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Behind the label: Tainted love

Pat Thomas

7th February, 2009

Love doesn’t have to be a dirty business – unless, of course... This Valentine’s Day Pat Thomas makes a heartfelt plea for a little non-toxic lovin’

Candles, cards, chocolates...condoms. You may well be one of those love scrooges who refuses to give in to a bit of romantic indulgence. But if you are among those for whom any excuse for a bit of lovin’ is a good enough excuse, it can’t have escaped your notice that the festival of St Valentine is, shall we say, a bit product oriented these days. Really, the amount of tat we are encouraged to buy and wear in order to be considered lovable has got completely out of hand.

Approximately one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year worldwide, making the day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind Christmas. Women purchase approximately 85 per cent of all these. Just for the moment, let’s ignore the trees that have been cut down to facilitate such exchanges and assume that you will either recycle them in your green bin or, better yet, keep them and recycle them into much more interesting home-made cards for next year.

Instead, consider all the other commercial accompaniments to this once-a-year love fest and the way they could be adding to your body’s total toxic load.

For instance, there may be something iconically feminine and alluring about red lipstick. But before you pucker up, consider this: what goes on your mouth can also go in your mouth. Most lipsticks are composed of synthetic oils and petroleum-derived waxes. When a woman wears lipstick, she may swallow some of it, but it can also be absorbed through the lining of the mouth and it is estimated that a woman may ingest more than four pounds of lipstick in her lifetime. Kiss her and you’ll be getting some of that too.

In 2004, the Environmental Working Group survey Skin Deep examined 711 lipstick products and found that 28 per cent contained ingredients associated with cancer risk such as butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), nylon 6, ferric red (iron) oxide, polyethylene and titanium dioxide. In 2005, a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in San Diego, California showed that women who reported that they used lipstick three days a week had a 40 per cent increased risk of developing lupus and the risk increased with years of lipstick use.

In 2007, tests on red lipsticks made in the US, for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, found that 20 out of 33 brand-name lipsticks tested contained detectable levels of lead, with levels ranging from 0.03 to 0.65 parts per million (ppm). None of these listed lead as an ingredient. To put this into perspective, the ‘safe’ level of lead in candy is 0.1 ppm.

Lead can harm almost any system in the body but is particularly toxic to the nervous system and while you can be exposed to lead from other sources, for instance air pollution, why would you voluntarily put it on your lips?

Chemical fallout

Then there is the perfume, sold as a luxury item that enhances our wellbeing and sexuality, but at heart composed of neurotoxic solvents (not dissimilar from those favoured by glue sniffers the world over) and volatile chemicals usually more at home in garages and factories.

A typical bottle of perfume contains benzene derivatives, aldehydes and many other known toxins capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, allergic and asthmatic reactions. These can get into the body by being inhaled and being absorbed through the skin. When fragrance chemicals penetrate the skin, they can cause discoloration of internal organs. They can also be toxic to the liver and kidneys. Still others accumulate in fatty tissue and leech slowly back into the system or are passed on to our children through breast milk.

This applies equally to men’s fragrances as to women’s, so it’s perhaps wise to ditch the Lynx in favour of something a bit safer and less overpowering, boys.

If you are lighting candles to set the mood, be aware that research by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association has found that burning candles emit a frightening range of volatile organic compounds. These include known carcinogens such as acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, acetone, benzene, 2-butanone, carbon disulfide, carbon tetrachloride, creosol, chlorobenzene carbon monoxide, cyclopentene, ethylbenzene, phenols, styrene tetrachloroethene, toluene, trichloroethene and xylene amongst other toxins.

As a candle burns, it releases largely invisible but dirty soot containing sub-micron size particles light enough to remain suspended in the air for a considerable time, and small enough to be easily absorbed into the body once inhaled. Scented candles, so popular for the romantic ambience they lend to a room, are more likely to give off more of this soot than unscented candles. Microscopic soot particles are associated with higher rates of respiratory problems and can generate free radicals – ‘sniper’ molecules that can damage cells.

Instead of buying candles made from petroleum-based waxes, look for those made from cleaner burning and naturally scented beeswax and bayberry. Soya wax also burns cleanly but unless the label guarantees that the wax has not come from GM soya, it may be ethically better to avoid such candles.

Got protection?

Then there’s the nitty gritty stuff. Condoms may not have much of an environmental footprint but it’s worth considering where they come from and where they go when you are done with them. Condoms are made either from polyurethane or latex. Polyurethane is a nonbiodegradable plastic and probably best avoided.

Latex condoms are a slightly better option but even these are coated with lubricants and made with stabilisers, preservatives and hardening agents that make them slower to degrade than unadulterated latex.

Avoid those with spermicides. Condoms are so reliable you don’t need to use them with spermicide – usually nonoxynol-9, or N9 – and the added chemical doesn’t give any extra protection against STDs. In some cases, it may actually increase an individual’s risk because the spermicide can irritate the vaginal and rectal lining making it more vulnerable to infection.

Whatever they are made of, don’t flush condoms down the loo – it is a ridiculous waste of water and they can clog up the sewer system (or end up floating around in the ocean with all our other plastic junk). Wrapped in a tissue in the bin is best.

There may be something sensual about slathering on a bit of personal lubricant but because of the way in which they are used – in intimate places and in the heat of the moment – most of them contain a number of preservatives such as sodium hydroxide (also known as lye or caustic soda) that can be irritating to the mucous membranes. Some, like parabens, are not only irritating, they are oestrogen mimics.

Most of the data on skin absorption of these chemicals is based on skin outside the body or on oral ingestion. But absorption via the mucous membranes in the rectum and vagina is, generally speaking, many times greater than through the skin.

Many studies have found that personal lubricants have a deleterious effect on sperm motility and the ability of sperm to penetrate cervical mucus, even in the low concentrations of less than 10 per cent found in these products. So when safer alternatives are available why not opt for them?

The bottom line is that love, like everything else, is better kept simple. For the romantically – or environmentally – challenged that means, in person is better than email, handwritten notes are better than greetings cards, home-made is better than store bought, natural is better than synthetic, naked is better than overdressed and organic beats toxic every time.


Sexual healing...

Gentler makeup

Dr Hauschka


Lily Lolo

Purity Cosmetics

Perfumes made from natural oils



Nature’s Gift

Intelligent Nutrients

Natural beeswax candles

Brighter Blessings

Fantasy Candles

Green Gift and Hamper Company

Lattice Lights

Organic chocolate

Green & Black’s




Fairtrade condoms

French Letter

Personal lubricants

Yes Pure Intimacy

Love Lube

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009


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