What toxics and harmful chemicals lurk on our bathroom shelves?
I know Iâ€™m late to this party (like, by many years). But, Iâ€™m done with my brand name shampoo.
My colleagues and I have thought a lot over the years about toxics and how to keep them out of our food and our bodies. But I must admit Iâ€™ve remained a stubborn hold-out when it comes to a lot of my toiletries and cosmeticsâ€”hair products, lipstick, lotions, soaps, etc. Iâ€™ve allowed myself to ignore harmful ingredients in the name of vanity or convenience or price. Iâ€™m usually a pretty savvy consumer, but when it comes to personal care products, Iâ€™ve also allowed myself to be greenwashed (excuse the pun).
Hereâ€™s what happened recently to get me thinking more seriously now about the toxics and harmful chemicals on my bathroom shelves:
Heading out for a long weekend in the sun, I chastised my husband (yes, sometimes Iâ€™m like that) for picking up the cheapest sunscreen at the drug store (to his credit, heâ€™s frugal). Knowing what harmful chemicals lurk in most mainstream sunscreens, the garish red and yellow bottle screamed â€œtoxicâ€ to me. So, I marched back into the store and bought sunscreen in a bottle that cooed â€œnaturalâ€â€”a mossy green number with a leafy motif and a reassuringly crunchy brand name, and claims in soothing pale yellow script about special herbal ingredients. I felt better about putting this stuff on my toddlerâ€™s sweet little face. When I got back to the car, my better half inspected the ingredient list and laughed, â€œItâ€™s the same stuff in a different colored bottle.â€
I was hoodwinked. I paid twice as much for the exact same chemical brew, with some trace of herb added only for marketing purposes.
A couple days later, I happened to hear Siobhan Oâ€™Connor and Alexandra Spunt on the radio talking about their book, No More Dirty Looks, a treatise on how the US (and Canadian) cosmetics industryâ€”shockingly unregulatedâ€”gets away with selling us products with ingredients that can harm our health and our looks. (They also recommend lots of alternatives to buy and make yourself).
I got the book from the library, started my (incredulous) reading, spent way too much time poking around the Internet (found Annie Leonard and Ask Umbra being smart about cosmetics back in 2010), and commenced scrutinizing ingredient lists on everything in my bathroom.
The upshot: Iâ€™m going clean. Here are some of the ugly truths that have spurred me on:
- Research by the Environmental Working Group shows that personal care productsâ€”from deodorants and lotions, to make-up and even baby shampoosâ€”contain chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, skin problems, and other health effects.
- In fact, one in eight of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, and hormone disruptors.
- More specifically, at least 1 in 5 personal care products contain chemicals linked to cancer (some say as many as 1 in 3), 80 percent contain ingredients that commonly contain hazardous impurities (a.k.a. byproducts not required to be listed on ingredient lists), and 56 percent contain â€œpenetration enhancersâ€ that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skinâ€”and into your body.
- The cosmetics and personal care industries are basically self-regulating. Due to lax laws dating back to 1938, the Food and Drug Administration (which has an Office of Cosmetics and Colors) does not have the legal authority to review or regulate products before they are sold. They do not test personal-care products for safety before they hit the market nor require companies to test or provide safety data about their products. The FDA has little power to recall dangerous products. (What the FDA can do is conduct studies. Theyâ€™ve been measuring 1,4 dioxane levels since 1979, for example, and since 2000 have issued feeble recommendations that manufacturers voluntarily reduce 1,4 dioxane limits.)
Voluntary industry safeguards arenâ€™t working very well. Only 11 percent of chemical ingredients in cosmetics have been assessed for health and safety by the industryâ€™s self-policing safety panel. (Mostly they test for short term affects like rashes.)
- In the 1970s, the 1980s, and again in 2013(and lots of years in between), US lawmakers have introduced legislation to make personal care products safer. The cosmetic industry trade organization has fought hard against these measures and they havenâ€™t gone anywhere. Weâ€™re exactly where we were in the 1930s, except with lots more chemicals to work with.
- Canadian laws are stricter than American laws, but mostly they follow the FDAâ€™s lead. To their credit, the Canadian government recently created a Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist that includes hundreds of prohibited and restricted chemicals and contaminants such as formaldehyde, triclosan, nitrosamines and 1,4-dioxaneâ€”all of which are allowed in US products.
- Europe has banned over one thousand ingredients for use in personal care products. The US has banned only ten in almost as many decades.
- Words used on product labels such as â€œorganic,â€ â€œnatural,â€ and even â€œcertified hypo-allergenic,â€ actually have no legal meaning. In practice they usually mean nothing.
- This gross stuff wends its way into our bodies. A number of studies have shown that the man-made chemicals in our environment and in consumer productsâ€”including cosmeticsâ€”show up in our â€œbody burden.â€ Many of the chemicals found in cosmetics are absorbed by the skin into the body, and can be detected in blood or urine.
- The thinking has been that personal products only deliver low doses of these toxics, so we shouldnâ€™t worry about it. It turns out that the dose doesnâ€™t make the poison. Low doses may even have more impact than high doses. Plus, weâ€™re using all kinds of different products on a daily basis. Things add up. Plus, the timing of exposure mattersâ€”crucial times are prenatal, during certain stages of childhood development, and during puberty, but adults are vulnerable too.
