Are Herbal Supplements Harmful to Your Health?

This week the New York Times featured an opinion piece called Skip the Supplements in which the authors encourage us to think twice about taking herbal supplements. Their rationale is not that herbs are bad, per se. The real problem is the way that supplements are manufactured and regulated.

The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements as drugs even though many have pharmacological effects. They aren’t tested for safety or efficacy, many are mislabeled, and companies can get away without following the minimal standards of manufacturing set forth by the FDA. That leaves manufacturers with a lot of room for error, whether they are intentionally cutting pure product with bad-for-you fillers or unwittingly using raw materials loaded with heavy metals and other toxins. Hmmm, this sounds eerily like the cosmetics industry, which is “regulated” by the Food and Drug Administration even though the FDA’s rules about cosmetics barely exist and the ones that do aren’t readily enforced.

Here are some alarming facts from the article:

“In 2003, researchers tested “ayurvedic” remedies from health food stores throughout Boston. They found that 20 percent contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury or arsenic.”

“In 2008, two products were pulled off the market because they were found to contain around 200 times more selenium (an element that some believe can help prevent cancer) than their labels said. People who ingested these products developed hair loss, muscle cramps, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue and blisters.”

“Last summer, vitamins and minerals made by Purity First Health Products in Farmingdale, N.Y., were found to contain two powerful anabolic steroids. Some of the women who took them developed masculinizing symptoms like lower voices and fewer menstrual periods.”

“Last month, researchers in Ontario found that popular herbal products like those labeled St. John’s wort and ginkgo biloba often contained completely different herbs or contaminants, some of which could be quite dangerous.”

Those are some terrifying facts! With cosmetics, I get it—companies often green wash their products, but I think most people intuitively know you’re not getting 100% pure plant-based goodness in that bottle of Aveeno at your local drugstore, even if it does contain some shiitake. But with minerals and herbs, it somehow feels more fraudulent—it’s supposed to be St. John’s Wort and only St. John’s Wort!

So what’s the solution for those who want to benefit from the botanical goodness of herbs? The article calls for manufacturers to provide a third-party written guarantee that the product is made under the FDA’s “good manufacturing practice” (G.M.P.) conditions, as well as a Certificate of Analysis (C.O.A.) assuring that what is written on the label is what’s in the bottle.

Not all manufacturers have unethical production practices. Just like with clean makeup and skincare products, this will require digging in, doing some research, and finding companies that deserve your trust. That said, my initial internet search for herbal supplement companies that supply the C.O.A. was pretty disappointing. I found plenty of companies that state they do obtain a Certificate of Analysis for their raw materials, but I saw no actual evidence of the certificates. Why not make the C.O.A. accessible through the web site? Transparency is key, especially when it comes to our health.

Are you skeptical of herbal supplements? Do you have a trusted source?


From the Headlines: Is Your Neti Pot Dangerous?

Yeesh. Two things we love—neti pots and organic food—took a bit of beating in the press last week. Did you guys see? Did someone smug forward you an article about how organic food isn’t healthier after all, or sound alarm bells about why you can’t pour tap water through your nose? (You really can’t.)

Let’s do a quick survey of the facts, starting with neti pots today and organic food tomorrow. The New York Times and others have reported that two cases of a deadly brain infection have been linked to neti pots. From the piece:

The Food and Drug Administration last month reported on two cases in Louisiana in which patients contracted infections after using neti pots filled with tap water. The culprit was an amoeba called Naegleria fowleri, which is commonly found in lakes, rivers and hot springs.

But before you swear off your neti for good, known to help irrigate the nasal passage and proven to reduce pesky allergy symptoms, or freak out about your water, here are two important facts: 1) the amoeba in question is killed by stomach acid, so this isn’t a drinking concern; 2) it’s also killed by boiling, which is what you should do if you use tap water in your neti, as opposed to filtered or distilled.

