Date: 2008-06-05 20:37:00
better living through chemistry

Over the years, I've become increasingly aware of some of the chemicals that many people put in or on their bodies on a regular basis. Although it was over ten years ago now, I clearly remember the time I noticed my shoulder was a bit numb and it wasn't going away (as it would if I pinched a nerve or something). I was drinking diet soft drinks on a regular basis at the time. I recalled reading something months before about the link between aspartame and numbness, so I quit drinking the diet drinks and the numbness immediately went away (and never came back). I haven't touched the stuff since.

Since then, I've learned about various other potentially harmful chemicals that are commonly added to food or personal care products. For some of these, there is little direct evidence that the chemical is actually harmful to humans. This may be because the direct effect is hard to observe, or it takes a long time to show an effect, or other reasons. However, I think people should apply some common sense:

If you answered no to any of these, be sure to read below about how to avoid doing so.

Name Use Found in Danger How to avoid
Aspartame Sweetener Diet soft drinks, sugar-free sweets and gum Anecdotal evidence of links to serious diseases (see Aspartame controversy). I have direct experience with numbness in my shoulder caused by aspartame. Carefully check ingredients of "diet" or "sugar-free" anything.
Sodium benzoate Preservative Fruit juices, soft drinks, salad dressings, etc When combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C), it forms benzene (a carcinogen). Check the ingredient list for sodium benzoate (E211) or potassium benzoate (E212).
Triclosan Antibacterial and antifungal agent Toothpaste, mouthwash, soap, kitchen utensils, cutting boards, toys, socks, etc Consistent use of antibacterial agents is known to promote growth of resistant strains. This one is tough to avoid. For products with an ingredient list, you can easily check. For other products, avoid anything labeled with "antibacterial".
Aluminium chlorohydrate Antiperspirant Antiperspirants Aluminium is considered a "heavy metal" in biological contexts and has also been found to be a neurotoxin. A link to Alzheimer's disease is possible. Use a deodorant-only product instead of an antiperspirant. The "crystal" deodorants work well.
Studies suggest antiperspirants are safe (from the NY Times)

It's also worth noting that when I was googling sodium benzoate, it does look like a lot of companies are taking it out of their products, so it's perhaps not quite so alarmist as this post implies.

What I would be interested in knowing is in what kind of quantities are these chemicals harmful, and what quantities one can expect to consume in the "use" column. Because the answer is yes - I'd consume any of those products in low enough quantities that wouldn't hurt me. That said, I can probably expect to live into the 80-85 range. Let's say that stopping the use of deoderant, not cleaning my hands anymore, shunning soda, diet soda, salad dressings, and anything else with preservatives would extend my life years. I dunno, I'm not sure it's worth it - all my relatives who have been over 85 have been pretty pumped full of medications and generically senile.
Yes, the quantities are important. Also, everybody is different so some people may react differently to different amounts. For example, the evidence surrounding aspartame is inconclusive at best, which may mean that it doesn't affect most people when consumed in typical quantities. Perhaps I was different, I know it affected me in a minor way, but it was enough to alarm me.

People who are 85 now have probably not had consistent exposure to these things over their whole lives (in particular, during their childhood years). I think the hypothesis that leads to the conclusion that "it never hurt my grandparents" remains to be tested.

And for specific points: Antiperspirant, not deodorant, is the problem. You can clean your hands; many soap brands don't contain any triclosan. Shunning soda is a net win overall I think. Homemade mayonnaise and other salad dressings are really easy. :)
I don't know if these are the product you mean, but there are things marketed as "deodorant crystals" which are large lumps of what the marketers describes as "natural mineral salts." One brand name is "The Crystal." It's alum - as the name implies, an aluminium compound. Since it's the aluminium part you're concerned about in aluminium chlorohydrate, rather than the chlorohydrate, I don't see how there'd be any less cause for concern with that product. You really seem to want an aluminium-free product, not just an aluminium-chlorohydrate-free product. If the issue isn't the aluminium but deodorant vs. antiperspirant, then you need a totally different justification for why antiperspirants should be bad, because the only argument you've presented is anti-aluminium only - and I'm not even convinced that alum crystals really are purely a deodorant rather than an antiperspirant. Or do you mean some other product when you say "crystal" deodorants?
That's an interesting point. Although the class of chemicals called "alum" doesn't necessarily imply aluminium, it looks like Al is indeed the inspiration for the name. indicates that potassium alum is commonly used as a deodorant. If the marketers say "No aluminium chlorohydrate" but use potassium alum anyway, that seems a bit disingenuous. It's like saying "no sodium benzoate" and using potassium benzoate instead (I've seen this done). I will investigate further.
For clarity (I think you know this but some readers of your comment may not): both "ammonium alum" and "potassium alum" do contain aluminium, according to Wikipedia. The fact that the general category of alums may include some aluminium-free compounds doesn't save those particular ones.
The title of the post totally threw me off. :)
I'm with you on all of that, except for one thing:

If multiple dentists recommended mouthwash to you against gingivitis, what would you use instead of mouthwash against gingivitis?
I just checked the mouthwash I have and it doesn't contain any triclosan. However, it contains both benzoic acid and sodium benzoate. Hmm! At least there's no ascorbic acid in it.

I don't really know what the most important anti-gingivitis ingredient in mouthwash is. There's alcohol and various antibacterial and antifungal ingredients, along with preservatives. Perhaps alcohol (I bet a good strong cheap vodka is easy to find there!) diluted 10:1 with salt water would do the trick.

Also, daily flossing is critical because calculus builds up in about 24 hours, and stays there until the next time you get your teeth scaled.

I sound like my dentist.
Greg Hewgill <>