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Clean beauty means different things to different people. For some, it’s about being all natural. For others, it’s about avoiding the most toxic ingredients. I started EarthyB because I believe it should be easy to find things like clean personal care products, regardless of budget or lifestyle. Below I outline some of the most concerning ingredients in personal care products.
Why it’s still important to buy clean personal care products
“The law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have FDA approval before they go on the market,” according to the FDA.gov.
Because cosmetics have limited oversight, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) started the Skin Deep database of online profiles for personal care products in 2004. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences studies how our environment impacts our health. The below list comes from data provided by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Health concerns related to beauty and personal care products:
- Endocrine disruptors can mimic hormones in the body like estrogens, androgens, and thyroid hormones and interfere with the natural hormones. Children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable.
- Natural endocrine disruptors – Lavender, and tea tree essential oils may be natural endocrine disruptors according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences 1
- Carcinogens are ingredient or substance linked to cancer.
Toxic ingredients in personal care products
“There are tens of thousands of chemicals in the world that we know very little about. Only a small number of chemicals have been assessed adequately for potential toxicity to humans,” according to “Tox21: Chemical testing in the 21st century” a part of the National Toxicology Program.
- Trade secrets – The FDA does not require that individual ingredients in “fragrances” are listed on the label because they are considered trade secrets. That means it’s not possible for you to know what’s in the fragrance unless the company voluntarily lists it, which many companies do on their website.
- Phthalates – phthalates are used to make fragrances last longer. They are considered endocrine disruptors. Although many phthalates have been removed from personal care products due to health concerns, it’s not always possible to know if phthalates are in a product.
“Regulations do not require the listing of the individual fragrance ingredients; therefore, the consumer will not be able to determine from the ingredient declaration if phthalates are present in a fragrance,” according to the FDA.gov. 2 “Based on available safety information, DEP does not pose known risks for human health as it is currently used in cosmetics and fragrances. Consumers who nevertheless do not want to purchase cosmetics containing DEP may wish to choose products that do not include “Fragrance” in the ingredient listing.”
- A commonly used sunscreen ingredient the EWG recommends that consumers avoid.
- The EWG rates it 8 (high hazard)
- Banned in Hawaii starting in 2021 due to link to coral reef bleaching
“Weak estrogen, moderate anti-androgen; associated with altered birth weight in human studies.” – “The Trouble with Sunscreen Chemicals,” Environmental Working Group
- Commonly used sunscreen ingredient
- The EWG rates it a 6 (moderate hazard) 3
- Banned in Hawaii starting in 2021 due to link to coral reef bleaching
“Hormone-like activity; reproductive system, thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studies” – EWG
- Nanoparticles can be found in sunscreen and cosmetics.
- The particles are so small our skin and lungs may be able to absorb them.
- Companies are not required to disclose the use of nanoscale materials in personal care products.
“Currently, very little is known about nanoscale materials and how they affect human health and the environment. NIEHS is committed to supporting the development of nanotechnologies that can be used to improve products and solve global problems in areas such as energy, water, medicine and environmental remediation, while also investigating the potential risks these materials pose to human health and the environment,” according to NIEHS.gov.
Personal care products like make-up, shampoo, shaving cream, etc.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen by The National Toxicology Program. 4
- Found in make-up, hair color, hair growth, and eye creams.
- Not regulated in cosmetics in the United States.
- Commonly used preservatives used in personal care products.
- Parabens are regulated in the European Union, but not in the United States.
- Commonly used parabens are propylparaben, and butylparaben and both have an EWG score of 7 (high hazard)
- Less common are Isopropyl-paraben and Isobutyl-paraben. Both have an EWG score of 8 (high hazard)
Deodorant and toothpaste
Triclosan and triclocarban
- Triclosan has been linked to liver cancer in mice.
- The FDA does not consider triclosan Generally Recognized as Safe in over the counter hand soaps
- It can still be used in deodorant and toothpaste.
- Formaldehyde – Has been taken out of many nail polishes but are not banned.
