About Marlene Heloise

I am a biochemist, yoga teacher and writer. And although that might not seem complementary, it works quite well and let's me share my passions about food, the environment, yoga, politics and story telling.

T’is the season

With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas ahead, it’s the time of the year when turkeys become the centerpieces on our tables.  In most people’s minds this evokes images of family gatherings, the chatter of children, the smell of roasted meat wafting through the house. But our succulent turkey roast could have some quite unexpected consequences, far beyond this season. Antibiotic resistance.

Recently a good friend of mine had to spend a month in hospital. It wouldn’t be so shocking if it hadn’t just been a simple tooth infection that landed him there – owing to an antibiotic resistant bacterium. It’s something we hear about on and off in the news. But if it happens to someone you know, the reality of it feels suddenly different. Besides being unable to work for a month, my friend had to endure continuous testing of various, increasing toxic antibiotics in the hope of finding one the infection may finally respond to; not too pleasant on the side effects. And what if there isn’t one? You probably don’t want to know the answer to that, but think pre-1940s.

So what does that have to do with our turkey roast? Unfortunately, a lot.

Many Turkeys, Creative Bacteria

In the North America, especially the U.S., livestock receive ~ 80% of the nations’ antibiotics. The drugs are administered through feed or water – usually at very low doses. But the idea behind this is not to treat sick animals, as we may think. Not at all. It’s to promote faster growth and prevent infections that tend to occur when animals are housed in crowded, unsanitary, stressful conditions. Such as large turkey farms. When exposed to low doses of antibiotics, however, bacteria are not actually killed but become quickly accustomed, and finally resistant, to the drug.

By overusing antibiotics on industrial farms on animals reared for our food consumption, that don’t actually have any infections, we are not only making them resistant though – we are actually creating new strains of bacteria, ones we cannot get rid of again. Because there is another issue many of us are not aware of. While turkey farmers only use approved antibiotics, 40% of these are not used in human medicine – yet. Which wouldn’t be a problem except for the ability of bacteria to share genetic material amongst each other. Bacteria in meat can pass on their resistance to other bacteria in a person’s digestive tract, creating new ones that are resistant to drugs that may at some point be one of few alternatives left to treat infections. Only it won’t since, unknowingly, we have already created bacteria resistant to these drugs.

What are the alternatives?

Turkey is one of the most frequently contaminated meats. According to a recent study by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health 77% of turkey samples collected from U.S. supermarkets tested positive for the MRSA bacteria Staphylococcus aureus – and 96% of those were resistant to at least one antimicrobial drug. But the problem is not just limited to turkey farming. A recent outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg has been linked to Foster Farms chicken; to date, 389 people have fallen ill from the meat since March 2013.

Unfortunately, we won’t be able to change the turkey and chicken farming industry overnight, and certainly not before this year’s holidays arrive. But over time we as consumers have to put more pressure on the industry and government to change laws and prohibit the unnecessary use of antibiotic in livestock farming to prevent indefinite hospital stays due to a simple tooth infection. Of course for that to happen the way poultry is raised has to change fundamentally first, and we have to not only reduce our own meat consumption, but also remember that these are living beings that deserve a good life and humane living conditions – just as much as any other living being does. But don’t be fooled, we aren’t there yet by far. Even on most ‘free-range’ farms, conditions are very similar, if not sometimes worse, than on ‘traditional’ poultry farms. But that’s a topic for a later post.

So this Holiday, short of preparing vegan dishes, if you want to avoid becoming the new breeding vessel for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, look out for labels like “No Antibiotics Administered” or “Raised Without Antibiotics”, especially if they are government verified as well as Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane”, which mean that antibiotics were only used to treat sick animals. But remember, “All Natural” say nothing about how an animal was raised. Of course you could also do some research on small turkey or goose farms in your area to buy your feast – or try out a European tradition like roasted fish. No matter what you end up doing though – enjoy the Holidays!

