Lotion and sunscreen. Shampoo and body scrub. Powder and deodorant. The collection of personal-care products in our bathroom cabinets—women use an average of 12 a day, men six—contains an assortment of chemicals, including some that have been shown to disrupt hormones or increase cancer risk. Because each of these products contains about 12 chemicals, we are literally bathing, lathering, brushing, spraying, powdering and rubbing ourselves and our children with dozens of chemicals every day. Nearly all of these chemicals can penetrate the skin, and some we ingest directly from our lips or hands.
While many of the chemicals used in common personal-care products are benign, some are known carcinogens, neurotoxins or reproductive toxins. Others are endocrine disrupters that upset the body’s hormonal balance (leading to weight gain and other hormone-related health problems), including chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body and can cause problems in sexual development and adult sexual function, as well as increase the risk of breast and prostate cancer.
Unfortunately, these toxic ingredients may be more prevalent than you think: More than one-third of all personal-care products contain at least one ingredient linked to cancer. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as less than 20 percent of the chemicals in personal-care products have been tested for safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate or limit the use of chemicals in personal-care products or require that all of the ingredients be listed on the label.
As a result, trying to choose safer personal-care products can be confounding. You can read labels, but because the FDA doesn’t regulate the health claims or labeling for personal-care items, the words “organic,” “herbal,” “natural,” “hypoallergenic” and “nontoxic” used on these products have no legal meaning. One particularly maddening example of this is the “pink-washing” of brands that have campaigns to fight breast cancer while continuing to use chemicals that have been linked to cancer.
No one should have to worry about inadvertently choosing toxic products while shopping in the personal-care aisle. That’s why a group of organizations, including the Breast Cancer Fund, have come together to form The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition working to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetics and personal-care products through legislative, regulatory and corporate reforms.
But you don’t have to wait for major reforms to find safer products. Here’s what you can do today to protect and promote your health and safeguard your family:
• Read the list of ingredients on your personal-care products (see chart at right for tips on what to avoid and why).
• Create a safe shopping list by looking up your favorite products at the Environmental Working Group’s database of personal-care product safety ratings.
• Make your own products using healthy, nontoxic ingredients. For recipes, visit naturalhomeandgarden.com/body-care, or check out our sister publication The Herb Companion. Another excellent resource is Janice Cox’s book Natural Beauty at Home.
• Get involved! Spread the word about toxic ingredients in personal-care products. Visit safecosmetics.org to see The Story of Cosmetics, a great video about identifying toxic ingredients, finding safe products and helping to bring about industry reform.
Ingredients to Avoid
Prefixes Ethyl, Methyl, Butyl or Propyl
What It Is: Parabens
Health Risks: Endocrine disrupters that mimic estrogen; linked to weight gain and breast cancer
Found In: Lotions and shampoos
Fragrance, DEHP, DHP, DBP 5, Dibutyl Phthalate
What It Is: Phthalates
Health Risks: Sperm damage, infertility
Found In: Nail polish, shampoo, deodorant, lotion
Dyes: Blue 1, Green 3, Yellow 5 & 6, Red 33
What It Is: Coal tar
Health Risks: Carcinogenic
Found In: Hair color, medicated shampoos
Triclosan, Chloro, Phenol, Irgasan
What It Is: Triclosan
Health Risks: Endocrine and thyroid disrupter; promotes antibiotic-resistant bacteria; bioaccumulates in the body
Found In: Antibacterial soap, shampoo, facial cleanser, toothpaste, deodorant
3-(4-methylbenzylidene)-camphor (4-MBC), octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC), octyl-dimethyl-PABA (OD-PABA), bexophenome-3 (Bp-3), homosalate (HMS)
What It Is: Sunscreen chemicals
Health Risks: Estrogenic activity; enhances the potential for pesticides to penetrate the skin
Found In: Sunscreens
Polyethylene glycol (PEG, PPG, Cocoate), propylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, polyethoxyethylene, polyethoxyethylene mineral oil
What It Is: Petroleum byproducts
Health Risks: Carcinogen; liver and kidney effects
Found In: Lotions
What It Is: Derivative of petroleum
Health Risks: Endocrine disrupter; carcinogen
Found In: Lotions
Lead acetate, thimerosal, mercurius solubilis, mercurius sublimates, mercurius corrosives, mercuric chloride
What It Is: Lead and mercury
Health Risks: Found in higher levels in women with breast cancer; neurotoxin
Found In: Hair color, wound treatments, artificial tears
What It Is: Propellant made from petroleum processing
Health Risks: Carcinogen
Found In: Moisturizer, shaving cream, foot spray, breath freshener
What It Is: Placenta, placental enzymes, placental extract
Health Risks: Filled with hormones that upset your own balance and increase estrogen
Found In: Skin and hair conditioner
What It Is: Hydroquinone
Health Risks: Can cause a skin disease called ochronosis
Found In: Skin whitener
Nano zinc oxide <>
What It Is: Nanoparticles
Health Risks: The safety of nanoparticles has not been tested, but they can cross the blood/brain barrier and move along nerves.
Found In: Sunscreens, lotions
A year studying sustainability in Sweden prompted Kelly Lerner and Alli Kingfisher to revamp their personal-care products. The more they find out about the effects of toxic ingredients, the more they read labels and change what they buy.