By Piyush Kumar December 2013 Throw away your chemical intensive shower gels, soaps and detergents that endanger your health, and return to our wealth of traditional options, advises Piyush Kumar There is a slow, but perceptible trend of people going back to organic foods as they have become aware of the dangers inherent in foods grown using synthetic pesticides and petroleum-based fertilisers, and contaminated with antibiotics, synthetic colours, and preservatives. However, even as we are increasingly becoming conscious of the ill-effects of consuming food containing chemicals, we inadvertently expose ourselves to toxic substances through our personal care products. Beauty products are toxic Once I happened to read the list of ingredients on the bottle of a popular brand of shampoo. It turned out to be a veritable chemical soup. Organisations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) have warned that a large number of the chemicals used in common personal care products can be harmful to health. Also, research by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics shows that out of the more than 10,000 chemicals used in personal care products, about 89 per cent have not gone through detailed human safety testing. Since many of these ingredients have been introduced recently, it is anybody’s guess what the long-term effects of the sustained use of these compounds would be. Advocacy groups like the ‘Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’ campaign and the David Suzuki Foundation have come up with lists of toxic chemicals found in everyday use personal care products and cosmetics along with their health effects, including: DEA (diethanolamine): Used as a foaming agent in shampoos and cleaning agents; skin and eye irritant, high doses can be carcinogenic Diethyl phthalate: Used as a fragrance in personal care products; endocrine disruptor, impacts normal development and reproductive health DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea: These products used as preservatives continuously release formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen BHA and BHT: Used as preservatives in cosmetics; found to be allergens and hormone-disruptors Methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben: Widely used as preservatives; known to be hormone disruptors, linked to kidney and liver damage, lead to skin aging and DNA damage Coal tar dyes: Used as colouring agents; many coal dyes show toxicity in animals, and have been banned in Europe Cyclotetrasiloxane, Dimethicone: Group of sili cone-based compounds used in hair products, deodorants and moisturisers; can cause harm to immune and reproductive systems, also influence the nervous system Triclosan: Used as an anti-bacterial agent in soaps, toothpastes, shampoos, and liquid hand soaps; Linked to liver damage, altered thyroid functioning, and increased antibiotic resistance You will find that most cosmetic products including shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, liquid soaps, hair gels, lip balms, facial makeup, nail polish, perfumes, and skin creams are largely chemical-based. Shockingly, a number of toxic chemicals are also used in baby products. Million-dollar industry The 20th century marked a turning point in moving away from natural products to synthetic chemical-based products for diverse applications. During World War ll, the petrochemical industry in the USA and other industrialised countries, was encouraged to produce synthetic rubber, explosives, fuels and lubricants. After the war, the petrochemical industry diverted its resources into other market segments including fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and plastics. A number of the products used in the cosmetics industry are actually derivatives of the petrochemical industry, e.g. isopropyl alcohol, polyethylene glycol, triethanolamine, and phthalates. These products, besides having a deleterious effect on human health, also poison our environment. As the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals sectors grew to become multi-billion dollar industries, they invested large amounts to synthesise newer chemical compounds. These businesses find it much more profitable to create and sell chemical derivatives. After all, what profits would they earn if they sold products made from easily available substances like amla, or turmeric? Since these synthetic chemicals were not present on earth during the human evolutionary phase, the human body does not know how to process or digest them. Many petrochemical-based products do not biodegrade in the environment for decades, so how can we expect them to be digested by the human body? Beautiful hair, naturally According to ayurvedic principles, you should apply to your skin only those substances that are edible. The reason is that anything applied to the skin, is directly absorbed into the bloodstream. On the other hand, an item that is ingested through the mouth is first broken down in the stomach, and its harmful ingredients