A Guide To …

… Making Your Own Lip Balm

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When I first moved to New York City, I really suffered from dry lips and was constantly searching for the right lip balm. Daniel, my now-husband, recommended his Blistex lip balm. But strangely when I opened it, the smell reminded me of my work place…. and not in a good way. Then I realized why.

One of the ingredients was phenol. In the laboratory we use phenol for extracting nucleic acids, such as DNA or RNA, from cells. But apparently phenol is also used as an analgesic or even to temporarily treat pharyngitis. To me, this was highly worrying. In the lab we handle phenol only with gloves and with great caution. Especially since it is corrosive to the eyes, the skin, and the respiratory tract and repeated or prolonged skin contact causes dermatitis, or even second and third-degree burns. It also has harmful effects on the central nervous system, liver and kidneys if you come into prolonged contact. Which  using it in a lip balm, you would.

Needless to say, I did not use Blistex. I kept on searching for a lip balm that instead of being corrosive would be nourishing, smooth and creamy, and, most important of all, keeping my lips moisturized even at temperatures of 20 below zero. It was an almost hopeless quest.  Most lip balm are made with petroleum jelly (vaseline), because the theory is that this will lock the moisture in your lips and they will not dry out. Unfortunately the jelly is often not very highly refined and contains harmful impurities. And besides, it often dries your lips even more since it does not allow for moisture to be absorbed from the atmosphere but locks already present one in. What if you started out with dry lips already? They will only get drier.

But there are some good brands out there, albeit they are expensive. Dr. Hauschka and Whole Foods own brand have lip balms with ingredients you feel comfortable to lick off your lips without having to think of the negative consequences. But one day I came across empty lip balm tubes in a local herbalist shop – and that gave me the idea. How difficult can it be to make your own? It actually isn’t. So with a little research I put together my own recipe for a lip balm.

Think About Ingredients

As always when making your own cosmetics, think about ingredients. As mentioned above, petroleum-based products dry your lips even more if they are already dry to begin with. What you want to be looking for instead are natural moisturizers such as Cacao Butter, Shea Butter or even olive oil. Vitamin E is also a good additive, it heals and regenerates your skin and also acts as an anti-oxidant. To make your oils and butters solid, you will have to add a solid fat or wax. Again, petroleum based ingredients such as Vaseline should be avoided. Instead use beeswax. It is non-toxic and indigestible, if you happen to lick it off your lips. Finally choose a scent. Essential oils are ideal for that. Peppermint or sweet orange are classic ones, but cinnamon is also quite nice during the winter.

Source Your Ingredients

As important it is to decide on what you put into your body wash, it is equally important to know where your ingredients come from. Many of the ingredients such as essential oils, maybe even Shea butter and beeswax, are commonly found in your local organic shop. If you don’t life near any such shop try the internet. As mentioned in my previous post on shower gel, a good resource is Mountain Rose Herbs. This company sells herbs, teas, spices, natural health products as well as ingredients for homemade body care in bulk.

Get Your Equipment Together

As I mentioned before, making your own cosmetics doesn’t require a sterile environment. To mix your ingredients, use clean stain-less steel mixing bowls, measuring spoons and a whisk. To heat them, just use an old stain-less steel pot. It’s as simple as that. Before you get started though, make sure you have the final container ready. Herbal stores are hidden treasure troves when it comes to finding containers for homemade cosmetics and that’s where I came across my lip balm containers. Again, if you don’t have one close by, Lipbalmtubes.com is a great resource for anything related to making your own lip balm. Also have a set of small stain-less steel funnels handy to transfer your mixture or get a lip balm tube filling tray. Finally, get creative! Make your own label. The website also sells printable sheets with stickers sized to fit your tubes. It makes a nice Christmas gift!

