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:

 

Hot Reads: Gagged Children, Huma-liation, Safer School Supplies, and More

colored-pencils-1342888218RrfAs promised, here’s the weekly linky with all the news you have really, really needed this week and missed, as well as some you likely didn’t miss but wish you had.

I think I should get a prize for keeping to a calendar, two whole weeks in a row.

  • This will make you gag: ClimateProgress has a shocking write-up of a recent settlement in a PA fracking case in which drilling company Range Resources reportedly insisted on a clause in the settlement agreement with a family that includes a lifetime ban on any mention of fracking for the family’s children, including a 7- and 10-year-old. Those poor kids! With only $750,000 in damages, there won’t be enough money to pay for the therapy they will need! Bribing and extorting families injured by fracking into total silence is a key part of the industry’s strategy to publicly claim that there is no evidence of harm. Before the gag order, the family

complained that drilling caused “burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and earaches, and contaminated their water supply.” But after the family was gagged, gas exploration company Range Resources’ spokesman Matt Pitzarella insisted “they never produced evidence of any health impacts,” and that the family wanted to move because “they had an unusual amount of activity around them.” Public records will show, once again, that fracking did not cause health problems.

  • Are we done with the “Good Wife” yet? Both feminist (Ruth Marcus) and not-as-feministy (Sally Quinn) commentators have evidently had it with the appalling spectacle of loyalty-uber-alles from Huma Abedin, whose cringe-inflicting performance at Tuesday’s press conference really did reflect a new low for the scandal wife. And Michael Tomasky’s op-ed mercilessly clarifies the spurious Huma-Hilary comparison. Now I love a political meltdown as much as anyone, and certainly am sympathetic to Huma’s argument that infidelity is a problem for their marriage to resolve, but I’m also just really sick of having to think about Anthony Weiner‘s, er, body parts. I’m flabbergasted by the idea that Abedin knew about all this and decided to put it on public trial by helping her husband run for office. I tend to agree with Marcus that it’s a sext too far to then claim wife-privilege absolves him from the ick-factor. And then there’s their child to consider. Yet some found the perspective of Sally Quinn (aka, the human pearl earring) “a setback for women everywhere.”  What do you think?
  • Safer, greener school supplies: The school year is, eerily, just around the bend and many parents will be assembling shopping lists of necessary (pencils) and not-as-necessary (gold-plated sneakers) items. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice published a helpful guide. As they make clear, some routine items contain nasty chemicals like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is linked to an array of health problems. Beware the character-themed lunch boxes containing elevated levels of this plastic! Right on time, the folks at Healthy Child Healthy World also issued a call for purchasing tips. What are your favorite healthy supplies? Submit your tips to ana@healthychild.org by August 9 and you’ll be entered to win a free book.
  • What to do on the bad days: Parenting can be less fun than you expected. Sometimes, it’s no fun at all. There are moments when your toddler’s tantrums make your head ring, when a surly child brings a wave of heat to your cheeks. Here’s a parent and psychologists’ eloquent and honest reflection prompted by a recent tragedy in Canada, where the two young children of a 32-year-old mother suffering from postpartum depression were found drowned. Her body was recovered several days later near a bridge. The story is heart wrenching, and an extreme example of what can happen when a parent becomes hopelessly overwhelmed. The trials of parenthood are an unavoidable part of the job and all parents take the good with the bad. On days when being a parent isn’t as bliss-filled as we hoped, we need to be honest with ourselves and seek support. I’ll be posting more soon with some resources that help to simplify parenting.
  • Poultry pushiness: In a bow to Big Chicken, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a rule to increase line speeds in poultry processing plants from 140 to 175 birds a minute. Poultry workers already suffer from astronomical rates of carpal tunnel syndrome: forcing employees to work at elevated speeds would only make matters worse. The rule would allow companies to ramp up production, but you have to wonder, will the employees be compensated for all the extra work they’ll be doing? A 25-percent increase in production should equal a 25-percent increase in pay, right? Riiiight. A coalition of advocacy groups is demanding that USDA start over on the rule.
  • Chemical Plant, 2.0: I was pleased to hear that President Obama ordered federal agencies to revamp regulations governing chemical plants. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been nothing if not sluggish in promulgating important rules to protect the safety of plant workers and surrounding communities. Just a couple weeks ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board threatened to publicly rebuke the agency for its failure to act. Among other things, the new order calls upon the Environmental Protection Agency to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to require plants to switch to safer chemicals. This is encouraging. Let’s hope it signals a new-found willingness to stand up for health and safety.
  • A Tale of Two Hearings: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held an epic, five-hour hearing with three full panels of witnesses. I’m still plowing through the written testimony, and am actually so excited to spend my Friday geekily watching the video archive. Some of my personal heroes testified, including Tom McGarity, of UT Austin Law School, and Ken Cook, of the Environmental Working Group. The take-away: there seems to be real energy for chemical reform, which would be wonderful — you can see the twitter action here and here. More heroines appeared later in the week in a long-awaited and much-welcomed hearing in Senate Judiciary on the deadly paralysis by analysis that grips so many of our federal agencies. Peg Seminario and Rena Steinzor, both eloquent advocates for public health, and Janette Fennell, a major force working to improve vehicle safety involving children, all talked about the successes of rules that work, and the high costs of government failure to act.

