It all started with vanity: I hadn’t meant to change my purchasing practices or become a “label-reader,” that’s just how it turned out.
One day I decided that I wanted to have my dream hair: long, full, and healthily growing out of my own scalp. I did some research and joined an online community of women interested in growing longer and healthier hair. Naturally, much of the discussion on these forums is about the various products and concoctions that have worked or not worked on each person’s “hair journey.”
There was always a new ingredient to look for, or rather look out for, and soon a list of products containing said ingredient would be compiled. Soon I began to notice that women were looking for “paraben free” products. Not knowing what a paraben was, but assuming it couldn’t be good, I did a quick Google search and found that parabens are cheap preservatives used in cosmetics and personal care products, and that exposure to its various forms have been linked to breast cancer. Taking a look at the commercial hair products I already owned, not a single one was free of parabens.
The search for “sulfate free” shampoos was another common source of discussion on the hair boards. Sulfates, such as the popular sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), and ammonium laureth sulfate, are detergents: they create that satisfying foam and lather you get when you brush your teeth, use soap, do laundry, or wash your hair.
Most disturbing, the power of SLS as a detergent is so strong that it is also used as an engine degreaser. In addition to being very harsh, drying, and sometimes irritating to the hair and skin, sulfates have been linked to some pretty scary health effects.
SLS is in a class of chemicals called endocrine disruptors, which are chemicals that mimic the activity of sex hormones, such as estrogen. These chemicals interfere with the sex hormones in your body and are associated with male and female infertility, male sex organ abnormalities, early onset of puberty in females, and increased rates of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Many nail polish brands contain formaldehyde, and many shampoos and conditioners contain formaldehyde-releasing chemicals. Even many products labeled “botanical” or “natural” contain toxic or irritating chemicals, usually in the form of detergents, preservatives, or the mysterious “fragrance,” which can refer to a myriad of different compounds and chemicals not required to be disclosed as they are considered a trade secret.
Furthermore, there are toxic chemicals that can affect your reproductive health and fertility hiding in the things that you use almost every day, such as your plastic tupperware, water bottles, canned foods and beverages, vinyl shower curtains, and disturbingly, even in your wine. Yes, your wine. Plastic stoppers in wine bottles can contain BPA, but also, wine ferments in vats that are often lined with resin or epoxy.
Epoxy (and the resin that lines metal cans) contains a toxic chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA), which is also an endocrine disruptor. Just as with canned foods, BPA leaches into the contents, but the acidic nature of wine allows toxins to leach into the liquid more rapidly than if water were in the same container.
Upon discovering this information, my first thought was, how can this be? If these chemicals are known to cause harm, why are they allowed to be used in the products I use every single day? Surely, I thought, the government had rules about this kind of thing.
It turns out the current law, known as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), has not been updated in 33 years and does not give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority it needs to oversee the safety of chemicals in everyday products or to hold industry accountable for testing the chemicals they manufacture. The result: many of the chemicals used in our everyday products have not been tested for safety and continue to remain on the market.
TSCA reform is desperately needed because, as you’ll discover when you take a look at the ingredients lists in your bathroom and kitchen cabinets, you can’t shop your way out of exposure to toxic chemicals, especially since manufacturers arenĺt required to tell you what’s in their products in the first place.
Since the FDA, not the EPA, regulates cosmetics, regulation of many of our personal care products would not be improved by TSCA reform alone. In order to have more comprehensive reform, we need to also ask Congress to give the FDA the authority to ensure that our cosmetics are safe. More regulation from both the EPA and FDA is needed to ensure that consumers are safe when using all products, whether they are necessities, for personal hygiene, or purely cosmetic.
Change needs to come from the companies themselves, and they aren’t going to make any changes unless the government or your absent dollars tell them to.
To give credit where credit is due, there are a few companies that dedicate themselves to natural, non-toxic ingredients, such as Giovanni Cosmetics, Aubrey Organics, and Dr. Bronners. To find out more about the safety of your cosmetics and personal care products check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, or the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. For more information about the movement to strengthen chemical policy, check out Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
It’s hard to believe that the search for the perfect conditioner led me to so much information about the dangers of everyday products or to changes in my personal life. These days I try to be as conscientious about my purchases and practices as I can. This means seeking out more natural (and often inexpensive) alternatives to commercial products, such as using apple cider vinegar to prevent razor bumps, using extra virgin pure coconut oil as a skin and hair moisturizer, or using concentrated castile soaps to create my own shampoos, body washes, or even laundry soap.
When possible, I make sure not to reheat my food in plastic tupperware, and I keep a reusable stainless steel/BPA free water bottle with me in my purse. When I do buy new products, I always check the label first. I’m not perfect, and every now and then I do purchase products that contain some not-so-great ingredients because I haven’t found safer replacements for them.
But I shouldn’t have to be an amateur chemist to buy laundry detergent: chemicals that are thought to be harmful should not be able to make it to our grocery store shelves. Stronger chemical laws will keep me, you and our families safer. So, together, let’s send a message to Washington and demand chemical policy reform.
And in the meantime, take action to protect yourself by banning these seven ingredients from your bathroom.