Ingredient list A friend just asked me about the safety of ingredients in a product that claims to enhance eyelashes ( Even though I’m a chemist, I still find it difficult to interpret product labels for safety of ingredients and can imagine how frustrating this is for people who simply want to know about the safety of products they apply to their bodies.

I decided to use this as an example for how you can figure these things out. To begin with, I checked to see whether the product was on EWG’s SkinDeep Cosmetics Database ( It wasn’t, drat.

So I then checked the Database for each ingredient’s hazard score. Of the 27 ingredients listed for the product, all but one were in the Database (I’ve listed the individual ingredient scores below if you’re interested). Of these, the majority (17) had hazard scores of zero, which indicates that they were not considered hazardous based on available information. That was good news. And it wasn’t until the 16th ingredient on the label that a score above zero was listed. Only one ingredient, phenoxyethanol, had a score in the moderately hazardous range and it was 21st on the list of ingredients, meaning that it was present in low concentrations in the product.

That left one ingredient not listed in the Cosmetics Database. Chlor phenoxyethanol was the 22nd ingredient on the list and appears to have been added as a preservative to inhibit bacterial growth. I decided to look further to see what I could find out. After much searching on Google, I found nothing to answer my question about this ingredient’s toxicity. I actually didn’t even find the chemical in the top results of the search. So I shifted to EPA’s Aggregated Computational Toxicology Resource ( and found – nothing – on its toxicity. Sigh…

lashThis is a place many of us are familiar with. And while I am painfully aware that few chemicals have been adequately tested before they are added to consumer products, it is still frustrating to be unable to fully answer my friend’s question about this product’s safety. I can only hope that this will change so that it isn’t such a chore to figure out how safe a product is to use. Or better yet, that the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products will end sometime soon.

Bottom line, I will tell my friend that most ingredients appear to be safe and of the two lower-concentration ingredients, one is moderately hazardous and that I don’t know about the safety of the other.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

Wishing you good health,


Here’s the list of ingredients and their scores on the Cosmetics Database:

Ingredients that had scores                               EWG’s score                     Supporting Data

Aqua/Water/Eau                                                         0                                       robust

Glycerin                                                                      0                                         fair

Butylene Glycol                                                       0 – 1                                    limited

Pterocarpus Marsupium Bark Extract                        0                                      no data

Myristoyl Pentapeptide-17                                         0                                      no data

Apigenin                                                                      0                                         fair

Glutamic Acid                                                             0                                         fair

Biotinoyl Tripeptide-1                                                 0                                      no data

Octapeptide-2                                                            0                                      no data

Panthenol                                                                   0                                       limited

Mannitol                                                                     0                                         fair

Biotin                                                                          0                                         fair

Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil                                         0                                        fair

Oleanolic Acid                                                            0                                         fair

Disodium Succinate                                                   0                                         fair

Sodium Oleate                                                            2                                       limited

PPG-26-Buteth-26                                                     2                                       limited

PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil                              3                                       limited

Cellulose Gum                                                            0                                         fair

Hydrogenated Lecithin                                               2                                       limited

Phenoxyethanol                                                          4                                       limited

Chlor Phenoxyethanol                                         not listed

Chlorphenesin                                                            2                                       limited

Sodium Benzoate                                                       3                                         fair

Sodium Citrate                                                            0                                         fair

Potassium Sorbate                                                     3                                       limited

Disodium EDTA                                                          0                                         fair

Scores for ingredients range from 0 – 10 overall, with values from 0 to 2 indicating a low hazard, values from 3 to 6 likely a moderate hazard, and those from 7 to 10 considered highly hazardous. The strength of information supporting these scores also ranges from no data available to a robust amount. For more information on how EWG determines the score for ingredients, check out their website at


Join #OctoberUnprocessed!

September 30, 2014

october-unprocessed-2014During the month of October, I’ll be tweeting (@Laurel_Standley) on the benefits of an unprocessed diet on reducing exposures to toxic chemicals. This was inspired by Andrew Wilder’s annual event called October Unprocessed (follow @eatingrules). I highly recommend visiting his site ( and signing up for the month as a way to reconnect to ‘real’ food and good health. Oh, and to benefit from a reduced exposure to toxic chemicals that are present in packaging and processed foods.