And so, the good and bad in our dysfunctional democracy, all mixed in… stay tuned for more informative infographics on parenting coming soon!

The Safest Sippy Cups, Ever…

To sip, to sup, to drink from a cup…

One of our issues with transitioning from a bottle has been our extended search for a sippy cup that doesn’t raise environmental health concerns. As you can see, we’ve collected a shocking number of options, a few of which were inherited.

Yet none, really, are perfect. The ideal sippy cup would be: 1) totally safe to drink liquids from after being washed repeatedly in the dishwasher; 2) durable; 3) comfortable for a young toddler to use; 4) an aid in teaching a child how to drink from a cup. This is harder to find than you might think, given that we, as a society, evidently saw the need to make this other ridiculous thing first.

So ok, generally, it may be that we are not supposed to use sippy cups for our kids. Whatev. I don’t know a family that skips ’em entirely, given the propensity of small children to spill anything even remotely liquid-like (all over their brand-new jumper from Grandma, just before leaving the house). But if you’re one of those rare, and admittedly far superior, families, then you can just hang out calmly in your unnatural Zen-like environment while you await my upcoming post on greener ways to store food at home.

In the meantime, while I’ve hardly found the best sippy cups, “ever,” I think I’ve spotted some of the good, the bad and the dubious. I scored the sippy cups I’m reviewing below on three major areas, worth a total of 5 points each: 1) environmental health; 2) transparency; and 3) durability and use. (I’ll put the scoring system at the bottom of the post, for those who regularly indulge their inner nerd and are just dying to see how I made the call on points.)

The winning types (based on my not-at-all-scientific and freshly invented scoring system) are basically the ones mostly made of stainless steel. From the top —

First Tier

  • Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles: Pura bottles come with a silicone nipple and all stainless steel components, and come in two sizes (5 and 11 ounces) and in colors as well as plain stainless steel. (There are also adult bottles with a stainless steel cap in the interior of the bottle.) While stainless steel can leach as explained below, the company claims this product has no leaching of heavy metals in tests. There are also new silicone covers that slip onto the outside, to address parents’ complaints that the bottles got too cold in the fridge, presumably. The nipple that comes with it is very much like a bottle nipple with a slightly adjusted shape, but has basically no flow control and is fast and open to spills (see the picture at the top for the shape). The ring and size do also accommodate a wide range of other nipples on the market for baby bottles. There were consumer complaints on Amazon due to sharp edges on the ring, but ours has no such issue, so I wonder if this has been addressed by a company re-design. In addition, there were stories of paint chipping off the colored ones (which seems to be consistent problem with enameled stainless products), so we got the plain silver. I also liked the completeness of the company’s information on its Website on the environmental health issues. We hand-wash the nipple, but put the ring and bottle in the dishwasher. Overall, while it has some use and convenience issues, this product is as close as it gets to good in this marketplace. Score: Environmental health: 5; Transparency: 5; Durability/use: 1 = 11 out of 15.
  • Klean Kanteen toddler bottles: This product does have some plastic on the sippy part. But the company is highly transparent, putting the type of plastic on its Web site, and identifying it as polypropylene (number 5), which is generally considered a safer and non-leaching plastic. And KK is waging a “I love boobies” campaign, which you just gotta like. (For adult bottles, I’ll note that they also have an entirely stainless steel option for caps.) The flow rate here is fast, and some of the bottles are a bit too big around for younger toddlers to hold properly. Consumers on Amazon raised two main issues: that the plastic ring can crack if dropped, and that the bottle leaks and is too cold from the fridge. There are replacement rings for sale, but that is understandably a pain, and the other issues could be a problem if you are inclined to let the child nurse a sippy cup over the day or store it in the fridge. Since we give Maya a drink and monitor the situation to remove it from her mischievous grasp the minute she seems ready to paint the floor with liquid, the leaking is not as much an issue for us, though I do wish there was a cover of some kind for putting it in the diaper bag. We handwash the plastic parts, but put the bottle in the dishwasher. The company notes that it recommends plain silver for families with toddlers who chew on things, although the acrylic paint is, they claim, safe (consumers also note a chipping problem here). Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 5; Durability/use: 3 = 11 out of 15.