Get Cooking

Now the quick and easy part, actually making your lip balm. Chop your butters and beeswax in small chunks so they melt quickly over a low heat water bath. This is nothing but a metal mixing bowl placed on top of a pan filled with water. Then add your Vitamin E, Essential oils and mix well. Fill into the lip balm tubes using a small funnel, let cool, cap and stick your label on. Hmmm. Creamy – and even if you get some into your mouth – it tastes and smells of cacao butter and is completely harmless! Enjoy!

On a final note – as for Blistex? They have finally removed phenol from some of their products and replaced phenol with oxybenzone. Is that better? No, not really. Oxybenzone is a photo-sensitizer that may actually cause more sunburns and ultimately skin cancer, despite it being found in many sunscreens.

Creamy Cacao Butter Lip Balm

1 ½ tbsp (15ml) Cacao Butter

1 ½ tbsp (15ml) Shea Butter

1 tbsp (15ml) Beeswax, chopped

1 drop Vitamin E

Optional:

4 drops Essential Sweet Orange Oil OR Peppermint Oil

Fill a small stainless pot half way with water and place a metal bowl on top. Put the cacao butter, Shea butter and beeswax into the bowl and heat the water below to a low boil. Keep checking until all the beeswax is dissolved (it will take the longest). Take from the heat and whisk in the Vitamin E and Essential oils. Use a small metal funnel to fill into lip balm tubes or use a multi-tube filler if you are making a large batch. Let cool and cap. Keeps ~12 months.

Finally – U.S. Getting Rid of Trans Fats

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Coronary Heart Disease. Alzheimer’s. Breast Cancer. Prostate Cancer. Type 2 Diabetes. Obesity. Infertility. Depression.

Just reading this list elicits a feeling of dread, especially considering that all of these illnesses are rampant in our society. And looking at statistics our fight against them more often than not feels equivalent to Sisyphus perpetually trying to keep his stone from rolling downhill.  Last month marked a step in the right direction.

After more than a decade of study and deliberation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally proposed a ban of trans fats, following the example of countries like Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland amongst others. It’s been a long and exhausting debate I followed closely during my seven years in New York. But although many people probably heard of them, equally as many have probably forgotten by now why it is so important to ban trans fats. It’s no surprise really – the debate was endless and lost the attention of the media years ago.

What’s the problem?

So what are trans fats, in lay man’s terms, and why are they a cause or risk for all those diseases listed on top? Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that exists naturally in extremely small amounts in animal fats such as meats or dairy. But all fats are not equal. Generally they contain long hydrocarbon chains, in which each carbon molecule can be orientated one of two ways around the bond that connects them with each other: cis, on the same side of a bond connecting the carbons, or trans, on opposite sides of that bond. Most fatty acids in the vegetable and animal kingdoms generally have cis orientations.  However, in 1910 a German chemist found that he could artificially generate trans fats by adding hydrogen to cooking oil which would turned the liquid into a semi-solid, such as margarine or shortening.

So why was this so revolutionary? It turned out that using solid partially hydrogenated fats gave products a longer shelf life than butter would, while keeping the same texture and flavor of a product. Many products containing trans fats didn’t need to be refrigerated. In addition, it was cheap to produce. Really, it was a by-product (or contaminant) of a chemical reaction. And thus the age of processed food had begun.

Where Trans Fats Hide

Trans fats are definitely edible. In fact they are lurking in many a product we all have the occasional craving for. Think Doritos, fast food, baked goods you’re your local super market, bread stick, crackers but also instant noodles, coffee creamers, pancake mix, frozen ready-to-use pastry, frozen meals – and the list goes on. Tasty, mostly, and convenient. But here’s the caveat. What’s convenient (well, and good for the food industry) is not necessarily a good thing per se.

The Price of Convenience

Due to lack of research, scientists believed for decades that trans fats were actually a healthier alternative to so-called ‘natural’ products, which contain more saturated fat and a higher fat content overall. Turns out, this was wrong. Compared to saturated fats in animal foods, trans fats have been linked with a 2.5- to 10-fold higher risk of heart disease and increased bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, a 73% greater risk of female infertility, a potential 75% greater risk for breast cancer, and depression. There is also numerous evidence that trans fat increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and triggers inflammation in the body, a contributor to many chronic diseases. By banning trans fats the FDA estimates 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths could be prevented each year in the U.S. alone.

