Aspartame is that ubiquitous chemical artificial sweetener. I don’t recommend it, although I know many people use it and the stories about its dangers may be exaggerated. However, some people do have adverse reactions to aspartame including headache, dizziness, seizures, joint pain, and fatigue. If you’re thinking of going on an “aspartame fast” to see if getting the stuff out of your system might improve your overall health—a good idea, by the way—you need to keep an eagle eye for where this artificial product may turn up.
Aspartame is everywhere. You find it in virtually all diet soft drinks and most diet products, from sugar-free candy to diet pudding. But you can also find it in some unexpected places:
- Sugar-free chewing gum (I don’t know of one sugar-free gum that does not use aspartame).
- Ginger pickles (the kind they serve as sushi bars)
- Many types of chewable vitamins and drugs (for kids and adults)
- Some brands of natural fiber laxatives
- Some prescription drugs (read the labels)
- Breath mints
- Some toothpastes and oral hygiene products
- Flavored syrups used in low-calorie versions of coffee drinks
- Products labeled “no sugar added” (sometimes they add aspartame instead)
- Some ketchups, barbecue sauces, and condiments
Cosmetics and personal care products are made from numerous chemicals and there is growing but not totally convincing evidence that some of these ingredients are dangerous. Today, I’m going to offer my “be on the lookout for” warning about the top 10 substances you should try and avoid.
In the interest of fairness, these substances are legal and regulators in charge of such things do not consider them dangerous at least when used in cosmetics. However, there are some compelling reasons I’ll share below that some of these ingredients are problematic. When at all possible, they should be avoided.
- Methylisothiazoline (MIT) has been suspected of impairing the way that nerve cells communicate with each other. Look for it mainly in shampoos. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that MIT “is highly acutely toxic when applied dermally or to the eye.” If you put this substance in insecticide, the EPA requires that a warning label appear on the container and those “exposed to methylisothiazoline products must wear long-sleeved shirt and long pants, chemical resistant gloves, and shoes plus socks.” However, we are supposed to believe that you can take it into your shower and wash your hair with it safely!
- Sodium lauryl sulfate (and its cousin sodium laureth sulfate) appear in lots of “foamy” products, including soaps, shampoos, and even toothpaste. This substance is approved for use but is known to be irritating to the skin. It’s the same stuff mechanics use to degrease engines.
- Phthalates are used in many cosmetics and perfumes and even medical products (like blood transfusion bags and tubing). There are numerous chemicals in this family and while government regulations allow them in cosmetics and perfumes, the EPA has published a toxicity summary on these ingredients and even states that exposure of young ones to these phthalates is “of concern for children’s health.” The EPA report mentions that phthalates have been associated with rashes, colds, birth defects, cancer, liver damage, lung disorders, and skeletal abnormalities. One study in mice found that excessive exposure to these chemicals resulted in exencephaly (brain growth outside the skull).
- Coal tar is perhaps a less common ingredient, but it has been linked to cancer. Look for it in hair dyes, dandruff and specialty shampoos, and some anti-itch products.
- Petroleum distillates are a category of products produced by the petroleum industry and often used in mascara, foundation, lipstick (including lip balms), and perfume. Petroleum distillates may contain impurities and are suspected carcinogens.
- PEG (polyethylene glycol) or PPG (polypropylene glycol) are two chemicals that appear in numerous cosmetics although they are known to be harmful. The government allows these ingredients in cosmetics because small amounts of the substances are thought to be relatively safe. PEG is an ingredient in antifreeze and is regulated by the EPA, although it is considered of “low toxicity.”
- Dyes, often labeled as FD&C or D&C with a color and number (such as FD&C Red No 3). These are synthetic colorings that are frequently used in color cosmetics (blush, foundation, nail polish, hair dye and so on) and even in food. Some of these dyes are known to be carcinogenic.
- The Paraben Family: Methyl, Propyl, Butyl, and Ethyl. Parabens refer to a class of chemical ingredients which help cosmetic products stay fresh by inhibiting the growth of germs. Some parabens block UV radiation and are used in sunscreens. It is believed that certain parabens are irritating to the skin; animal studies suggest parabens have a pro-estrogenic effect.
