Okay, I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s time to take a closer look at our grooming habits. Fact: you will find unhealthy additives in almost every personal care product you own, from lead in your lipstick to mercury in your mascara (1). And menfolk, you don’t get off that easy. There’s toxins in that toothpaste and carcinogens in the conditioner, too. And so, although this may seem overwhelmingly scary, we’ve got to face the facts.
On average, we interact with twelve personal care products each day (2), and that means twelve daily chances for exposure. If you’re like me and slather on the organic, all natural hippie stuff, you may be surprised to learn: Apparently, lotion isn’t food! That means in the US, there’s no federal standard for labeling of these terms (2). So ‘organic’, ‘natural’, and ‘botanical’ mean virtually nothing here.
So what’s the worry? Well, in a recent study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a small group of teenaged females were tested for cosmetics-related chemicals. Every single girl, aged 14-19, tested positive for toxins in their blood and/or urine. There were 16 separate compounds found, each of which is linked to its own slew of health problems. Two parabens (methylparaben and propylparaben) were present in every teen that was tested. (2)
What the . . . ???
Ingredients are classified by the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR), which is supported by the FDA (3). There are four official categories: ‘safe’, ‘safe with qualifications’, ‘insufficient data’, and ‘unsafe’. But the CIR appears reckless in their labeling, as phthalates –suspected carcinogens – have been deemed as ‘safe’. This designation was granted even though 1) the affects of phthalates on males have been understudied and inconclusive, 2) it is not understood what quantity of phthalates are absorbed through the skin, and 3) there is no comprehensive analysis that includes the range of products containing phthalates, so there is no way to measure potential exposure (3).
On top of that, ‘odors’ (chemical compounds) are considered ‘trade secrets’, so ingredients won’t be listed. There is no approval required for ‘color additives’ either, and these could include any endless number of synthetic creations (3). It’s best to purchase products that actively advertise themselves as free of these sorts of additives. Here’s a mini-list of what you’ll want to avoid:
Sayward’s Quick List for Personal Care – What To Avoid
antibacterial/antimicrobial products – It’s pretty common knowledge (and many studies corroborate (1)) that washing with warm water and standard soap is just as effective as antibacterials. Overuse is breeding resistant bugs, including very serious strains like E. coli and Salmonella. Triclosan is a common ingredient (see below). (1)
triclosan – An antibacterial, antifungal, and preservative agent. It has been linked to cancer and shown to affect both thyroid function and testosterone activity. Triclosan is detectable in breast milk. Luckily, it must be clearly labeled on the package. (1)
parabens – These are hormones used as preservatives. They are linked to cancer, especially breast cancer, and have a mild estrogenic affect. Parabens have been shown to interfere with sperm formation. Look for ‘methyl-‘, ‘ethyl-‘, ‘propyl-‘, ‘butyl-‘, and ‘isobutyl-‘ -paraben. (1)
phthalates – These hormones, often added for fragrance, are also linked to cancer. They mimic estrogen in the body, influencing hormone-related cancers, PMS, premature menopause and infertility. There is also a suspected relation to obesity (1). Often, phthalates are just listed as ‘fragrance’ (or related terms), so look for products that specifically say ‘phthalate free’.
sodium laureth sulfate – A detergent and foaming agent that’s classified as a ‘moderate to severe’ eye irritant. This contains small amounts of 1,4-dioxane (see below) and may combine with other chemicals to form nitrosamines, very powerful carcinogens.(4)
sodium lauryl sulfate – Another detergent and strong surfactant, this is implicated in a whole slew of health issues, including skin irritation, induced canker sores, and hair loss. Also can combine with other chemicals to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.(5)
1,4-dioxane – A known carcinogen, nephrotoxin (liver and kidney), and hepatotoxin (blood) (4). Look for ingredients containing ‘PEG’, ‘-xynol’, ‘ceteareth’, ‘oleth’, and other ethoxylated ‘eth’ chemicals (1).
Animal Testing – This practice is the industry standard, but is not required by law. This unnecessary process has been repeatedly shown to fail at predicting human-chemical response. Remember that a product may say ‘no animal testing’ or show the crossed out bunny logo (bottom left), but this only refers to the finished product. It does NOT mean that individual ingredients weren’t independently tested. Always look for the jumping bunny logo (bottom right), which means totally, entirely, 100% cruelty free.
This is just the beginning, but it’s a really good place to start. Avoid these additives and you’ll be avoiding a lot of toxic exposure. For advanced reading and more information, check out the following links:
The Dirty Thirty: 30 chemicals linked to cancer.
Caring Consumer: for a list of companies that DO NOT test on animals, and a list of companies that DO test on animals
Skin Deep: an online database that matches the ingredients in over 25,000 products against 50 toxicity databases, resulting in the most comprehensive safety information on personal care products.