Bon Appetit!



I recently read about studies that show a counterintuitive relationship between consuming higher fat dairy products and reduced body weight (e.g. I read this with concern because animal fats, such as those in high fat dairy products, are a key source of fat-soluble toxins to our bodies (see and it can take many years to clear these toxins from our tissues.

What isn’t clear from these studies is whether there are alternatives to dairy fats or animal fats in general that would achieve the same result. For example, they didn’t assess whether people could replace full fat dairy products with healthy vegetable fats, like those in avocados and nuts, to achieve satiety while avoiding the toxins that bioaccumulate in animal fats.

Vegetarian, especially vegan diets, have been linked to lower diabetes, heart disease, and cancer risks (see And consuming these foods instead of meat products (including fatty dairy products) definitely reduces your exposure to fat-soluble toxins such as PCBs and dioxins, which are taken up by animals at levels many orders of magnitude higher than plants.



One of these studies on body weight versus dairy fat consumption mentioned the presence of omega-3 fats in organic high fat dairy products as an added health benefit. But there are definitely cleaner sources of these fats. And because most people consume non-organic dairy products, I am concerned about the advice to increase consumption of high-fat dairy since cattle raised conventionally produce lower levels of omega-3 fats in addition to accumulating fat-soluble toxins.

Sometimes what’s best for you in terms of other health indicators may not be best for you with respect to reducing your exposure to toxic chemicals, like the benefits of breast-feeding versus toxins in breast milk and the use of sunscreens with potentially toxic ingredients versus protecting your skin from damaging ultraviolet radiation. In those cases, breast-feeding and reducing exposure to ultraviolet rays make sense, even if they increase exposure to certain toxins.

But in this case, I really would love to see studies compare a vegetarian, low toxin alternative to this association between consumption of dairy fat with lower body weight.

For now, I think the bottom line is to try the vegetarian approach toward achieving a smaller ‘bottom’ to avoid increasing your risk of diseases associated with exposure to toxic contaminants, especially the fat-soluble ones present in high fat dairy products.

ImageHaving access to safe drinking water is an essential part of good health. The quality of the water that we drink reflects its journey by picking up many substances as it passes through streams, aquifers, and the atmosphere. Many of these substances, such as minerals, are beneficial to our health. But water also picks up toxic substances such as arsenic from soils, lead from solder on old water pipes, and pesticides and pharmaceuticals that make their way into our waterways. Other chemicals may be added at water treatment plants such as those that control pathogens.

While the drinking water delivered to our taps in the U.S. is among the cleanest worldwide, there are still concerns about the health effects of some of the contaminants present whether you are receiving water from a well or your municipality. Some of the health concerns include neurological impairment caused by the presence of lead and cancer caused by arsenic and disinfection byproducts created when water is treated with disinfectants to control growth of pathogens. I know my dear germaphobe friends would prefer that there be NO bugs present but there will always be some of little critters present, which is why I don’t recommend using unboiled water in a neti pot.

So what are the most effective and affordable approaches for removing toxins from your drinking water without losing the substances that are important for your health? I do not recommend drinking distilled water or water generated by reverse osmosis unless you add back essential minerals like calcium and magnesium to avoid becoming depleted in these substances.

It would help you choose the best treatment method if you knew which toxins are present in your water but most of us don’t have that information available and reports from water utilities don’t cover all potential toxins in the water that comes from your tap. Testing for potential water contaminants can be expensive but there are some affordable options, such as testing for lead, bacteria, and nitrates. To find an EPA-certified lab in your area, go to  

ImageOne thing that can guide your decision on how much to spend treating your drinking water is to learn more about the pipes in your home and the activities surrounding your water source, whether your water comes from a well tapping into the aquifer below your home or a large watershed source for your municipality. The cleanest water comes from watersheds protected from urban development, industry, and chemical-intensive agricultural activities. But if you are like most people living in the U.S., you live ‘downstream’ of activities that contribute many contaminants to your drinking water, including pathogens, pesticides, nutrients, heavy metals, solvents, and pharmaceuticals. For example, if you live in a region with intensive agricultural activity, your drinking water will contain higher concentrations of nitrate and pesticides. And if you are downstream of large population centers, it is likely that the water your municipality collects for treatment contains contaminants from sewage treatment plants, industrial effluent, and urban/suburban runoff. Finally, if you live in an old home or you have copper pipes with solder to connect them, you may have high levels of lead in the water that has passed through those pipes. Drinking water utilities treat water to remove some of these contaminants, except for what is present in your home’s pipes.