- Formaldehyde seems like an obvious substance to avoid, but this chemical is widely used in everything from embalming fluid to fabric softeners and even cosmetics. Formaldehyde is reported by the US National Toxicology Program as a substance “known to be a human carcinogen.” It may appear in shampoo, bubble baths, shower gels, antibacterial cleansers, nail hardeners, and liquid hand wash products.
- “Fragrance.” This seemingly harmless term on a product label may be most dangerous of all since manufacturers can use it as a catch-all to describe any or all “masking agents” intended to camouflage an undesirable odor in the product. The FDA allows manufacturers to call certain ingredients “fragrances,” “flavors,” or “other ingredients” without disclosing them as a type of trade secret. This means that a whole laundry list of chemicals may get an exemption from disclosure so you do not know what you are using! The FDA gets to find out what the product contains, but not you and I, the consumers. All companies have the right to disclose all ingredients without hiding behind the “fragrance” designation, so I have to assume that a company that goes to the trouble to get an exemption to conceal ingredients with a “fragrance,” “flavoring,” or “other ingredients” label must be trying to hide something from me.
Most of us know that lemons are healthful and chock full of vitamin C. Sailors used to take along lemons and limes on ocean voyages to protect them from diseases like scurvy. Today we know that one of the secret powerhouses of lemons and other citrus fruits is a substance called limonene. Limonene is a substance that the body uses to help protect cells from attack. Scientists are investigating the potential cancer-preventing properties of limonene.
Lemons are also antibacterial, that is, they kill certain kinds of germs. It’s one of the main reasons that lemon juice and water are recommended in cold and flu season. Travelers to cholera-prone areas are urged to add lemon or lime to all beverages as a disease preventative. In fact, in the ancient world, lemons were considered an antidote to many types of poisons.
Lemons also contain potassium which is one of the many chemicals that helps regulate proper heart function.
Grandma may have recommended tea with lemon, but scientists at Purdue have just found that combining green tea with lemon quadruples the healthful punch of green tea by helping the body utilize tea’s catechins. Catechins are substances that work like disease-fighting ninjas in the body—they are thought to fight cancer, prevent cardiovascular disease, lower cholesterol and other good things—but they are often unstable in the body. Green tea is loaded with catechins and the lemon helps make them stable, plus lemon adds some Vitamin C (an antioxidant powerhouse) to boot. The result is that green tea with lemon is a far more healthful drink than green tea or lemon juice alone.
 Crowell, PL (1999). “Prevention and therapy of cancer by dietary monoterpenes”. The Journal of nutrition 129 (3): 775S–778S. PMID 10082788. http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=10082788.
I always like to share simple, inexpensive, natural things you can do to cook and clean at home. Today, I want to share some household hints for vinegar—apple cider or white vinegar. Most of these are old-fashioned household tips but they may be new to many of my readers!
- When you boil eggs, add a shot of vinegar to the water. It prevents them from cracking.
- To attack hard water stains, soak a rag in vinegar and then apply it to the stained area and let it sit overnight.
- About once a month, run vinegar through your automatic coffee maker to help keep mineral deposits in check. (After the vinegar mixture, you are going to have to run at least one and maybe two cycles of plain water to get rid of the vinegar aroma.)
- Salt (1 teaspoon) in vinegar (1 cup) can shine brass.
- For a clogged drain, pour a handful of baking soda into he drain and then add about a half-cup of vinegar slowly. It will foam up. Rinse with a little hot water and then let it sit for a couple of hours. (Note that this may not work on stubborn clogs.)
- To get that onion or garlic smell off your fingers after chopping in the kitchen, rinse your hands with some vinegar.
- Corrosion on showerheads or faucets can be removed by soaking these parts in diluted distilled vinegar overnight. In some cases, remove the item and soak it in vinegar. If you cannot remove the item, saturate a towel in vinegar and wrap it around the faucet overnight.
- Put some vinegar in a spray bottle and spray it generously around ant trails or in areas prone to insect invasion.
- Get the smoke odor out of clothes by filling a bathtub with hot water, adding a cup or more of vinegar to the bathwater, and let clothes hang above the steam.