Toxicology Corner: Artificial Dyes & Coal Tar

I’ve always had a crazy sweet tooth. You might remember those tubes of disgustingly sweet and insanely colored goo that was supposed to be like fake toothpaste? I ate that. Yup, I was that kid. I didn’t think about what was in my candy, I only cared if it was sweet and delicious. So almost all of that candy was brightly colored with artificial dyes. http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/30/fda.food.dye.health/index.html

These dyes, now ubiquitous in our consumer products, are petrochemicals. They are made from coal tar, the thick brownish liquid that is a by-product of processing coal.

So, what are coal tar dyes exactly?

Coal tar color additives are dyes made by combining a number of chemicals produced from distilling bituminous coal; these include compounds like toluene, xylene, or benzene. Nowadays, they’re also made from petroleum, although still referred to as coal tar dyes.

History fact: Mauve was the first color created from coal tar, although not purposefully, just an accidental discovery by a British chemist in 1856.

Widespread use of coal tar dyes started in the early 1900s, and like other chemicals, there was no requirement for testing or safety evaluation before they were released onto the market. This changed after Halloween in 1950, when children all over the US became sick from ingesting candy with Orange No. 1 dye. Further study revealed the dye to be toxic – causing diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, even death (in animal studies). Testing of other coal tar dyes produced similar results, prompting the US government to start regulating and restricting the use of these food dyes. The set of coal tar dyes we use today emerged as those considered safe by the FDA after thorough testing in the early 1960s.

What are the health risks of dyes and coal tar?

Despite approval from the FDA, there has been intermittent concern since the 1970s over the actual safety of any coal tar dyes (and coal tar itself), primarily in terms of links to childhood behavioral problems and cancer.

In the early 1970s, a doctor from California proposed the idea that artificial dyes and flavors were causing or exacerbating hyperactivity in children (ADHD), although he didn’t have much evidence to support this theory. The possible link was studied, but any connection was deemed statistically insignificant. However, in the early 2000s, two studies confirmed a small, but significant influence of artificial dye on behavior in British children. The EU decided this was enough to warrant a warning label on foods, but the FDA dismissed the idea of a warning due to a lack of overwhelming evidence. However, many consumers, and parents especially, are choosing products that are free of artificial dyes. Over the years, we have gathered anecdotal evidence of behavioral changes in children from consuming artificial dyes. So at what point do these personal accounts become solid evidence, not just anecdotes?

Scientists have discovered that Blue No. 1 is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, but there is no research on the health impacts of this occurrence. This barrier is supposed to protect us from toxins, so if some petrochemicals can cross it, how might that affect our brains and biological functions?

Coal tar itself is a known carcinogen and can be contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic chemicals; the EWG gives it a score of 10, with ample data for support. The EWG scale is 0-10 with 10 being extremely hazardous. It’s also a skin allergen and irritant. Ironically, coal tar is used in many treatments for eczema and psoriasis; it does not cure these conditions, it merely temporarily relieves symptoms and masks the underlying problem.

There is insufficient data to say whether topically applied coal tar and its dyes are linked to cancer, but this is where the precautionary principle comes into play. Given what we know about coal tar and petrochemicals, it just seems unsafe to use them at all.

On a personal note, I used a prescription eczema cream when I was in my late teens/early 20s and my symptoms just spread and worsened over the years. As I learned about toxic chemicals, I realized my medicated cream contained petrochemicals linked to skin irritation. I stopped using it and eliminated all skin products with petrochemicals – it was a world of difference. My eczema subsided and quickly vanished. I haven’t had any flare ups of my eczema in about 7 years.

How to spot coal tar and dyes

Coal tar and its distillates have many names. Look for any of these on ingredient labels:

Coal tar solution, tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin.

Color additives are usually towards the bottom of an ingredient list. Look for these:

FD&C: Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, Red No. 3 and Red No. 40. Orange B and Citrus Red No. 2 (allowed, but with restricted use).

D&C: Black No. 2, Black No. 3, Green No. 5, Orange No. 5, Red No. 6, Red No. 7, Red No. 21, Red No. 22, Red No. 27, Red No. 28, Red No. 30, Red No. 33, Red No. 36, and Yellow No. 10.

Lakes: These dyes are made from FD&C colors and then prepared using metal salts as binders to prevent color bleeding.

