187: Penetrating Enhancers, Phthalates + Fragrances... Oh My! w/ Lara Adler, CHHC

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Did you know there are toxins in our environment that can be absorbed through the skin, and also play a role in the development of skin conditions?

We've got to talk about this because these chemicals are a really big deal when it comes to hidden toxins hijacking your health!


Or, listen on your favorite app: iTunes (Apple Podcasts) | Spotify | Stitcher | TuneIn | Subscribe on Android

My guest today is Lara Adler, an Environmental Toxins Expert & Educator, and a Certified Health Coach who teaches nutritionists, nurses, and other holistic health practitioners how to eliminate the #1 thing holding their clients back from the results they are seeking – the unaddressed link between chemicals and chronic health problems.

She trains practitioners to become experts in everyday toxic exposures so they can improve client outcomes without spending hundreds of hours researching on their own.

Combining environmental health education and business consulting, she’s helped thousands of health professionals in over 25 countries around the world elevate their skillset, improve client outcomes, and become sought out leaders in the growing environmental health and detoxification field.

Join us as we discuss phthalates, fragrance, and other chemicals that can affect the health of our skin.

Have you tried reducing your skin's exposure to toxins? Let me know in the comments!

In this episode:

  • Absorbability of various chemicals through the skin
  • What are phthalates?
  • Should you be concerned about fragrances in products?
  • What are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)?
  • How to reduce your skin's toxic exposure


“The skin is really important. It serves as this barrier to keep a lot of things out. So obviously, not everything that we come in contact you is going to be absorbed, but a lot of things are absorbed and the things that are, are chemicals or substances that have a very small molecular size.” [3:22]

“Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals. They mimic hormones in the human body and can interfere with normal hormone signaling that can lead to everything from mood and energy issues to increase rates of breast cancer or birth defects or any other hormonally modulating effect, which is most things in the body.” [8:40]


Find Lara online

Want to try out Branch Basics cleaning products? Click HERE!

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Healthy Skin Show ep. 116: Can Chlorine In Water Harm Your Skin? w/ Lara Adler

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187: Penetrating Enhancers, Phthalates + Fragrances… Oh My! w/ Lara Adler, CHHC FULL TRANSCRIPT

Jennifer: Thank you so much, Lara, for being back with us. I really appreciate you coming back on the show.

Lara: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me back.

Jennifer: I know, the last time we talked all about water and what's in your water and I have to admit that, after everything we talked about, I actually went and found my counties, or whatever my municipality water-

Lara: Quality report.

Jennifer: Yes. I found that and I discovered that I do not have chlorine in my water, it's chloramine. And it was really fascinating to read. We also don't have fluoridated water, which I didn't know.

Lara: That's good.

Jennifer: So, it was really helpful and I say this because I think what you offer and what you bring to the table is really practical. And so, for anybody who missed that episode, we'll link to that in the show notes. That way you can go back and listen to that because I do think it's a really important thing to consider, what you could be exposed to in your water, that obviously looks and may smell clean, but it could have some other issues along with it that you don't know about.

Jennifer: And so, today I wanted to talk to you about matters of the skin and how there are toxins in our environment that could potentially be absorbed through the skin. Because I think people don't realize until they basically develop eczema or some sort of skin issue that like, “Oh, what you use on your laundry or what you put on your body matters.”

Jennifer: And that while it smells lovely and it might be this perfect shade of pink or fuchsia or whatever, it looks great, but there are things in these products that… So, I just want to talk about a little bit with you, some of the things in our environment that may end up getting absorbed through the skin. So, do you have any thoughts on just, I guess, the absorbability of toxins through skin to begin with?

Lara: I think it's an important topic, certainly in the discussion of skin, but just in general health as well. There's a lot of misconceptions about chemicals and their ability to absorb through the skin. I'm thinking specifically of this meme that's been going around for years, which is that everything that you put on your skin gets absorbed in 26 seconds.

Lara: And it usually is depicted, there's a woman and you have all of these different chemicals and it's just pointing. She's got her bare back and it's showing all these chemical names that are found in products. And this name is usually shared with a good intention of increasing awareness about chemicals in personal care products. The problem is that, that statement is not true. It is not factual.

Lara: We can't say that all chemicals are absorbed through the skin in 26 seconds. That's just not how skin absorption works. So our skin, as you know and I'm sure your audience knows, it is, technically, it's the largest organ. It is our first line defender of our immune system. If our skin is majorly compromised, our immune system will tank.

