Personal care products are rife with nasty and suspect stuff. If you still harbor any doubt we’re all citizens of a Chemical Age, just try reading aloud the ingredients of a typical bottle of shampoo. Then, when you’ve finally untwisted your tongue, you may want to reconsider your beauty routine.
Not So Pretty in Pink
In 2007, Stacy Malkin sounded the alarm with her landmark book about the “ugly side” of the beauty industry, linking common products to cancer and a host of other serious health problems. Since then, the cosmetics industry has been on notice that consumers want better, safer products in cleaner, greener packaging. The good news is that even in comparison to a few short years ago, many better options now exist, some of which are listed below.
Still, many products are still loaded with suspect chemicals. An environmental health group just last week sued several retailers for allegedly failing to label shampoos and otherproducts that containing a known carcinogen, cocamide diethanolamine (cocamide DEA). The Center for Environmental Health said it has a list of 100 offenders which allegedly run afoul of the excellent right-to-know label laws under Prop 65 in California.
For another example, here’s the list from a “natural” oatmeal lotion marketed for use on babies that contains at least 4 chemicals of concern (the “ick” you’ll soon learn how to spot yourself!):
Under the government’s watch, tens of thousands of chemicals have made their way to store shelves. While many of them remain untested, some of them have known links to cancer and reproductive health impacts. Shockingly, the FDA can’t require companies to test for safety.
Some unlucky folks also have far greater exposure to harmful beauty products on the job. Salon workers, for instance, face many of the nastiest chemicals—formaldehyde, pthalates and others—hour after hour, day after day. Grassroots groups have started pushing for safer working conditions in salons, and wonderful, active coalitions like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are doing great work to make products safer for consumers. Congress is taking note, though the bill currently being proposed to fix the problem still needs some work.
In the meantime, you should know what’s safe and what’s, well, not so much. So I’ve compiled my own list of the worst offenders, as a rough guide. I also recommend checking on stuff in the incredible database on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep website. It allows you to search for products, providing a detailed analysis of ingredients and any chemicals of concern. You can also search by ingredient if a product’s not listed.
Because it’s hard to shop for better products when you have a toddler nagging at you, I’ve found that committing a few key abbreviations for certain chemicals to memory and learning how to do a quick label scan is an invaluable asset. Although its not an exhaustive list, the below is a half-decent crib sheet for when you’re standing in the makeup aisle cursing under your breath. (That’s probably me next to you, squinting at the teensy print and cursing audibly.)
Like with food, better products these days often have fewer ingredients, and organic ingredients, labeled as such. Their labels tend to include parentheticals with real words in them like (coconut) or (flax oil). On the other hand, if you see a long list of chemicals (especially those with numbers or a string of capital letters), that tends to be a good product to avoid. I read up from the bottom of the list, because that’s where the worst offenders often hide out.
Phthalates are widely used in perfume, nail polish, soap, shampoo, moisturizers, soap and hair spray. They’ve been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and can cause reproductive and developmental disorders. They are listed under a variety of names, and two of them—dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate—are banned from cosmetic products in the European Union but are still used in products in the U.S.
Pthalates are also used to make plastics more pliable, including in polyvinyl choloride (PVC), as in this staggering list from the National Library of Medicine:
flexible plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap. Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring.
So they’re everywhere, and worth avoiding when you can. As to cosmetics, here’s what’s tricky: sometimes they’re added to products under the generic term “fragrance,” so in addition to avoiding any ingredients with “phthalate” in the name, you should also steer clear of products containing “fragrance.” This is especially true for pregnant women, pre-teens and young adults, and babies, who are more vulnerable to their health hazards. Pick “no-scent” or “no fragrance” as your go-to whenever possible, and stay out of the department store perfume aisle!
Like phthalates, parabens come under a variety of names. The four that most commonly appear in cosmetic and bath products are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben. They’re added to shampoos, conditioners, body washes and lotions to kill microbes.
Parabens are found in adundance on store shelves and have been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. They’re absorbed through the skin: U.K. researchers found detectable levels of six different parabens in twenty human breast tumors in a 2004 study.
3) Lead or Lead acetate
Lead acetate is a toxin that affects reproduction and development. It’s not as common as parabens or phthalates, but it’s a doozy. It scores a terrible “10” in the Skin Deep Database, and has been linked to cancer and is banned from cosmetics in Canada. Currently the FDA allows it in the U.S. except in products applied around the eyes. Do not buy any products containing this chemical and toss any you might own.
In addition, a recent study found shockingly high levels of lead in lipstick (especially the dark reds and browns I wore all though the late 1980s and early ’90s, trying in vain to steal Molly Ringwald’s look from “the Breakfast Club”). I will just note that this puts a potent neurotoxin on your lips, kinda’ close to your brain.
Kids shouldn’t play with your lipstick, either. And while we’re on the subject of lead, I have more bad news. Face-painting make-up used for kids has been found to have dangerous lead levels and should be avoided: a 2009 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found lead in 10 out of 10 face paints tested. This is a hard one, as it’s on offer at every durn festival we go to and is popular at Halloween. If you want to pack your own safer stuff or have it on hand for dress-ups at homes, you can make your own or buy this product, which looks to be the safest I’ve found.
