Some toxic chemicals are easy to notice – driving by factories or polluted rivers, we can see and smell them. We may have immediate physical reactions to them, like burning in our eyes and throats. But the toxic chemicals in personal care products are usually much trickier to detect, and some aren’t noticeable at all.
1. Personal care products are made with over 10,000 chemical ingredients, some of which are linked to cancer, damage the reproductive system, or disrupt the endocrine system. According to a recent New York Times article, Selling Shampoo, Eye Cream and a Chemical Crackdown, "many of the ingredients used in soaps and face creams are complex — and potentially dangerous — chemical compounds."
2. The skin is our largest organ, and what we put on it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. When we use personal care products, we are bathing our bodies in a sea of unregulated chemicals. Because the skin is absorbent, these chemicals can migrate into our bodies and blood streams through transdermal action.
3. The average person uses 9 personal care products daily, exposing themselves to about 126 different chemical ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). These are not tiny, trace amounts of contaminants--they are substantial components of the product.
4. Many of these chemical ingredients bioaccumulate, meaning that they build up in tissue. That’s why many small exposures over time can lead to serious health impacts. Some ingredients are toxic enough that while they don’t accumulate in the body, they cause harm each time they are used.
5. Carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and allergens are lurking in the majority of personal care products including:
Formaldehyde – linked to cancer, often added as a preservative in soaps and shampoos.
Phthalates – often hidden under in “fragrance” on ingredient lists, they harm the male reproductive system and are used to homogenize (thoroughly mix) ingredients in many liquid cleansing products.
Triclosan – disrupts the thyroid and reproductive hormones; can promote antibiotic resistance. While recently banned in hand soaps, it is still found in some toothpastes and many body washes.
Parabens – alter hormonal balance, may cause reproductive and developmental problems. Also linked to breast cancer. Used as a common preservative in all types of personal care products.
Sodium lauryl sulfate – linked to severe skin irritation and canker sores, it may be also be toxic to marine life. It is a prevalent foaming agent in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes.
* This is just a small sampling of the most common offenders. For more info, see the last section of this article.
6. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t demand any safety testing of ingredients in personal care products. No health studies or pre-market testing are required, and there are no systematic government reviews of their safety. In the US, the personal care products industry is allowed to police itself. To put the lack of regulation in perspective, the European Union has banned more than 1,000 ingredients from use in cosmetics, while the FDA has prohibited only 9.
7. Federal law allows companies to omit certain chemical ingredients from their product labels, including those that might be considered trade secrets, components of ingredients in fragrances, and nanomaterials.
Ready to take Action? Here's how you can reduce your exposure:
The bottom line is, there’s no need for synthetic chemicals to keep our bodies clean, healthy, and beautiful.
Knowledge gives us the power to make healthier choices. If you want to learn more about what’s covered in this blog, a great site to check out is the Environmental Working Group’s comprehensive searchable database of personal care products and cosmetic ingredients. This scientifically grounded resource explains how thousands of ingredients affect us, and ranks products by safety score to help consumers make informed choices.
* Here are some of the most harmful ingredients to watch out for in soaps, shampoos and lotions, according to EWG:
Formaldehyde: A potent preservative considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde, also an asthmagen, neurotoxicant and developmental toxicant, was once mixed into to many personal care products as antiseptic. This use has declined. But some hair straighteners are based on formaldehyde’s hair-stiffening action and release substantial amounts of the chemical.
Parabens (specifically Propyl-, Isopropyl-, Butyl-, and Isobutyl- parabens): Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives used widely in cosmetics. The CDC has detected parabens in virtually all Americans bodies. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl paraben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutylparabens, may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders.
Phthalates: A growing number of studies indicate that chemical family damages the male reproductive system. Pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phthalate. Everyone should avoid products with “fragrance” indicating a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates.
Triclosan & Triclocarban: Antimicrobial pesticides in liquid soap (triclosan) or soap bars (triclocarban) [recently banned in hand soaps but still allowed in toothpastes, hand sanitizers and body washes], very toxic to the aquatic environment. Often found as contaminants in people due to widespread use of antimicrobial cleaning products. Triclosan disrupts thyroid function and reproductive hormones. American Medical Association and the American Academy of Microbiology say that soap and water serves just as well to prevent spread of infections and reduce bacteria on the skin. Overuse may promote the development of bacterial resistance.
Fragrance: It may help sell products from face cream to laundry detergent, but do you know what’s in it? Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant to lotion. Federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. Recent research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products, none of them listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top 5 allergens in the world.
BHA: The National Toxicology Program classifies butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” It can cause skin depigmentation. In animal studies, BHA produces liver damage and causes stomach cancers such as papillomas and carcinomas and interferes with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels. The European Union considers it unsafe in fragrance. It is found in food, food packaging, and personal care products sold in the U.S.
Boric acid and Sodium borate: These chemicals disrupt hormones and harm the male reproductive system. Men working in boric acid-producing factories have a greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido. In animals, high doses cause testicular damage to mice, rats, and dogs. Both the European Union and Canada restrict these ingredients in body care products made for children under three years of age and require that products containing these ingredients be labeled as not appropriate for broken or damaged skin. No similar safety standards are in place in the United States. The cosmetic industry’s own safety panel states that these chemicals are unsafe for infant or damaged skin, because they can absorb readily into the body.