

There are a few problems with this belief. 

First, a single product is not typically responsible for poor health. Our cumulative exposures, genetics, and lifestyle are all factors. The truth is, we are exposed to more toxins and stressors than before. Add that to poor sleep, less movement, and a higher body burden to start with and our health picture isn’t the same as previous generations.

Second, as a society our definition of “healthy” is basically “not very sick.” As I wrote about in this blog post about my personal reasons for starting down a non-toxic lifestyle, things we consider normal (like PMS, period cramps, asthma and allergies, eczema, etc.) shouldn’t be. They’re common now, but they certainly don’t mean we’re healthy. 

Also, as an individual you might be generally healthy. But as a society, rates of obesity, cancer, reproductive issues, childhood development concerns, and more are on the rise. And since these rates are rising faster than genetics can explain, experts agree that environmental exposures are playing a role.

So the fact that someone grew up using Johnson & Johnson’s baby wash and didn’t develop obvious health issues, doesn’t mean it’s safe to use for your family. 

 

Misconception #2: “Mainstream doctors and nurses don’t seem concerned, so why should I be?”

This has less to do about their level of concern and everything to do about their level of education. Environmental health is a specialty, just like cardiology or pediatrics. You wouldn’t expect your family doctor to be able to do open heart surgery, would you? Of course not. 

Environmental medicine is a relatively new field of study, considering physicians have been formally trained for about 800 years. And medical schools offer very little in the form of environmental health training – I’ve seen anywhere from 6 – 9 hours reported over 4 years of med school.

Just because the medical system is slow to evolve and doctors aren’t aware of the risk toxins pose, doesn’t mean they aren’t impacting your health. The physicians, naturopathic doctors, and researchers who focus on environmental medicine and toxins agree that we should be deeply concerned about, and lowering, our daily exposures.

 

Misconception #3: “It wouldn’t be allowed to be sold if it weren’t tested and safe.”

North America operates under a system of post-market regulation for general household products. New ingredients and products are typically put on store shelves, and deemed safe based on studies conducted by the companies wanting to sell them. 

Another issue here is that a chemical is typically considered safe until proven otherwise, but this level of proof is very difficult to obtain. Because it takes a long time for the effects to be seen from things like hormone disruptors and carcinogens, we’re literally the guinea pigs. And often for years if not decades.

Lead paint. PBDE flame retardants in pyjamas and couches. PFOA in Teflon, stain repellents and waterproofing products. DDT. These are just a few examples of chemicals that were permitted for widespread use, only to be banned years later because of overwhelming evidence that they were causing health and/or environmental harm. 

In addition, “safe” levels for certain chemicals determined by regulators – especially hormone disruptors – typically don’t adequately factor in cumulative exposures to all chemicals, increased risk of children, and low-dose exposure risks. 

Regulators can’t keep up with increasing new products. Testing of some products – like cheap make-up or costume jewelry – have repeatedly been found to contain heavy metals like lead and cadmium that exceed the regulatory limits. It is up to consumers to know who we’re buying from, unfortunately.

What’s more, if a product is found to contain a harmful ingredient, regulators cannot legally enforce a recall. Some companies will voluntarily recall a product from public pressure, but this is typically only after people have been harmed.

So yes, products can be (and are) on store shelves that shouldn’t be. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t every develop or use new chemicals. Chemicals aren’t the inherent bad guys here. But we do need to do a better job at understanding the long-term and cumulative risks before bringing them to market.

 

Misconception #4: “It seems like everything’s toxic these days. You can’t avoid it all, so why bother?”

One part of this statement is true: you can’t avoid all toxins. They are literally everywhere – in the food we eat, water we drink, and air we breathe. We can’t control it all. But that’s precisely why we have to avoid what we can control.

The goal of reducing your exposure to toxins isn’t total avoidance. The ultimate goal is to lower your overall body burden (total accumulation of toxins in your body) so your natural detoxification systems are able to better handle what you can’t control.

This also brings in another layer that people often lean on, and that’s total reliance on our immune system. And while it’s true our immune systems can do a wonderful job at eliminating things that don’t belong, most of our immune systems are so over-worked and often under-supported that they can’t cope with the onslaught of things we’re throwing at them. 

So I rephrase this misconception to: We are exposed to so many different toxins, which is why we must reduce our exposure to the things we can control so our bodies can cope with what we can’t control.

 

Misconception #5: It’s only a little bit, and well within the safe limits allowed.

Or in other words, the dose makes the poison. Maybe you’ve heard it as “everything’s poisonous if you take enough of it, even water.” The problem here is that certain chemicals, in particular hormone disrupting chemicals, have been shown to cause harm at very low doses.

Our hormones are incredibly small molecules in our body, and control much of what we take for granted – our mood, metabolism, reproductive system, sleep, etc. They do all this at concentrations equivalent to a teardrop in a swimming pool. 

Hormone disrupting chemicals can do a very good job at mimicking our natural hormones, so it makes sense that the research is showing it doesn’t require high concentrations of hormone disruptors to interrupt these processes.

Studies have shown that we all carry a toxic load – even from birth. So while a small amount of parabens in your shampoo or pesticides in one glass of water won’t cause much harm, the chemicals in all our products, food, and water that we’re exposed to day in and day out certainly are

On this note, if you’re thinking of getting pregnant or already are, starting before baby is born is an important first step. You can check out my free guide 4 Hormone Disruptors to Avoid Before Having a Baby here.

 

I hope this helps you clarify some of the misinformation and misconceptions out there when it comes to toxins in your daily life. Toxins absolutely can and are contributing to lasting and detrimental health effects. Understanding that, and how to overcome objections like these from your family but also yourself are key to being able to mitigate the risks toxins pose. 

If you haven’t already, be sure to join the free Green Product Forum Facebook Group – an incredibly supportive community here to help you on your healthy home journey >> Click here to join now.