4) Formaldehyde and toluene
Formaldehyde and toluene are found in nail products like polish, treatments and strengtheners. They’re also found in hair dyes and the now-notorious hair-straightening products called “Brazilian Blowouts.”
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen as well as a skin and respiratory toxin. Toluene is a neurotoxin that can impair breathing and irritate the skin. They’re both terrible for you, and pregnant women should be especially careful about exposure because of the threats they pose to developing fetuses. Staying out of salons while pregnant is a great idea for a number of reasons.
5) Coal tar
Coal tar is found in a number of dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and skin lotions. It’s a black, viscous liquid that’s produced during the distillation of coal. It’s a known carcinogen and bioaccumulating respiratory toxin, but despite these health concerns, it was deemed safe for consumers at typical levels of use. Because it poses such grave consequences for health, I would highly recommend avoiding it.
Aluminum chlorohydrate is used in anti-antiperspirants. It’s suspected of causing breast cancer, and subject to restrictions in Canada. While EWG only gives it a 3, a raft of finding linking effects on breast cancer tumors to aluminum are worrisome enough to include it as a precaution.
Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent found in many deodorants and soaps. It’s been linked to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity and skin irritation. It also can encourage development of drug-resistant bacteria. Definitely to be avoided.
8) Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), Triethanolamine (TEA)
These chemicals are used to adjust the pH in products like shampoos and hair dyes. Each carries a number of concerns, but DEA (including cocomide DEA mentioned above), is a likely carcinogen as well as skin and respiratory toxin, and is the most dangerous of the three.
9) Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)
EDTA is found in shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, soap, body wash and moisturizers, to prevent spoilage and as a way of keeping clear liquids from getting cloudy. It makes chemicals more absorbable through the skin, which is a reason to avoid it as well. It has a low hazard rating from EWG but has been classified as expected “to be toxic or harmful” by Environment Canada. It is known to cause liver damage and skin irritation. It has killed patients in large doses using it for chelation in alternative medicine and appears to increase lead absorption in patients.
10) Sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate (SLS)
Along with other sulfates with very similar names–sodium lauryl sulfate, for instance—SLS is used in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes to cause the product to foam and remove debris. SLS has a bad reputation but EWG gives it a relatively low hazard ranking. Though it can cause skin irritation, the primary concern is that SLS can be contaminated with two really nasty chemicals—ehtylene oxide, which is a known carcinogen, and 1,4-dioxane, which has been linked to cancer and is banned in Canada.
11) Polyethylene glycol (PEG)
Polyethylene glycol can be found in makeup, sun screens and body washes. While it gets a relatively low hazard score from EWG, like SLS, there’s a chance of contamination with ehtylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which pose grave health concerns. It’s often followed by a number.
So there are a lot of nasty chemicals out there. And the “good guys” are hard to find. Due to lax marketing laws, many items labeled as organic actually contain few organic ingredients. Even worse, some more natural products, like those deodorant stones, are not as green as they seem.
Second, there is massive greenwashing in this area: terms like “all natural,” or “green” or “nutrient rich” are not defined in law, and therefore should not be taken seriously by you at all. (Just do as I do and pronounce aloud “wah wah wah wah” like the teacher in Charlie Brown’s class while standing in the aisle. Stores love that.)
Third, some prominent “natural” brands have actually been acquired by much larger companies, including Burt’s Bees and Tom’s of Maine, and some of the products have been reformulated to be less of a sure thing (though both companies remain far better than the average).
Sadly, the medical establishment is of little use here. When I took Maya to a skin doctor recently, I was shocked to see that the lotions with medication in them the doctor was handing out samples of all contained some of the worst offenders on the Ick List. Then I went home and read the bottles of our other children’s products, like the liquid suspensions of ibuprofen. All of them had suspect dyes and parabens. Nothing like dosing children with a sip of potentially hazardous yuck to fix a minor health problem!
Because of all this, the best approach is to simplify your routine. Just decide what products you really need on a daily basis and for the occasional special event, and toss the rest. I use much less stuff than I used to, and really, truly don’t miss it.
Then you’ll also have more time to look up the facts on what you do need: just check in the EWG database. They have great lists by product category starting with 0, or no known risk from chemicals. I aim personally for nothing higher than 2, and mostly 0s and 1s. I’m even stricter with kids’ stuff, and prefer 0s or 1s for that. I also check the individual listings for each product so that I know all of the ingredients are a-OK.
Of course, you can always make stuff yourself. There are a ton of great recipes on the interwebs for everything from toner to lotion, bath salts to body scrubs. There are also suggestions about cleaning your skin with honey, which was lovely when I tried it, or with food-grade oils, which I also found to be easy and effective when I gave it a go. And it works for babies too!
Olive and coconut oil make great hair conditioners (and detanglers for kids’ hair), and organic shea butter has been a life-saver for us for treating Maya’s mild eczema. Farmer’s markets are another good source for simply made products and home remedies.
