10 Health Hazards Lurking on Your Bathroom Shelf

PHOTO: Staples in many American homes including cotton swabs, mouthwash, eye drops, lip balm and mascara may have hidden hazards, according to Consumer Reports.
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Staples in many American homes including cotton swabs, mouthwash, eye drops, lip balm and mascara may have hidden hazards, according to Consumer Reports.

"It's just a reminder that these everyday products, that can seem innocuous, may be harmful if we aren't paying attention to how we're using them," said Jody Rohlena, senior editor of ShopSmart, the CR magazine that highlighted the ten products. The other five items include hair spray, contact lenses, eye make-up, hydrogen peroxide and vaginal douches.

Take eye make-up for example. The magazine says women risk a bacterial infection if they hang onto their make-up too long, or moisten that eye pencil with a little water or saliva. So what's a girl to do? The advice includes washing your hands before putting on make-up and replacing mascara every few months. Rohlena says she's taken that to heart. "I actually wrote the date on the mascara I just bought."

Even the folks who represent the cosmetics industry don't quibble with the suggestions. Linda Loretz, chief toxicologist for the Personal Care Products Association, told ABC News, called the recommendations, "common sense."

However, Loretz did take issue with a number of the magazine's hidden hazards. ShopSmart warned against using propellant hairsprays, and said even pump sprays should only be used with eyes and mouth closed and in a well ventilated space. Loretz insisted all types of hair spray are safety tested, and that "any exposure would be low and short-term." She says the safety testing assumes women will use the sprays in tight spaces, such as a bathroom.

Lip balm is also on the "caution" list, for those people who might develop an allergy or sensitivity to any dyes or fragrances in the product. Loretz contends such a reaction would be extremely rare, and even Rohlena admits "I am addicted to my lip gloss and I keep using that." The magazine points out there are other options for those chapped lips, including petroleum jelly and brands with no added scents or color.

And what about the simple cotton swab? The magazine warns that a recent study found a "direct link between their use and ruptured ear drums." The study's author says there's no need to use the swabs to clean out the ears, that a little ear wax won't hurt. A spokesman for Unilever, the maker of Q-tips, points out that the packaging warns against inserting the swabs into the ear canal, and says if you want to use Q-tips on the ears, stick to the outer surface only.

"Some of these behaviors are just really habits," said Rohlena. "You've done them for years, and maybe your mother did too. I urge people to read the fine print, even if you've been using the product for a long time."

Hydrogen peroxide has long been a family favorite to clean out scrapes and cuts, but Rohlena says soap and water works just as well, and might be less irritating to healthy tissue.

There's a warning for those who rely on acid reducers, ShopSmart says the drugs are "effective and relatively safe" but that long-term use may increase the risk of fractures, possibly because the drugs decrease calcium absorption.

As for those who rely on contact lenses, the advice: never rinse the lenses in water, and replace that contact lens case every three months. The magazine also recommends that consumers go easy on any eye drops or mouthwashes and skip vaginal douches entirely.

Loretz, with the Personal Care Products Council, believes the article overstates the risks in some cases. "I think these are products that are designed to be safe and one doesn't need to be alarmed."

Rohlena insists the magazine isn't trying to scare consumers, but just remind them there may be risks they never consider. "Sometimes we're on auto pilot with products you use every day." she said, "You don't really think how you're using them."

Alicia Tarancon and Monica Pastores contributed to this article.

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