Daniela: My name is Ing. Daniela Plachá, Ph.D. and I am the Director of the Centre for Nanotechnology, which is part of the Centre for Energy and Environmental Technologies at the University of Mining and Metallurgy. My professional career is closely related to environmental, organic and analytical chemistry. Currently, my primary focus is on nanotechnology, specifically its application in environmental protection. For over two decades, I have been involved in analytical chemistry, particularly chromatographic analyses of environmental samples.
Does your position affect you at all? By that I mean do you avoid certain substances if you know what negative effects they can have?
Daniela: My current position does not directly influence me in terms of avoiding harmful substances in products, but years of professional experience definitely play a role in how carefully I choose the products I use or buy. This applies to both cosmetics and food. Mostly, though, I try to avoid various perfumed products like air fresheners, and I feel a near panic terror of free-burning candles because they just don’t do it for me. So yes, I can say that my professional experience does indeed lead me to avoid certain types of products.
How can the amount of a particular substance and the length of exposure to those substances influence the risks associated with their use? Could you give a specific example?
Daniela: It is true that we are generally exposed to many chemicals. As Paracelsus once said, “It is not the substance that makes the substance poison, but the dose.” It is important to realise that some substances are harmful even in very small quantities, while others, such as sugar, salt or alcohol, can be tolerated in larger doses, but their harmful effects only become apparent after a longer period of time.
There is a difference between long-term and short-term exposure when it comes to chlorine in cleaning products, for example. A cleaner working with chlorinated products on a daily basis for many years may be exposed to chronic effects even at low concentrations, whereas occasional household use may be less risky. Nevertheless, it is important to follow safety precautions such as using gloves and ventilation, and to pay attention to warning pictograms on packaging.
Interestingly, some household products, such as vinegar or baking soda, can replace commercial cleaners. However, even when using them, it is still important to be careful and to follow protective measures, as these substances can also be irritants. It is important to read the instructions and stick to recommended methods such as ventilation or the use of protective equipment.
What about phenol (also known as Carbolic acid) and its derivatives and compounds (e.g. P-Aminophenol, Resorcinol). For instance, someone uses 3 products with phenols every day (perfume, cream, shampoo) their whole life. Plus I’m sure they will come across them elsewhere too. Is it better to avoid them?
Daniela: Phenol and its compounds form a large group of organic substances. Phenol has an aromatic benzene core with a hydroxyl group attached and can have many different derivatives. These compounds are both naturally occurring (e.g. in green tea, cranberries, grape wine…) and synthesized for various purposes, including the pharmaceutical and plastics industries.
It is important to distinguish between naturally occurring and synthetic compounds. For example, phenol itself is important for the pharmaceutical industry. In cosmetics, it depends on the specific compound and its purpose. Some have antiseptic effects and are intended for topical use on affected areas. In shampoos and other cosmetics, it is important that the concentration of these substances is not harmful. That is regulated by product testing.
It is recommended to read the ingredients of products and decide whether you want to use them. The response to these substances can vary – some people can tolerate higher concentrations, while others may have allergic reactions to even small amounts. If symptoms of irritation appear, it is advisable to stop using these products. Everyone should consider whether they want to use products containing these substances, for example when dyeing their hair.
Endocrine disruptors (ED), quite the hot topic. I seem to find that they are everywhere and yet of great concern, can you please tell us more?
Daniela: Endocrine disruptors are substances that have the ability to disrupt the normal function of the hormonal system in living organisms. This effect can have significant health consequences such as disrupted thyroid function, diabetes, hormonal imbalance and more. These substances can be natural, such as phytoestrogens, or synthetic, man-made.
Endocrine disruptors are found in many different products and environments. These include some plastic softeners, dioxins, which are formed when materials containing chlorine are burned, and heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. These substances have been widely used in various industries in the past, although some of them are now banned because of their negative health effects.
