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The Science Behind Clean Beauty

The chemical industry used to be the only naysayers of the field of environmental health science and the times have clearly changed. You can’t scroll through instagram without seeing influencers, beauty editors and entire accounts dedicated to “debunking” the science behind clean beauty.

The chemical industry is smiling.

Here’s the deal, much of the information that these accounts are sharing information I agree with (check out my clean beauty myth busting stories on Instagram), but often times they are overlooking the decades worth of peer-reviewed science, because all they see is an opportunity to attack someone touting the effectiveness of a jade egg for your vagina.

In case it isn’t clear, I don’t recommend putting a jade egg in your vagina, nor will I claim that essential oils will cure cancer or that all preservatives are toxic. Unfortunately, there have been so many people overstating the science around our daily exposures to chemicals, there is a lot of fodder.

So what is fact and what is fiction, what does the science behind clean beauty actually say?

(Just want to review some of the scientific literature? You can also scroll to the very bottom to get just a few of the many peer-reviewed sources showcasing how everyday products contain harmful ingredients and what it means for our health.)

Environmental health is a field of science that has been around for decades

Think about how lead in gasoline was a bad idea, or how we know that corporations shouldn’t be dumping toxic chemicals into our drinking water sources, or how certain pesticides harm children’s intellectual development. This is the field of environmental health sciences and it has fundamentally altered how and what we know about chemicals and our health. And some of the world’s most respected researchers have found links between chemicals used in beauty products and harm, simply put.

Are those exposures the only routes or factors in developing disease? Certainly not, but that doesn’t negate the need for companies to do better and put more rigor in the screening of their ingredients. Nor does it let government leaders off the hook for taking action.

The weight of evidence matters too of course (this means, is there enough evidence to call us to action, rater than just one outlier study). And that’s the problem, the weight of evidence around certain chemicals in beauty products, does call us to action. These influencers may not be familiar with the science.

There is a tension between traditional toxicologists and environmental health scientists

Many people will say, “but the dose makes the poison! Even water is toxic if you drink too much of it!” Yes, this is true.

It’s also true that certain chemicals are more toxic at lower doses (case in point, endocrine disrupting chemicals). And the cumulative effect of low dose exposure over a lifetime is not factored into traditional toxicology. So a black and white approach using only traditional toxicology is not reflective of the latest science—think about it as your grandpa’s generation of science—there is some merit, but we’ve learned a lot since the 1950s.

For more on how the “dose makes the poison”, this article by Pesticide Action Network is one of the best articles breaking down the science (and keep in mind so much more is known than when this was published in 2008!).

Overstating the science & scare tactics have done this field a disservice

You will never hear me say things like “chemical-free” (it’s not a thing), claim that your shampoo will give you cancer, misuse the term “toxin”, or claim that wearing bra will contribute to breast cancer. The science doesn’t support those claims yet unfortunately, some people who are seeking a healthier lifestyle have been making these proclamations freely. I do not fault people for not understanding the nuances of the science since it’s incredibly complicated. I had to be trained my leading PhD’s for years on how to effectively share the science around environmental exposures and I still don’t always get everything right! And yet, we all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard to make sure what we are posting on social media is scientifically accurate.

Take another example of preservatives, which are highly necessary to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria in skin care products. Some preservatives have been linked to health effects and some have not. You can read my article “No, Phenoxyethanol is Not the New Paraben” and “8 Myths About Preservatives in Skin Care Products” for a better understanding of how not to overstate or misrepresent the scientific research.

Scientific consensus statements showcase the breadth of peer-reviewed science

“Scientific consensus papers” are when leading researchers compile all of their peer-reviewed literature and make a collective statement. These are credible (if the scientists are and the papers are peer-reviewed and published in credible journals). For example, there have been scientific consensus papers on how flame retardants can impair brain function, climate change impacts to our environment and how our use of fossil fuels is to blame, how formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, triclosan‘s toxicity, and the impacts of hormone disrupting chemicals.

This isn’t some small, niche field of research, hundreds of scientists and thousands of peer-reviewed papers tell a story of caution.

Mainstream medical organizations have weighed in

Major medical institutions have created statements showing toxic chemicals in consumer products are a threat to human health. The credibility and weight behind these medical organizations should not be ignored:

And decades worth of research from credible universities include:

  • Boston College
  • Duke University
  • George Washington University
  • Harvard University
  • Mount Sinai
    New York University
  • Tufts University
  • University of California Berkley
  • University of California San Fransisco

Critiques overlook impacts to people of color

The articles and social media posts I’ve seen about how clean beauty is anti-science and all a scam, does a huge disservice to overexposed populations, namely women of color. To dismiss this field of science is to also dismiss that women of color are exposed to toxic chemicals at alarming rates as compared to their white counterparts. And peer-reviewed literature shows how those exposures can lead to negative health outcomes.

