Safer Cosmetics and Personal Care Products: Avoiding the Dreaded “Icky 11”

IMG_1559If you’re on a search and destroy mission for toxins in your home (and you are — right, friend?), a pretty good place to start is the bathroom.

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!):

IMG_1618 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.

IMG_1573Revenge of the Nerds: Becoming a Label Scanner

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.

IMG_1575 Key Chemicals to Avoid: The “Icky 11”

1) Phthalates

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! 

2) Parabens

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.

IMG_15706) Aluminum chlorohydrate

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.

7) Triclosan

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.

IMG_1561Weird Science: The Label Lies

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!

toxic-docBecause 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.

IMG_1568Some Kind of Wonderful: Products We Actually Like

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.

The blog for one of my favorite companies, Bubble & Bee, is amazing and very much worth checking out for its wealth of interesting information from Stephanie, the company’s thoughtful founder.

Baby and kid products:

Adult Personal Care and Cosmetics:

Companies that I have not yet tried, but hear good things about:

A few better brands from big retail stores (but check by product!):

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.

IMG_1569Other posts you may like:

 

Want to Reduce Toxic Exposure? Three Useful Principles for Picking Your Battles

My short backstage video for the Anderson appearance this week highlighted how small changes can make a big difference, and that got me thinking about the serious problem of information overload.

The truth is, once you start taking the issue of chemicals and environmental health seriously, it can feel a bit overwhelming. In fact, the thing I hear most from people is that they “don’t want to know” about toxics, because they fear it will drive them batty to have to think this hard about choices that should be simple.

This is completely understandable as a sanity-saving response to terrible news. Obviously, I think that the hard work of making sure products are safe is first and foremost a job for the government, and should not rest on the shoulders of individual consumers who, let’s face it, do have lives to lead. (Or so I’ve heard. I obviously wouldn’t know much about that.)

Nonetheless, as the tagline for my blog says, until the government gets on the stick, it certainly seems like it’s up to us. So here’s three principles that I’ve found useful in framing what I care most – and least – about:

1)   Time:  Protect Pregnancy and Early Childhood

I’ll do a much more detailed post on a comprehensive and protective approach to pregnancy very soon, but for these purposes, be certain that if you are adopting a careful, even “paranoid” approach to reducing exposure to chemicals while pregnant – and other environmental hazards, including “natural” elements such as mercury and lead that have been put into the environment at much greater levels by humans – that is all to the good.

In utero exposure to pesticides, lead, mercury, solvents, endocrine disruptors and persistent organic pollutants have been linked to autism, cancer, low birth weight, lowered IQ, reproductive health problems, you name it. (I will walk through the evidence on these in that future post; in the meantime, no one makes this case more eloquently than Sandra Steingraber‘s frightening and beautiful book, Having Faith.)

Pregnant women and those who could become pregnant should be incredibly careful in whatever ways that they can be, and should not let anyone talk them out of whatever measures and steps that they can take. Be fierce, my friends. And careful. Or fiercely careful. Carefully fierce? You get my point.

The good news – if there is any in this incredibly annoying situation that puts all the burden on women and none on the chemical companies to stop exposing us – is that once you make these changes, you will be far better prepared for a baby to join your home.

The three months following birth has been called the “fourth trimester” by child specialist Harvey Karp because so much development remains to be done in very young infants. A similar principle should be applied to newborns and chemicals. The skin of new babies is much thinner, and they, like all young children, breathe at a much faster rate than adults, meaning that anything in the air is inhaled at twice the rate or more. They also crawl around in the floor, in the dust, put everything in their mouths, and spend a lot of time indoors, at home.

In addition, we are just learning in recent years about epigenetics, i.e., how chemicals and environmental factors can turn genetic cues on and off, affecting an individual’s health, and it stands to reason that children, who have so much developing left to do, are uniquely vulnerable to these changes.

Then there’s their small size: exposures in an 8-pound, or even, 30-pound person are just larger in relative impact than in an adult, and the dose of many of these chemicals matters (though some, like BPA and similar chemicals, have effects even at tiny doses). Troublingly, most risk assessments on chemicals are modeled on their impacts on an adult over a lifetime of exposure, and are not appropriately adjusted to assess risks for children, meaning that the metrics we use even for the very few chemicals we do regulate are not protective enough for children.

Last, there’s the practical factor that children will have more time to be exposed, meaning that any delay in building up their inevitable future body burden of chemicals has got to be a good thing.

2)    Place:  Look Most Closely at What Goes In or On Your Body or In Your Home

I think of these in three circles. First, and most obvious, think about your food: organic is best, and grass-fed organic is even better. If you can’t afford this for everything, which is understandable, then just change up foods on the list of the Dirty Dozen with the highest levels of pesticides (plus peanut butter).