Lara: This is why burn victims are so susceptible to infection because their first-line defense has been burned away. And so, the skin is really important. It serves as this barrier to keep a lot of things out. So obviously, not everything that we come in contact you is going to be absorbed, but a lot of things are absorbed and the things that are, are chemicals or substances that have a very small molecular size.

Lara: So, this is part of… Not all molecules are the same size. And obviously, you were talking about the right shade of pink, color molecules that we use in our makeup and cosmetic products, obviously they're not being absorbed into the bloodstream because they're sitting on the surface of the skin. So, the molecules of those pigments are large.

Lara: I'm not concerned so much about the pigment. I'm concerned about the other ingredients in the product like fragrance compounds, preservatives. So specifically phthalates and parabens, as well as other ingredients that are used in skincare products that are known as penetration enhancers.

Lara: Their job is to basically disrupt the structure of the skin to allow other chemicals to work their way further down into the epidermis so that they can be bioactive at those levels, right? We don't want to just treat the dead skin cells on the top of the surface of our skin.

Lara: We want to have products penetrate in order for them to be effective with the caveat that hopefully they're also not harmful. So, we do have skin absorption for a lot of chemicals, but it's not like a free pass for everything.

Jennifer: So with those penetrative ingredients, those things that help it penetrate deeper, do we see those Justin's skincare products and makeup or are they-

Lara: I don't think that they're… They're also used, I think the only other place that they would be used that I can think of off the top of my head, would be topical medications. Certainly things like patch, any medications delivered via a patch, whether it's like, or a nicotine patch or a birth control patch, right? Those are transdermal patches. It's literally using the skin as a membrane to get drugs or compounds into the bloodstream.

Lara: So, we actually know that skin absorption is real because we have medications that are designed to be delivered that way. But certainly anything that is applied topically that contains ingredients that need to be pushed further into the layers of the skin or into the bloodstream are likely to those penetration enhancers. So, they're not necessarily toxic in and of themselves. They're just playing a role that's helping other compounds that might be toxic or have negative health effects enter the skin.

Jennifer: Gotcha. That is a very good point to make. So, for those who are not familiar with the term phthalates, which phthalates doesn't begin with a T, by the way. It begins with a P.

Lara: It's the most awkwardly spelled word.

Jennifer: Yes, exactly. Every time I try and spell it, I'm like, “Wait, no, that's not it.” And then Google helps me.

Lara: Phthalates, yeah. It's P-H-T-H, so try saying, P-H-T-H.

Jennifer: Yes. So, what are they?

Lara: Yeah. They are class of chemicals. There's dozens and dozens of phthalates. They are used for different purposes in different products. They're a plasticizer. So, they're found in soft plastics. So think like, your shower curtain, a garden hose, sometimes your squeezy ketchup bottle, any kind of plastic that's soft and flexible. Not any kind, many kinds.

Lara: So, that's what its job is in plastics. When we switch to the conversation around personal care products, phthalates are used as a fixative and a preservative for fragrance mixtures. So, we don't see the word phthalate on a product label because it's not technically an ingredient in the formulation. It is an ingredient of an ingredient.

Lara: And that ingredient of “fragrance”, that word is a catchall because there's about 3000 chemicals, synthetic and natural, that perfumeries have to play with when they're making up a fragrance. A single fragrance probably can be made up of a couple of hundred of different chemicals that make that signature scent.

Lara: And then, phthalates are added to that mixture to make sure that the fragrance is stabilized and that it has a long life in the product, so that when we wash our hair in the morning and 12 hours later, you can still smell your shampoo. It's because phthalates are fixing that, those fragrance molecules to your hair. The same is true for laundry detergents and dryer sheets.

Lara: I think, I don't remember what dryer sheet company, but they have these fragrance release beads that they market as like, “Yes, you can wash your laundry and then like six months later, you can still smell it.” And that's a selling angle for them. But I look at that and go, “No, you probably just cranked up the amount of phthalates that are present there.

Lara: And the reason why these are problematic is because phthalates are endocrine disrupting chemicals. They mimic hormones in the human body and can interfere with normal hormone signaling that can lead to everything from mood and energy issues to increase rates of breast cancer or birth defects or any other hormonally modulating effect, which is most things in the body, right?

Lara: And so, the body can't tell the difference between real hormones and these phthalates, which from a molecular standpoint, they look almost identical. They look really similar. Now, when we go back to the conversation around skin absorption, and I was mentioning molecule size, the low molecular weight phthalates that are used in fragrances, as their name suggests, they are low molecular weight.

