Breaking Down the Myths of Chemicals, Toxins, and Everything in Between

This post has been awhile in the making. Having the science background I do, I tend to take an analytic view to things. And being the analytical person I am, sometimes I get a bit annoyed when I see misinformation out there (and don’t even get me started on misinformation on nutrition – that’s a whole ‘nother blog post…or series). So that’s what this post is about. Misinformation on “chemicals” and “toxins” in products.

In the world of eco-living, you hear a lot about “chemicals.” Well, theoretically – we are all chemicals. Water is a chemical! I’m not going to use the word chemical to describe something harmful, I’m going to use the word to describe a substance, or ingredient. Because that’s what it is.

To get started, let’s play a game! I love games :o) I’m going to provide 3 descriptions and see if you can think of what ‘chemical’ I’m talking about!

A. Can cause hypokalemia and even death
B. Toxic to human cells at concentrations of 0.25%
C. Can cause dizziness, nausea, pain in joints and bones, coma, and even death

Did you guess?

Give up?

A is Water, B is Lavender Oil, C is Vitamin A.


So here’s the deal. There are MANY chemicals/ingredients/substances in our every day life which are good and necessary to life, such as water and vitamin A (and some could argue lavender because the scent is so amazing). Without these, we would die. But in excess, they can be damaging. Too much water can actually kill someone, as can consuming too much vitamin A, iron and a slew of other things. But does this make water and vitamins “toxic”? Well, it depends on the amount now doesn’t it?

On the other hand, there are chemicals which are harmful to life in even the smallest of doses. The botulinum toxic is the most toxic substance known to man. It is lethal in doses of 1 nanogram per kilogram, which means 1 gram could kill about 1 million people. Just a little toxic.

So what about substances that fall in the middle of water and botulism?

Dose and Time

There are two factors that play a role in how harmful something can be: dose and time. I’ve already talked about dose. Water is good (and necessary for life) in appropriate amounts but not if you chug 5 gallons (or even 1 gallon actually). Botulism is overall a bad idea, even in nanogram doses.

The other factor is time. Some chemicals are manageable if you consume them once in small amounts, but not every day for years. Arsenic is an example of this. If you consumed a very small amount once, your body can handle (but don’t try it). If you consume arsenic every day for years, it can lead to severe health issues.

Toxic vs. Irritant

I’ve also heard many people casually use the word “toxic” or “toxin.” The definition of toxic is poisonous. The definition of poisonous is causing or capable of causing death or illness if taken into the body. So toxic = death or illness.

What are some examples of truly toxic substances? Some ingredients cause cancer (carcinogen), some mess with our endocrine systems (endocrine disruptors), and some damage nerve cells or the brain (neurotoxin).

And then, there are irritants. Irritants are substances that cause slight inflammation or other discomfort to the body.

Something important to keep in mind with irritants is they can cause irritation for some, and nothing for others. When you think of allergies, some smell a rose and immediately sneeze and sniffle while others are fine.

The same goes with some ingredients. Bismuth oxychloride is a great example of this, used in some mineral makeup. In some people, it can cause irritation, but others use it and are totally fine. Does that make bismuth oxychloride “toxic”? Or just a potential irritant? I’m not advocating the use of bismuth oxychloride, but I don’t think it should be called a toxin either.

Correlation vs. Causation

Without getting too sciency, I want to touch on correlation vs. causation. Here is a great example that I use when I teach epidemiology (if you didn’t know, I teach a college nutrition/public health class):

Did you know that ice cream causes drownings?

Well, I have found data that shows that when ice cream sales go up, so do the number of drownings. Therefore, ice cream causes drownings right?

Wrong. Of course. You know this. Ice cream doesn’t cause drownings. Sure, ice cream sales are correlated with drownings, but it does not cause drownings. The real reason? Well, you can guess. It is summer, it is hot, so people buy more ice cream and are more likely to swim more and unfortunately with more people swimming, the higher the chance someone may drown.

So when you hear about studies that show that substance A is correlated with substance B – don’t think that equals causation. Sure, it might. But there is also a good chance that it might not.

Erring on the Side of Caution

With all of this talk on dose and toxin and correlation, it is totally understandable to just err on the side of caution. Why expose yourself to chemicals that are carcinogens (such as formaldehyde) on even the tiniest amount when you can just avoid them altogether? I get it – because I try and do it!

But what happens when we make a chemical that may actually not be all that bad – such as parabens – and vilify them? Companies take note that consumers don’t want to buy anything with parabens (which are highly effective preservatives) so they scramble to find a suitable replacement and the replacement could be worse than parabens? Methylisothiazolinone, phenoxyethanol and the formaldehyde-releasing preservatives aren’t exactly considered safe either.

What to do?

What do you do then? Well, do your research or find a quality source of information that does research. Don’t just trust what you find on the internet. I can’t tell you how many blogs and website I’ve come across that describe “toxins” and “chemicals” and say things like “parabens cause breast cancer” which has absolutely 0% data to show that to be true. It’s frustrating. (and if you are one such blog that says that, no offense to you – I still love you for fighting the eco-living battle).

EWG Skin Deep is a good source of info, they use a 1-10 rating system. They definitely err on the side of caution, and will give something a high rating if it is an irritant only so be sure to read the specifics rather than just look at the number.

I stumbled upon the Truth in Aging website awhile back and was very impressed with their ingredient database. They don’t have any sort of rating system like EWG, but they do list out research and often link to their sources (although the sources may not be the primary source of info).

I hope as you navigate the eco-living world, you’ll take all of this info in mind.

Do I think natural is better than synthetic? Of course! Well, in most cases.

Endocrine disruptor or not – I’ll take a nanogram of parabens over a nanogram of botulism (which IS natural) any day!!

But do I think we need to vilify the word chemical? No. And I’m not going to call something a toxin just because one research study showed a slight correlation of something that may be an irritant for some people.

So that’s it, I’ll step off my soap box now.

What are your thoughts on chemicals, toxins and anything in between?

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