By Carly Welham, Master’s of Public Health Practicum Student

Over the past few months, Breast Cancer Action Quebec interns have been holding DIY workshops across universities in Montreal, meeting with dozens of young people interested in creating body products free of toxic substances. We have been hosting conversations about how chemicals in products that we use every day affect our bodies, our health, and our environment.

Our reality is that everyday we are exposed to hundreds of chemicals that are harmful to us. As a women’s health organization whose mission is to work for the prevention of breast cancer through the elimination of environmental toxicants linked to the disease, there are many reasons why we choose to create alternatives to body products with these toxic ingredients:

We DIY to Protect Our Reproductive Health

In body products, we are particularly concerned about endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), a class of synthetic toxicants that mimic natural hormones. Since they disrupt the hormonal system, the primary targets of EDCs are male and female reproductive systems. Links continue to be uncovered between EDCs and breast cancer, prostate cancer, earlier ages of puberty, genital malformations, miscarriage, rises in testicular cancer, and drastic decreases in sperm counts. Our workshop participants have pointed out connections between toxic substances and their own health which have inspired them to take action by making their own products.

Windows of vulnerability to toxic substances make this issue even more compelling for young people. Young people are more susceptible to toxic exposure from their pre-teens into their early child-bearing years. This is particularly a concern for body products, because teenagers tend to use more of them (on average 7 more a day than an adult Canadian) and are more likely to lack the funds to buy organic or toxic-free brands. Additionally, we are most vulnerable to toxic substances while in utero, and many health conditions are linked to mothers’ exposures to chemicals during pregnancy. This means that the impacts of doing education and prevention among women of childbearing age can even ripple into the next generation.

We DIY to Put the Precautionary Principle into Action

When we look at these risks and the growing body of evidence, it becomes more and more mind-boggling to wonder why these toxic substances aren’t regulated. Ingredients in cosmetics do not have to be properly tested for long-term safety before they are sold, so manufacturers are not required to prove that their products are safe. We are constantly fighting battles to get unsafe chemicals out of production, substance by substance.

So at Breast Cancer Action Quebec, we advocate for the precautionary principle, the idea that we’re better safe than sorry when deciding what substances we will put on and in our bodies. We believe that when there are reasonable scientific grounds for believing a process or product might not be safe, preventive action must be taken. DIY is our embodiment of the precautionary principle at an individual level. Until our government catches up to protect us from these toxicants found throughout our environment and our everyday lives, we come together as communities to educate each other on how to avoid toxic exposure.

We DIY Because It's Proven to Help Reduce Our Toxic Levels

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of these issues, but the good news is that there are proven steps we can take to protect ourselves! A study done with teenagers in California recently demonstrated that going on a “chemical detox”  for just three days can lower exposure to EDCs. In this study, 100 Latina youth were provided with the education and resources to switch to toxicant-free personal care products, and saw a 45% reduction in the levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals in their bodies. Individuals have done their own chemical detoxes at home and seen similar drops in their own body burden of chemicals, showing that we don’t need fancy equipment or special skills to reduce our exposure.

We DIY Because it’s Accessible

Since the average for a Canadian uses 15 personal care products with over 100 toxic ingredients before breakfast, this is an area where most of us can take action. For many, choosing a healthier deodorant is more accessible than lobbying for the type of chemical regulation we’d like to see. Compared to the high price of personal care products and cosmetics, buying a few key ingredients which form the basis of numerous DIY products is also cheaper than the toxicant-laden options you can buy.

Even if we seek out products free of toxic substances, it can be difficult to keep up with the chemical industry and the science on its detrimental impacts. This can also make it easy for companies to “greenwash” their products to take advantage of our desire for healthier products. This was demonstrated when replacements for known EDC Bisphenol A (BPA) were eventually found to be just as hazardous as their predecessor. In 2006, as a result of pressure from citizens and community organizations including  BCAQc, Canada introduced new legislation which made companies begin printing ingredient lists on body products. However, companies still do not have to report the ingredients in their “fragrance” (considered by law to be a trade secret) which is often a complex mixture of undisclosed chemicals and EDCs. By making our own products with natural ingredients, we can be sure of each substance our product contains.

We DIY to protect Our Environment

The health of the environment is intimately connected to the health of our bodies, so the impacts of toxic substances in body products resonate throughout the planet. To see the devastating impacts of EDCs on the health of our natural world, we don’t need to look further than the fish who are exposed to toxicants which flow from our bathrooms to our lakes and rivers. Fish populations across Canada are struggling to reproduce as male fish are born intersex due to hormone complications from high levels of EDCs contaminating our waterways. Just like the microbeads which have already found their way from our facial cleansers to our food systems: fish being sold in supermarkets have been found to be polluted with high levels of these microplastic exfoliators. Not only does this raise concerns about the unanticipated impacts EDCs can have on human health, it makes confronting toxic substances a pressing issue to ensure the future of our planet as well.

We DIY to Vote with Our Dollars

Making our own products is a rejection of these toxic systems. With just a few inexpensive ingredients, we can make our own products and refuse to be complicit in these systems by buying products that fail our health and our environment. We can issue a clear “no thank you” to corporate pink washing which appropriates breast cancer awareness to sell products containing ingredients linked to causing breast cancer in the first place. We can reject companies who market make-up to toddlers with no regard for the health impacts of toxic substances on children. Though it’s an imperfect solution, making our own products allows us to take a small bit of power back into our hands by refusing to purchase toxic products. Our everyday exposure to toxic substances can feel like another wicked environmental issue of the 21st century, but our personal care products are one field where we can take power back into our own hands and do something about it.

We DIY because we all have the power to make environmental changes in our lives. Sharing practical, accessible knowledge can help us make environmentally healthy choices for ourselves and our planet in the face of an overwhelming global environmental crises. While it’s easy to feel powerless, focusing on the small changes we can all make in the products we use can add up to big changes for the health of our communities and our environments.