Lara: Their molecule size is very small and easily passes through the skin, into the bloodstream, which is why 98% of the population has metabolites of these phthalates in their urine, which is indicative of their presence in the bloodstream and in the body. And so, this is why these chemicals are concerning is they're hormone mimics.

Jennifer: Can I ask then, and this might be a dumb question. It might be an easy, no, that's not how it works, but you mentioned that it could be in a shower curtain. It could be in a bottle, the squeezy bottle with the ketchup. Is that a potential avenue for exposure? If it's in-

Lara: Yes.

Jennifer: Oh.

Lara: It is, because if we think of glass, for example, as a structure, it's inert, you can put something in the glass, it's not going to permeate through. It's not going to change the glass in any way. The molecules that make up that glass are very tightly bound together and there's no breaking it. You actually have to physically destroy the glass to break apart those molecules.

Lara: Plastics are not like that. So, the molecules that make up the matrix or the physical structure of plastic, they're not really tightly bound. So what happens is, you have molecules that shed and that fall off. And when we come in contact with them, we can either ingest them or absorb them or inhale them. So for example, when you get a new PVC shower curtain, your plastic shower curtain, it has a smell. That smell is phthalates.

Lara: You are smelling volatile, organic compounds, and phthalates has that very specific plastic smell. If you put on a Halloween mask, those cheap rubbery Halloween, flexible, squishy, Halloween masks, they have a smell because they're made with polyvinyl chloride, think PVC pipes. And PVC is very rigid so they add phthalates, sometimes even lead, as a softener to make that plastic soft and flexible.

Lara: So, shower curtains are certainly… We think of these as sort of like benign objects in the home, but they can contribute to air that has phthalates present in it. And when phthalates are in our air one, we are breathing them in. But two, they settle on our floor as dust. And so, our house dust is actually an exposure vector for phthalates and a lot of other chemicals.

Lara: And this is most concerning for babies and young children that spend their time on the floor and that put everything in their mouth. So, they have hand to mouth behaviors. That's increasing oral exposure to these phthalates and certainly pets, your a cat person, I'm a cat person. Cats are groomers, they groom themselves.

Lara: And so, what they're doing is they're ingesting the chemicals that are in the house dust, and there's an uptick in feline hypothyroidism that is veterinary science is saying, “Okay, well, it's probably these thyroid suppressing chemicals, like flame retardants that are found in our homes.

Lara: So, these things don't just disappear. My point in sharing this about how dust, is that the chemicals that we bring into our home don't just vanish when we stop smelling them. They actually persist in the dust in our homes and those could be absorbed.

Jennifer: And does this include the cheap candles and fragrance, like the plug it in things?

Lara: Yes. Plugins, diffusers, anything that's fragranced is very likely going to have phthalates present. Now, occasionally we see phthalate free products. Shampoos, lotions, scented, candles, whatever, they say they're phthalate free. That might be true. There is no labeling requirements and there's nobody really monitoring whether or not that's actually true. So I tend to kind of take those statements with a grain of salt, unfortunately.

Lara: But phthalates aren't the only issue in those products. So, even within the context of fragrance itself, so there are fragrance compounds, musks that are used as fragrance formulations. Even if the phthalates aren't present, that can be allergenic, that can cause asthma or respiratory issues for people. And so, fragrance in general is not ideal, but all of these scented candles, air fresheners fabric, sprays, plugins, diffusers, all of these things-

Jennifer: Febreze?

Lara: Febreze.

Jennifer: Febreze, it'll take the odor, the bad odor, out of anything and make it smell good.

Lara: And interestingly, some of these air freshener products actually contain a small amount of this nerve deadening agent, it kills the nerves inside your sinuses, in your nostrils, to help you not detect odors. So you're like, “I don't smell anything.” How messed up is that?

Jennifer: That's really bad.

Lara: It's really bad. They don't have to tell you that they're in there either. So, that's where we have some issues around regulation. But the point is that we are absorbing chemicals through our skin. And I think the reason why it's an overlooked piece of the conversation, but there's a couple of reasons why this is important.

Lara: And the first one for me is that, when we ingest a food or toxin or something, it goes through the digestive system, it has the opportunity to interact with the gut microbiome, which can help to start breaking down and metabolizing those toxins. It works its way directly to the liver, which is our primary detox organ, which helps to break apart and to pair up and excrete these toxins in your poop and pee.

Lara: When we absorb things through our skin or when we inhale things, they bypass what's called, first pass metabolism, which is what's happening through that digestive system and in the liver. And so, they're bypassing that. And what that means is, they work their way into the bloodstream first and they circulate throughout the body.