removed by the liver. Thus, toxic substances applied directly to the skin are more harmful for the body. Fortunately, natural solutions for body care abound. For hair care, reetha (soapnut), shikakai (acacia concinna) and amla (Indian gooseberry), have been used for centuries in India. While reetha is a hair cleanser, shikakai works as a conditioner. The combination of reetha, shikakai and amla nourishes the scalp, helps in hair growth, and softens the hair. Reetha contains saponins, which act as natural surfactants. Reetha has slight antimicrobial properties, and helps to keep the hair shiny and skin soft. Shikakai, which literally means ‘fruit for hair’, has abundant amounts of Vitamin C, and other micronutrients, which help to nourish hair roots. Reetha, shikakai and amla are commonly available in grocery stores in India. The traditional method is to soak reetha berries, shikakai pods and amla fruits together overnight, then boil and strain the concoction the next morning to prepare a ‘shampoo’. While applying on the scalp, do not let the ‘shampoo’ enter your eyes, as it will sting. Alternatively, you can mix the three powders together with water to make a paste, which can then be applied to the scalp and washed off after a while. If amla is not available, reetha or shikakai can be used individually, or in combination. As a shortcut, I have found readymade shampoos from Meghdoot, Khadi Gramodyog, and Patanjali, to be of help, as they contain extracts of these traditional herbs. However, please note these shampoos may contain sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate as a foaming agent. You will notice that your natural ‘shampoo’ will produce much less foaming than you are used to. We often correlate a shampoo’s cleaning properties with the amount of foam it produces. In fact, the extra foam in shampoos is created by using mono-ethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA) or triethanolamine (TEA), which are known hormone-disruptors and have already been banned in a number of European countries. Many ‘herbal shampoos’ may also contain harmful ingredients. Therefore, check the label for the entire list of ingredients. Many shampoos which are advertised as ‘herbal’ may contain detergents as the base, which are often hidden in the ingredients list under the catch-all term “Q.S.” (Quantum Sufficit). By switching to natural products, you will also do your bit to protect the environment. The runoff from chemical shampoos and shower gels, enters the water supply chain, and the soil, and pollutes our ecosystem. Once while taking a shower, as I saw the residual foam going down the drain, I realised that it could come back to me some day in a different form. It would either mix with the ground water, and return as drinking water, or the groundwater would be used to irrigate crops and mix with the soil, and thus the chemicals would enter the food chain. Eco-friendly alternatives Globally, as well as in urban India, shower gels are fast replacing soaps as the preferred medium for body cleansing. Shower gels/body washes contain ingredients such as sodium laureth sulfate, acrylates copolymer, fragrance, cocamide MEA, PPG-9, menthol, ammonium chloride, DMDM hydantoin, tetrasodium EDTA, methylisothiazolinone, BHT, propylene glycol, and titanium dioxide. Shower gels are also packaged in plastic, which ultimately adds to the non-degradable trash on the earth. In comparison, soaps are a much more eco-friendly alternative. Soaps are made from commonly available fats or oils including coconut oil, olive oil, or palm oil. Soaps are produced when the fatty acids available in oils or fats is combined with an alkaline base. In ancient times, soaps were made by mixing plant oils or animal fats with wood ash. However, one should keep in mind that a number of soaps these days contain the ingredient ‘triclosan.’ Among other concerns, triclosan is known to disrupt the functioning of the thyroid hormone, interfere with reproductive systems, and increase antibiotic resistance in bacteria. One of the uses of triclosan is as a pesticide. Triclosan is being phased out by a number of consumer giants, because of continued health concerns. An even more nature-friendly method than soaps for bathing is to use bathing powders, made with gram flour (besan, chickpea flour), or green gram flour (hari moong) as the base ingredient. Readers can easily find recipes online for making herbal bathing powders with common ingredients. For example, Sunni Pindi is a traditional bathing powder used in the southern states of India. Ayurvedic bath powders are also available commercially. Companies like Asvini, Ancient Living, and Prithvi sell bath powders using ayurvedic herbal ingredients. Corn flour is a safe and inexpensive alternative to talcum powder, for usage as a body dusting powder. It feels smooth on the skin, and easily absorbs moisture. Corn flour is especially advised for children whose skin is very sensitive. Arrowroot f
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