Environmental exposures are just one exposure pathway, but they are one we can control

Cancer, hormone disruption, neurotoxicity and other health impacts come from a variety of factors: genetics, environmental exposures, lifestyle, nutrition, etc. While we can’t prevent all exposures to harmful chemicals (also read “I Had My Body Tested for Toxic Chemicals and This is What I Learned“) and we can’t control things like our genetics, there are something we can do to prevent exposure.

If there is so much we can’t control, it is okay to want to control and limit your exposure to environmental factors like household cleaners, toys, furniture and your personal care products.

In fact, research like this from UC Berkley, show that switching to clean beauty products can reduce the amount of these harmful ingredients in your body, in three short days.

Some companies make claims that give the clean beauty industry a bad rap

Greenwashing is a thing (making a product seem more eco-friendly than it is through marketing terms and packaging selections) and so is making egregious or scary claims when marketing clean beauty products. They are both inexcusable and I encourage companies who play in this space to spend a lot of time and care making sure you’re not overstating something to convert consumers.

Hopefully this helps you better understand that the truth is always somewhere in between what you see on the internet. When it comes to science communication, it’s important that we all use the proper context and framing when discussing environmental pollution from our products and natural environments.

It’s also important for everyone to read and research environmental health science before making claims that the entire clean beauty industry is BS. In fact, the clean beauty industry was built in response to a body of peer-reviewed research that called the industry to do better and just because “clean” itself isn’t regulated, doesn’t mean there isn’t validity to seeking out clean products.

Simply dismissing someone trying to do what they can to control certain elements of their health is not only ignorant, it’s insulting to the hundreds of researchers who have been diligently bringing this field of science to the front of our consciousness.

Enjoy this article? You may also want to read “Science Wars” Are Not New: How to Navigate Credible Science vs. Conspiracy Theory.

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Show me the studies!

And for those of you who just want to read through some of the scientific literature to see for yourself, here is a list of the very tip of the environmental health iceberg. (Apologies for the formatting enthusiasts, I don’t have time to make all the citations the same due to newborn woes, thanks for understanding!)

Zota AR, Shamasunder B. The environmental injustice of beauty: framing chemical exposures from beauty products as a health disparities concern. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2017; 217:418 e1- e6. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2017.07.020. Epub 2017/08/20.

Branch F, Woodruff TJ, Mitro SD, Zota AR. Vaginal douching and racial/ethnic disparities in phthalates exposures among reproductive-aged women: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2004. Environ Health. 2015; 14:1-8. doi: 10.1186/s12940-015-0043-6. Environmental pollution. 2020:267.DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2020.115427

A proposed framework for the systematic review and integrated assessment (SYRINA) of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Environ Health. 2016; 15(1):74. PMID: 27412149. Vandenberg LN, Ågerstrand M, Beronius A, Beausoleil C, Bergman Å, Bero LA, Bornehag CG, Boyer CS, Cooper GS, Cotgreave I, Gee D, Grandjean P, Guyton KZ, Hass U, Heindel JJ, Jobling S, Kidd KA, Kortenkamp A, Macleod MR, Martin OV, Norinder U, Scheringer M, Thayer KA, Toppari J, Whaley P, Woodruff TJ, Rudén C. View in: PubMed 

Application of the Navigation Guide systematic review methodology to the evidence for developmental and reproductive toxicity of triclosan. Environ Int. 2016 Jul-Aug; 92-93:716-28. PMID: 27156197. Johnson PI, Koustas E, Vesterinen HM, Sutton P, Atchley DS, Kim AN, Campbell M, Donald JM, Sen S, Bero L, Zeise L, Woodruff TJ. View in: PubMed 

Moving from awareness to action on preventing patient exposure to toxic environmental chemicals. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2016 May; 214(5):555-8. PMID: 27126615. Sutton PM, Giudice LC, Woodruff TJ. View in: PubMed 

Direct measurement of Bisphenol A (BPA), BPA glucuronide and BPA sulfate in a diverse and low-income population of pregnant women reveals high exposure, with potential implications for previous exposure estimates: a cross-sectional study. Environ Health. 2016; 15(1):50. PMID: 27071747. Gerona RR, Pan J, Zota AR, Schwartz JM, Friesen M, Taylor JA, Hunt PA, Woodruff TJ. View in: PubMed 

