So far in my series on the human microbiome I introduced you to some new friends and shared why cultivating a healthy microbiome is important to overall health as well as how to promote microbial health from the beginning. Today we’ll take a look at how our health is impacted by the products we use every day. That’s right – what we rub on our skin, spray in our hair, and use to clean our home impacts more than whether its a good or bad hair day and how much our countertops sparkle.
I believe you would agree that what we put in our mouths matters. Are we going to have better long-term health outcomes if we are more consistent in our cookie or kale consumption? You may be surprised to learn that what our skin comes in contact with and the air we breathe on a daily basis also has a rather significant impact on various factors of our health and well-being.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
This theory suggests that the less childhood exposure to bacteria, parasites, and symbiotic microorganisms (such as gut flora and microorganisms) in affluent societies, like the United States and Europe, actually increases susceptibility to disease by suppressing the natural development of the immune system. This concept is being linked to the rise of other chronic conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, psychiatric conditions such as depression, autism and even some forms of cancer. 
Are we obsessed with being clean?
Coming from a former hand-sanitizer addict, I believe we are. Every grocery store has sanitizing wipes in order for us to wash off our entire shopping cart before grabbing hold, hand sanitizer is no longer limited to hanging wall units but now dangles from our key chains, and scrubbing down in the shower is a daily (maybe twice a day?) occurrence for most of us.
Our Largest Organ
Our skin is our body’s largest organ. The skin of an average adult weighs approximately 8 pounds and covers 22 square feet . Much of what we put on our skin is absorbed into our bloodstream. Think about patches like nicotine, birth control and Lidoderm patches. The substance on the patch penetrates the skin to be absorbed by the bloodstream in order to have its desired affect. Some chemicals are too large to penetrate our skin and enter the bloodstream, but many are small enough to enter quickly.
In 2005 the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in collaboration with Commonweal, published a study showing the presence of and average of 200 industrial chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides in umbilical cord blood. The ten umbilical cords studied harbored pesticides, consumer product ingredients, and wastes from burning coal, gasoline, and garbage. Among them are eight perfluorochemicals, which are used as stain and oil repellants in fast food packaging, clothes and textiles.  The presence of chemicals from fast food packages, clothing, and textiles in the blood of the umbilical cord means it entered the mother’s blood stream first, showing the importance of not only what we put in our bodies but also what our bodies come in contact with.
But, this does not mean we retreat and live in a bubble! As I mentioned regarding the hygiene hypothesis our immune systems are buoyed when from a young age we are allowed to get a little dirty and come in contact with the dog and our siblings and cousins. There is obviously a difference between that which promotes a healthy microbiome and immune system and that which damages, such as synthetic chemicals.
The combination of depleted immune systems and continuos chemical exposure in our daily lives is wrecking havoc on our health in more ways than we realize. I know this was the case for me. Continuous digestive and a few other ongoing health issues had me perplexed and frustrated. I couldn’t seem to figure out why these issues plagued me when my diet was full of whole, unrefined plants. As I read The Microbiome Solution and the list of items that had depleted my microbiome since birth grew longer and longer I felt like the puzzle was being pieced together and I finally began to see improvements as I slowly implemented more lifestyle changes.
So where do we begin??
Does the thought of completely upending your personal hygiene and household products overwhelm you? I completely understand! I worked in simple steps to make our lifestyle and home chemical-free.
- Identify and make a list of the products you use most regularly. For me it was make-up, shower products, and kitchen cleaner.
- Find the biggest offenders. Look up these products on the Environmental Working Group‘s website. The EWG is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment through sound research and education from a team of scientists, policy experts, and lawyers. You can search your make-up and skin care products in their Skin Deep Database where they provide each item with a hazard score from 1 (least hazardous) to 10 (most hazardous). The healthy cleaning page helps you decode labels and find replacement products.
- Replace! From the items on your list strive to replace those that are the most hazardous immediately. If you can replace everything right away, wonderful! However, if it isn’t financially feasible, work it into your budget to replace items over time.
- Be cautious with labeling. When you replace an item don’t automatically select the one of the shelf titled “natural”, “organic”, or “green”. Much of marketing is loosely regulated. I began by selecting items that had a hazard score of 1 in the category I was needing a replacement for, however I now love making my own products at home using a lot of the products you already have in your cupboard (think coconut oil, epsom salt and baking soda) along with essential oils. I know exactly what is in each item I create and it saves on cost enormously!
- Look into essential oils. It took me awhile to begin utilizing the amazing benefits of essential oils simply because it was a bit foreign to me and I thought it would be super expensive. Yes, a high-quality oil may be pricy at first glance, but when you consider that you only use a few drops of lemon and Thieves combined with vinegar and distilled water to make an entire bottle of surface cleaner it can really keep your budget in check if you’re striving to have a chemical-free home. Plus, they’re not only used creating replacements of household products, but for a host of health benefits and have endless medicinal uses.
 Chutkan, M.D., Robynne. The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out. New York, NY: Avery, 2015.
 National Geographic. Skin. Retrieved from http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/skin-article/.
 Environmental Working Group. July 14, 2005. Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/research/body-burden-pollution-newborns.