Avoiding Trans Fats

So what to do if you live in a country that has no ban but only limits trans fats in processed foods? Personally, I go with the easiest way, at least if you like cooking: home-prepared foods. I agree, I may not be the best example as I even make home-made snacks and pastry dough, but let me tell you, even if you live a busy life as most of us do, it is manageable. Time management is the key and it is well worth it. Not only will you end up with better tasting food but you will decrease the overall burden of your daily exposure to risky ingredients that can impact your future health. Just because one can’t see or feel it now doesn’t mean disease may not strike one day. It’s an accumulative effect.

But if time is not on your side in your daily life, than a good way to start is by avoiding foods that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated oil or shortening. Many, but not all, food companies have reformulated their products to remove trans fats so it’s important to always read the label.

As a scientist I am glad that effective research has finally led to a proposed ban of trans fats in the U.S. It highlights how important and instrumental research is to keeping our society healthy. But the changes are happening too slowly. For its results to be effective, to prevent disease, and cut down on highly lamented spiraling health costs, findings need to be implemented faster than they have been up to now. That‘s the only way to keep the stone from rolling further and further, faster and faster – until its momentum becomes unstoppable.

A Guide To …

… Making Your Own Body Wash

Ingredients

In my last post I described how I started making my own personal care products and experimented with different ingredients to tailor then to  my tastes and needs. And although that is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea to make their own, here’s a little guide on how to go about making your own body wash.

Think About Ingredients

What you choose to put in your body wash is important. Not just from an organic vs non-organic ingredient point-of-view, but also depending on your skin type, your preferences for smell and so on, similarly to when you select one in a store. Start off with something moisturizing for your skin type: sweet almond oil or apricot kernel oil are good choices for dry skin, grape seed oil for normal skin and coconut oil is good for all skin types as well as a cooling agent during the summer. The choice of soap is also important, and the easiest I have found to use is unscented castile soap that is made from olive oil (for example Dr. Bronner’s). Another good ingredient are floral waters such as rose or orange blossom, or herbal infusions such as Calendula or Chamomile. They have astringent and purifying properties and smell nice. Finally choose a scent. Essential oils are ideal for that. Lavender or Geranium for calm, Grapefruit to invigorate, or Sandalwood for something more earthy. If you struggle with blemishes, tea tree oil is also a good addition.

Source Your Ingredients

As important it is to decide on what you put into your body wash, it is equally important to know where your ingredients come from. Many of the ingredients such as Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap and essential oils are commonly found in your local organic shop. If you don’t life near any such shop try the internet. A good resource is Mountain Rose Herbs. This company sells herbs, teas, spices, natural health products as well as ingredients for homemade body care in bulk. You can order as little as 4oz and as much as 1lb of your favourite herb. They also sell floral waters and essential oils and ship world-wide. The company has also a strong commitment to organic and sustainable agriculture, which is invaluable if you want your body wash pesticide-free.

Get Your Equipment Together

I found a lot of people are put off  from making their own personal care products by thinking they have to work in a sterile environment. No, you don’t. To mix your ingredients, use clean stain-less steel mixing bowls, measuring spoons and a whisk. To heat them, just use an old stain-less steel pot. It’s as simple as that. Before you get started though, make sure you have the final container ready. You can choose a plastic squeeze bottle (make sure it’s ‘good’ grade plastic!) or an amber-colored glass bottle. What ever tickles your fancy. Herbal stores are hidden treasure troves when it comes to finding containers for homemade cosmetics. I have found many a thing there, from squeeze bottles, to lip balm containers and roll-on bottles. Again, if you don’t have one close by, Mountain Rose Herb is a great resource as well as many other places on the web. One final piece that has come in quite handy over the years is a set of small stain-less steel funnels to transfer your mixture to the bottle. These are available from any kitchen shop.