Additionally, P-phenylenediamine is a specific coal tar dye that is approved for use in hair dyes, although a warning label that it can irritate the skin must accompany it. There is strong epidemiological evidence linking this chemical to tumor growth and cancer.

Note on ingredient labels: Color additives may also include a CI (Color Index) number, which is the European Union method of identification. This applies to all color additives, including non-petrochemicals like titanium dioxide and Annatto.

Status on this issue?

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), the FDA does regulate color additives in food and cosmetic products. All food-coloring additives must be labeled, with the exception of dyes that come from vegetables, minerals, or animals. The ambiguous “natural color” is most likely not some crafty way of hiding toxic chemicals.

FD&C dyes are approved for food, whereas D&C colors are allowed in “non-food” items, like personal care products or medicine/drugs. This situation is an example of how ridiculously weak citizen health protection is – we still absorb chemicals through our skin that can cause bodily harm and why would an ingredient be unsafe in food, yet acceptable for medicine that’s ingested?

If you want to learn more about the specific dyes and their usage, see the FDA’s Additive Status List.

So, I do have some good news! A handful of companies are starting to remove artificial dyes from their products regardless of laws or regulations. They’re switching to natural sources of dyes, including turmeric, beets, paprika, and annatto.

Companies switching include Nestlé USA, General Mills, Kraft, Frito-Lay, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s, and Mondelez International (Oreos/Sour Patch Kids). Black Forest Gummies are another candy that does not contain artificial dye. The list of foods available without toxic dyes is certainly growing! Just keep checking those labels to find safe products, support or encourage companies that are eliminating toxic dyes, and keep demanding safer ingredients from all companies!

 

References:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/09/magazine/blue-food-coloring-mars-company.html
http://www.healthychild.org/easy-steps/dont-use-products-made-with-coal-tar-dyes/
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-artificial-food-coloring-contribute-to-adhd-in-children/
https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/701514/COAL_TAR/#.WZOAlSiGNEY
http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/coal-tar/
https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/products/ucm143066.htm
http://davidsuzuki.org/issues/health/science/toxics/chemicals-in-your-cosmetics—coal-tar-dyes/
http://www.personalcarecouncil.org/colors-cosmetics-regulation-and-nomenclature-united-states
http://ifc-solutions.com/fdc-dyes-and-lakes/
https://www.fda.gov/forindustry/coloradditives/coloradditiveinventories/ucm106626.htm
http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/03/30/fda.food.dye.health/index.html

Plastics: Microbeads

Microbead Facts:

  • Microbeads are 5mm or smaller.
  • Using microbead products for one shower can release 100,000 beads down the drain.
  • One cleansing product can have up to 360,000 microbeads.
  • NY State alone dumps 19 tons of microbeads down the drain every year.

I remember in high school I used this Neutrogena exfoliating gel facewash and sometimes I would squeeze a tiny amount into my fingers and feel around for those tiny orange beads. I would squish them between my fingers and wonder what they were made from, and sometimes I’d test them with my nails to see if they could pop or break open. Back then, I had no idea about all of the toxins in the world or the plethora of ecological impacts from our consumerist society. So naturally, I had no idea those little balls of exfoliating material were actually plastic. Or how terrible those tiny plastic beads were.

Chances are you’ve used some product with microbeads. Companies put them in everything including toothpaste, face wash, body wash, and lotions. If you’re like me, you probably find it weird that you’re washing your face or your body with plastic! So why do companies use these instead of the many wonderful natural exfoliating alternatives? Why else – money! Microbeads are cheaper than natural exfoliates, and they don’t work as well, which means you can use it every day, use up the product faster, and buy it more often.

Microbeads are typically 5 mm in diameter or smaller. They’re commonly made from polyethylene, but can also be made from other petrochemicals like polypropylene and polystyrene. These chemicals are also used in their non-solid form in personal care products, so you may see polyethylene in an ingredient list, but this doesn’t necessarily mean there are microbeads present. If the use of microbeads aren’t already disclosed on the label, you can identify them in a product by the grainy texture.

Microbeads are a huge environmental concern, and they pose a threat to human health:

Water filtration systems cannot catch these tiny plastic pieces, so they wash straight into lakes, rivers, and oceans. Microbeads don’t break down in the environment; plastic in general doesn’t degrade, it simply breaks into smaller pieces. This leads to a massive accumulation of tiny bits of plastic all over the world.