This year, I had allergies for the first time in earnest. And when I reached out for natural remedy suggestions, the neti came up over and over again. It’s a wonderful device, and it can help reduce symptoms by clearing out pollen and other allergens.

But this is a harsh, and very serious, reminder that it’s not OK to just pour in some warm tap water to rinse with, even if it’s easier than boiling.

It’s also super important to keep your pot clean, and as the people from the Mayo Clinic said in the piece: no sharing.

I know a lot of you are neti users. What kind of water do you rinse with, and did this report scare you off your pot?

Fans of fake tans may want to sit down for this.

Dihydroxyacetone—that’s DHA to you— which is the active ingredient in self-tanners (even clean ones) and spray tans (none of which are clean) “has the potential to cause genetic alterations and DNA damage,” according to a panel of scientists in an investigation done by ABC News.

Now before you run to the bathroom and ditch your Chocolate Sun, let’s take a closer look at what we know so far.

What are the news reports saying?

That DHA has the potential to cause genetic alterations, DNA damage, and cancer.

What’s DHA anyway?

DHA is a sugar that interacts with amino acids in the top layer of your skin to produce pigment called melanoidins; that’s the brownish tanned look these products achieve. DHA can be manufactured synthetically, or it can be derived from natural things, like beet sugar or cane sugar. It was approved by the FDA for topical use in 1977 (and many orange tans ensued!) and is widely accepted as nontoxic when applied to the skin.

So is it toxic?

Some research showed that when it’s applied in the form of a lotion, DHA does not migrate past the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of skin that’s also sometimes called the “dead skin layer.” Which sounds gross, but it’s good news, we thought, for your organs and your blood if you’re applying it in a cream as opposed inhaling it in the form of a spray tan or a spray-on self tanner.

Up until now, there’s been the most concern about spray tans, because the application method means you might inhale the stuff. Even the FDA, which is typically mum about all things cosmetics-related, has a warning on its website about them. Which means that for the love of all things good (and good looking) you should not be getting a spray tan!

Fine. But I’m good to go with a self tanner, right?

Not so fast.

FDA reports dating back to the 1990s, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, cited research that some DHA can migrate to the living layers of the skin after all. How much of it—and where it goes from there—is anybody’s guess.

And I dug up some research from 1962 showing that DHA turned up in blood samples after topical application as well. Dr. Darrell Rigel, an NYU professor of dermatology, told ABC News: “What you showed me certainly leads me to say I have to rethink what I’m doing and what I’m saying because there’s … a real potential problem there.” I’ll say. Every dermatologist I’ve ever been to has told me that if I want to tan, which thank goodness I do not, that I should use a self tanner.

So what’s the bottom line?

As always, it’s up to you. But because the research that’s just now getting attention—even though it’s by no means new—shows that when DHA gets into your blood or migrates to your organs through inhalation, it can cause DNA damage and possibly cancer…

I’ll keep digging into it, but for now, DHA is out for me.

If you decide to continue to use self-tanner, some words of advice: First, treat it like you treat your favorite conventional going-out lipstick and use it only for special occasions, like a wedding, a job interview or a hot date. I’m pretty bruisey on my legs, so I may keep mine around and use it before weddings or something. I’m on the fence about that right now.

And if you are going to use a self-tanner, use a cleaner formula. Most conventional ones are filled with dyes, synthetic preservatives, fragrance and all of that other stuff we generally try to avoid putting on our and in bodies. If you’re not sure if yours has dye in it, you can do one of two things: read the ingredient label (harder) or look at it and see if it’s brown (easy).

We’ll continue to look into this, but we want to know So what are you going to do with this news? To self tan or not to self tan?

You can read more about ABC’s investigation here. It’s long but good. The section called “DHA: A Health Hazard” is where the research is cited.

Well whad’ya know, even though they say it’s not a concern on their website, the FDA has done another study on lead in lipstick. You may recall that back in 2007 they found lead in 23 of the 23 lipsticks they tested—this time they found it in 400.

