Personal care products and their ingredients are widely distributed throughout our environment. In one recent study, our lab aggregated over 5,000 measurements of active ingredients from a variety of personal care products that were found in untreated wastewater, treated wastewater and surface waters such as rivers and streams. They included N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, or DEET, an insect repellent; galaxolide, a fragrance; oxybenzone, a sunscreen; and triclosan, an antibacterial compound.
Other studies conducted near the Mario Zucchelli and McMurdo & Scott research bases confirmed that chemicals in personal care products were even present in Antarctic seawater. Those reports identified the presence of plasticizers, antibacterials, preservatives, sunscreens and fragrances in the Antarctic marine environment. Together, these studies suggest that the active ingredients in personal care products can be found in any water body influenced by human activity.
These substances are typically present in the aquatic environment at concentrations of 10 to 100 nanograms per liter, which is equivalent to 1 to 2 drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But even at these low levels, some still pose a risk.
Moving Up the Food Chain
Depending on their chemical properties, we can classify some of these products as hydrophilic (“water-loving”) or lipophilic (“lipid-loving”). The fat layers in our bodies are comprised of lipids, so lipophilic personal care products can accumulate in the tissue and organs of aquatic animals like fish, birds and even dolphins.