Second tier

  • Lifefactory 4-ounce and 9-ounce glass bottles: These glass bottles of borosilicate glass (which is less breakable) with silicone sleeves are now made in Poland, France and the U.S., depending on the components. We use ours with a bottle nipple, but parents evidently love these smaller ones for babies. For some reason, Amazon’s listing for the sippy caps as a stand-alone product drew complaints that they break, that the valves are difficult to use, and that they leak. In terms of what plastic is used for the sippy caps, strangely, the Lifefactory Web site doesn’t say, although it provides a lot of other good information, and does indicate that the baby products are “bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalate, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) free.” In response to my email, the company let me know the sippy caps are polypropylene, a safer form of plastic. Obviously, glass is a safe container for liquids, so long as it does not break, and in our experience, the silicone sleeve would be protective against all but the most ticked-off child who deliberately throws the bottle into a brick wall. We put our bottle in the dishwasher, but have removed the sleeve even though the company indicates that you don’t need to do so. If we had a lot of these, we’d have to rethink this step, because getting the sleeve back on is a chore. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 3 = 9 out of 15.
  • Crocodile Creek Drinking Bottles: These are really for older kids (rated 3 plus years), so a friend, not us, owns this type. They are a 10-ounce stainless steel bottle with cute exterior painted designs, a plastic lid and a pull-up spout. The company’s Web site indicates that: “our drinking bottles are made of high-quality stainless steel #304. The lid is HDPE#2 and the cap is PP#5. All materials are completely recyclable and are lead-free, phthalate-free, BPA-free and PVC-free.” According to consumer reviews, they cannot go into the dishwasher, have been know to dent and leak, and to have badly chipping paint after limited use. In addition, one reviewer talked about a metallic taste with acidic juices after some hours in the bottle. Still, at least the interior (unlike the Sigg bottles I’ll discuss below) is stainless steel and not aluminum with a interior plastic overlay. So while they look similar to Sigg bottles, they are the better type of this product. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 4; Durability/use: 2 = 9 out of 15.

  • Thermos Foogo Phases Leak Proof Stainless Steel Sippy Cup: This 7-ounce cup (the blue and yellow one in the picture) has an acceptable flow, fits nicely in a toddler’s hands, and has a stainless steel body with a plastic top. It is insulated, and allegedly is safe for hot and cold beverages and will maintain temperature for house. About the plastics, the company’s materials say: “these containers are made from FDA-approved materials, and all of their plastic components are BPA-free.” Upon my email request, they told me that the plastics are “polypropylene which is BPA and PVC free,” and this listing of the product by MightyNest says that they are  pthalate-free (though made in China). Maya likes this cup, though she also likes to push the spout through all the way, spilling its contents everywhere. On Amazon, a few consumers reported leaks, many said the insulation didn’t really work, and one reported that the spout had become black, moldy, “sticky and brittle.” We handwash this cup generally, but occasionally have put the bottle base only through the dishwasher. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 3 = 9 out of 15.
  • Kid Basix Safe Sippy 2: (This is the green and orange one above.) This sippy comes with a conversion to a straw set-up and is a nice shape and size, with an acceptable flow rate for toddlers and a cap for travel. There are a set of complicated valves that come with it that I’ve never bothered to use. While the Website has some information on the plastics used, which are pthalate- and BPA-free, I had to write them a note to get more information on the plastics, and here’s what they said: “There is no PVC in the cup or any of its parts. The Cap, Lid, Spout and Handles are made of #5 Polypropylene. The Straw is made of LDPE #4.” (These are generally considered safer plastics; more info about these plastics by number and their safety is below.) We handwash this cup and have had no issues, really, outside of that small inconvenience. However, consumer complaints on Amazon indicate frustration about missing all the small pieces and parts, and a number of them raise an issue about a persistent, gross milk smell that seems related to bacteria trapped between the plastic cover and bottle, and that is not resolved by repeated trips through the dishwasher. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/Use: 2 = 8 out of 15.
  • Green Sprouts Stainless Steel Bottle: This is a basic stainless steel water bottle (the exclusively green one, above) with a plastic rubbery-spout. The spout is hard for Maya to use, as it requires considerable suction. The Green Sprouts company claims the product has “no BPA, PVC, Lead, or Phthalates,” which is nice, but does not identify the plastic (after an email, the customer service identified the plastic as PVC-free polypropylene and the spout as silicone). There is no information about the grade of stainless steel used in the cup, which feels thinner than the other cups. It can go in the dishwasher once the plastic top is removed, though a plastic ring remains. Most critically, when we first got this cup, Maya immediately plucked the inner part of the spout out of the middle with two fingers, and put it in her mouth. It’s a terrible shape and choking hazard, and easy to remove for a child, so it raises a serious safety concern, as reflected by other parent reviews on Amazon as well. Score: Environmental Health: 3 (unknown); Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 0 = 6 out of 15 but with a serious safety issue for young children.