Below are a few of my favorite companies. These are items we’ve actually used and liked. In addition, I’ve indicated some more widely available and affordable substitutes from major retailers as stuff I’ve used in a pinch or when I wasn’t feeling spendy.
Baby and kid products:
- In Essence organic calendula (marigold) oil (this oil has many uses): (Skin Deep: this oil generally gets a 1)
- Redmond Amazingly Natural Earthpaste (toothpaste; Skin Deep: rates 0 (Cinnamon) or 1 (Peppermint), depending on flavor)
- Lafe’s Baby Foaming Shampoo and Wash, Fragrance Free (The container even says the bottle is non-estrogenic plastic; gets a “0” in Skin Deep database; the “organic baby” brand gets 0-2 on Skin Deep; Lafe’s generally gets 0-5)
- MJ’s Face and Body Lotion (I found this terrific all-natural, shea butter lotion made by a local vendor at the Steamboat, CO, farmer’s market, so it’s not in Skin Deep, but you can get it on-line. The texture is lovely.)
- Nature’s Baby Organics Bubble Bath, Tangy Tangerine (Skin Deep: 0; company’s products range from 0-3)
- California Baby Calming Cream (Skin Deep: 1; company’s products range from 0-3)
- Bubble & Bee Unscented Organic Body Butter (incredible for dry skin; Skin Deep: not rated (but ingredients check out); company overall ratings range from 0-2)
- Badger Sunscreen (Skin Deep: 1)
- Maty’s Quiet Relief Kids Cough Syrup, Buckwheat Honey (Skin Deep: not rated)
- Soap for Goodness Sake Lemongrass Goat Milk Soap (Skin Deep: 0; company generally gets 0-2).
- Earth Mama Angel Baby: bottom balms, oils and lotions (Skin Deep: overall 0-2).
Adult Personal Care and Cosmetics:
- Bubble & Bee: Their deodorants and body butter are great. (Skin Deep: 0-2).
- Himalaya Herbal Healthcare Neem Toothpaste: (Skin Deep: 2 for old formulation)
- Redmond Amazingly Natural Earthpaste (toothpaste; Skin Deep: rates 0 (Cinnamon) or 1 (Peppermint), depending on flavor)
- MJ’s Face and Body Lotion (as above)
- Badger Balm: I especially like their sunscreens and lip balms. (Skin Deep: 0-3).
- Nurture My Body: I adore their shampoo, lotion and conditioner. Though pricey, you only need a dab so a bottle really goes a long way. They come in gorgeous cobalt glass bottles I am saving for DIY projects. (Skin Deep: 0-1).
- Sappho Cosmetics: A great source for toxin-free makeup. A Canadian-based company that ships to the U.S.; their eye shadows, brushes, and liquid foundation are wonderful. (Skin Deep: N/A due to reformulations.)
- Rejuva Minerals: More lovely toxin-free makeup. I am eagerly waiting for their pressed powder to be available this fall. (Skin Deep: 0-1).
- Coastal Classic Creations: It looks like they’ve upgraded the packaging from the ones in the pictures above, which are a bit old now. Good make-up and all-natural skin care and body products. (Skin Deep: 0-3).
- Soap for Goodness Sake: A wide range of products and homemade soaps from U.S.-based company. (Skin Deep: 0-2).
- Suki Skincare: Range of toners, cleansers and lotions. (Skin Deep: 0-3)
- Miessence: Organic skincare, and safer deodorants and toothpaste. (Skin Deep: 2, though many products have been taken out of score because they have been reformulated).
- Mama Organic Herbs Facial Kits: Got this as a much-appreciated gift; made by a local mom from all-natural ingredients.
Companies that I have not yet tried, but hear good things about:
- Mountain Rose Herbs: herbal and natural health (No Skin Deep ratings)
- Ava Anderson: cosmetics, lotions, and even cleaning products sold through direct marketing agents (Skin Deep: 0-1)
- Poofy Organics bath and body products (Skin Deep: 0-3).
A few better brands from big retail stores (but check by product!):
- At Target: Yes to Carrots (Skin Deep:1-5), Pacifica (Skin Deep: 0-4)
- At Whole Foods: Desert Essences (Skin Deep: 0-4), Acure Organics (Skin Deep: 0-3)
Note: None of these links are commissioned, though Sappho Cosmetics was kind enough to send me free samples of their make-up when I returned to work. While much appreciated generally, this did not influence my evaluation of their products.
Additionally, for reasons that elude me, the headings all ended up referring to ’80s movies. If you have more to suggest on that score, or products you personally use and like — no commercial posters allowed — then please weigh in! If there are other chemicals you avoid, I’d love to know that too.
- 10 free (or nearly free) ways to reduce your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals
- Three Days to a Brand-New BPA-Free You
- Want to Reduce Toxic Exposure? Three Useful Principles for Picking Your Battles
- 5 Myths About Toxics and What to Do About the Truth
- The Trouble with Toxics: What Dateline Missed and Why
- Asking Safeway: Who Will Mind the Store?
- Everything But the Kitchen Sink: 5 Simple Steps to Greener Food Storage and Prep
- At Long Last: My Greener, Healthier Baby and Toddler Supply Guide