Hazardous Substances in the Bathroom

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Includes a review of basic over-the-counter medicines that may contain hazardous substances.

The following section on cosmetics was adapted from an article by Ruth Decker that appeared in the Summer 1983 issue of Medical Self-Care.

Hazardous Substances in Cosmetics

The cosmetics industry, whose sales totaled $10.4 billion in 1980, produces more than 25,000 products containing 8,000 ingredients, and yet it’s virtually unregulated. According to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, the FDA is responsible for insuring that cosmetics are safe. Unfortunately, the agency has little real authority over the cosmetic manufacturers. The FDA can’t require them to register their products or even to inform the agency of their ingredients. If the FDA receives reports that a cosmetic is unsafe, it can’t order the product removed from the market pending a review. To have any cosmetic taken off the market, the FDA must obtain a court order through a long and difficult procedure.

The burden of proof is on the regulator. Cosmetics are definitely innocent until proven guilty. But with a non-administrative staff of only 28 people (20 testers at FDA headquarters in Washington and eight field investigators) and a budget that in 1982 was only $2.3 million for the Cosmetic Technology Division, the agency is unable to pursue many cases. And even if the FDA had sufficient funds, it couldn’t ban hair dyes that are known to contain carcinogens. Congress specifically exempted coal-tar dyes from the section of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that empowers the FDA to prohibit the use of “adulterated” substances.

Not surprisingly, self-regulation doesn’t seem to be working all that well, either. In 1978 the Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary, published by the Cosmetic Toiletry Fragrance Association, neglected to mention that 100 chemicals listed as cosmetic ingredients were also classed as suspected carcinogens by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The Dictionary also listed 24 other ingredients that NIOSH suspected of causing birth defects and 20 suspected of causing adverse nervous system effects–such as headaches, drowsiness, and convulsions–without making any mention of their possible hazards.

To its credit, the FDA has established rules for cosmetic labeling, with which the majority of manufacturers have complied. But the agency has, at times, been less than enthusiastic about initiating the regulatory actions that lie within its powers. In 1978 Gregory Ahart of the General Accounting Office, appearing before a Congressional subcommittee, told its members, “The Consumer Product Safety Commission has established regulations requiring that specific warning statements be placed on the labels of household products containing certain toxic ingredients, but the FDA has not established similar regulations governing the use of the same ingredients in cosmetics.”

If you’d like to find out more about the compounds and hazardous substances found in cosmetics, see A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1976).

Acetone: Used in nail polishes and polish removers.

Hazards: Inhalation may cause headache, fatigue, excitement, bronchial irritation, and (in large amounts) narcosis.

Aluminum chlorohydrate: Used in deodorants/antiperspirants.

Hazards: May be irritating to the skin.

Artificial color: FD&C Blue No. 1 is used in facial cosmetics, creams, perfumes and cologne, soaps, and toothpaste.

Hazards: A suspected carcinogen.

BHT: Used in lipsticks, eye makeup, creams, shaving creams, and skin care products.

Hazards: See Preservatives/Antioxidants in Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives.

Boric acid: Used in baby powders, bath powders, creams, mouthwashes, soaps, and skin treatments.

Hazards: Extremely toxic and can be absorbed through abraded skin. Less than 5 grams of boric acid can cause death in an infant.

Carbolic acid (phenol): Used in shaving creams and skin care products.

Hazards: See Disinfectants/Air Fresheners in Hazardous Substances in the Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products. Banned by the European Economic Community for use in cosmetics.

Coal tar: Used in dandruff shampoos.

Hazards: A demonstrated human carcinogen.

Dibutyl phthalate: Used in nail polishes and polish removers. Also used in insect repellents.

Hazards: A suspected teratogen.

Diethanolamine (DEA): Used in hair conditioners.

Hazards: May combine with nitrites or nitrates to form N-nitrosodiethanolamine (NDELA), a nitrosamine. Nitrosamines are potent carcinogens. Produced with ethylene oxide, a suspected carcinogen.

EDTA: Used in facial cosmetics, creams and lotions, and soaps.

Hazards: See Calcium disodium EDTA under Preservatives/Antioxidants in Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives.

Formaldehyde: Used in eye makeup, nail polish (up to 5%), deodorants/antiperspirants, shampoos, and some mouthwashes.

