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The Quest for the Zero-Risk Option

“Sleep training might be harming your child’s brain – why would you take that risk?”

“Drugs have so many side effects!  I’d rather use natural remedies.”

“Parabens are hormone disruptors.  I always use preservative-free cosmetics.”

“I’ve researched the risks of vaccines, and I just can’t expose my child to all that danger.”

This is a theme I’ve noticed in the reasoning of “natural family living” devotees.  Usually these folks are just genuinely concerned about exposing themselves and their families to unnecessary risks.  But they’re missing something very important – there is no such thing as a risk-free option.  Every choice we make is a choice between two different sets of benefits and drawbacks.  I can hardly think of a life decision that will have no downside.  (Perhaps the decision not to smoke.)  Even most benign choices that are generally recommended for our health do have drawbacks.  Exercise is almost always a good decision, but it’s not risk-free.  Exercise brings the risk of injury, as well as frequently involving monetary and opportunity costs.  A healthy diet full of unprocessed fruits and vegetables is of course highly recommended by just about everyone, but again, this can be expensive and time-consuming compared to processed starch and fat obtained at the drive-through window.  Maybe that’s not a significant drawback to most people, but it is a drawback.

With this in mind, let me revisit those quotes, with a more balanced look at the relative risks:

Sleep training can involve babies crying for minutes or even hours.  We know that cortisol levels rise when babies cry, and that in other circumstances continuously elevated cortisol levels can cause serious health effects.  On the other hand, adequate sleep is vital for the health of both babies and parents, and continued sleep deprivation can cause serious health effects.

Medications often have potential side effects, some of which are bad enough to make taking the drugs unhelpful for a particular person.  On the other hand, any remedy that can have a positive effect can have a negative side effect, whether it’s a capsule or an herb, and of course most natural remedies are not proven to ameliorate any health condition, so relying on them involves a greater risk of leaving the original condition untreated.

There are indications that parabens do get into our systems through cosmetics, and it’s possible they have endocrine-like effects.  On the other hand, parabens are used to prevent bacterial growth in cosmetics, and it’s not clear that their actual presence in human tissues or their hypothetical contribution to breast cancer is more dangerous than the potential for smearing a happily thriving colony of staphylococcus on your face every morning.

Vaccines have risks.  Frequent side effects include soreness at the injection site and fever.  More serious health problems are rare, but possible.  On the other hand, vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) are even more risky.  Moreover, a child is at greater risk of injury when you drive them to Whole Foods to pick up some Oscillococcinum than they would be if you get them a flu shot.  (Seriously, more people die in car crashes each year than the total number of people who have even claimed to be injured by any vaccine over the course of 23 years of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.)

When you unpack the assumption that there’s a zero-risk option, suddenly it’s clear that the “natural” option in each case isn’t as superior as it first appears.  Of course, it’s easier to make a buck or get publicity by scaring the pants off people about toxins, “Western medicine,” and vaccine injuries if you don’t include all that pesky factual nuance.  Not only do we consumers have to do some research and hard work to find out about the relative risks of our options, but we have to tolerate the notion that there is no perfectly safe choice, and we will have to expose ourselves to one risk or another.  That’s not a mental place many people want to be, so they turn off their skepticism and simply embrace the notion that “natural is safe and good!”

Natural skin care – full of irritants!

The crunchy set tends to eschew mainstream beauty products, often because they have scary-sounding chemicals in them.  And sometimes the chemicals are genuinely of concern.  I remember when scientists first found that phthalates might act as hormone disruptors in the human body.  Even though this was an extrapolation based on animal exposure and high levels, I decided to avoid scented products as much as possible while I was pregnant and nursing, because they could include phthalates without having them listed in the ingredients.  Maybe it was an abundance of caution, but it didn’t cost me much to simply buy unscented hand lotion and refrain from wearing perfume for a while.

There can also be ethical concerns, from animal cruelty to how manufacturing affects the environment, that motivate people to choose natural products over the basic drugstore and department store brands.

But sometimes people choose natural products over mainstream ones for totally bogus reasons, and often the natural product will have more dangerous ingredients likely to cause a reaction.

Perhaps the biggest offender is peppermint oil.  It’s extremely popular in lip products, presumably because we like the breath-freshening potential.  It also pops up in many products meant for oily, acne-prone skin, along with its cohorts eucalyptus, menthol, and camphor.  I can only assume it’s used because it has such a strong psychological connection with freshness.  In reality, peppermint and similar oils are very irritating to skin, and irritation is a big contributor to acne!

Check out this Beautypedia review of Aubrey Organics Natural Herbal Facial Cleanser for Oily Skin:

Claims: Keep your complexion fresh and clean and give your face a lift with this hardworking cleanser ideal for oily or blemish-prone skin.

Review: Natural Herbal Facial Cleanser, for Oily Skin is painful to even write about! This very irritating cleanser exposes skin to soap, witch hazel, alcohol, eucalyptus, camphor, and menthol, among other problematic ingredients. Ouch!

Lemon and other citrus oils are another popular, yet counterproductive addition to many natural products.  They smell wonderful, sure.  And this is another ingredient that has connotations of freshness and being squeaky clean.  But citrus oils are phototoxic and can cause a sunburn-like reaction when they are exposed to light.

On the flip side, most natural living resources decry mineral oil as a toxic, synthetic derivative of petrochemical refining.  Depending on the prevailing fad, they promote plant oils like jojoba, almond, olive, and avocado oils, or the most recent darling, coconut oil.  Now these plant oils can be just fine and do very good things for the skin, but mineral oil has actually been shown to be one of the mildest, most effective moisturizing ingredients, and the least likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reaction.

People just can’t seem to get past the idea that it comes from petroleum.  (And I suppose it’s arguable that there are ethical objections to using petroleum-based products, but I seriously doubt purchase of Revlon lipstick would drive global oil drilling if we weren’t fueling our cars with gasoline.  Mineral oil is a useful byproduct of gas production.)  Witness this rationalization from Green Living Q&A when someone brings up the above-referenced information from cosmeticscop:

There are many more health effects associated with mineral oil, but my reason for not using it personally is that it is a refined petrochemical, it may have unknown toxic contaminants, it is incompatible with my body and the environment, and there are natural alternatives. A nut oil, for example, is simply pressed from the nut. Though separated from the nut meat, it is still in the form in which it exists in nature.

Yes, surely there is less danger of bad reactions if we use nut oils.  No one is allergic to nuts!

When people make decisions based only on such fuzzy ideas as what’s “natural” and what isn’t, it can lead to some really perverse results.  Someone desperate to avoid mineral oil due to speculation that it might contain toxins may enthusiastically embrace a product that will cause chemical burns to their skin if they wear it outdoors.  A shopper who wants to clear up her skin without exposing herself to the evils of sodium laureth sulfate (which is actually a mild cleanser, unlike the similarly-named sodium lauryl sulfate), may scrub with a minty-smelling natural cleanser that winds up irritating her skin, thus increasing oil production and blemishes.

The best thing you can do is investigate the ingredients in a product and determine if they are likely to cause you a problem.  As you may have gathered from my linkage in this post, I’ve found Paula Begoun to be an excellent resource for uncovering the bunk that abounds both in mainstream and crunchy cosmetics.  But even perusing Wikipedia to research ingredients of concern can be helpful.  What isn’t helpful is relying on labels that say “Natural!”