Microbeads are like sponges for toxins. They absorb and release toxic chemicals like PCBs and pesticides. This is why Greenpeace apparently calls them “toxic time bombs”.

Animals consume microbeads either by accident or because they think the beads are food. This can cause problems in a few ways. First, animals can starve to death because microbeads, and other plastics, fill up the animal’s stomach, making it impossible for them to eat enough real food. Many whales, seals, fish, and even sea birds, are found dead on beaches; cutting them open reveals a belly full of plastic.

Second, microbeads and microplastics (bits that used to be bigger plastic pieces) can actually pass through to the bloodstream or muscles. Foreign objects in the body disrupt normal biological functions.

Third, microbeads can release the toxic chemicals they absorbed. Additionally, some microbeads are small enough to enter plankton, worms, and other tiny organisms, greatly disrupting metabolic functions.

Microbeads are also working their way up the food chain into human bodies; fish eat the microbeads and we eat the fish. Thus, microbeads can accumulate in our bodies, potentially causing problems by entering our bloodstream, releasing toxic chemicals, or settling in our stomachs.

What is being done?

Governments all over the world are passing laws to ban microbeads, at least for use in personal care products. Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015, requiring all cosmetics companies to remove microbeads from personal care products by July 2017 (last month!). Some companies have even stepped up and pledged to phase out the use of microbeads in their products. L’Oreal, Lush, and Unilever are some of the companies that have already started phasing them out of products. The next step in addressing this problem is to target the use of microbeads in other products like laundry detergents.

 

The abundance of plastic in our environment and our bodies has become ridiculous. Microbeads are just one more source of plastic pollution. The next post in my series on plastics will address this issue on a broader scale and provide some history on the use of plastics.

 

Resources:
http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/30/health/obama-bans-microbeads/index.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/obama-microbead-ban-fail_us_57432a7fe4b0613b512ad76b
http://storyofstuff.org/plastic-microbeads-ban-the-bead/
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/08/microbead-ban-should-include-all-products-washed-down-the-drain-say-campainers
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/19/microplastics-which-beauty-brands-are-safe-to-use
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microbead
https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/what-are-plastic-microbeads-and-why-should-we-ban-them-20160114/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/01/08/micro-plastic-beads-ocean-what_n_8933204.html

Story of Stuff Project

I highly recommend everyone check out the Story of Stuff Project, founded by Annie Leonard in 2007 after her video titled “Story of Stuff” went viral. She also has a book by the same title that was published in 2011.

The project’s mission is addressing a major problem we have today: too much stuff. Our culture of hyper-consumerism is counter-productive to our happiness, and it’s polluting our environment and our bodies.

On their website, you can find resources and tools for getting involved and being a change maker. Their videos, which total about 14 at this point, dig into a number of important problems and challenges we face, including bottled water, corporate influence in our society, and toxic chemicals in our consumer products.

Annie Leonard is the narrator for most of the videos, and she has a great style of engaging with the audience. She makes points clear, concise, and interesting. In addition, she focuses on what can be done. The cornerstone of this project is about developing communities, and bringing people together to find solutions and take action on these issues. Considering how easy it is to lose hope given the state of the world, I think this perspective of optimism and civic action is essential!

You can watch all of the project’s videos here: http://storyofstuff.org/movies/

Causality versus Correlation: Why don’t we just outright say chemicals cause illness?

In the realm of toxic-free and safer consumer products, you might have noticed that when we refer to chemical health risks we tend to use phrases like, “may increase risk of…” or “connected to” rather than simply saying a chemical “causes” an illness.

Why is this? There are two main reasons, which are tightly connected:

1. We don’t want to overstate claims of causality and lose everyone

One problem the non-toxic movement struggles with is keeping people engaged in forward momentum to change things without scaring everyone away with alarmist or extremist sounding claims. To claim that a chemical causes disease without 100% proof or sufficient evidence, we’re embellishing the truth, simplifying the facts, and we risk discrediting everything completely. While there is strong evidence that there are connections between illnesses and toxic chemicals, toxicologists and ecologists working on these issues work hard to present the information truthfully and in keeping with scientific data.

2. We cannot guarantee causality 100% with the majority of chemicals we suspect to be toxic

Why is this? There are a few reasons, but they come down to a lack of clear, concrete data on the isolated and synergisticˆ impacts of chemicals.

