By Courtney Helgoe, Experience Life
Of all the personal-care products sold in the United States, 99 percent of the chemical ingredients have never been tested for safety, despite research showing long-term health risks (including melanoma, breast cancer, and fertility challenges) associated with some of these compounds.
With a little knowledge and some label decoding, we can all get smart about what we put on our skin, minimizing our risks before problems arise and enjoying better peace of mind in the process. But first, we have to understand why so many of the products we’ve long assumed to be safe might not be.
The U.S. government has an extensive inspection and regulatory system, operated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), designed to protect consumers from tainted food, so it’s natural to assume a similar system exists to monitor body-care products. But, in fact, the government essentially allows the cosmetics industry to police itself.
It’s left up to an industry trade group called the Personal Care Product Council (PCPC), which claims that its research branch, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, is every bit as thorough as any government regulatory agency.
This type of industry oversight wasn’t nearly enough to appease the European Union. In 2004, it banned 1,100 suspect ingredients from personal-care products, and because some of those ingredients were commonly used in U.S. goods, American manufacturers have had to scramble to reformulate many products destined for the European market.
The EU long ago adopted what’s known as the Precautionary Principle, which states that something must be considered potentially dangerous until it’s been proven safe. Here in the United States, our regulatory agencies have taken the opposite tack, preferring to assume that something can be considered safe as long as it’s not been proven dangerous.
There are, however, nonprofit organizations that have stepped into the regulatory breach. The watchdog group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics was formed in 2002 to monitor health risks in body-care products and has partnered with the Environmental Working Group, a respected Washington, D.C.–based research organization, to test common ingredients for their possible long-term effects. They discovered that 99 percent of the products on the market contain one or more ingredients that “have never been publicly assessed for safety.”
They also found that many common ingredients, like parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrance, were all likely culprits in a number of health problems, ranging from increased skin sensitivity and allergies to infertility, birth defects and cancer. (Read more in the article 7 ingredients to avoid.)
Meanwhile, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics maintains a searchable database called Skin Deep (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com), where consumers can find safety ratings for specific products and brands. With that tool and the willingness to weigh their own risks, consumers stand a much better chance of protecting themselves from problem ingredients.
Next: Why we’re actually more vulnerable to toxins on our skin than to those in our food
Control Your Exposure
It’s natural to assume that products like lotion or sunscreen, which stay on the surface of the body, would be less cause for concern than, say, food additives, but the skin is much more porous than we realize. We’re actually more vulnerable to toxins on our skin than to those in our food notes Samuel Epstein, MD, professor emeritus of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Chicago.
“Toxic ingredients applied to the skin bypass liver enzymes,” he explains, noting that the digestive system is designed to process toxins before they enter the bloodstream. By contrast, products that penetrate the skin — many of which contain synthetic “penetration enhancers” so they don’t leave a greasy residue — can proceed directly into the circulatory system and make their way, unhindered, into our organs. Technically, we might be safer eating toxic lotion than wearing it.
Two types of suspect personal-care ingredients have been researched fairly extensively: parabens, a common synthetic preservative; and phthalates, a plasticizing agent used in nail polish and synthetic fragrances (as well as in shower curtains and plastic toys). In one 2004 British study, intact parabens, a suspected hormone disruptor that mimics estrogen in the body, were found in biopsies of malignant breast tumors, leading researchers to conclude that the chemical was absorbed through the skin, rather than through the digestive system (where parabens are metabolized and degraded, becoming less like estrogen, before they are excreted in the urine). The likely culprit: deodorants and antiperspirants.
Phthalates have been shown to disrupt the production of fetal testosterone. A 2005 study at the University of Rochester, New York, conducted by epidemiologist Shanna Swan, PhD, tested the phthalate levels of pregnant women and found those women with the highest levels in their urine were also the most likely to have boys with incomplete genital development. Other studies conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health showed that adult men with higher levels of phthalates (in particular dibutyl phthalate) had lower sperm counts.
PCPC disputes these findings and claims that the phthalates in cosmetics have a “long and safe history of use,” according to a statement on its Web site. The industry group also argues that consumers are “routinely exposed” to these chemicals in the natural and man-made environment.
Very few of us use sunscreen alone. We use moisturizers, hair products and all kinds of other products each day. “A little bit of hormone-disrupting chemicals mixed with carcinogenic contaminants in the shampoo, the bubble bath and the body wash add up — day in and day out,” says Stacy Malkan, cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face (New Society, 2007).
Each day, says Malkan, the average woman in the United States uses a dozen personal-care products — from shampoo and deodorant to lotion and body wash — containing an average of 168 chemical ingredients. Men use about half a dozen.
That’s a lot of daily exposure to chemicals. It also means that simply consolidating your body-care routine to include fewer products, or selectively replacing the riskier products that you use most often, can significantly reduce your exposure.
What to Do?
Your best bet when shopping for body-care products is to scrutinize ingredient labels and keep a keen eye out for some of the most problematic substances: parabens, phthalates, synthetic fragrance, nanoparticles and ethoxylated ingredients.
While everyday products may have the most profound cumulative effect on your health, many “occasional” beauty rituals have some of the highest-known risk factors. Think chemical hair dyes that sit directly on your scalp (highlights can be a moderately safer option; natural henna is the safest) and any skin lighteners that contain the chemical hydroquinone, which is a neurotoxin (there are natural options that use vitamin C if you’re really determined to go after dark spots). Solvent-based nail polishes contain dibutyl phthalate, toluene (a solvent and neurotoxin) and formaldehyde; you’re better off replacing them with a water-based alternative.
Some resourceful people choose to bypass the uncertainties of the manufacturing process and make their own body-care products. Kitchen recipes for personal-care products abound online.
The goal, of course, is to reduce your ongoing exposure to potential hazards, not relocate your life to a sterilized, toxin-free bubble. You may decide to scrap everything in your bathroom and start from the tile up, or cut the number of products you use in half and reduce your exposure accordingly, or simply replace the most identifiably risky of your daily go-tos.
Whatever you decide to do, keep in mind that you don’t have to give up quality and effectiveness for safety — and that beauty is even more magnificent when paired with good health.