The impact of endocrine disruptors on health is the subject of intense research and debate. Their presence in everyday life and potential impact on health is a cause for concern. It is important to be aware of their existence and the potential risks they pose. Information about these substances is widely available and it is important to learn about them so that we can better protect our health and the health of those around us (author’s note: more on endocrine disruptors here).
UV filters in sunscreens, such as Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. They are added to sunscreen products to protect the skin from sunburn, but when exposed to the sun, they degrade or undergo changes that can then harm the body. Please tell us what happens after we apply these substances and what effect it can have on our health, or what happens to aquatic life when it comes into contact with these substances?
Daniela: UV filters such as Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are commonly used ingredients in cosmetic products, including sunscreens, perfumes, lipsticks and lotions. Their primary function is to protect the skin from UVA and UVB radiation, which can cause sunburn, allergies, skin aging and even skin cancer.
When these filters are exposed to the sun, they can undergo isomerization or degradation, which means they change into other compounds. In some cases, these altered compounds can form reactive radicals which can damage the surrounding environment or even enter the human body and affect its functioning systems, including the endocrine system.
The impact on aquatic organisms such as corals is particularly worrying. Some UV filters can be toxic to aquatic life, disrupt hormonal systems and contribute to the damage or death of corals and other aquatic organisms. This is important to consider, especially since sunscreens are often used near water sources.
It is important to note that there are alternatives such as inorganic filters (e.g. zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) that may be safer for the environment and health. These substances either reflect or scatter solar radiation without penetrating deep into the skin or causing environmental damage.
When choosing sunscreens and other cosmetic products, it is therefore important to consider not only the protection from the sun, but also the potential health and environmental impacts. This requires an awareness of the composition of products and their possible effects.
Phthalates, which are considered to be endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, etc., are found everywhere (diapers, perfumes, cosmetics, personal care products, etc.) Could you tell us about them?
Daniela: Phthalates are a group of chemical compounds derived from phthalic acid, which is a benzene dicarboxylic acid. These compounds are known for their ability to act as plasticizers in plastic and polymeric materials such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and linoleum. As a result, phthalates are widespread and found in many common products, including toys, cosmetics, perfumes and other personal care products.
Phthalates are considered to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they can interfere with the human hormonal system. In particular, they have an estrogenic effect, which can lead to various health problems, including negative effects on the reproductive system. Children are particularly vulnerable to exposure to phthalates because their bodies are smaller and may be exposed to higher concentrations of these substances relative to their body weight.
Phthalates are also known for their negative impact on the environment. They are persistent organic pollutants, which means they break down slowly in the environment and can accumulate in food chains. This contamination can have long-term effects on ecosystems and animal health.
Although some types of phthalates are no longer used or are regulated, they are still present in many products. It is important to be aware of their presence and potential risks, especially when choosing products for children and for personal care.
Fragrance (perfume) can also be found almost everywhere. They may consist of thousands of substances, but as consumers we have no idea what they contain because they are ‘manufacturing secrets’. They may contain carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxicants. Let’s see where is or could the problem be? Do you feel that the legislation is lacking in this field?
Daniela: Perfumes and fragrances are common in many products, from cosmetics and cleaning products to air fresheners. These can contain hundreds to thousands of different chemical ingredients, some of which may be natural in origin, while others are synthetic. The problem is that the composition of these fragrances is often considered a trade secret, meaning that consumers do not have accurate information about what these products contain.
Some of these ingredients can be potentially harmful. They may contain carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxicants. Since these substances are volatile, they can be easily inhaled, which can lead to various health problems such as allergic reactions, headaches, migraines or even respiratory problems in more sensitive individuals.
Legislation on the labelling of fragrance ingredients in cosmetic and cleaning products often fails to meet the needs of consumers. Unlike food, where all ingredients must be listed, cosmetic products often only list the generic term ‘perfume’ or ‘fragrance’ without specifying the individual ingredients. This can be problematic for consumers trying to avoid certain chemicals due to allergies or health concerns.