Temporal and spatial disparities:

This is a fancy way of saying that time and space put distance between exposure and illness, creating complexities of pinpointing causes. For example, PCBs are found in areas incredibly far away from anywhere they were actually used. Winds and water currents have moved them around the entire globe, and this is true with other chemicals as well. Additionally, exposure to a chemical in the womb may be the cause of developing a cancer later in life. Toxic chemicals move around so unrestricted, it’s hard to keep track of when and where exposure may have happened that resulted in an illness. On a population scale, some of the effects of chronic exposure to toxic chemicals may not be felt for a generation or two. Or different impacts will be felt generations later that might be hard to trace back to the original source. Today, men are facing decreased sperm counts, and many attribute this to generations of exposure to EDCsˆ.

Our entire world is contaminated:

Scientists are finding it difficult to conduct studies properly due to contamination of our environment, often times eliminating the availability for a control. One example of this situation is from the late 1980s, when two scientists were attempting to conduct studies on breast cancer cell growth in the presence of estrogen. They found all of their cell tissues contaminated with a mystery source of estrogen, which was throwing off their tightly controlled cell experiments. Research halted. At a total loss for answers, they even suspected sabotage at one point. Finally, they tracked down the contamination source to the plastic tubes used to store blood. Chemicals from the tubes, which they’d long assumed to be inert, were leaching into the blood and contaminating it with estrogen. On a broader scale, it’s difficult to assess human health impacts from exposure when all of us are polluted to some degree.

There was little testing conducted to begin with:

Thousands of chemicals were introduced to consumer markets without proper testing of each chemical, let alone testing for synergistic impacts. With some chemicals, it’s hard to say which one causes a problem, or if health risks only appear when chemicals are used in certain combinations. We don’t really know because no one bothered to check that carefully.

The impacts of toxic chemicals are often subtle, rather than direct and obvious:

With some toxins, illness caused is simple to identify because it happens quickly and directly. This is the case with extreme exposure to radiation, or acute poisoning from certain heavy metals. Many pesticides used during the 1950s/1960s had clear and often immediate health consequences for humans and the environment. However, many toxic chemicals on the market today change DNA and slowly impair bodily functions, or cause unseen damage to fetuses. Considering how many chemicals we are exposed to, sometimes it can be hard to identify which one might be the culprit.

 

The current evidence against toxic chemicals remains in the area of correlation. One exception is the case of the DES Daughters. DES (diethylstilbestrol), banned in 1971, was a synthetic estrogen drug given to women during the 1940s and 1950s to prevent miscarriages. The effects of DES were realized after doctors in Boston saw a startling increase in young women with an extremely rare form of vaginal cancer. The mothers of these young women had all taken DES while pregnant. Most of the health impacts of DES were not present at birth, but began to appear as the women reached puberty, childbearing age, and mid-life. DES Daughters are twice as likely to develop breast cancer, and face high rates of other ovarian and vaginal cancers, infertility, and reproductive organ deformities.

Possibly, if we can pinpoint extreme exposure cases or track and correlate specific habits and behaviors with chemical exposure, we may find stronger links between health risks and specific chemicals.

 

References:

https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/colloquium/2014/06/03/toxic-talk-breast-cancer-rhetoric-toxicity-and-the-tyranny-of-cheerfulness/
Endocrine Disrupting Compounds and Cancer in Wildlife and Humans (research paper written by me!)
Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
Not Just a Pretty Face by Stacy Malkan

ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.

Product decisions: BUY or DIY?

When switching away from toxic products, you can buy safer products or go the DIY route. In my years of doing both, I’ve found that some products are better suited for DIY projects and some you’re just better off buying from a company.

The determining factors that I use are product quality (how well it works), time investment to make it, and the cost of purchasing the different ingredients to make something good.

Here is, in my opinion, how different personal care items rank:

Soap: BUY

Homemade soap is awesome; my sister makes her own soap. However, there are risks with using lye, an unavoidable part of soap making, and from watching my sister make soap, there seems to be a heavy time and money investment. If you want a new hobby or a DIY project, time and money not a problem, then soap making could be a fun endeavor. However, if you just want a simple non-toxic soap to use, I suggest just buying one – there are lots of options on the market today.

Hair styling products: BUY

Some might disagree, but I feel like DIY styling products are difficult. Especially when it comes to gels, creams, and volume sprays. I like doing DIY sea salt spray, but that’s only after I got real ocean water from Hawaii. If I didn’t have that, I’d never make it myself.