Off my list entirely:

  • Sigg Aluminum bottles: Despite the really cute designs, these are aluminum bottles covered with a interior coating that Sigg refuses to identify, except to say as follows: “The new EcoCare liner by SIGG is comprised of many ingredients. The primary compounds utilized are a special combination of ultra-thin layer forming co-polyesters, many of which are commonly found in different variations across a variety of well-known food and beverage brand products. The materials used in producing the liner are BPA-Free and Phthalate-Free, as well as being free of any VOCs (volatile organic compounds).” Note PVC is not on this list of excluded plastics. Aluminum itself is not the safest ingredient, so you might also worry about scratches or erosion that uncover the metal. Moreover, Sigg basically deceived consumers a few years back about whether its bottles contained BPA in the lining, which they did prior to August 2008. Boo. (And Gaiam’s aluminum bottles were far worse on the BPA front, so they’re out too, in my mind.)
  • Think Baby and Green to Grow “better” plastic bottles: We’ve also now decided, down the road a bit, that the troubling 2011 study showing that endocrine disruptors (like BPA) leach from most plastic products (even ones labeled BPA-free) mean that we’re leaving plastic behind whenever we can. We handwashed and babied these, but now I wish I’d never gotten them in the first place. Still, if you want to go the plastic route, Think Baby in particular does seem like a better option than other plastic cups.

Does stainless steel leach?

Yes. A teensy amount of nickel and chromium (or at least cookware does when heated or scratched or both). While this is not likely a health issue so long as you do not have a nickel allergy, it’s not a great idea to store hot or warm items, or highly acidic items, in stainless steel. (This applies to cookware as well, obviously.)

What’s the problem with plastic?

After going to the grocery store tonight, I started thinking about how almost all our food is stored in plastic, so really, what’s the big deal? While it’s certainly not ideal that virtually all food is stored that way, the main issue with something like a sippy cup is that we repeatedly use it and will wash or put it in the dishwasher, exposing it to heat and wear that will cause it to leach chemicals if made of plastic.

Most of the plastic containers for food — i.e., yogurt, milk (yes, there’s polyethylene on the inside of cardboard milk containers, as a Horizon representative told me on the phone last week), etc, are marked 1, 2, or 5, as I’ve noticed through my odd habit of squinting at the bottom of random containers. These are generally considered safer plastics, but none are robust enough for repeated use.

Instead, the plastic that is sold for re-usable applications has generally been number 7, or polycarbonate, plastic, which can contain BPA. And even bottles and cups labeled “BPA-free” can leach endocrine disrupting chemicals. In addition, some manufacturers appear to have replaced BPA with something just as bad. Anyway, sippy cups are a durable item we can actually easily do something about, unlike almost everything else at the store. (Want to rid yourself of all that store-bought plastic too? Here’s a blogger who’s admirably trying.)

Resin identification code 2 ♴ for high density...

