Mold, Chemicals in Our Products, and How They Tell Our Bodies to Pack on the Pounds

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

Last week we introduced the topic of toxicity and how it can derail weight loss efforts, as well as contribute to poorer health in those who do lose weight while still maintaining a significant toxic burden.  In my research on the subject, I was lead to an article by Emerson Ecologics, entitled, “Are Lotions Making Us Fat?”  The article was so interesting and well-researched that I felt the findings could add to the discussion here on decreasing the total body load for enhancing weight loss efforts and improving health. I also thought the information may shift our focus and dig a bit deeper into the cause of lingering symptoms that some mold patients may experience.

As a practitioner trained in environmental medicine, I see many mold-harmed patients and often put the focus of our efforts on indoor air quality, which must be pristine and mold-free, and on shifting the diet to starve the yeast and support a healthy immune system to keep inflammation at bay. Sometimes I get so tunnel-visioned on these foundational pieces of healing from mold that I forget to address the skin as a source of toxic exposures too. Our largest organ is the skin, after all, and products we are using for cleaning or personal care or surfaces we are consistently in contact with that have been treated by chemicals or that are contaminated by mycotoxins can really make an impact on our health and ability to heal.  Skin is not simply a covering of our bodies; it is a vital organ, and we cannot live without it. What touches the skin is absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream and cells. Exposure to environmental molds can be part of the absorption picture (if you are sleeping on a moldy mattress or in mold-contaminated sheets, your body can absorb those mycotoxins), but most commonly and of equal concern should be skin absorption of toxic chemicals from cleaning and beauty products. These everyday exposures contribute to the total body load, and when your immune system has been challenged in any way, they can quickly add up to be a toxic tipping point.

Toxins Absorbed Through the Skin

According to a survey conducted by the Environmental Working Group, US women use an average of 12 personal care products, containing a total of 168 chemicals, every day.  Men use an average of 6 personal care products containing 85 chemicals. Most of these products are applied to the skin and then pass directly into the bloodstream. As a matter of fact, even chemicals like fabric softeners that you put in your washing machine can adhere to fabrics and pass into your bloodstream via your skin.

Although many of these products may pose no health risk, some are classified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals.  Chemicals classified as endocrine disruptors interfere with the action of hormones and can potentially lead to serious health issues. We now have a new classification of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that interfere with metabolic function and promote obesity: obesogens.


Obesogens are, unfortunately, very common in personal care products and are defined by two chemical characteristics that make them similar to natural hormones:  they are fat-soluble (lipophilic) and tiny (small molecular weight).  Both of these characteristics allow obesogenic chemicals to bind to receptors on cell membranes and inside cells, directly affecting gene expression and cellular responses.

The table below explains what these chemicals can do that can lead to obesity:


Parabens and Phthalates

Two of the obesogens to which we have so much exposure are Parabens and Phthalates. Where do we find these in our personal products?

Phthalates give flexibility and resilience to plastics.  Also called plasticizers, phthalates are found in polyvinylchloride (PVC) piping, building materials, furniture, toys, plastic bags, detergents, synthetic fragrances, and other common products.  They are popular in personal care products and cosmetics because of their ability to fix fragrances and hold color. Diethyl phthalate (DEP) use is unrestricted in the perfume industry, and might only be listed on a label as “fragrance”.  Dibutyl phthalate (DBT) is used in nail polish to make it chip-resistant.  Products like cologne, deodorant, shampoo, and hair gel often contain multiple phthalates.

According to measurements done by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 13 phthalate metabolites were found in the urine of enough Americans in 2003-2004 with high enough levels to indicate widespread exposure. Adult women, in general, had the highest levels of phthalates in their urine. Males who used cologne or aftershave had significantly higher levels than men who did not use these products. Overall, the more personal care products used by either sex, the higher the phthalate levels in their urine.

Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics and body care products. They help to prevent the growth of bacteria and molds and increase the shelf life of these products. The most commonly used parabens are methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl-, and isobutyl paraben. When CDC researchers tested over 2500 samples from US residents in 2005-2006, they detected methylparaben in 99% of the samples and propyl-paraben in 92%. Teenaged girls and adult females had significantly higher levels than men.  A 2018 study of 100 teenaged girls showed that those who wore makeup every day had 20 times the levels of propyl-paraben in their urine as girls who never or rarely work makeup.  The good news, though, was that a simple three-day intervention of using paraben-free products reduced the levels by 45%.

Mold as an Obesogen

Mycotoxins, the secondary byproducts created by some molds, trigger hormonal and chemical changes in the body that can cause patients to pack on the pounds, even when they are eating very little. Studies show that mycotoxins bind to estrogen receptors, so the hormones cannot be properly metabolized and build up in the body. Estrogen in excess then instructs the body to store more fat. Weight-regulating hormones like leptin are also disrupted by mycotoxins. Leptin is important for fat burning and satiety signals. Mycotoxins can create leptin resistance, so the body becomes resistant to burning fat, constantly hungry, and energy-deprived. For many mold patients, it is a vicious and frustrating cycle of weight gain, mood swings, and low energy. Additionally, yeast overgrowth in the gut caused by mold exposure can be quite disastrous for a patient’s digestive health and ability to lose weight. The toxic build-up and chronic inflammation then cause more frustration, depression, and feelings of not being able to control one’s weight.

Additionally, animal studies conducted at Cornell University show that mycotoxins attack the liver, damaging cells, and impeding the organ’s detoxifying ability. All of the toxins then have to go somewhere, so the body stores them in fat cells. Animal studies also reveal that mycotoxins foster fat storage in the liver itself. As a result, detoxification slows way down and pounds continue to increase.

Detoxification of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

Some environmental toxins accumulate in body tissues and require extensive detoxification to remove them. It is always a good idea to consult with a doctor trained in environmental medicine to help you identify any toxins you are struggling with and to help you create a plan for safe and effective detoxification. As we discussed last week, this should go hand-in-hand with any weight loss efforts. Some toxins, like parabens, phthalates, and even mold toxins have the potential to accumulate over the years, but the good news is that they can be readily cleared from the body after exposure. Harm, then,  is done by repeated exposure.  Therefore, avoidance is key.  Thus far, government and regulatory bodies are not rigorous in their disclosures of personal care product safety regarding phthalates and parabens, nor have they set specific parameters regarding mycotoxin exposure and safe levels.  The burden of responsibility falls on the individual, and it is simple:  Choose products free of these obesogens, replacing them with simple and chemical-free ingredients, and test and monitor your indoor environments to ensure your exposure levels are low. This includes making sure to clean high-touch surfaces, furnishings, clothing, and bedding with a natural product that addresses mold. For cleaning products, I choose those from Micro Balance Health Products–the EC3 Mold Spray and Laundry Additive in particular. There are many others on the market; read labels carefully and, if in doubt, call the manufacturer for clarity on the ingredients list. The Wellevate website offers some other options which have passed rigorous safety standards. Feel free to use my practitioner page to access these products.

As in many of the topics that we discuss, there is no one simple answer or one simple cure. However, the intent is always the same… reduce the total body load and keep the reminder that everything that touches your skin is part of that load!

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