Get Cooking

This is the fun part! Always start off with your infusion or your floral water and heat it gently. Then add your oils and mix well. Take from the heat source and follow by adding the soap. Liquid is best here but if you’re using flakes, let them dissolve slowly. At this point your body wash will look nothing like the gel-like substances we are all used to. You can either keep it that way, or you can add a thickener. The most common and harmless one to use is Xanthan Gum, a polysaccharide secreted by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. It’s often available in powder form. Add it by sprinkling it onto your mixture and whisk it in until there are no clumps left. The mixture will thicken very quickly so be careful how much you add. Finally, add your essential oils for fragrance. If you are worried about the shelf-life of your body wash, you could also add a few drops Vitamin E T50 oil as an antioxidant, and a  few drops tea tree oil as antibacterial agent. One important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be accurate with amounts. Just be approximate, and after a few tries you will adjust your ingredients the way you like them best.

Use!

Now get showering! Believe me, the first time you will use your homemade body wash is actually quite a proud moment. To think that you just made something with a few yet good quality ingredients that for years you had to buy in a shop? It’s a great feeling! You will quickly decide what to change in your mix – more or less thickener, different essential oil, or you may even want to play around with adding colour. When it comes to homemade cosmetics, the world is your oyster, as long as you do your research on ingredients. And the best of it all? In the end you control what goes in it.

My Favorite Body Wash

Below is the recipe for my favorite body wash. It’s simple to make and the amounts are approximate. I personally tend towards dry skin but, as I said, you can change-up the ingredients any way you like. Enjoy!

1 cup (250ml) organic Floral Rose Water

1tbsp (15ml) Sweet Almond Oil

1tbsp (15ml) Shea Butter

1 cup (250ml) Dr. Bronner’s Unscented Castile Soap

1tsp (5ml) Xanthan Gum

2 drops Vitamin E

10 drops Essential Grapefruit Oil

10 drops Essential Sandalwood Oil

In a small stain-less pot heat the Rose Water gently. Add the Shea Butter to melt and the Sweet Almond Oil. Mix in with a whisk. Take from the heat and mix in your Castile Soap. Sprinkle some Xanthan Gum powder on top of the mixture and whisk in quickly. Add more depending on desired consistency. Add the Vitamin E and Essential oils and mix. Transfer into an opaque plastic squeeze bottle and keep in your shower. Keeps ~6 months.

What’s in it?

A Quick Guide To Finding Out What’s Hiding In Your Face Cream.

Coffee-and-MSDS

My grandmother always used to say that cold coffee made you beautiful. And while that’s a topic for another post, it’s a good metaphor for how we often take statements like that without questioning them. She had heard it somewhere in the past and then imparted her wisdom to me. And it’s my grandmother, so it had to be true, right?

Maybe – or maybe not.

In any case, it’s a phrase I still jokingly use with my husband since I am notorious for letting my coffee get cold. And being the scientist he is, he always questions that statement with a ‘Why?’. Sadly, he is the only one. The most common answer I get from other people is ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ And it is not just because he is a scientist, believe me. Many of my science colleagues don’t question what they use on a daily basis to groom themselves. I have asked several of them – and they were without a fail surprised by the question, let alone the thought behind it.

Methylchloroisothiazolinone vs Aloe Vera

Even before I became a biochemist, I was interested in what personal care products were made of. And not only because of cold coffee. The insistence with which the media on behalf of cosmetics companies tried to sell us the next best shampoo made me suspicious. I honestly felt no difference in my hair quality regardless of whether I used Timotei or Herbal Essence. In fact, becoming bored and disillusioned with the never-ending promises of silkier and softer hair, I began to experiment with homemade cosmetics in my late teens. I discovered that it was much more fun to tailor a cream or a shampoo to your personal tastes and play with ingredients, than use products whose components I knew nothing about.