Erratum to: A round robin approach to the analysis of bisphenol a (BPA) in human blood samples. Environ Health. 2016; 15(1):43. PMID: 26956378. Vandenberg LN, Gerona RR, Kannan K, Taylor JA, van Breemen RB, Dickenson CA, Liao C, Yuan Y, Newbold RR, Padmanabhan V, Vom Saal FS, Woodruff TJ. View in: PubMed 

Assessing the quality of evidence in environmental and occupational health. Environ Int. 2016 Jul-Aug; 92-93:611-6. PMID: 26827182. Morgan RL, Thayer KA, Bero L, Bruce N, Falck-Ytter Y, Ghersi D, Guyatt G, Hooijmans C, Langendam M, Mandrioli D, Mustafa RA, Rehfuess EA, Rooney AA, Shea B, Silbergeld EK, Sutton P, Wolfe MS, Woodruff TJ, Verbeek JH, Holloway AC, Santesso N, Schünemann HJ. View in: PubMed 

International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics opinion on reproductive health impacts of exposure to toxic environmental chemicals. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2015 Dec; 131(3):219-25. PMID: 26433469. Di Renzo GC, Conry JA, Blake J, DeFrancesco MS, DeNicola N, Martin JN, McCue KA, Richmond D, Shah A, Sutton P, Woodruff TJ, van der Poel SZ, Giudice LC. View in: PubMed 

Persistent organic pollutants exposure in newborn dried blood spots and infant weight status: A case-control study of low-income Hispanic mother-infant pairsGross, Rachel S; Ghassabian, Akhgar; Vandyousefi, Sarvenaz; Messito, Mary Jo; Gao, Chongjing; Kannan, Kurunthachalam; Trasande, Leonardo

International journal of obesity (2005). 2020:44(11):2225-2235.DOI: 10.1038/s41366-020-00672-7

Fetal exposure to phthalates and bisphenols and childhood general and organ fat. A population-based prospective cohort studySol, Chalana M; Santos, Susana; Duijts, Liesbeth; Asimakopoulos, Alexandros G; Martinez-Moral, Maria-Pilar; Kannan, Kurunthachalam; Philips, Elise M; Trasande, Leonardo; Jaddoe, Vincent W V

Environment international. 2020:146.DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106160

Association of urinary bisphenols during pregnancy with maternal, cord blood and childhood thyroid functionDerakhshan, Arash; Philips, Elise M; Ghassabian, Akhgar; Santos, Susana; Asimakopoulos, Alexandros G; Kannan, Kurunthachalam; Kortenkamp, Andreas; Jaddoe, Vincent W V; Trasande, Leonardo; Peeters, Robin P; Korevaar, Tim I M

PLoS medicine. 2020:17(10).DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003384

Serially assessed bisphenol A and phthalate exposure and association with kidney function in children with chronic kidney disease in the US and Canada: A longitudinal cohort studyJacobson, Melanie H; Wu, Yinxiang; Liu, Mengling; Attina, Teresa M; Naidu, Mrudula; Karthikraj, Rajendiran; Kannan, Kurunthachalam; Warady, Bradley A; Furth, Susan; Vento, Suzanne; Trachtman, Howard; Trasande, Leonardo

Environmental health. 2020:19(1).DOI: 10.1186/s12940-020-00644-4

A family of partial-linear single-index models for analyzing complex environmental exposures with continuous, categorical, time-to-event, and longitudinal health outcomesWang, Yuyan; Wu, Yinxiang; Jacobson, Melanie H; Lee, Myeonggyun; Jin, Peng; Trasande, Leonardo; Liu, Mengling

Environment international. 2020:144.DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106063

Fetal phthalates and bisphenols and childhood lipid and glucose metabolism. A population-based prospective cohort studySol, Chalana M; Santos, Susana; Duijts, Liesbeth; Asimakopoulos, Alexandros G; Martinez-Moral, Maria-Pilar; Kannan, Kurunthachalam; Jaddoe, Vincent W V; Trasande, Leonardo

JAMA network open. 2020:3(8).DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.11620

Association Between Bisphenol A Exposure and Risk of All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality in US AdultsBao, Wei; Liu, Buyun; Rong, Shuang; Dai, Susie Y; Trasande, Leonardo; Lehmler, Hans-Joachim

Lancet. Diabetes & endocrinology. 2020:8(8):719-730.DOI: 10.1016/S2213-8587(20)30128-5

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: economic, regulatory, and policy implicationsKassotis, Christopher D; Vandenberg, Laura N; Demeneix, Barbara A; Porta, Miquel; Slama, Remy; Trasande, Leonardo

Lancet. Diabetes & endocrinology. 2020:8(8):703-718.DOI: 10.1016/S2213-8587(20)30129-7

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: implications for human health Kahn, Linda G; Philippat, Claire; Nakayama, Shoji F; Slama, Rémy; Trasande, Leonardo

Urinary bisphenol A concentrations are associated with reproductive parameters in young men Environmental Research, ISSN: 0013-9351, Vol: 161, Page: 122-128 Publication Year 2018 ResearchersShanna H Swan PhD

Landrigan PJ, Fuller R, Fisher S, Chiles TC, Sly P, Suk WA, Bose-O’Reilly S. Pollution and Children’s Health. Science of the Total Environment, in press, 2018.  