It is important that consumers are informed about the potential risks associated with the use of fragrances and perfumes, and have the opportunity to decide whether they want to use these products. Increased transparency and better regulation of labelling could help consumers to better understand what these products contain and the potential health effects they may have.
PFAS, a group of toxic substances known as “forever chemicals”. Which are the most common, where can we find them, and what is so disturbing about them? How do they affect the aquatic organisms?
Daniela: PFAS (or perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances), also known as “forever chemicals”, is a group of toxic substances that are known for their high persistence in the environment and resistance to decomposition. These substances are often used in various products for their ability to resist water, oil and heat. For example, they can be found in make-up, long-lasting lipsticks, hydrophobic surfaces, waterproof textiles, durable cookware and many other products.
The most common PFAS include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). These substances are of particular concern because of their high persistence and ability to bioaccumulate in living organisms. They are considered to be endocrine disruptors, meaning that they can interfere with the hormonal systems of living organisms, including humans.
The effect of PFAS on aquatic life is of particular concern because they can accumulate in the food chain, leading to higher concentrations in the bodies of higher organisms, including fish and other aquatic animals. This bioaccumulation can have negative effects on the reproduction, growth and overall health of these organisms.
Given these risks, it is important that more attention is paid to regulating and restricting the use of PFAS in products and to finding alternative, safer materials. Research and development of methods for removing these substances from the environment are also key to reducing their impact on human health and the ecosystems.
Can you tell us about the petroleum substances that are so widely used, not only in cosmetics? It is an inexpensive raw material that replaces vegetable oils, but it is probably also used for its “super” properties.
Daniela: Petroleum substances such as vaseline are widely used in cosmetics for several reasons. One of the main reasons is their low cost compared to vegetable oils. In addition, these substances have some favourable properties that make them useful in various cosmetic formulations.
Vaseline, made from petroleum, has protective and masking functions. It is able to form a barrier on the skin that prevents the skin from drying out by preventing water leakage. This property is useful for certain medical purposes, such as protecting dry or cracked skin. Petroleum jelly also serves as a carrier for the active ingredients in some therapeutic cosmetic products.
However, vaseline can also have some disadvantages. For example, if applied in large amounts or over a large area of skin, it can cause the skin to “not breathe” and can cause sweating or discomfort. Therefore, it is not recommended to use it as a regular part of skin care, but rather for specific therapeutic purposes or on limited areas of the skin.
Vaseline is generally considered safe when used in its pure form and in limited amounts. It is important to note that even though vaseline is made from petroleum, the refining process removes potentially harmful ingredients, making it a safe product for most people. However, as with all beauty products, it is important to notice your skin’s reaction and stop using the product if you experience any negative effects.
Another hot topic – sanitization? Advertisements tell us “sanitize everything all the time!”, but the Ministry of Health of the Czech Republic, the World Health Organization, and other experts and studies say that just ordinary hand soap is enough. Handwashing is and always will be a staple! Hygiene is of course important, especially in hospitals and anywhere where there is human contact. In most cases, however, ordinary soap is sufficient…
Daniela: I think that excessive use of sanitizers in everyday life is not necessary and can have negative effects on both the environment and our health. It is important to remember that in many cases, the use of ordinary soap is enough to maintain basic hygiene, especially for hand washing.
Excessive cleanliness and the constant sanitization of surfaces can lead to weakening our immune response, as it limits contact with common micro-organisms that are part of our environment and help us build our natural immunity. In addition, excessive use of disinfectants can contribute to the development of resistance in some microorganisms, a serious global health problem.
It is also important to note that many sanitizers contain chemicals that can be harmful to the environment and can burden water resources and ecosystems. Adding fragrances and dyes to sanitizers can further increase their toxic potential.
Of course, in certain situations, such as a hospital visit or during an epidemic of influenza or other infectious diseases, the use of hand sanitizer is reasonable and important for health protection. In these cases, disinfection is essential to prevent the spread of infections, especially in high-risk environments such as hospitals.