Resin identification code 2 ♴ for high density polyethylene (HDPE) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a quick summary of the safety and recycling of plastics-by-number (found in a small triangle on the bottom of bottles and other containers):

1) PETE, aka PET (polyethylene terephthalate): Used for most transparent bottles, such as water, soda, cooking oil, and medicine bottles. Generally safe to use (not reuse); generally recycled.

2) HDPE (high density polyethylene): Sturdy, rigid plastic found in reusable food storage containers, milk and detergent bottles. Generally safe; generally recycled.

3) PVC (polyvinyl chloride): Used for plastic wrap, and detergent and cooking oil bottles. Also used for water systems in households. Additives in PVC can increase the risk of birth defects and hormone- related cancers. Its production is hazardous to workers and the environment. Generally not safe; not recycled.

4) LDPE (low density polyethylene): Flexible plastic used for bags or wraps, such as produce bags and baby bottle liners. Most number 4 plastics are not designed for reuse. Generally safe; generally not recycled.

5) PPE, aka PP (polypropolene): Pliable plastic found in squeeze bottles, reusable food containers, and yogurt and margarine tubs. Generally safe; generally recycled.

6) PS (polystyrene): Used in rigid take out containers and foam meat trays. Can leach styrene when heated, a possible endocrine disrupter and human carcinogen. Not safe when heated; generally not recycled.

7) Other most often refers to PC (polycarbonate): This plastic is most commonly used for baby bottles, five gallon water jugs, and reusable sports water bottles. It can leach out the hormone disrupter bisphenol A, especially when heated. Because this group can include various other plastics, it has limited recycling potential.

Other Issues with Sippy Cups

Some dentists and speech pathologists do raise issues with sippy cups and speech development. Teaching children to drink from a straw is supposed to help, particularly if you are grappling with speech delays.

In addition, it’s best to stay on top of where the cups land if you don’t want your toddler rediscovering it a few days later and drinking its well-mellowed contents! And monitoring may pay off: a new study shows there are a substantial number of injuries from toddlers tripping while walking around with sippy cups and bottles and taking it in the teeth.

The other major issue I feel obliged to flag, given my recent post on bottle feeding and obesity, is what goes in the cup. We stay away almost entirely from refined or extra sugar in Maya’s diet, including juice. Instead, she drinks water and milk and has never yet been made aware that beverages can be full of what she always calls (with an almost mystical look of bliss on her face) “suuugar.”

Sippy cups, to the extent that they are highly convenient sugar-delivery devices, are likely problematic mostly for this reason, so (if it’s not too late), you may want to attempt the cruel but effective total denial strategy we’ve used, which has worked fairly well.

My rating system for a score of 0 to 15:

Environmental Health:

  • 5 = no chemicals of concern and no plastic
  • 4 = no chemicals of concern / plastics considered safer & outside areas of use
  • 3 = no chemicals of concern / some safer plastics in areas for use
  • 2 = some chemicals of concern near areas of accessibility and use
  • 1 = serious chemicals of concern in accessible area
  • 0 = outright hazard to health

Transparency:

  • 5 = information about components and plastics fully presented on company Web site
  • 4 = information about components and plastics partially presented on company Web site
  • 3 = information not on Web site, but fully answered upon email inquiry
  • 2 = information not on Web site, and only partially answered by email inquiry
  • 1 = response to email, limited or no information provided
  • 0 = no email response

Durability and Use:

  • 5 = No consumer complaints on durability, safety or ease of use
  • 4 = Few or insignificant consumer complaints on durability or ease of use
  • 3 = Some consumer complaints; durability or ease of use only
  • 2 = Significant consumer complaints; durability or ease of use only
  • 1 = Consumer complaints raising safety risks
  • 0 = Alarming information showing lack of safety of product

###

I hope this is helpful to you!

Anyone looking for information on baby bottles and feeding issues should check out this useful summary of tips from the Environmental Working Group. And here’s another sippy cup review from MightyNest, which sells many of these options.

I’d love feedback on this new rating system, which I hope to use with other products as well, and if you had a different experience with these cups, do tell.

Also, please do feel free to add your own ratings of sippy cups you’ve used with a brief explanation in the comments. I’m sure I’ve missed some of the options out there, and folks will be very interested in your experience and views, as this question comes up a lot!

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5 Myths About Toxics and What to Do About the Truth

Myth #1: There is a big laboratory in Washington which tests products for safety and bans unsafe stuff. After all, they wouldn’t be able to sell it if it wasn’t safe.