Landrigan PJ, Landrigan MM. Children & Environmental Toxins. What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press 2018.

Landrigan PJ, Fuller R, Acosta NJR, et al.  Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. Lancet 2018; 391:462-512.

Landrigan PJ, Fuller R, Hu H, Caravanos J, Cropper ML, Hanrahan D, Sandilya K, Chiles T, Kumar P, Suk WA.  Pollution and Global Health – An Agenda for Prevention.  Environ Health Perspect 2018.

Fuller R, Rahona E, Fisher S, Caravanos J, Webb D, Kass D, Matte T, Landrigan PJ.  Pollution and non-communicable disease: time to end the neglect. Lancet Planetary Health, 2, e96-e98, 2018.

Laborde A. Tomasina F, Bianchi F, Brune M-N, Buka I, Comba P, Corra L, Cori L, Duffert CM, Harari R, Iavarone I, McDiarmid MA, Gray KA, Sly PD, Soares A, Suk WA, Landrigan PJ.  Children’s Health in Latin America: The Influence of Environmental Exposures. Environ Health Perspect 123:201-209, 2015

Heindel JJ, Balbus J, Birnbaum L, Brune-Drisse MN, Grandjean P, Gray K, Landrigan PJ, Sly PD, Suk W, Cory Slechta D, Thompson C, Hanson M.  Developmental Origins of Health and Disease: Integrating Environmental Indluences. Endocrinology, 1-5, 2015

Grandjean P, Landrigan PJ.  Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. Lancet Neurol 13:330-338, 2014.

Landrigan PJ, Etzel RA (Editors). Textbook of Children’s Environmental Health. London: Oxford University Press, November 2013

Landrigan PJ, Goldman LR.  Children’s Vulnerability to Toxic Chemicals: A Challenge and Opportunity to Strengthen Health and Environmental Policy.  Health Affairs 30(5):842-850, 2011.

Wisnivesky JP, Teitelbaum S, Todd A, Boffetta P, Crane M, Crowley L, Dellenbaugh C, Harrison D, Herbert R, Hyun K, Jeon Y, Kaplan J, Katz C, Levin S, Luft B, Markowitz S, Moline J, Osbay F, Pietrzak R, Shapiro M, Sharma V, Skloot G, Southwick S, Stevenson L, Udasin I, Wallenstein S, Landrigan PJ. Persistence of multiple illnesses in World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers: a cohort study. Lancet 378: 888-897, 2011.

Landrigan PJ (Chair): Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Washington: National Academy Press, 1993.

Landrigan PJ, Whitworth RH, Baloh RW, Barthel WF, Staehling NW, Rosenblum BF:  Neuropsychological dysfunction in children with chronic low-level lead absorption. Lancet 1:708-712, 1975

Landrigan PJ, Gehlbach SH, Rosenblum BF, Shoults JM, Candelaria RM, Barthel WF, Liddle JA, Smrek AL, Staehling NW, Sanders JF:  Epidemic lead absorption near an ore smelter: the role of particulate lead. New Engl J Med 292:123-129, 1975

Soto AM, Sonnenschein C. 2020. From evidence of harm to public health policy: is there light at the end of the tunnel? A Commentary on “Update on the health effects of bisphenol A: Overwhelming evidence of harm”. Endocrinology 14: bqaa203. doi: 10.1210/endocr/bqaa203. Abstract

Soto AM, Sonnenschein C. 2020. Information, programme, signal: dead metaphors that negate the agency of organisms. Interdiscip Sci Rev. 45: 331-343. Abstract

Montévil M, Acevedo N, Schaeberle CM, Bharadwaj M, Fenton SE, Soto AM. 2020. A Combined Morphometric and Statistical Approach to Assess Nonmonotonicity in the Developing Mammary Gland of Rats in the CLARITY-BPA Study. Environ Health Perspect. 128(5):57001. doi: 10.1289/EHP6301. Abstract

Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2020. Over a century of cancer research: Inconvenient truths and promising leads. PLoS Biol. 18: e3000670. Abstract

