In Todd Haynes’s eerie film Safe (1995), Julianne Moore begins as a 1980s housewife ensconsced in the suburban dreamhouse—awash in saccarine hues of turquoise and pink. She develops a mysterious illness, gradually becoming ever more allergic and ever more intolerant of the environment around her—from her hairspray to her overstuffed couch—until she ends the movie living in quasi-isolation in the New Mexico desert.
I was reminded of this movie—or really, of this feeling of impinging horror, a sense that everything around you is toxic—this week as I put my home through a detox regime. Long ago, I retired my microwave and got rid of all my plastic food-storage containers, with the well-publicized campaign against Bisphenol-A or BPA, which was a staple component of tupperware and baby bottles until a few years ago. I knew then that BPA was an endocrine disruptor—basically, that it messes with your hormones—but here’s a zinger for you: it’s not that we just recently discovered this as a secondary effect, BPA was developed in the 1930s as a synthetic estrogen to prevent miscarriages in women! How it wound up as an additive to plastic products is beyond me.
What set off my more recent round of purging was this: parabens. Other estrogen-mimicking compounds that are added as preservatives to personal care products. To be specific, I went down to my (previously) favorite skin-care company, Kiehl’s, to get some face cream for my chemo-whipped cheeks, only to discover that this product—and everything I have been buying from them for years, including products from shower gel to sunscreen to lip balm—is chock full of parabens. In recent studies, parabens have been detected in 99% of all breast cancer tumors. That it is present is not the same as saying it is causive, but clearly there is a problem here! The manager of Kiehl’s tried to feed me a line about how their stuff is FDA approved, which is a complete lie, since personal care products are neither food nor drugs and the entire cosmetics industry is completely unregulated—which means anything goes. And the high-end cosmetics lines are some of the worst offenders.
Author Florence Williams, in her Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, recounts how she had her own and her seven-year-old daughter’s urine tested for the presence of these compounds, including BPA, phthalates, triclosan, parabens, and flame-retardants—“all common substances known to mimic sex hormones or otherwise interfere with their normal coursings through the body.” They first spent a week awash in perfumed bubble bath, cheap shampoo, and lip gloss, eating plenty of packaged food (test 1); then they had a detox week, where Williams went au naturel, ate nothing from plastic, banned pleather, and rode her bike everywhere (test 2). The levels of phthalates, BPA, and the rest in her system dropped by 80-90%, even in this short window of time.
After my little storm of outrage at the Kiehl’s store, into my recycling bin went all my family’s toothpastes, soaps, lotions, and household cleaning products. Some of these things were replaced with paraben- and phthalate-free alternatives from stores like Whole Foods. Some things we just don’t need at all; a friend of mine passed on something an Italian grandmother suggested to her—instead of deodorant, just use baking soda—it makes sense, it kills odors, right? Cheaper, easier, and free of the nasty aluminum in many deodorants. (Check your own personal care products and what’s in them here).
I’m well aware that there’s no way to get rid of it all—it’s a rabbit hole without end. And I don’t plan to live in a yurt in the New Mexico desert. But it is appalling that the cosmetics industry in this country (parabens are banned, for instance, in Europe) is permitted to include hormone-disrupting components that are clearly linked to breast cancer in their products. Companies like Avon cynically sponsor breast cancer walks while including toxic components in products that women put on their bodies every day.
It’s enough to drive you to drink. Oh yeah, I can’t do that either. Alcohol is also deemed a risk factor for the way it increases levels of estrogen in the body. Detoxing is no kind of fun!
For more on how to detox your home, see the Breast Cancer Fund website.