Shampoo/condition: BUY

Same as above, it’s hard to get the product just right the way professionals do. DIY conditioner is great for moisture, but it’s not going to wash out fully. Professional conditioners are meant to be rinsed out without leftover residue. Same goes with shampoo unless you’re going really simple and doing an apple cider vinegar wash.

Eyeliner: BUY

I’ve done DIY eyeliner and it’s a huuuge pain in the ass! There are recipes for simple ones, but they never work. The only thing close to a good one will be with oils, beeswax, black oxide, and the right supplies. I think they have special molds you can get now, but when I did it, it was a slow and patience-testing process of dripping the mixture into an empty pencil casing. It was messy and took about 5 hours. Some of my pencils worked pretty well, but it takes time to get the recipe just right and you really need all the different ingredients and supplies to do it right. I say, just skip it and buy it unless you’re looking for a challenge and time is not a constraint!

Sunscreen: BUY

Don’t mess around with this kind of stuff, just buy it. I add oils with natural SPF to my moisturizers for everyday use, but if I’m slathering up to be in the sun (like going to the beach), I just use the professional product.

Deodorant: BUY

I guess you can make this, the ingredients are pretty simple, and there’s plenty of recipes out there. But after trying the DIY route myself, I found that buying from a company was just easier and better.

Shaving gel/soap: BUY

I found it easier to just buy something made for shaving, especially since I have sensitive skin. Homemade ones run the risk of not providing enough moisture to the area or creating an imbalanced product, leading to clogged razors and an unsmooth surface to run the blade over.

Toothpaste: BUY

Just buy it. That’s it.

Face wash: DIY or BUY

Depending on how you like to wash your face it can be fun to make a DIY project out of it or it can be easier to just buy something. I tend to be on the buying side for this one. But many people like doing the oil cleansing method. For face treatments and masques, I recommend just doing DIY. It can be fun and there’re some awesome recipes out there using household items and food.

Eye shadow: DIY or BUY

Depending on what you like, it can be fun to experiment with making your own mineral eye shadow. I’ve had difficulty getting pressed ones to come out right, but I’ve had success with creating heavy powders (with a few drops of oil). Micas and oxides are cheap, as are the other ingredients you might need, like kaolin clay or liquid glycerin. Just be careful working with loose powders – I always use a simple mask when I mix eye shadow.

Clay face masks: DIY

Clay is not expensive. It takes a little time and effort to get a smooth clay mixture, but nothing too intensive. You can customize adding oils and other ingredients depending on your needs.

Moisturizers: DIY               (lotion: BUY)

If you like simple body oils and butters, just mix your own. It’s not a huge investment to buy a few different oils and butters, and those supplies last a decent amount of time. Professional ones can be pricey for what they are sometimes, so I suggest if you do want to buy a body oil or butter, check the ingredients to ensure that you’re actually getting a product that is much more complex than anything you’d want to make at home.

One exception to the DIY recommendation is if you’re hesitant about using or investing the money in essential oils but love fragranced body moisturizers.

For lotion specifically, I recommend buying since it can be tricky to get the consistency just right and you need more ingredients.

Sugar scrubs: DIY

It’s literally just sugar and oil/butter – super easy to make and you can customize it depending on the sugar you buy and the oils/butters you want to use.

 

If anything is missing from this list and you’re curious my stance on it, please contact me or comment on this post!

The Aral Sea Crisis: Human-Nature Coupled System Case Study

In my recent post about the ecological impact of cotton, I mentioned the disaster of the Aral Sea. This post takes a closer look at this situation, as a case study of a human-nature coupled system.

First off, a human-nature coupled system, or a coupled human-environment system, is an analytical framework to understand the complex interactions between society and our environment. After learning about the Aral Sea as a case study of this, I think you’ll have a solid understanding of what this means.

Background:

The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest fresh water lake in the world, but now it’s mostly disappeared and the remaining water has turned salty.

The Aral Sea – once a booming fishing industry

This was caused by massive and inefficient irrigation systems for cotton cultivation, which diverted water from the rivers feeding the Aral, reducing the inflow of fresh water. Before the Russian Empire, and later the USSR, decided to make cotton a primary crop in the region, the sea supported a huge fishing industry. As the water turned salty and disappeared, fish populations dropped and previously coastal towns found themselves in the middle of a desert.