The search for ingredients for my own creams led me to take a closer look at those in store-bought ones. Needless to say none of the outlandish sounding names on my mother’s face cream made any sense to me back then. Without readily available access to the Internet, research wasn’t quite as easy. So it wasn’t until my time at University that I got more of an idea what’s really in her face cream. No matter how fancy or expensive, Nivea or Clarins – the ingredients are always similar. And not in a good way.

The Internet Is Your Friend

Nowadays it’s much simpler to look behind the label of your body care products. Just type any of the ingredients into Google – and voila! Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) of any chemical are available online. They list the potential hazards of a chemical and the  amounts that could be dangerous in an easy-to-understand manner. Another great resource is Wikipedia. Information on almost all chemicals can be found there. However, not all entries list their hazards to health when used in the cosmetics industry.

A resource I have found useful and very accessible over the years is Skin Deep, a database by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The database, which was established in 2004, contains information on around 79,000 products and 2500 brands. And although a good base, it’s not updated regularly, and some of their data is limited and often not stringent enough.

Another source of information is the David Suzuki Foundation. David Suzuki has been engaged in environmentalism since the late 80s and founded the organization in 1990 as a solution-based group. The Foundation has a lot of material on cosmetic ingredients as well as other topics such as safe food and climate change.

But it is not just large organizations that can help in the quest of investigating your shampoo. FemmeToxic is a young Montréal-based organization dedicated to a youth-oriented campaign for safer cosmetics. Founded in 2009 the group is particularly focused on raising awareness amongst young women on the dangers behind cosmetics and personal care products. It is also a strong advocate for stricter regulations and labeling. Their website has easily accessible information on dangerous ingredients and their risks.

Resources like these allow us to finally break free from the propaganda machinery of the cosmetics industry. It allows us to do our own research on their latest not-to-miss-out-on ingredient, or how nanoparticles will truly affect our wrinkles. With the worldwide web at your fingertips it is simple and straightforward to find out what’s really in your shampoo or face cream – or if cold coffee could make you beautiful.

Not All That Smells Is Roses

Roses

Our society is obsessed with smells. But is this obsession really worth our future offspring?

Each and every one of us has to smell fresh at all times. Our clothes have to smell fresh – even after a night out in a smoky club (well, now mostly a thing of the past), and even natural baby scent is not good enough any longer. Yes, now there is even a perfume for babies.

We don’t buy body care products that only have a subtle smell. I only realized the full extent of this recently when my husband proclaimed that my homemade shower gel just didn’t smell strong enough. I was confused.  I had added grapefruit oil and rosewater, and, at least to my own nose, it was pleasant, yet not overbearing. But then again, I am the person that cannot walk the perfume section of a department store without feeling nauseous and developing a headache from all those overpowering scents. Yet usually my husband is the one with the sensitive nose.

It all comes down to a formula

Unlike with many other things, when we smell something, good or bad, we don’t readily associate some chemical formula with it. Regardless though of whether it is the smell of an orange or Febreze, in both cases there is a chemical compound entering our system through inhalation and it reacts with our olfactory system creating a sense of smell in our brain. Sadly, that’s not the end of it.

More and more people these days seem to be affected by ‘fragrances’ used in deodorants, air fresheners, shower gels, perfumes – you name it, and exposure often triggers migraine, allergies and asthma symptoms. Moreover, most of the ingredients used for fragrance, have actually not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination. So why are these chemicals not simply avoided by companies? Simple. Since they haven’t been tested, there is no law in effect that enforces avoidance or even disclosure of the danger behind these ingredients.

Naturally Irritating – and so much more

So how can you detect them? Only with diligence and reading ingredient lists. If you were to look at any deodorant, all you may find is either the generic term ‘fragrance’ or a short list of names that no meaning to most people such as Limoene, Citral, Geraniol or Linalool. They all sound harmless and somehow related to smell we know – lemon, citrus, geranium. No? None of these ingredients are derived from the natural source of lemons or geranium, and in fact, many of these compounds are irritants.