Hazards: See Disinfectants/Air Fresheners in Hazardous Substances in the Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products.

Hydroxyanisole (Guaiacol): Used in facial cosmetics, lipstick, and eye makeup. Used as a replacement for phenol because it’s less toxic.

Hazards: Ingestion causes gastrointestinal irritation and heart failure. Absorbed through the skin. Has been banned by the European Economic Community.

Iron oxides: Used as colorants in eye makeup. 

Hazards: Suspected carcinogens.

Lead acetate: Used in hair dyes.

Hazards: Causes cancer in animals. Absorbed through the skin.

Polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP): Used in eye makeup and hair-setting formulations and sprays.

Hazards: Ingestion can damage liver and kidneys. Inhalation may damage lungs. Has caused tumors in test animals. A suspected teratogen.

Saccharin: Used in toothpaste.

Hazards: See Flavorings/Colorings in Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives.

Selenium sulfide: Used in dandruff shampoos.

Hazards: Occupational exposure has caused gastrointestinal disturbance, skin rash, and liver damage. A recognized carcinogen.

Sodium Carrageenan: Used in toothpaste. A non-food-grade version of carrageenan.

Hazards: See Carrageenan under Emulsifiers/Stabilizers in Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives.

Toluene: Used in nail polishes and polish removers.

Hazards: Can cause mild anemia. Affects the central nervous system. A suspected carcinogen.

Triethanolamine (TEA): Used in bubble bath, creams and lotions, facial cosmetics, hair-treatment products, perfumes and colognes, shampoos shaving creams, and sun preparations.

Hazards: See Diethanolamine.

Zirconium: An alternative to aluminum compounds used in deodorants/antiperspirants.

Hazards: Inhalation can cause cancer. Banned from aerosol products. Sodium zirconium lactate may cause chronically inflamed skin.

Hazardous Substances in Medications

As mentioned in Hazardous Household Chemicals, we won’t examine the hazards of prescription pharmaceuticals or their interactions with other substances. Rather, we’ll review basic over-the-counter medicines that may contain substances that can be hazardous.

The FDA is responsible for regulating all medicines and regularly receives recommendations from the American Medical Association. All ingredients in over-the-counter medications must be clearly labeled, and in most cases the quantities will be specified. An excellent layperson’s reference to these medicines is Widger’s Guide to Over-the-Counter Drugs by H. Neil Widger, M.D. (J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1979). For guidelines to the use of pharmaceuticals during pregnancy, see The Handbook for Prescribing Medications During Pregnancy by Richard L. Berkowitz, et al (Little, Brown and Co., 1981).

Acetaminophen: A pain reliever.

Hazards: Overdose causes liver damage.

Aloe vera: Used as skin treatment for burns, rashes, and so on. Taken internally for upset stomach.

Hazards: Can cause diarrhea in nursing infants whose mothers ingest it.

Antacids: Usually consist of aluminum or magnesium hydroxide, or sodium or calcium bicarbonate.

Hazards: Aluminum compounds cause constipation, while magnesium causes diarrhea. Aluminum has also been associated with Alzheimer’s disease (senility). Sodium bicarbonate is not recommended for people on salt-restricted diets, because it increases blood pressure. Calcium bicarbonate can produce kidney stones and kidney damage; it also tends to increase acid production in the stomach.

Antihistamines: The effective ingredients in allergy medications. Also found in cold remedies, menstrual-cramp medications, and sleeping pills, where they haven’t been proven to be effective.

Hazards: Cause drowsiness, which is increased with consumption of alcohol. One antihistamine, aminoxide hydrobromide (related to scopolamine), can increase severity of glaucoma, enlarge the prostate, and make urination difficult. Reduces lactation in nursing mothers.

Artificial colors: FD&C Yellow No. 5 is used to coat, and color medications.

Hazards: Many medicines with Yellow No. 5 are allergy preparations. People prone to allergies are often affected by this dye. See Flavorings/Colorings in Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives.

Aspirin: An effective analgesic (pain reliever).

Hazards: Can cause upset stomach and bleeding (particularly if mixed with alcohol). Is associated with Reye’s syndrome in children 5 to 16 who have a viral illness. The powdered forms often have a great deal of sodium, which increases blood pressure. Buffered varieties have antacids. Some contain caffeine (see Flavorings/Colorings in Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives). Some have phenacetin, which causes kidney disease and episodic anemia.