In everyday life, we should prioritise the use of soap and water for routine hygiene and limit the use of sanitizers to situations where it is truly necessary. In this way we can protect our health and the environment.
You are an expert on nanoparticles. Can you tell us about their size and permeability to skin or tissue in general? For example, sunscreens with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Will they pass through the skin and can they be dangerous? What is the general opinion on nanoparticles and in your opinion, do we know enough about them?
Daniela: Nanoparticles are particles with very small dimensions, typically between 1 and 100 nanometres in all three directions. They can have different shapes, such as spheres, triangles, squares, rods, and more. Studies on nanoparticles are still ongoing and far from over. Nanoparticles are known to have the ability to permeate through the skin, but it’s not so simple as to say that it’s always harmful. Research in this area is still ongoing, so it is important to keep up with the latest findings and recommendations from the scientific community.
In science and research, as in everything in life, not everything is black or white. We are currently focusing intensively on research into nanoparticles that can carry medicinal ingredients. The aim is for these particles to be able to penetrate deeper into the skin, for example when used in ointments, and not just remain on the surface. It is important to distinguish whether nanoparticles are used as a transport vehicle for drug delivery or whether they are present in the environment, such as in laboratories or in certain products.
With regard to specific substances such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles, their use is not common because their effects are not fully proven. In the field of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, the use of microparticles rather than nanoparticles is recommended until the results of studies are clearer. Research in this area is still at an early stage and results vary, making it impossible to draw firm conclusions.
As for the ability of nanoparticles to penetrate the skin, it depends on their surface structure. There are different types of nanoparticles, some can cross the skin barrier while others remain on the surface. There are many harmful and dangerous particles in the environment, and their impact depends on the dose and the particular organism that comes into contact with them.
Hazardous or otherwise harmful substances do not only affect us after application or use, but also organisms living in the water. Because we often flush everything down the drain, which usually leads to a sewage treatment plant, but unfortunately they are not able to remove all hazardous or potentially hazardous substances there. Can you give some examples of how endocrine disruptors, toxic, mutagenic, persistent or bioaccumulative substances affect aquatic animals?
Daniela: The effect of these substances on the aquatic environment deserves special attention. Today, wastewater treatment plants can remove many harmful substances, but there are still substances that cannot be removed, such as pesticides and some pharmaceuticals. These substances can interfere with the hormonal systems of humans and aquatic organisms. Examples are endocrine disruptors, which can cause abnormalities in fish. Persistent substances can accumulate in sediments or in the fatty tissues of fish, indicating food chain transmission of contamination. This phenomenon is not limited to the aquatic environment, but also occurs in meat products and other foods, where toxic substances can accumulate and enter the human body.
So, although research on nanoparticles and their environmental impact is still at an early stage, it is clear that their impact is complex and requires further studies and caution.
I’m sure there’s still a lot we haven’t mentioned, is there anything you would like to add?
Daniela: I would like to stress that moderation and thoughtfulness are important in product consumption and choice. It is crucial to consider the extent to which it is necessary to use products containing certain chemicals. When making a purchase, it is important to read the ingredients of the product and consider whether we are choosing a product containing potentially harmful substances such as phthalates or petroleum products, or whether we prefer alternatives.
It is also important to note that manufacturers often use different names for the same chemical compound, which can be confusing. Even though we may think that a product does not contain a certain substance, the reality may be different. In the end, it is always at the choice of each individual as to how informed they are and what decision they make.
Personally, I believe that most products on the market undergo thorough testing, but it is up to us to choose what we like and what suits us. It amazes me how people can be against certain chemicals on one hand, but on the other hand use a range of cosmetic products that are of questionable usefulness and effects. Examples are trends such as tanning beds in the 90s, which have been replaced by gel nails and other cosmetic procedures such as permanent make-up and tattoos. These trends may provide interesting insights into the impact on our health in the future.
Thank you very much. 🙂