- Triphenyl phosphate (also known as TPP and TPHP)
- Dibutyl phthalate (also known as DBP and DnBP)
The EWG recommends that pregnant women stay away from nail polish. I’m personally hesitant about letting my daughter wear (and chip off with her teeth!) most traditional nail polish brands. I let her use Piggy Paint and we’re slowly testing a few other polish brands without the above ingredients. Some nail polish manufacturers have phased out several of the above ingredients, which is progress. However, some new ingredients are simply been tested less and may eventually be considered regrettable substitutions.
Acne and anti-aging ingredients
The ingredients in Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate/vitamin A palmitate, retinyl acetate/vitamin A acetate, and retinol) and Alpha hydroxy acid (glycolic acid and lactic acid) are commonly found in anti-acne and anti-wrinkle products as well as make-up and other skin creams. They make skin more sensitive to the sun, so don’t use them when you’re heading outside.
Vitamin A: Retinol and retinyl
Retinyl palmitate/vitamin A palmitate, retinyl acetate/vitamin A acetate, and retinol are anti-wrinkle and anti-acne ingredients.
- These ingredients make your skin more sensitive to the sun and can increase your risk of burning (that’s never attractive.) Therefore, if you do use retinol, retinyl acetate, or retinyl palmitate use it only at night and stay out of the sun!
- These ingredients scored have an EWG score of 9 which is high hazard.
Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA): Glycolic acid and lactic acid
- The FDA warns that alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) may increase skin sensitivity to the sun and increases the risk of sunburns. You should limit sun exposure as long as a week after using and AHA.
- Glycolic acid and lactic acid score a four with the EWG, which is a medium hazard.
- Keratin is often used in Brazilian blowouts but can also be found in at home hair treatment.
- A type of hair treatment usually coupled with ingredients containing high levels of formaldehyde.
- Formaldehyde is considered a carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program.
- The EWG gives coal tar a score of 10 which is high hazard.
- Coal tar is an ingredient in some psoriasis and eczema creams.
- Coal tar can make your skin and scalp more sensitive to the sun.
Environmental pollution from personal care products
Personal care ingredients are also linked to environmental pollution:
- Coral reef bleaching: Butylparaben, Oxybenzone, and Octinoxate
- Petrolatum: Comes from crude oil.
- Coal tar: Comes from coal.
- Water: Manufacturers use water as a filler which increases packaging and shipping.
Progress for cleaner personal care products
The beauty and personal care industry has changed as we have become more aware of the ingredients in what we buy.
“Historically, the primary phthalates used in cosmetic products have been dibutylphthalate (DBP), used as a plasticizer in products such as nail polishes (to reduce cracking by making them less brittle); dimethylphthalate (DMP), used in hair sprays (to help avoid stiffness by allowing them to form a flexible film on the hair); and diethylphthalate (DEP), used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances. According to FDA’s latest survey of cosmetics, conducted in 2010, however, DBP and DMP are now used rarely. DEP is the only phthalate still commonly used in cosmetics,” according to “Phthalates” on the FDA.gov.
Companies like Unilever, Proctor and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson have become more transparent about the ingredients they use. Unilever says they no longer use phthalates in their products. You can look up most ingredients on their website. Proctor and Gamble will start to disclose all it’s fragrance ingredients online – down to 0.01 percent of the product – sold in the US and Canada beginning this year according to the company.
Robots used to test ingredients
The way ingredients are tested is also improving. Robots can now be used to test ingredients inside Petri dishes (in vitro) instead of on animals.
“It takes the Tox21 robot system three days, using 1,536-well plates, to do approximately the same work as a person employed eight hours a day, five days a week, for 12 years, using standard 96-well plates,” according to “Tox21: Chemical testing in the 21st century” a part of the National Toxicology Program.
Fast forward to minute 7:30 to see the Tox21 robot in action:
- “Essential Oils” https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/essential-oils/index.cfm, March 25, 2019
- “Phthalates,” FDA.gov, March 25, 2019
- “Report on Carcinogens, Fourteenth Edition,” The National Toxicology Program, https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles//butylatedhydroxyanisole.pdf, referenced March 26, 2019