Lastly, some fragrance ingredients are not actually perfuming agents themselves but enhance the performance of perfuming agents. One such widely used ingredient is diethyl phthalate, or DEP, and is added to make the scent linger. Phthalates are choice ingredients in cosmetics because they are cheap and versatile. However, the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed DEP as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone (endocrine) function. Phthalates have been linked to early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in the developing male fetus (when the mother is exposed during pregnancy), not to mention liver and kidney failure in young children when exposed for extended periods.

So what’s a girl or guy got to do to smell nice and stay healthy? Look for products with the least fragrance, avoid DEP at all costs, and maybe mix your own. A mixture of essential oils of your choice mixed with some alcohol and glycerin goes a long, healthy way.

What DO you put in your mouth?

toothbrush

Many of us are concerned about the food we put into our bodies. Is it organic? Where does it come from? What’s in it? And rightly so. But there are other things we put into our mouth on a daily basis. In fact, at least twice a day. Without even thinking about it. Toothpaste.

Which begs the question: why are we so concerned what we put into our stomachs, when we seem to have no care about the pasty substance we use approximately 49640 times during your life-time between the age of 2 and 70 (assuming that before or after you won’t have any teeth to clean)? I suppose it’s because few of us are aware of the fact that the mucus membranes inside our mouth are one of the most direct routes to our blood, our organs, our brain. More so than our stomach, where food needs to be broken down first. And it has about 90% absorption efficiency. Worried yet?

Here is a list of five ingredients that can be found in almost all brand name toothpastes, with very few exceptions. So whatever your favourite happens to be, take a look at the small print next time you brush and find out what exactly you are putting in your mouth.

1. Sodium lauryl sulfate

Maybe some of you still remember your elders threatening you to wash out your mouth with soap if you were to use that ‘bad word’ again? I do. Little did I know back then that all my Gran would have had to do is tell me to go and brush my teeth. Of course that would have been a much less intimidating threat, and in fact, she might not have even known herself.

Sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, is often listed as ‘surfactant’ or ‘dispersant’ if you take a close look at some toothpaste’s ingredients list. All it means is that it allows lowering the surface tension between two liquids as they mix, forming bubbles and stabilizing them. In simple terms it’s a detergent. The same you use to wash your dishes. It’s soap. And don’t be deceived by claims that SLS is better than SDS (sodium dodecyl sulfate), which has received bad press over the past years. It’s one and the same. Both are eye and respiratory tract irritants and allergens. And while not listed as such, when used in the laboratory to denature proteins, they are regarded as bio accumulative chemicals. Suggesting that you will develop a potential allergy to it over time and with continued use. Like I did.

2. Sodium saccharin and sorbitol

Sugar has become an increasing concern in our society. Diabetes and obesity are increasing steadily, especially among children. We now lean more often towards food and drinks that contain less or no sugar to curb our intake and that of our children. But do you also consider your sugar intake when it comes to your toothpaste? You should. After all, it’s a main ingredient and comes in one of two flavours: sodium saccharin or sorbitol.

Many of us are familiar with saccharine to sweeten coffee or tea. It was developed first in the 1870s and is made from coal tar. Yummy. It contains no caloric value and is not absorbed by our intestines. However, the sweet taste of saccharin has been suspected to still trigger a response from our hormone glands (also called endocrine system) and stimulate insulin production from the pancreas. The main effect of insulin is to transport sugar in the blood stream to various body tissues that can use it for energy. Without any actual sugar entering the blood stream, when ingesting an artificial sweetener such as saccharin, insulin has nothing to bind to. Over time this void stimulation could decrease your insulin sensitivity when you actually do eat sugar (requiring you to eat more to elicit a response by your glands) and increase your risk for developing diabetes.

Sorbitol, on the other hand, is a simple sugar substitute and does provide dietary energy. At least that will give our insulin something to transport. Better? Not really. Sorbitol is suspected to aggravate irritable bowel syndrome and similar digestive conditions, which are very common today, even in small amounts.