Home water treatment recommendations (see below for more detailed references):

  • No cost: run water for awhile to reduce concentrations of contaminants such as lead that build up when water sits in pipes. Never use water from the hot water faucet to drink or cook food, since warm water allows pathogens to grow.
  • Least expensive ($20 – 50): faucet filtration apparatus such as PUR or Brita. Store water in a covered glass or ceramic carafe in refrigerator. The pitcher filter varieties aren’t as efficient at removing contaminants as faucet filters but are convenient if you have trouble getting the faucet filtration system to work. Just make sure you keep the water and pitcher refrigerated to reduce growth of bacteria. These systems are not effective for treatment of pathogens.
  • Moderately expensive (>$100): solid block filtration systems that go below your kitchen counter provide much more contact time with the water being filtered and therefore remove more contaminants than the faucet or pitcher variety filters. These systems are also not effective for treatment of pathogens.
  • Expensive: ($500 – 10,000):
    • Ultraviolet light and ozone will remove pathogens and organic contaminants (e.g. pesticides) but not heavy metals such as lead or cadmium. But these will also not remove minerals that are important for your health, which is a good thing.
    • Home reverse osmosis (RO) or distillation systems, which I don’t recommend (see above) unless you have a serious contamination problem from heavy metals, pesticides, or nitrate. With this process, you will need to supplement the water produced with food-grade minerals such as calcium and magnesium.

It is also important to make sure you’re not adding back problems such as pathogens or plasticizers to the water when you treat it. Keeping water in a glass or ceramic pitcher in the refrigerator is one way to eliminate plasticizers that leach from plastic containers and slow the growth of bacteria and viruses that may build up on filtration materials. And for taking water with you – stainless steel or the new glass bottles with silicone wraps are the best options. I am still hesitant to recommend plastic water bottles, even those labeled BPA-free, because several BPA alternatives were recently tested and found to release endocrine disrupting chemicals.

One additional note – in case of disaster, it has been recommended that you keep at least three days of bottled water on hand. But I would also recommend buying a water treatment kit designed for people hiking in wilderness areas or a Puralytics bag. Having one of these kits would enable you to refresh your drinking water reserve from local streams if the water infrastructure is disabled longer than your stock of bottled water lasts.

Additional resources:



The Mediterranean Diet has been in the news lately for reducing the risk of heart disease and the need for pharmacological or surgical interventions.1 As a long-time fan of Dr. Dean Ornish’s work documenting the benefits of diet and lifestyle changes on reversing heart disease and cancer,2 I was struck by the fact that many of the same recommendations for the Ornish and Mediterranean Diets are also likely to reduce your exposure to toxic substances that contaminate food.

These researchers have shown that shifting your diet away from animal-based and processed foods can help reverse damage from heart disease and cancer. Fortunately, making these same changes are also likely to reduce your exposure to toxins associated with animal fats, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, as well as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, which can contaminate food during processing and packaging.

Animals can bioaccumulate fat-soluble toxins at levels up to a million times those in plants and these chemicals are stored in their fatty tissues. Because of this, consuming fats from beef, chicken, or fish can give you a high dose of toxins that are tough to clear from your body. In fact, it can take decades to get rid of these toxins so it’s better to just not consume them in the first place. Keep in mind that cheese and other fatty dairy products also contain these toxins so that vegetarians who consume animal-based products like dairy and eggs will also be more highly exposed than those who do not.3 The good news is that a vegan diet, which contains no animal-based fats, is especially likely to result in a lower exposure to toxins. In addition to the heart-protective nature of their diet, a recent study showed that vegans also have a lower risk of cancer than omnivores and vegetarians.4


Eat this not that! Vegan meal on left, packaged meat-based meal on right.