The geography of the region was originally a landscape of desert, semi-desert, dry steppes, and high mountains. The Aral Sea was surrounded by two large deserts, and was considered an oasis of the region. The lake was fed by rivers flowing from high mountain glaciers. The sea had many islands scattered about, with lagoons and shallow straits, which provided a healthy ecosystem for many plants and animals.

Abandon fishing boats in the desert that used to be water.

The Russian Empire, starting in the 1700s, conquered this region of Central Asia and it was fully part of Russia by the 1900s. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the region divided into five newly independent nations. This was jarring and the states had a difficult time adjusting to the loss of overarching infrastructure and control.

Currently, what is left of the Aral Sea spans Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but the Aral Sea Basin also includes parts of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

The Aral Sea Crisis:

The desiccation of the Aral Sea has profound social, economic, environmental, and public health ramifications in the region. There is a vast amount of literature on the Aral Sea crisis, and if you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I have resources at the end.

Stranded ships – Image by © Daniel Kreher/imageBROKER/Corbis

Here, I’m going to give you a condensed and visual representation of this crisis as a case study of human-nature coupled systems. The underpinning issue of this case study is that cotton production, which plays a major role in our consumerist society, requiring massive toxic chemicals, was the primary driver in this crisis. Considerations for environmental and human health were secondary to economic gains for monocropping cotton in terms of policy and planning.

For more information check out some of these sources:

LiveEarthDotOrg – Aral Sea Documentary (Youtube video 10 mins)

We are Water Foundation – Aral. The Lost Sea by Isabel Coixet (Youtube video 25 mins)

AJ+ Docs – The Salton Sea is Shrinking and Exposing Toxic Dust (youtube video 10 mins)

Aljazeera World – People of the Lake (article and 45 minute video)

Aljazeera – Uzbekistan: A dying sea, mafia rule, and toxic fish (news article)

United Nations Environment Program: The Future of the Aral Sea lies in Transboundary Cooperation

Karakalpak Center for Reproductive Health and Environment – Health and Ecological Consequences of the Aral Sea Crisis

Journal of Rural and Remote Environmental Health – The Aral Sea Environmental Health Crisis

ScienceDirect Journal of Eurasian Studies – Nature-Society Linkages in the Aral Sea Region

 

References:

http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/ShrinkingSeaNToxicDust.html
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S187936651200022X
https://na.unep.net/geas/getUNEPPageWithArticleIDScript.php?article_id=108
https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/2014/oct/01/cotton-production-linked-to-images-of-the-dried-up-aral-sea-basinhttp://jrtph.jcu.edu.au/vol/v01whish.pdf
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/06/uzbekistan-dying-sea-mafia-rule-toxic-fish-150610102819386.html
http://www.caee.utexas.edu/prof/mckinney/ce385d/papers/atanizaova_wwf3.pdf
https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/2014/oct/01/cotton-production-linked-to-images-of-the-dried-up-aral-sea-basin

Ditch your Baby Powder and use totally tubular Arrowroot Powder

Tubular is slang for awesome or cool, originating in Southern California during the 1970s/1980s. A Tuber is also a root vegetable. Like a potato.

I think many of us grew up with that smooth blue-tinged bottle of baby powder sitting on our bathroom shelf. It was a staple in my house, for our bums as babies, for sweaty feet, and for awkwardly chafing teenage thighs. Have you ever stopped to think about what is actually in that miracle powder? I finally did and now that bottle sits unused, shoved to the back of the closet.

The alternative? ARROWROOT POWDER! It’s amazing and it’s way better than talcum/talc powder*. Here’s the bottom line, and look below this chart for the gritty details.

Talc powder Arrowroot powder
― Mineral that is mined from ore.
― Mining damages ecosystems, and threatens wildlife like India’s tigers.
― Needs to be processed to remove asbestos and contaminants.
― May be linked to cancer if contaminated with asbestos.
― Occupational exposure increases risk of lung cancers and respiratory issues.
― Products contain toxic fillers and fragrance.
― Pro: keeps you dry and chafe-free.
― Plant based.
― Easy to grow and process.
― Simple, no extra chemicals.
― Powder is extracted using traditional low-heat methods.
― Can add your own scent with essential oils easily.
― Pro: keeps you dry and chafe-free.

Why do I love arrowroot powder so much?

It serves the same function as baby powder, but it’s simple, cheaper, and free of fragrance and toxic fillers.