3. Triclosan

In the past decade we have become literally obsessed with everything antibacterial. Antibacterial hand soaps, wipes, dishwashing liquid, and shower gels. You name it and it will most likely exist in its antibacterial form. There are even antibacterial children’s toys. And yes, there is also antibacterial toothpaste. Triclosan is the chemical most commonly used as an antimicrobial ingredient. In toothpaste it is added to fight gum inflammation. It’s often paired with PVM/MA copolymer, a water fixative found in hairspray, that causes it to stick to your teeth and gums, rather than getting rinsed away.

Yet while triclosan is so prevalent throughout our households it is even more so than you might have ever thought. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemical present in the urine of 75 percent of Americans over the age of 6. How so? Triclosan is bio accumulative; meaning with every dose you put into your mouth or onto your skin, some of it will stay behind and become absorbed into your body. And often the doses are too high to begin with. While Health Canada limits the levels of triclosan in toothpaste and mouthwash to 0.03%, there are several commonly used pastes out there that contain levels of 0.3%.

It fights bacteria. So what’s the problem? The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) lists triclosan as a pesticide and the FDA suspects it to alter hormone regulation based on studies in rodents. But beside that the use of triclosan also contributes to bacterial antibiotic resistance. In light of that, several countries, including Canada, are actively seeking to ban the ingredient.

4. D&C Yellow, D&C Red, FD&C Green and FD&C Blue

The red stripe helps fight plaque and protects gums, the white stripe has fluoride to fight decay, and there’s a blue stripe for fresh breath.”

Familiar? It’s a famous advertising jingle for a well-known brand toothpaste. Over the years companies have worked out strategies to make toothpaste more appealing through its cool colors or new gimmicks represented by them. Yet the colors meant to brighten up our daily brushing routine are much less pretty than they look. Made from coal tar, a mixture of many chemicals derived from petroleum some of them were shown to have the potential to cause cancer when applied to the skin. So what could be the consequences if put into our mouth?

In addition they are often contaminated with low levels of heavy metals or combined with aluminum substrate. Aluminum compounds and many heavy metals are toxic to the brain. Some colors are not approved as food additives, yet they are still used in personal care products that may be ingested, like toothpaste. In the U.S. color naming system, “FD&C” indicates colors approved by the FDA for use in foods, drugs, and cosmetics, “D&C” colors are not approved for use in food. But then again, does toothpaste count as food?

5. PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil

The first time I bought castor oil, the woman in the shop gave a me concerned look and asked “You know it’s only meant to be used on the outside of your body? Not for cooking or ingesting any other way. Right?”

I knew but was still happy she seemed concerned, as I did feel a little uneasy about using castor oil at that point. Castor oil is obtained from castor seeds, which contain ricin, an extremely toxic protein removed during cold pressing and filtering, rendering the oil fairly harmless. For the outside of your body.  So why is found in toothpaste as PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil?

PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil means that the oil has been ethoxylated, a process in which ethylene oxide, a petroleum based chemical, is added to alcohols and phenols to produce surfactants, often with the carcinogenic 1,4 dioxane as a by-product. A surfactant?  An emulsifier, foam booster, cleansing agent. And that’s why it’s in your toothpaste. The one that you put in your mouth, on the inside of your body.

We are often led to believe that using chemicals like the ones listed above reflect progress. That they allow us to live healthier than our ancestors, even our grandparents, did. Yet do they really? My grandmother was born in 1920 and for the majority of her life used simple products to clean her teeth. A combination of salt and sodium bicarbonate, mixed with water into a paste during her childhood and the War, and later on a little more sophisticated mixtures, which were still simpler than the mélange of chemicals found in toothpaste today. And you know what? She lived to the impressive age of 87 with her own teeth intact and well. For me she was a shining example that with simple yet thorough care you can keep your mouth healthy without inflicting harm to the rest of your body.