In addition to contaminants that are present in the food itself, additional toxins may be added during processing of our food. These include endocrine disrupting chemicals such phthalates and BPA. Recent studies have shown that it is possible to reduce your exposure to BPA and phthalates by avoiding processed food but that it isn’t easy to do so.5,6 This indicates that we will also need to change the materials used for packaging and processing to keep these toxins out of our food.

When taking toxins into account, it is important to get ‘healthy’ fats like the omega-3 fatty acids from less contaminated sources. Vegans can obtain these from algal sources and ominivores from distilled fish oils or less-contaminated fish.7 However, recent news on the mislabeling of fish in stores and restaurants may make selecting safer species a bit of a challenge.8

Finally, I also recommend switching to as much organic produce and foods as possible within your budget. Consuming organic foods will not only reduce your family’s exposure to residues of neurotoxic pesticides but also reduce the concentration of these toxins in the environment where we get our drinking water, grow our food, and live. The Environmental Working Group has great guides to help you save money while selecting less-contaminated produce.9

Bottom line: following these recommendations will help you reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and, as a bonus, exposure to environmental toxins:

  • Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, preferably organic.
  • Avoid animal fats.
  • Include omega‑3 fatty acids from clean sources.
  • Minimize consumption of processed and packaged foods.


  1. Estruch, R. et al. (2013). “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet”. New Engl. J. Med. (Published March 2013).
  2. Dean Ornish, M.D. (2008). “The Spectrum. A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health.” Ballantine Books, Publisher.
  3. Kalantzi, O. I. et al. (2001). “The global distribution of PCBs and organochlorine pesticides in butter.”  Environ. Sci. Technol. 35:1013-1018.
  4. Tantamango-Bartley, Y. et al. (2013). “Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population.” Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev. 22:2286-94.
  5. Rudel, R. et al. (2011). “Food Packaging and Bisphenol A and Bis(2-Ethyhexyl) Phthalate Exposure: Findings from a Dietary Intervention.” Environ. Health Perspect. 119:914–920.
  6. Sathyanarayana, S. et al. (2013). “Unexpected results in a randomized dietary trial to reduce phthalate and bisphenol A exposures.” J. Expos. Sci. Environ. Epidemiol. (online February 27, 2013).
  7. Natural Resource Defense Council’s Consumer Guide:
  8. Warner, K. et al. “Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide.” February 2013.
  9. EWG guides to “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”:


Over the last couple of decades we have learned much about the wide range of toxic chemicals that people are exposed to at home and elsewhere. These exposures are associated with illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and disruption of reproductive and other hormonal systems.

Our companion animals are also exposed to many of these toxins in our homes and back yards. Just as studies have shown that we humans are carrying hundreds of chemicals in our bodies,1 recent studies have demonstrated that dogs and cats are also carrying toxic burdens in their bodies, in some cases at higher concentrations than their human companions.2,3

While you can’t protect your pets from all sources of toxic chemicals, here are a few things you can do to reduce their exposure.

 Pesticides and cancer


‘Jack’ (Luke Taylor)

Several studies have shown an association between use of pesticides in lawn care or flea/tick control and cancers in dogs, such as lymphoma and bladder cancer. Here are a few tips to reduce your pet’s exposure to pesticides.

  • Reduce or eliminate use of pesticides to control weeds or insects on lawns where your dog or cat plays. For safer alternatives to these chemicals, check out the following sources: or
  • Visiting a dog park? Ask park officials whether the area has been treated with pesticides and when. Waiting a week or two after application can help reduce the presence of pesticides in the grass and your dog’s exposure.
  • Select safer flea and tick treatments for your pets using the NRDC’s guide:

Cats and hyperthyroidism

Recent studies indicate that high exposure to environmental toxins in canned food and household dust may be linked to the rise of hyperthyroidism in cats. Because cats spend a lot of time on the floor and ingest dust as they bathe, keeping your home’s floors clean and replacing synthetic carpets with hardwood or tile floors and foam furniture with natural fibers (e.g. cotton or wool) can help. Also, try to feed your cat less canned fish, as this source has been found to contain the highest concentrations of contaminants.3 Of course, your cat will determine whether or not they’ll go along with that plan but give it your best shot if you’ve got a fish-loving cat in the home.