Second, focus on your personal care products. Going way back to basics makes this much easier: pick up a decent deodorant, toothpaste, lotion, sunscreen, a few cosmetics that you’ll use daily, shampoo, conditioner and soap, check them against the Skin Deep database, and call it enough. (Some truly helpful tips on how to do this are here.) For babies and children, a list of items we use is here.

Toss the fancy face creams full of unpronounceable ingredients that won’t make you look younger anyway and make give you cancer. (This was a hard one for me, as I used to like to believe a miracle in a jar… for fifty bucks and whatever was left of my limited dignity.)

Last, think about your household cleaners. Laundry detergent and dishwasher soap are most important, because you wear and eat them, respectively. Then pick up an all-purpose green cleaner, checkin it on Good Guide, or make one of vinegar, baking soda and lemon. Buy a HEPA filter vacuum for the chemical flame retardants in the dust.

As a final check, think through what you bring into your home. Leave shoes at the door, or better yet, in the garage. Do not use dryer sheets, smelly plug-ins or scented candles: open your windows instead. If you can swing it, to avoid perchloroethylene (a known carcinogen) use a green dry cleaner (but make sure they are really greener, and hang up your clothes as soon as you get home to reduce the bill, which is typically quite a bit higher).

Most difficult of all: if someone in your home works in an industrial setting, or a mechanics’ shop or similar place, or does, say, woodburning or tinkers with electronics as a hobby, ask them, as nicely as you can, to shower, wash and change clothes elsewhere if at all possible. I know that sounds harsh, and it’s certainly unfair, but it’s sound advice in terms of reducing exposure to potent chemicals within a home.

3)   Opportunity:  Trade Risks Only for Experiences, and Not for Things

One of the consistent, if somewhat unfair, points-of-view expressed in readers’ comments to that New York Times piece went something like, “geez, it would stink to be her daughter. I bet she never lets her out to play.”

Of course, Maya has a full life despite my concerns about toxics. And I understand that I will have less and less control over what’s in her life as she starts school, and obtains far more of a social life than I will ever have again, etc.

That is one additional reason why I do what I can now: because I’m still (mostly) the boss ‘round here, and I like it that way. While she remains an impertinent minion of my realm, and has no other real option despite her protestations, I see no reason not to limit her toxic exposures as I can. But that doesn’t generally mean limiting her play or activities.

At least most of the time. On occasion, there are compromises and trade-offs. On vacation, there were no pans in the house we were renting without a non-stick coating. Too bad, so sad, we ate anyway, of course. (We did keep the heat lowered; here’s why.) The trade-off was that we had a vacation, and just letting go was more important.

In general, if I have a principle here, it’s that at times there will be trade-offs, and those trade-offs should be worth it. Parents do this all the time, as I suggested in this post.

In fact, we’re better at it generally than the government. We look at up-sides and down-sides, and make a call. And one benefit of being uptight, or careful – pick your word – about chemicals more generally is that it creates a bit of margin for these types of judgment calls.

For another example, most sports are at least a little dangerous, but the sociability, physicality and achievement are worth it. Swimming in chlorinated pools may be a small cancer risk, but I can’t imagine a summer without life at the pool. I want that for Maya as well. And it’s good exercise and fun. (I am intrigued, however, by the notion of non-chlorine solutions for pools. Where we can avoid risks, obviously, we should.)

In sum: where the up-side brings substantial value to your life, the trade-offs may be worth it. I don’t feel that way about almost any consumer product, despite the best efforts of companies to brand themselves as essential to our happiness. It basically only applies to experiences, and even then only the ones in which I’m in a decent position – meaning, where I have enough information – to weigh the trade-offs for myself.

As environmentalist Mark Sagoff put it in The Economy of the Earth: “There is an ethical difference between falling and being pushed — even if the risks and benefits are the same.”

I understand that sometimes we fall down, and so be it. Sometimes the risk of falling is worth it, and sometimes accepting and taking that risk is even a part of living. I’ll be happy to choose those for myself, and for Maya whenever she’ll let me.

I just don’t appreciate it very much when the chemicals companies try to push me, just as they try to push all of us around. It therefore seems to me that the best way to send them a message on this point is to sidestep their attempts whenever I possibly can.

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I hope that these three general principles are useful to you. If you’ve had your own environmental health conversations with people who don’t “want to hear about it,” tell me what you did in that situation… Did you give up? Persist? Politely tell them they are going to get cancer?

And if you have other ways that you think about risks, choices and environmental health trade-offs, I’d love to hear them.