The sad, sad truth: There isn’t much oversight, really. A few government agencies (the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency) have responsibility over toys, food, and chemicals, respectively. But there are not many standards that apply before a product is sold.

Unlike for prescription drugs, where at least pharmaceutical companies have to make a showing that a drug works and is safe, for most things sold in the U.S. there is no pre-market obligation to show it’s safe and healthy to use.

On chemicals, the laws have not been updated since the 1970s, and were too weak to begin with. Laws like the Clean Water Act are showing their age – since, just for example, thanks to an enterprising high school student, we now know there are birth control pills, antibiotics and other trace pharmaceuticals in all of our water, and no real effort to get them out. Food oversight, as Obama remarked to hearty guffaws last year, is spread across a dizzying array of different agencies.

And the standards for what can be sold – much less what is considered safe – also vary widely. What with their lobbying and political power, and the revolving door, companies play the agencies like so many broken fiddles. And when Congress tries to step up, the industry swarms all over Capitol Hill like dollar bills over an investment banker.

In fact, the only place in across all of the law that imposes a general duty for manufacturers to care about what happens to consumers (called the “duty of care”) is when some injured family sues them for negligence. That’s why companies malign “trial lawyers” so much, and conservative courts and legislatures work to drastically curtail so-called “punitive” damages (that is, the amount of money the company should pay so that they won’t repeat the bad behavior, in addition to paying back the mere peanuts typically owed an injured person).

Other than taking them to court when you or someone you love has been hurt, which is, let’s face it, an important, though depressing and inadequate, after-the-fact way of paying medical bills following a human-caused tragedy, all we have are the government’s weak and inadequate rules. And there’s no laboratory in the sky there, believe me.

If you’re overwhelmed by this fact, be aware that both Europe and Canada have more protective rules on chemicals, and the European Union’s system does require a showing of safety for some chemicals, which is a major step in the right direction. (In fact, we now see companies selling stuff here in the U.S. that they can’t in Europe due to its stronger laws.) So there is a clear path forward, if we could only get our dunderheaded political system to unlock itself.

And small steps can make a huge difference. For some chemicals, Bisphenol-A, for example, we know that reducing exposure leads to a clear drop in the chemical’s presence in humans. So whenever we do take action, the effects will be immediate.

Myth #2: Pollution is out there, in the burning river. Or in the Superfund site, over in that other town.

Not true, and we should have asked Fido and Fluffy. The scope and intensity of indoor environmental pollution also has been a bit of a shock to researchers, who in 2008, for example, tested cats and dogs and found disturbing levels of flame retardants (23 times higher than people), teflon, and mercury.

So-called “body burden” studies of people measuring chemicals in their blood tell us that we have dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of chemicals in our bodies today that our great-grandparents did not.

In fact, we now know that man-made environments are frequently toxic. Just stop and think for a moment about the number of highly engineered products in your home: the upholstered furniture, paint, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, processed foods, mattresses, your dry-cleaning hang in the closet, all of the plastic containers and bottles, the electronics doused in flame retardants and filled with heavy metals. Now think about how much of that was in a home a scant one hundred years ago.

When NASA designed vehicles in which to take people into space back in the 1970s, it had to commission an engineer to work on innovative strategies to de-toxify that closed space, to ensure it was habitable due to the off-gassing of the materials used to build the spacecraft. Now, it’s clear that we’re all on that spacecraft.

The truth is that we’re in the midst of a massive experiment in genetics and chemistry. We are largely guessing about the effects of many of these chemicals on humans, as the science to tell us what we are doing to ourselves is still under development, and we have very little idea of how the chemicals do and could interact with each other in the environment.

In the face of such uncertainty, perhaps we’d all do better to open our windows a little more, consume a little less of what we don’t really need, and look for simpler ingredients in every category of thing we buy. And be very careful while pregnant.

And, in the face of such uncertainty, it’s really not too much to ask that chemicals that are not proven to be safe be kept out of the food supply, out of other consumer goods, and away from our families.

Myth #3: Only big doses of toxic chemicals can hurt us.

One stalling tactic of chemical companies is to argue about something called the “dose-response relationship.” What they mean is that studies of rats taking really high doses of some chemical or other do not accurately predict what will happen to humans who may have far smaller amounts of that chemical in their bodies.