- Itâ€™s not just human damage. Personal care products are chock full of chemicals that act like estrogen and can harm wildlife. A 2004 study found that 57 percent of all products contain paraben preservatives, nearly 2 percent contain surfactants called alkylphenols and just over 2 percent contain estrogenic sunscreen ingredients.
It turns out a lot of my stuff is packed with chemicals with sinister sounding names I canâ€™t pronounce. The worst offenders are products I was convinced I needed: the expensive conditioner and styling goop my hairdresser recommends, the perfect shade of long-lasting (read: extra toxic) lipstick.
Greenwashed by Baby Wash. Photo: Anna Fahey.
Guess what? Thereâ€™s lead in most lipstick. Thatâ€™s a proven neurotoxin and Iâ€™m putting it on my mouth! In fact, in a 2011 study, 400 lipsticks were found to contain lead. Another study this year found that a wide range of brands contain as many as eight other metals, from cadmium to aluminum. Many people apply their lipstick more than 20 times a day. And the problem here is that metals tend to accumulate in the bodyâ€”especially bad for pregnant women and their offspring.
What makes me feel even worse is that thereâ€™s nasty stuff in my daughterâ€™s baby shampoo. Just like the sunscreen, I bought it because it claimed to be more natural. On the bottle it says â€œnatural oat formula.â€ The brand, Aveeno, is marketed as natural and earth-friendly. They tout their use of â€œonly high-quality natural ingredientsâ€”grown in regions that provide an ideal environment for the plant to thrive and produce beneficial ACTIVE NATURALSÂ® ingredients.â€ Whatever â€œactive naturalsâ€ are, one gets the impression that this is pure and healthy stuff. (Check out their ingredients page).
But the ingredients list on the bottle tells a different story. Yes, thereâ€™s a miniscule amount of avena sativa kernel extract in thereâ€”thatâ€™s oats. Otherwise, the stuff is chock full of laboratory chemicals. When I began searching these ingredients online, I ran across a class action by some parents in New Jersey against Johnson & Johnsonâ€”Aveenoâ€™s parent company. Like me, these folks were misled by the claims on the bottle only to find the stuff contained the exact same suspect synthetic and chemical ingredients found in regular shampoos, including some of the worst byproducts like 1, 4 dioxane and Quaternium 15 which releases formaldehyde, both known carcinogens.
Yuck. And thatâ€™s just the carcinogens! There are also ingredients Iâ€™m putting on my kidâ€™s headâ€”and in her bath water (which she sometimes drinks!)â€”linked to â€œorgan system toxicity,â€ and others that are likely endocrine disruptors linked to reproductive and genital abnormalities.
I am a terrible parent.
As Iâ€™ve pointed out, these crazy ingredients are not unique to my daughterâ€™s shampoo. Theyâ€™re in mine too. Theyâ€™re everywhere!
There are a couple reasons to single Aveeno out here, even though there are lots of similar lines marketed to people like me, that is, anybody willing to pay a premium for a pretty bottle and sense of (false) security. As mentioned, this is a product I was slathering all over my daughter. It happens to be made in Canada. Andâ€”and hereâ€™s some good newsâ€”prompted by growing concerns raised by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and other citizen groups, Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Aveeno, Neutrogena, and Johnsonâ€™s Baby Shampoo, have announced that they will be removing carcinogens and other toxic chemicals from their baby and adult products globally.
That means that pressure from consumers can be successful. Itâ€™s good reason not only to rid your medicine cabinet of toxic stuff but also to demand accountability from manufacturers and policymakers for getting harmful substances out of our cosmetics and personal care products once and for all. Here are some resources for doing both:
- Check the products you have and ones youâ€™re thinking of buying on Environmental Working Groupâ€™s Skin Deep database.
- Familiarize yourself with the worst offenders. Hereâ€™s David Suzukiâ€™s handy list of the â€˜dirty dozenâ€™ chemicals to avoid. Parabens are endocrine disruptors and may be linked to breast cancer. Phthalates can cause reproductive problems. Petrochemicals are, well, petrochemicals. They come under all kinds of nicer sounding monikers. Sodium laureth sulfate and sister chems usually come with carcinogenic bi-products. Anything with â€œfragranceâ€ can contain a slew of nasty chemicals that go unnamed because of trade secret protections. Remember that certain chemicals are listed under numerous different (sometimes sneaky) names.
- You can find all kinds of inexpensive and effective alternatives at your health food store or co-op. In doing so youâ€™ll be supporting more sustainable small businesses. (For the truly adventurous: Make your own). Oâ€™Connor and Spunt are convinced youâ€™ll actually look better when you rid your skin and hair care regime of drying, irritating, harmful chemicals.
- Ask your legislators to act (letâ€™s let the FDA do their job protecting us). Put pressure on retailers to clean up their shelves. And demand safe products from the big beauty corporations. You can learn about whatâ€™s happening and how to get involved by checking out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
Originally published at Sightline Daily.