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Say This, Not That: How to Responsibly Talk About Toxic Chemicals

Communicating about toxic chemicals is hard. Both because it’s not the kind of topic that makes you popular at parties, but also the science around environmental health is wildly complex and can’t be fit into simplified statements or clear rules.

And if there is one thing we want these days, it’s for everything to be black and white. <More commentary on this binary and toxic way of thinking in the future>

But by design, science isn’t black and white. The field of environmental science looks at how our environments (including the built environment of products) impacts our health. Everything from second hand cigarette smoke, air pollution, lead paint, pesticides and chemicals in personal care products falls under the banner of this credible field of science. When people hit their keyboards however, simplified or unintentionally overstated phrases have started to erode people’s confidence in a peer-review based field.

I’ve been trained by the best researchers on how to be an effective communicator in the field of environmental health and I spend a lot of time making sure people don’t overstate the science (you can follow me on Instagram for some daily doses). I spend so much time on proper science communication, because when people overstate the science (usually innocently), the entire movement for removing toxic chemicals from consumer products is undermined.

Say This, Not That

Inaccurate: Your shampoo will give you cancer!

Accurate: Some shampoos contain ingredients that have been linked to harmful health effects like cancer. If we have the opportunity to make safer shampoos, shouldn’t we?

Scientific Rationale: When discussing health effects of certain chemicals, always say something is “linked to” rather than “causes”. This small choice of words is critical to be an effective communicator because it shows your audience that disease is multi-factorial. The goal here is to remove unnecessary exposures and contributing factors to disease, not claim that routine exposures are directly giving someone cancer.

Inaccurate: Look for preservative-free brands, preservatives are toxic.

Accurate: Preservatives are important to maintain the integrity of product formulas and prevent the growth of mold, yeast and bacteria. They are inherently more hazardous since they are designed to kill these unwanted organisms. Given that, some preservatives are known to be toxic and should be removed from beauty and personal care products.

Scientific Rationale: Demonizing an entire class of chemicals that serve an important function is not helpful to the industry or conversation around the need for safer preservatives. We need consumers asking for better preservatives, not the absence of them.

Inaccurate: You should only wear lead-free lipstick.

Accurate: If you’re interested in in wearing cosmetics that have been screened for heavy metals, ask the companies you buy from if, how and the frequency in which they test for heavy metals.

Scientific Rationale: No company can claim to be lead free. It’s not a thing since heavy metals are literally everywhere and are contaminants (not added to products, but tag along in the raw material sourcing). Companies should however be testing for heavy metals, using sensitive testing equipment and establishing health protective safety limits.

Inaccurate: Did you know it only takes 26 seconds for your body to absorb the products you put on your skin?

Accurate: Every day we are exposed to various chemicals from the products we use on our skin. Some of them are perfectly safe, and in other cases some toxic chemicals are absorbed by the skin and enter our bodies at levels that have called scientists to demand action by our government leaders. I care deeply about this issue and want people to know about options for safer products that are made without harmful chemicals.

Scientific Rationale: There is no scientific research to back up this claim. Chemicals enter the body (or don’t, as I outlined above) at varying rates and degrees.

Inaccurate: There are no regulations on beauty products in the U.S.

Accurate: The U.S. has modest and incomplete regulations of the beauty industry, none of which focus on making sure the ingredients used in beauty products are screened for safety prior to entering the market. We must update legislation—that dates back to 1938—to make sure ingredients are safe prior to going to the market.

Policy Rationale: Some laws overseeing the beauty industry have passed since 1938, but none of them are major and none of them give the FDA the ability to screen ingredients for safety or recall toxic products. The 1960s ushered in the Fair Labeling Act which increased ingredient transparency for consumers (outside the fragrance loophole). There are basic requirements for companies bringing products to market including basic skin sensitizing tests (called RIPT), vague parameters around products not being adultered (meaning products should be adequately preserved), and sunscreen/OTC products require additional testing. These tests however, are the bare minimum and do not require an ingredient to be tested for health to human safety and the environment.

Inaccurate: Try this chemical free product, free of toxins!

Accurate: This product is free of toxic chemicals and harmful ingredients!

Scientific Rationale: Everything is a chemical, so “chemical free” doesn’t exist. What people mean to say is that this product is without harmful ingredients. Equally important, the term “toxin” is commonly misused. By definition a toxin is a naturally occurring poison (like snake venom), so please use phrases like harmful or toxic ingredients/chemicals.

Inaccurate: Natural ingredients are safer, shop synthetic free!

Accurate: Shop with brands who screen ingredients for safety, regardless of if they are sourced from nature or a lab.

Scientific Rationale: Some naturally derived ingredients can be toxic (ie some essential oils, natural colorants can have heavy metal contamination) and some synthetic ingredients can be perfectly safe. In some cases synthetic ingredients can be safer and have less sustainability concerns. Brands and governments must screen ingredients against safety endpoints prior to using them in their products.

Inaccurate: PEGS are toxic, don’t buy or use any products with it!

Accurate: PEGs are ingredients commonly used in beauty products and pharmaceuticals. They are often contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogen. Try to avoid these in personal care products where possible, or ask your favorite beauty brand if they screen for 1,4 dioxane.

Scientific Rationale: A one time exposure to PEGs through pharmaceuticals is not a safety concern (realize that you may be exposed to more PEGs through using hand soap in public bathrooms). And PEGs are not inherently highly toxic, but rather the contamination is the biggest issue. With that in mind, avoiding PEGs in beauty products since there are many alternatives is nothing short of a good idea. Meanwhile, companies should and can look to test their supply of PEGs for 1,4 dioxane.

As you can see accurate messaging is always longer, because context matters. Please join me in doing your part by understanding what it means to be an effective communicator around the field of environmental health. By doing so, we will maintain credibility of this important transition of our material economy.

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