Why burden babies with chemicals?

Pregnancy is often a time during which a great deal of care is taken to ensure that the health of the developing child is fully considered. Most expectant mothers stop drinking alcohol (or smoking), look at optimum supplementation and spend more time reading the labels on the products that they eat or drink. However, many mothers unknowingly expose their unborn children to potential risks from the everyday chemical burden placed on their bodies through the use of various personal care products.

The average woman uses 12 personal care products daily, exposing herself and her baby to approximately 168 chemicals. Once born, babies are directly exposed to these chemicals through the various creams, lotions and washes applied to their bodies. Not all of these chemicals are safe. In fact, many have been shown to have a range of very negative health and wellbeing consequences.

As many as one in eight ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals which have been identified as potentially harmful. Many of these chemicals have shown links to hormone disruption, infertility, a weakened immune system and cancer. Other more common effects are allergies such as asthma and eczema, enzyme dysfunction and altered metabolism. We need to examine the total daily chemical burden our modern lifestyles place on our own and our children’s bodies, and raise questions about possible links to the increase in conditions such as autism, infertility, breast cancer and the ever increasing levels of asthma and eczema.

Children at higher risk

Protection from exposure to harsh toxins and chemicals is even more important for children than it is for adults. A child’s immune and detoxifying systems are still very immature and neurologically they are still developing. In addition to this, a baby’s skin is not as thick as an adult’s and children don’t start producing an acid mantle until around the age of seven. This means that they are much more sensitive and vulnerable to irritants than we are.

Very little regulation

The cosmetic industry in South Africa is generally very poorly regulated and there is virtually no control over the ingredients that end up in the products we use. One of the main reasons there aren’t tighter regulations in place is because the effects of these toxins are often not immediate but cumulative, and it is very difficult to clearly link exposure to a specific product or ingredient with a certain health risk. In addition, we are exposed to so many different factors on a daily basis, that certain diseases and conditions are unlikely to be attributed to one particular chemical through one particular means, but more likely to an accumulation of various lifestyle exposures from our food, air, water and other factors.

Many studies which support the safety of these chemicals, focus on the low dosages used in products, but fail to take into consideration our entire environmental exposure to toxins, the number of products we use daily and the frequency with which we use them. Over time, these low doses add up. As an example, in cases such as obesity or low sperm count in adults, it is unlikely that research will find or provide a direct causal link to childhood exposure, since the research would be required to span at least two decades.

How can this be allowed?

There are no clear legal standards in South Africa around the use of chemicals in cosmetics. The industry is self-regulated. In addition, studies on safety are looked at in isolation and don’t account for the cumulative effect of using various products with a wide range of chemicals on the body. Companies are also reluctant to change when there is loyalty to certain products. If companies are not legally required to change and there is no consumer pressure to do so, then they certainly won’t.

Change can happen

The plastics industry changed rapidly once consumers started demanding BPA free materials. The smoking industry also changed once customers became aware of the real health risks they were exposing themselves to. This industry can change too. Consumers need to be more aware and more informed and demand safer products which are free of harmful chemicals.

How do you take action?

Know the ingredients to avoid and always read product labels. Stay away from phthalates, parabens, synthetic fragrances (which can “hide” certain chemicals), triclosan, sodium lauryl sulphate, aluminium, DEA, MEA, TEA and 1,4-dioxane. If you are in doubt, find out more about an ingredient on independent platforms such as www.safecosmetics.org. The easiest way to protect yourself is to choose products which have been certified by an independent natural or organic certification organisation such as Ecocert Greenlife, The Soil Association, USDA or BDIH. These companies ban the use of ingredients that haven’t been tested or proven safe for use, and they audit the companies that carry their certification to ensure they comply with their standards.

You have a choice

We live in the real world and we can’t completely avoid modern life or all harmful exposures. But we do have choices. Be smarter when you shop. Substitute poorer quality chemical laden products for natural ones, even if they are a little more expensive. Your health and the health of your children depend on it.

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