From TIME:

The worst offenders on the list were Maybelline’s Color Sensation in Pink Petal, which had 7.19 parts per million of lead, and L’Oreal Colour Riche in Volcanic, which had 7 parts per million. Several other brands, including Cover Girl and Nars had products hovering in the 4-to-5-parts-per-million range. (The average lead concentration found across the 400 lipsticks was 1.11 parts per million; click here to see the products ranked.)

The big news is that levels are now higher than the last time they tested. In the 2007 study, none of the lipsticks exceeded 3 parts per million. Never mind that the acceptable level for lead in water is ZERO, that lead accumulates in the body, that women and their boyfriends and their kids end up eating it off their lips, that lead is absorbed through the skin, and last but not least, that any toxicologist worth their salt will tell you that no level of lead is acceptable, because it’s a neurotoxin and proven to wreak havoc even in small amounts.

We’d be lying if this study doesn’t make us want to throw our hands in the air, flip a few birds, and then maybe throw something at a wall. Really, it’s gotten worse? Oh, and hey Maybelline: we meet again! Who wants to guess how many PPMs are in the new 14 hour? Who else is pissed?

Image via

Cough. Cough. Coughcoughocough.

Look at what now exists? The Safe Cosmetics Alliance. It sounds a lot like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, right? Except it’s not. It’s an industry-funded campaign that appears to me to be designed to confuse you.

“The cosmetics industry is committed to maintaining its high safety standards (1) by advocating that laws keep pace with science and technology (2). We support new regulations to help strengthen FDA oversight (3), increase transparency (4), and enhance consumer confidence (5).” [Numbers ours.]

Let’s fact check it, yeah?

(1) This is a good time to refresh everyone’s memory about safety testing and the cosmetics industry. Yes, they do test their products’ ingredients for safety. Most large companies have large teams of scientists who do just that, and we believe, as we’ve said in the book, that according to whatever criteria they are using for “safe” that indeed, their products pass the test. “Safe” is a vague word, though. It’s safe because it doesn’t give me a rash? It’s safe now and we just really HOPE it’s safe to use daily for decades? It’s safe because we don’t know that it’s for sure unsafe? It’s safe because we are certain it’s benign to the human body and to nature?

If this said “The cosmetics industry is committed to ensuring that personal care products are free of reproductive toxicants, carcinogens, hormone disruptors and neurotoxins,” I’d feel a lot better about that. Precise language, clear promises, good stuff. But it doesn’t.

(2) As we all know, cosmetics regulations haven’t really changed since 1938, when they were written. Since then, the industry has exploded in size, revenue, ingredients used and certainly technology. So I’m not totally sure what they’re saying here, but it strikes me as completely ludicrous (personal opinion).

(3) As the laws are currently written, the FDA does not have the manpower, legal authority or budget to regulate the cosmetics industry and we have to assume that’s exactly how the Personal Care Products Council wants it, since they spend time and money lobbying against regulation, and have launched impressive, persuasive campaigns throughout history any time anyone has tried. (See our regulation chapter in the book for a refresher on this.) That said, the industry’s counter-take on the Safe Cosmetics Act has been that they agree that it’s time for the laws to change. As you can well imagine, however, the difference between what the Act thinks the laws should say, and what the PCPC (the industry trade group representing the industry) thinks it should say, is gigantic.

(4) The most transparent thing about a beauty product is its ingredient label, with the very important exception of its fragrance—which is in almost all products, including things like blush and eye shadow. Fragrance is at the top of our personal “no exceptions” list, and we think it should at the top of yours too. But hey—if the companies want to go totally transparent and offer up exactly what safety testing they’re doing, for instance, I would love to see that, and I bet you would too. We’d also love to see minutes from their meetings and for them to return journalists’ calls.

(5) This part sounds true! They want you to have faith in their products so that you will buy them. Unfortunately, they’re not meeting any of the criteria that would make us feel better. How about you?