Bich L, Mossio M, Soto AM. 2020. Glycemia regulation: From feedback loops to organizational closure. Front Physiol. 11:69. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2020.00069. eCollection 2020. Abstract

Hasan N, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2019. Vitamin D3 constrains estrogen’s effects and influences mammary epithelial organization in 3D cultures. Sci Rep. 9: 7423. Abstract

Rubin BS, Schaeberle CM, Soto AM. 2019. The case for BPA as an obesogen: Contributors to the controversy. Front Endocrinol. 10:30. Abstract

Liu Z, Speroni L, Quinn KP, Alonzo C, Pouli D, Zhang Y, Stuntz E, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM, Georgakoudi I. 2018. 3D organizational mapping of collagen fibers elucidates matrix remodeling in a hormone-sensitive 3D breast tissue model. Biomaterials 179: 96-108. Abstract

Acevedo N, Rubin BS, Schaeberle CM, Soto AM. 2018. Perinatal BPA exposure and reproductive axis function in CD-1 mice. Reprod Toxicol. 79: 39-46. Abstract

Soto AM, Sonnenschein C. 2018. Endocrine disruptors – putting the mechanistic cart before the phenomenological horse. Nat Rev Endocrinol. Epub ahead of print. Abstract

Sweeney MF, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2018. Characterization of MCF-12A cell phenotype, response to estrogens, and growth in 3D. Cancer Cell Int. 18: 43. Abstract

Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2017. An Integrative approach toward biology, organisms, and cancer. Methods Mol Biol 1702: 15-26. Abstract

Soto AM, Schaeberle C, Maier MS, Sonnenschein C, Maffini MV. 2017. Evidence of absence: Estrogenicity assessment of a new food-contact coating and the bisphenol used in its synthesis. Environ Sci Technol. 51: 1718-1726.  Abstract

Speroni L, Voutilainen M, Mikkola ML, Klager SA, Schaeberle CM, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2017. New insights into fetal mammary gland morphogenesis: differential effects of natural and environmental estrogens. Sci Rep. 7: 40806. Abstract

Soto AM, Longo G, Noble D. 2016. Preface to “From the century of the genome to the century of the organism: New theoretical approaches”. Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 122: 1-3.  Abstract

Montévil M, Speroni L, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2016. Modeling mammary organogenesis from biological first principles: Cells and their physical constraints. Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 122: 58-69. Abstract

Sonnenschein C, Soto A. 2016. Carcinogenesis explained within the context of a theory of organisms. Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 122:70-76. Abstract

Soto AM, Longo G, Miquel PA, Montevil M, Mossio M, Perret N, Pocheville A, Sonnenschein C. 2016. Toward a theory of organisms: Three founding principles in search of a useful integration. Prog Biophys Mol Biol. Epub ahead of print. Abstract

Schug TT, Johnson AF, Birnbaum LS, Colborn T, Guillette LJ Jr, Crews DP, Collins T, Soto AM, Vom Saal FS, McLachlan JA, Sonnenschein C, Heindel JJ. 2016. Minireview: Endocrine disruptors: Past lessons and future directions. Mol Endocrinol. 30: 833-847. Abstract

Soto AM, Longo G, Montévil M, Sonnenschein C. 2016. The biological default state of cell proliferation with variation and motility, a fundamental principle for a theory of organisms. Prog Biophys Mol Biol. Epub ahead of print. Abstract

Longo G, Soto AM. 2016. Why do we need theories? Prog Biophys Mol Biol. Epub ahead of print. Abstract

Zalko D, Soto AM, Canlet C, Tremblay-Franco M, Jourdan F, Cabaton NJ. 2016. Bisphenol A exposure disrupts neurotransmitters through modulation of transaminase activity in the brain of rodents. Endocrinology 157: 1736-1739. Abstract

Paulose T, Montévil M, Speroni L, Cerruti F, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2016. SAMA: A method for 3D morphological analysis. PLoS One 11: e0153022. Abstract

Speroni L, Sweeney MF, Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2016. A hormone-responsive 3D culture model of the human mammary gland epithelium. J Vis Exp. Feb 7 (108). Abstract

Sweeney MF, Hasan N, Soto AM, Sonnenschein C. 2016. Environmental endocrine disruptors: Effects on the human male reproductive system. Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 16: 341-357. Abstract

Sonnenschein C, Soto AM. 2015. Cancer metastases: So close and so far. J Natl Cancer Inst. 107.   Abstract

Soto AM, Sonnenschein C. 2015. Endocrine disruptors: DDT, endocrine disruption and breast cancer. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 11: 507-508.   Abstract


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