Benzoyl Peroxide: The active ingredient in some acne medication.

Hazards: Has caused skin cancer in mice.

Cough suppressants: Used for symptomatic relief from colds.

Hazards: Dextromethorphan causes drowsiness. Codeine (not an over-the-counter drug in many states) causes drowsiness and can be addictive if taken in large dosages over long periods.

Decongestants: Used for symptomatic relief from colds and allergies. Better products contain pseudoephedrine, which is taken orally or by inhalation. Sometimes mixed with antihistamines, which aren’t very effective in combating cold symptoms.

Hazards: Increase blood pressure. Cause nervousness, insomnia, palpitations, and a rise in blood sugar. Other ingredients, such as belladonna, may increase severity of glaucoma, enlarge the prostate, and produce a difficulty in urination. Phenylpropanolamine and phenylephrine greatly increase blood pressure.

Diarrhea medications: The ones considered most effective contain opiates, which are not available over the counter in most states.

Hazards: Opiates cause drowsiness. They are addictive if consumed in large dosages over extended periods.

Diet pills: None have been shown to be effective at producing weight loss.

Hazards: Some contain the decongestant phenylpropanolamine, which greatly increases blood pressure. Most contain caffeine (see Flavorings/Colorings in Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives).

Ethyl alcohol: A common ingredient in cold remedies, cough suppressants, and mouthwashes.

Hazards: Addictive. Causes nausea, vomiting, impaired coordination, coma, and death. Chronic effects include liver damage. Fetal alcohol syndrome includes low birth weight, physical defects, and retardation. Alcohol crosses into the milk during lactation. Increases stomach upset and bleeding when combined with aspirin.

Expectorants: Used to loosen phlegm to relieve bronchial congestion. There is some controversy over their effectiveness.

Hazards: Often mixed with decongestants, antihistamines, and/or aspirin.

Hemorrhoidal preparations: Some contain antihistamines.

Hazards: See Antihistamines.

Laxatives: May consist of softeners, bulking agents, cathartics, and/or stimulants.

Hazards: Sodium cathartics cause loss of body fluids and kidney problems. Stimulants can cause stomach cramps and dependence. Castor oil causes loss of body fluids and reduction of sodium and potassium electrolytes. Mineral oil prevents absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K and is a suspected carcinogen.

Medications to avoid during pregnancy: Many compounds can cross the placenta into the growing fetus.

Hazards: Caffeine (see Flavorings/Colorings in Hazardous Substances in the Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives). Ethyl alcohol. Salicylate is an aspirin compound that can prolong pregnancy and increase postpartum bleeding. Large dosages of vitamin D can produce excess calcium in the infant. Large dosages of vitamin B6 can produce dependency in the infant.

Menstrual preparations: Usually consist of painkillers, diuretics, caffeine, antihistamines, and/or decongestants. The last four are probably ineffective.

Hazards: Acetaminophen. Antihistamines. Aspirin. Decongestants. Diuretics can cause excessive body-fluid loss.

Motion-sickness drugs: The way these drugs work is not well understood. Dimenhydrinate is the most common ingredient.

Hazards: Causes drowsiness. Can increase severity of glaucoma, enlarge the prostate, and cause urine retention.

Skin medications: Usually consist of ointments or sprays that are antiseptic and/or antibiotic.

Hazards: Boric acid. Cresol (see Disinfectants/Air Fresheners in Hazardous Substances in the Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products). Neomycin can cause skin rashes; it sensitizes allergic people to a whole range of antibiotics.

Sleeping pills: Many of these are simply antihistamines.

Hazards: Antihistamines. Most sleeping pills interrupt normal sleep cycles and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep; the rest produced is not as effective as in normal sleep. 

Throat lozenges: Usually have an anesthetic and/or antiseptic.

Hazards: Some contain carbolic acid, or phenol (see Disinfectants/Air Fresheners Hazardous Substances in the Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products).

To learn more about the chemicals and hazardous substances you may be living with, see Hazardous Household ChemicalsThe Kitchen: Food Safety and Food AdditivesThe Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products and The Living Room.

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