Lara: Eventually they'll make their way to the liver through the circulation of the blood, but before they get there, they are just in your bloodstream. And so, they don't have the benefit of being broken down by the liver first, which is important. So, that's why skin absorption and inhalation of chemicals is a really big deal and skin absorption we know can happen fast.

Lara: So for example, people that have heart disease often carry nitroglycerin tablets, which you put under your tongue. And if you feel like you're having a heart attack, it will work instantly. And that's because of the absorptive nature of the skin in your mouth that is skin, right? It is very highly absorptive and it goes right into the bloodstream immediately.

Lara: So, we know that skin is adored absorptive. And I just think we do need to take caution when we're putting products on our skin because we know that they can enter into our bloodstream. The other thing, the reason why I think this is an important conversation is that, a lot of these chemicals can be disruptive to the microbiome of our skin, right?

Lara: And a lot of things can do that in that microbiome is important. It's protective. I mean, this is why when you talk to some estheticians, they're like, “Stop it with the chemical peels and all this harsh stuff, because you are destroying the acid mantle of your skin.” Which is there for a reason. It's there to, that acid nature, is there to help destroy bacteria that your skin is coming in contact with. So if we disturb that, we shift the whole microbiome of our skin and that in and of itself can lead to some problems.

Jennifer: Yeah. And I just want to ask one quick question. For those who, I know it always gets overwhelming of, where do you start? And obviously starting to get rid of some of these personal care products, especially the ones that you're applying right to your skin. That's where you want to start making some changes I think immediately. To me, I think the second place is your cleaning products. I like Branch Basics. Do you feel like they are great?

Lara: Yeah, they're great. Yes, I love them. I use them in my own home. They're super effective and the concentrate is just so multi multipurpose. I use it for everything.

Jennifer: I've heard you get, what was it? Cat vomit, or something? You got some [crosstalk 00:18:06] cat issues out of one of your rugs.

Lara: It did help to get cat puke out of the carpet, which is a lived experience that only cat owners will know about.

Jennifer: True, true. But there are many, I'm sure dog owners and baby and young children. Parents of babies and young children who also vomit too. I don't know. I don't know, but you don't know,

Lara: I just don't if dogs or babies are like cats, who intentionally seek out the carpet to puke on.

Jennifer: I don't know.

Lara: Anyway.

Jennifer: Can't say, I can't say. But that's a good option for people that are looking for something because they do, you can make hand soap, kitchen cleanser, bathroom cleanser, window cleanser, or like a window cleaner.

Lara: Glass cleaner.

Jennifer: Glass cleaner. And then, you can use it for your laundry, too.

Lara: Yeah, I use it for my laundry. They're great. I use it for everything.

Jennifer: So that would be a great option if somebody is looking for a multipurpose, one-stop-shop for getting some of these chemicals out of their house.

Lara: Yes, totally.

Jennifer: Okay, cool. I wanted to ask you, because I felt like you have a lot of experience with them. And I had just started using them a few months ago and I've really come to appreciate what they offer. My husband loves them. He's really sensitive to chemicals and smells, and he's been really happy with it as well. So, I'm glad they check the box off as being safe.

Lara: Yeah, they don't have any added fragrances. They don't leave any lingering scents. I think one of the things that's, at least in the conversation of home fragrances and the sort of overuse of scented products is first of all, clean doesn't have a smell. Clean does not need to not need to smell like pine or lemon or whatever. It just doesn't smell like anything. And oftentimes people use a lot of these fragrance items in their homes to cover up a bad smell that they can't figure out the source of.

Lara: And my mind will immediately go to a moldy or musty smell. And so, we don't want to mask smells. We want to figure out where they're coming from and you just don't need all of these scented products. If you do want your house to smell like something, you can use a good quality essential oil, a diffuser. And even those, I encourage people to use sparingly because we just don't need to be supersaturated with incense.

Jennifer: Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you so much, Lara. I appreciate you being here. I'm sure we could have talked about this for another two hours.

Lara: Probably.

Jennifer: But I know that we've got to be mindful of the listeners' time. And so, we'll have to have you come back sometime, but how can everyone find you?

Lara: People can find me on my website, which is just www.laraadler.com. And they can find me on Instagram, @environmentaltoxinsnerd.

Jennifer: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for joining us again. I appreciate it. And I look forward to having you back for one of these deep dive, chemical and toxin conversations.

Lara: Look forward to it!

“The skin is really important. It serves as this barrier to keep a lot of things out. So obviously, not everything that we come in contact you is going to be absorbed, but a lot of things are absorbed and the things that are, are chemicals or substances that have a very small molecular size.”