Unfortunately for their theories, the science is often more complicated than that defensive poo-poohing of our legitimate concerns. What researchers have discovered very recently is that tiny amounts of certain types of chemicals – in particular, the ones that act like hormones in the human body (called “endocrine disruptors”) – are strongly linked to particular effectsBisphenol-A is one of these kinds of chemicals, as are pthalates, which are in a lot of plastics and fragrances.

In addition, low doses may cause the body to act differently than high doses.  And to complicate matters even further, small exposures to a chemical during a crucial stage of development, such as pregnancy, or even infancy (think: an 8-pound baby), may have impacts that forever impact health.

When we just put chemicals, willy-nilly, into the environment, we can’t control how and when a pregnant woman may be exposed. So instead we ask whether a chemical will impact a developing person in the same way as a mouse. Sorry, um, I have an issue with that. And with the dubious ethics of continued exposure in face of evidence of harm.

Of course, we should also care about how higher doses of chemicals will impact workers, like those in factories and nail salons, or even the visibly pregnant cashier I spoke to last week at my neighborhood café about handling hundreds of receipts and dollar bills per day covered in unbound BPA. They took her off the register after my conversation with her (and now she smiles at me when I come in), but what about the woman with that same job in the next town?

Myth #4: The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

You might think that flame retardants in the foam and fabric of your sofa would stay put – that is, unless your 18-month old rips a big hole in your cheapo leather chair, as mine did last week. Still, like you, we have no plans to eat the upholstery.

But body burden testing and tests of indoor air pollution and household dust reveal that flame retardants and other chemicals disintegrate and migrate from the inside of things to the floor. Once on the floor, it gets into the dust, the air and on our clothes. And into the bodies of pregnant women, where it impacts their thyroid.

In California, which has absurd rules that require nearly everything under the West Coast sun to have chemically toxic flame retardants in it (a rule brought back every year from the brink of extinction by a shadowy frontgroup for the chemical manufacturers), Mexican-American children have 7 times the amount of flame retardants in their bodies than do children in Mexico. Really.

Is it because Californian children eat the upholstery alongside their tofu? Um, doubtful. Its more likely from skin, butter, air, breastmilk, hand-to-mouth contact, and er, being a child.

And how did BPA get in the urine of 93 percent of all of us, anyhow? Were we all chewing on can liners and clear plastic water bottles? Well… maybe sometimes. The FDA may be a little confused on this point, but the National Institutes for Health seem to know the answer, and really, the notion that we can just tell something to stay put and hope that it listens to us is a fiction all of us parents have to get over pretty quickly. It’s long past time the regulators did as well.

Myth #5: Our cupboards are full of organic flax seed and fair trade, shade-grown coffee. We’ll be fine.

I’m actually a big believer in voting with your dollars, as you can afford to, for better toys, cleaners, furniture, and food. Our farmer’s market is a regular destination, and I ask questions about everything from environmental health to safety (see the Letters tab for a selection of my persnickety questions). And choosing organic food makes a big difference in whether you’re eating pesticides, as I’ll cover in a future post.

But, as I told the New York Times, we can’t shop our way to a solution here. I’ll be posting about all my difficulties in trying to eliminate as many toxins as we can, and how some can’t be avoided altogether. Even then, these kinds of steps only protect the families of the folks who have the time and money to work this hard, and most people’s children would remain exposed. So there’s a major social class and environmental justice problem.

When the issues are this complex, and this ubiquitous, and the public health costs this serious, that’s when government should step in and do its job. So far, the results of our current standards are not promising in the U.S. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to get the Congress to demand action on chemicals and unsafe products.

As of today, Congress may be about to punt on chemical reform. Again.  And you’ve read this far. So call or write them and tell them that’s not ok with you.

Just to be helpful, here is a Handy-Dandy Summary of the Myths and my (twisted) Version of the Facts on Chemicals:

 

Myth

 

Fact

 

1)    They can’t sell it unless it’s safe.

 

 

Puh-lease, girl.

 

 

 2)    Pollution is “out there.”

 

 

Chemicals are here, and in us.

 

3)    Only big doses count.

 

 

Little exposures matter more than we knew.

 

4)    The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

 

 

Stuff moves around: in the air, in dust, and in our food.

 

5) You’re really scaring me, so grab the credit card, and let’s shop our way out of this. Where do I start?

 

Put that credit card down. Pick up the phone instead and call Congress to ask them to reform the chemical safety laws that should protect everyone.