The cosmetics/personal care aisle of Whole Foods or a health-food store is the unlikely intersection between seemingly conflicting impulses: the impulse to look good and the impulse to do good. After all, how nice does it feel to buy a product that makes you look better, sounds healthy and seems like it doesn’t hurt the environment? It feels pretty darn nice.
But the truth is you can’t believe all of what you read or see here, either. Most people know that food and drugs are regulated, so they assume that the ingredients in personal care and beauty products are as well. But that’s not so. According to Stacy Malkan, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “Few safety studies exist for most of the toxic chemicals in use.” That means that paying attention to your choice of personal care products is your responsibility.
Personal care products that you put on your face, hands, hair, or body go right through your skin and get absorbed into your tissue and bloodstream. “Synthetic chemicals from personal care [products] show up in blood tests. They show up in urine tests. And absorption occurs even with products like shampoos that you rinse off promptly,” Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst at Skin Deep, the product and ingredient database created by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), told TakePart. “Plus, most people are exposed to a range of products over and over, often on a daily basis.”
Skin absorption is just one entry route for the 200-plus common chemicals the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that most people harbor in their bodies. The upside is that personal care is a route you can control by choosing which products to use.
Why bother? Because many of these same chemicals are linked to health problems. Let’s take just one disease—breast cancer—as an example. Since researchers first began collecting data, these rates have risen steadily. According to a report conducted by the Breast Cancer Fund, rates of the disease have increased over 40 percent in the 25 years between 1973 and 1998, with rising incidence in younger women over the last decade. But cancer is not merely a case of bad luck or bad genes. The President’s Cancer Panel Report of 2009 uncovered what it called “the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer,” noting many “exposures that could have been prevented.” Much more research is needed to establish whether or not these toxins actually lead to cancer or other disorders.
So how do you choose wisely when many products labeled “healthy” or “natural” contain synthetic chemicals that contribute to allergies, cancer, and more, as well as environmental damage? For instance, Clairol Herbal Essences, one of the most popular shampoos, was able to claim it offered an “organic experience,” even though, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, it contained “more than a dozen synthetic petrochemicals.” Malkan explains that, “unlike the organic seal for food, for personal care and cosmetics, there is no regulation or standard for what can be labeled ‘natural,’ ‘healthy,’ or ‘hypo-allergenic.’ The companies producing these products just use these terms for marketing no matter what’s in a product, and no one is overseeing that.”
We’ve compared a few products in the “natural” category to see how they fared when it came down to being as healthful as they claimed to be:
BAD CHOICE: Hemp Hydrating Shampoo
EWG Score: 9 (the group gives its worst rating, “High Hazard,” to products with a rating of 7 to 10)
Amazon reviewers enthused that this product smells “delicious and organic, kind of like a homemade hippie soap.” But it’s rare that either homemade or organic soaps would include substances containing formaldehyde or oxtinoxate (which risks “developmental or reproductive toxicity”).
GOOD CHOICE: Healing-Scents Shampoo/Body Wash, Basic Formula
EWG Score: 0
This shampoo is basically castile soap with a little lavender oil and water. Effective, not fancy and toxin-free!
EWG Score: 5
Though it’s one of the top 50 beauty products sold on Amazon, this moisturizer contains mineral oil (toxic to some bodily organs), fragrance mix, and propylene glycol, an immune system-challenging chemical that enhances absorption of its ingredients. Pass!
GOOD CHOICE: Zosimos Botanicals Restorative Facial Moisturizer
EWG Score: 0
With aloe vera gel, Tamanu seed oil, and marine collagen as its top three ingredients, this product is good for your skin and good for the inner you. Look for it at health food stores.
Shower Wash/ Liquid Soap
BAD CHOICE: The Body Shop Mango Shower Gel
EWG Score: 7
It’s surprising that this iconic “healthy” brand contains ingredients associated with endocrine (hormone) disruption, allergies, and damage to the immune system.
GOOD CHOICE: Enkido Sensitive Kids 3-in-1 Wash
EWG Score: 0
This is a perfect example of a truly non-toxic product: This wash is formulated entirely with plant-based and non-toxic ingredients, and though it’s for kids, grown-ups can use it as well.
You should also consider whether you really need to buy separate face, body, hand, eye, foot, and cuticle moisturizers and other products. “Companies urge us to feel that we ‘need” many different kinds of products,” says Stacy Malkan, but we can minimize our exposure to harmful ingredients by picking a few well-formulated products that can multitask. “Relying on simple products with limited ingredients is the best way to limit your exposure to toxins,” she notes.
Check the Skin Deep database for any products you own or are considering buying. The EWG’s researchers have evaluated every ingredient in a wide range of personal care and beauty products and scored them on how they measure up against research about health risks. “People have to choose [products] according to their own comfort level, but most prefer products in the zero to two range,” reports Alex Formuzis, vice president of media relations at EWG. And if you’d like to urge the federal government to study and regulate chemicals so that we don’t have to do all this guesswork, go to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
What are your favorite toxin-free (or nearly so) products?
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Alison Rose Levy has covered health, food, and the environment on Huffington Post, AlterNet, PsychologyToday, and Intent.com. The writer of two best-selling health books, Alison talks to health and eco leaders on her weekly radio program, Connect the Dots on the Progressive Radio Network. @alisonroselevy | TakePart.com