I’m attached to my products. My pink toenail polish and a tiny bottle of Channel # 5 I only use on special occasions. I even have a prescription for Retin-A, so I kinda feel like a hypocrite writing about toxic skin care. I’m pushing past it, though, because I think it’s important that everyone knows there’s no one checking our products for safety. That’s our responsibility as consumers.
FDA-Regulated, Not FDA-Approved
“FDA-regulated does not mean FDA-approved. FDA does not have the legal authority to approve cosmetics before they go on the market, although we do approve color additives used in them (except coal tar hair dyes),” according to the FDA. “Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA.”
Companies must label products correctly, and they cannot obviously harm the user through burns or rashes, etc. But skin is our largest organ, and it’s permeable, which means what we put on our skin can sink into our bodies. It’s easy to prove that a product is burning your skin or causing a rash, it’s much harder to prove that a product is disrupting your hormones.
The Environmental Working Group
The cosmetics and personal care industry uses thousands of ingredients that have potential health concerns. But all ingredients are not required to be disclosed on the label. That’s why organizations like the Environmental Working Group are essential. The EWG Skin Deep database that lists the potential hazard of the ingredients in more than 70,000 personal care products. The EWG app lets you scan a product’s barcode to show you the score. Before I buy new products, I either run them through the app (when I’m at the store) or through the Skin Deep database when I buy on Amazon. There’s also an EWG Verified section that shows you what’s EWG approved. It’s not a huge list, which is a little worrisome.
The EWG is great, but they don’t list everything that’s out there. I scanned 11 products in my shower using the EWG app, but only three pulled up any information. So you have to set guidelines for what you feel OK with. Below are the ingredients I keep an eye out for.
Fragrance & Phthalates
Anything that contains fragrance is a red flag. That’s because fragrance is considered a “trade secret” and the ingredients that make up that fragrance do not need to be disclosed according to the FDA. I only buy products with fragrance that says “fragrance from essential oils,” “natural fragrance” or “synthetic fragrance-free.” A product label can not be misleading, so if it says the fragrance is from essential oils then I believe it.
Phthalates are sometimes added to fragrance to make the smell stick. Phthalates are scary because they’re endocrine interrupters, which basically means they mess with your hormones. My hormones are already wacky enough; I don’t need scary chemicals messing any more with mine.
“Several observational human studies have reported an association between exposure to certain phthalates and adverse developmental and reproductive effects,” according to FDA.gov. “The ubiquitous presence of phthalates in the environment and the potential consequences of human exposure to phthalates have raised concerns, particularly in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and infants.”
Measurable amounts of phthalates are found in the general population of people over the age of 6 years old. Women tend to have higher levels, most likely from higher amounts of personal care products according to the CDC.
There are lot’s of other sub-ingredients that can be used in fragrances, and those ingredients don’t need to be disclosed because of that trade secrets law. Companies like Unilever have phased out phthalates in their products, but there are still lots of other ingredients that go into fragrances.
Unilever is phasing out triclosan and triclocarban because they have not been proven effective, but I still see triclosan on liquid soaps all the time. If it says “anti-bacterial,” look for triclosan. Instead of buying anti-bacterial soaps and hand gels, I buy hand-sanitizers that contain alcohol instead. It’s such a simple ingredient, but it still does the trick.
“To date, the benefits of using antibacterial hand soap haven’t been proven. In addition, the wide use of these products over a long time has raised the question of potential negative effects on your health,” according to FDA.gov.
Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP)
Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) is more often found in flame retardants (I’ll write more about flame retardants another day), but now it’s showing up in nail polish. This one is also an endocrine disruptor that can potentially mess with your hormones.
The thing is, I love the look of perfectly polished toes! So pretty and shiny and pink and glittery. I polish my piggies in the summer, so maybe I’m not such an EarthyB after all. But for my four-year-old daughter, I avoid the stuff like the plaque. I buy Piggy Paint instead… it’s “Natural as Mudd” according to the company. Plus, Piggy Paint doesn’t smell like a nail salon.
Just like with Piggy Paint, there are some polishes on the EWG site that have low hazard ratings, and others that are super high. It’s a matter of finding the one that works for you. I’ll let you read Nailed: Endocrine Disruptor In Nail Polishes Gets Into Women’s Bodies for yourself, and then check out the EWG Nail Polish page to find something cleaner. I’m not ready to give up on my nail polish habit just yet, but I do want something less toxic.
Ok, there’s a ton of bad stuff in sunscreen. Again, I go back to the EWG Sunscreen Guide every summer. But if I’m in a pinch at the store and have to make a quick decision, I choose something that does not contain oxybenzone. I’ve read that this one is slowly being phased out, but I still see it on ingredient lists all the time. I even have some in my cupboard, and I won’t disclose who brought it home. I know I should just throw it out… but the hoarder in me is holding me back. Ugh, internal conflict.
A better ingredient that always tops the clean sunscreen list is zinc oxide. The problem with most zinc-based sunscreens is they make my skin white, and it’s hard to rub in. I’m OK with that on days when I can brush some powder on it, but my kids protest it loudly. The workaround is mineral sunscreens with a tint. It’s not a perfect solution, but it works. There’s also a lot of EWG rated sunscreens that are low on the hazards list and still don’t contain zinc oxide. You just have to do some digging and experimenting to find what works for you.
The funniest award I’ve ever heard of is “Allergen of the Year” by the The American Contact Dermatitis Society. That award went to methylisothiazolinone in 2013. That unwelcome prize went to phthalates in 2007.
Methylisothiazolinone is a preservative used in sunscreens, shampoos, conditioners, hand soaps and even baby wipes. When I just keep an eye out for it, I see it in all kinds of products. I even found it in my fancy use-it-only-for-special-occasions shampoo and conditioner. Gah, now it better be a big night out for me to use it.
1,4-Dioxane is a byproduct of mixing various chemicals. It can be found in shampoos, cleaning products and drinking water.
There’s enough concern about it to make this list: The E.P.A.’s Top 10 Toxic Threats, and Industry’s Pushback.
“Read labels and avoid products that contain contaminated ingredients such as PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethyelene, polyoxynolethylene, and chemicals ending in –eth and –oxynol. These ingredients are manufactured in a way that can result in simultaneous formation of 1,4-dioxane as an impurity,” according to the EWG report Cancer-Causing Chemical 1,4-Dioxane Contaminates Americans’ Drinking Water.
The products we use are personal. I don’t like writing about it because I know it can come across as an attack on the stuff we love. Or, worse, an attack on beauty. That’s not my intention. I love beauty products as much as the next girl. I haven’t gone longer than a few months without highlighting my hair since high school.
My goal is to keep my family and me healthy. My daughter, in particular, concerns me. She is a girly-girl at heart, so I don’t even try to keep her away from my lip gloss. Instead, I keep it clean, so I don’t have to worry about it when she’s rummaging through my purse for something pretty.
In the next few posts I’ll write about how the skin care industry is changing, and some ideas for buying less toxic stuff. Stay tuned.