Plastics and reproductive health


‘Ellen’ (Laurel Standley)

Chemicals that leach from plastics such as soft vinyl (recycle code 3) or polycarbonates (recycle code 7) have been linked to negative impacts on reproductive health, particularly when exposures occur in the womb. Concerns about these exposures include “feminizing” effects on males and increased risk of breast cancer. As a precaution, especially when your pet is expecting, reduce her exposure to plastics. 

  • Replace plastic food bowls with food-grade stainless steel or ceramic bowls. Just make sure the ceramic is well glazed and lead-free (check the internet or your favorite pet store for sources of lead-free bowls).
  • Find alternatives for plastic chew toys when possible, making sure to avoid toys made from vinyl or recycled plastic bottles.

Teflon and birds

Fumes from heated fluorinated nonstick coatings have long been known to be highly toxic to pet birds. But you might be surprised at how many surfaces in our homes have non-stick coatings. To protect the health of pet birds and to reduce your own exposure to these fumes, make sure you don’t overheat the following products: nonstick pans and utensils, self-cleaning ovens, irons and ironing board covers, and microwave popcorn bags. If you’re not sure whether the product you are using has a nonstick coating, check with the manufacturer.

Water contaminants

Tap water and some bottled waters can contain low levels of many toxins, including disinfection byproducts (DBPs) that are formed when the water is treated to eliminate pathogens. DBPs have been strongly linked to increased risk of bladder cancer in humans. Dogs, especially Scottish terriers, are also vulnerable to this disease. To remove DBPs and most other contaminants from your pet’s drinking water (and your own), filter tap water through carbon systems such as those sold by PUR® or Brita®.

Bottom line: You and your companion animals are exposed to a wide range of toxic chemicals in home and outdoor environments. Removing toxins from your home will protect both you and your pets from illnesses related to these chemicals. To learn about more things you can do to reduce your own and your pet’s toxic burdens, check out my recent book “#Toxins Tweet: 140 Easy Tips to Reduce Your Family’s Exposure to Environmental Toxins”.4

References (“National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals”, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009).

2 (“Polluted Pets: High Levels of Toxic Industrial Chemicals Contaminate Cats and Dogs”, Environmental Working Group, 2008).

3“Elevated PBDE Levels in Pet Cats: Sentinels for Humans?” Dye and coauthors (2007), Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 41, pp 6350–6356.

4Available at:

fireplaceWishing you a safe and joyous holiday season with those you love.

Day 1. A real holiday tree (organic if you can find it) and its organic soil sop up carbon from the atmosphere ( and reduce exposure to plasticizers from fake trees.

Day 2. Looking for great ideas for nontoxic presents? Check out and before you shop.

Day 3. Ideas for nontoxic decorations: bring in nature’s pinecones and create popcorn and cranberry garlands that will feed birds once the holiday is over.

Day 4. Enjoying a #MeatlessMonday reduces your exposure to fat-soluble toxins like dioxins, PCBs and organochlorine pesticides. A recent study showed lower cancer rates in vegans.

Day 5. Fill your home with naturally fragrant scents, like oranges with cloves and pine boughs, instead of synthetic fragrance products.

Day 6. Find nontoxic toys for beloved youngsters at the wonderful site

Day 7. If you are traveling by car for the Holidays, try to avoid heavy traffic and diesel trucks to reduce exposure to fumes or put fan on recirculate while in traffic.

Day 8. Wise to choose less contaminated fish for Friday’s meal using guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s

HolidayEllenDay 9. Don’t forget your pets when creating a nontoxic holiday. Check out for suggestions.

Day 10. Candles, though festive, are sources of indoor air pollution, including carcinogens. Use them sparingly and choose unscented beeswax or soy instead of paraffin.

Day 11. Spend some time outdoors today in a natural setting to take a break from indoor air, shown in studies to be higher in toxins.

Day 12. Prepare a nontoxic Holiday feast from unpackaged, organic foods and reduce exposure to pesticides, phthalates and BPA.