Arrowroot powder is a starchy white powder extracted from the tropical plant species of Maranta arundinacea, originating from South America. Arrowroot is a tuber, similar to potatoes. Arrowroot cultivation dates back to between 8200 BCE and 5600 BCE, making it one of the oldest domesticated crops. Arrowroot plants are hardy, easy to grow, and require few external inputs to grow. From my research, it seems that plants yield a reasonable amount of final product so there is not issue with needing to plant massive crops to keep up with demand. Additionally, I could not find any information about issues concerning energy or toxic chemical use to assist in processing. On the contrary, it seems that arrowroot powder is still extracted using traditional low-heat methods, making it a pretty sustainable alternative to baby powder.

Old timey plant biology diagram of Arrowroot.

I read in a few places that sometimes arrowroot powder is combined with potato starch and marketed as simply arrowroot powder, but I’m skeptical of these claims given regulations on food labels and my inability to find concrete evidence of this practice. I will continue to look into this.

Arrowroot is used not just for personal care products, but it’s also a common replacement for cornstarch in foods (it’s gluten free). It’s a popular thickener for jams, soups, and sauces.

Where can you buy arrowroot powder? Literally everywhere! I buy mine in bulk at PCC Natural Markets, but Bob’s Red Mill makes some and their products are sold in the baking aisle of most grocery stores. You can also find it on Amazon, Vitacost, and other online stores.

Arrowroot is so much more interesting because it’s so simple:

Baby powder appeals to some people because of the fragrance, but as we learned in previous posts fragrance is something to avoid in personal care products. If you want a nice body powder with a fragrance, you can easily buy essential oils, botanical fragrance oils, and extracts to add to your arrowroot powder. You have flexibility to choose your own scent – you’re no longer constrained by the marketing gods of Johnson & Johnson!

DIY projects for all-over body powders are becoming more popular and arrowroot is a great base for these. You can add cocoa powder, cinnamon, and micas to give your powder some color or shimmer. I like adding citrus essential oils and a light silver mica to my body powder during the summer.

Then, if you’re feeling really adventurous and DIYing it up, you can even grow arrowroot plants and make your own powder! Here are a couple resources I found about this:

 

The problem with talc:

Talc ore is the softest mineral in the world, composed primarily of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. As an ore, it contains asbestos. Commercially sold talcum powder is supposed to be asbestos free, but the risk of contamination is a concern. A study in 2011 found that approximately 60% of baby powder in Korea contained asbestos. Multiple agencies, including the EPA and the NTPˆ consider asbestos a known human carcinogen. That means it’s linked to cancers, primarily lung and ovarian cancer.

The cancer risk of talc powder is unclear, with many agencies suggesting that asbestos in talc is not a big concern. Maybe that’s true? I don’t know for sure, and they are still conducting tests on this issue. But, do you really love your baby powder that much to risk the possibility if there’s a perfectly good alternative?

The possible link between baby powder and ovarian cancer gained widespread media attention last year when Johnson & Johnson lost three court cases over the issue starting in 2014. Some new research indicated a link between talc-containing baby powders and ovarian cancer. The data was not 100% conclusive, but it was enough to raise suspicions and concern.

Risk of contamination was significant enough to cause the European Commission to restrict the use of talc in consumer products.

Additionally, there is concern over the ecological impact of mining and the health risk to miners and factory workers in processing plants. Talc powder is a possible occupational hazard linked to lung irritation, respiratory problems, and cancer.

Another alternative to baby powder is cornstarch. It’s simple and affordable, although corn has it’s own plethora of issues being a major industrial monocrop. Partly for those reasons, and because I just like doing the different thing, I’ve always been a huge fan of arrowroot powder.

 

Safety note: It’s always important to be careful when handling any loose powder that has a chance of floating all over. I use a mask when handling my mineral cosmetics and mixing powders.

*Talc has many applications, and some might be just fine, but I’m focusing specifically on personal care products here.

 

References

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/talcum-powder-and-cancer.html
http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/talc/
https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/jun/22/world.antonybarnett
http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/25/health/talc-safety-explainer-hln/index.html
https://www.consumersafety.org/products/talcum-powder/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maranta_arundinacea
https://downshiftology.com/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-arrowroot-powder/
http://www.theecologist.org/green_green_living/behind_the_label/462086/behind_the_label_talcum_powder.html

ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.