Ann Garrity wasn’t sure how to respond when her doctor instructed her to dump her collection of body-care products. “I thought, ‘What is this woman talking about?’” she recalls. Still, she was ready to try anything. At 38, the marketing consultant in Minnetrista, Minn., had just come through two surgeries for endometriosis and fibroids, but still sensed there was something awry. Her thoughts were fuzzy, and she didn’t feel well. “I just knew there was something else wrong,” she says, which is what led her to the East Coast doctor who delivered the unexpected advice.
Her doctor suspected that Garrity’s persistent fibroids might be caused by too much estrogen in her system (tests later proved her hypothesis correct), and she believed that the personal-care products Garrity was using could be a contributing factor. Garrity had always been a big fan of cosmetics — “If it promised to make me more beautiful, I’d use it!” she jokes — but she had never considered that the little jars and bottles on her bathroom shelves could have any impact on her health.
The doctor’s advice was Garrity’s first wake-up call about hormone-disrupting chemicals in body-care products, but it wasn’t the last.
When she started shopping at natural food co-ops, assuming that “organic” and “natural” personal-care products would not contain potentially toxic synthetics, she had a second awakening. “I saw that companies were putting labels of ‘pure’ and ‘natural’ on products containing petrochemicals,” she says. “They were actively marketing to people who they know are looking to buy clean products, and taking advantage of them.”
First, Garrity got annoyed. Then she started her own Web site, Organic Divas (www.organicdivas.com). Through the site, she sells a wide array of all-natural and nontoxic body-care products that have been tested for both safety and efficacy. She also works to raise awareness about cosmetics safety.
Today, three years after receiving her doctor’s unexpected recommendation, Garrity is feeling better. She’s simplified her life and improved her diet. She’s also become far more selective about what she puts on her body, and she encourages others to do the same. Many of the women who shop her site have dealt with significant health issues — from melanoma and breast cancer to fertility challenges — that research suggests may be caused by the chemicals in their body-care products.
“A lot of people concerned with wellness don’t necessarily add this piece of the puzzle until they’ve had a personal health crisis,” Garrity says. “People need to understand that what you put on your skin can have a negative impact on your health.”
But serious health challenges aren’t the only motivation for detoxing a personal-care collection. Mainstream, health-motivated consumers of all kinds are gradually embracing safer, gentler, more carefully formulated products and accepting that what they put on their skin and hair is as important as what they eat.
“Twenty-five percent of U.S. adults purchased a natural or organic personal-care product in the past six months,” says Gwynne Rogers, a spokesperson at the Natural Marketing Institute. “This is on par with the number of people who say the related benefits are important. For instance, 29 percent of people say ‘natural ingredients’ is very important, 23 percent say ‘no petroleum products’ is important, and 21 percent say ‘USDA certified organic’ is important.”
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.
“U.S. consumers generally assume that if any cosmetic or personal-care product posed a danger to health, the FDA would warn us,” says Samuel Epstein, MD, professor emeritus of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Chicago and author (with investigative journalist Randall Fitzgerald) of Toxic Beauty: How Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Endanger Your Health . . . and What You Can Do About It (BenBella, 2009). “Most people would be surprised to learn that the law does not require cosmetics or personal-care products and their ingredients to be approved as safe before they are marketed and sold to consumers.”
That’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. “The CIR thoroughly reviews and assesses the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased, and expert manner and publishes the results of its work in peer-reviewed scientific literature,” states the PCPC Web site. “The CIR Expert Panel voting members are physicians and scientists who have been publicly nominated by consumer, scientific, and medical groups; government agencies; and industry. Expert panel members must meet the same conflict of interest requirements as individuals serving on FDA advisory committees.”
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.
So what’s made those across the Atlantic so skittish? Essentially, the absence of good data. 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. And, as Nena Baker points out in her book The Body Toxic (North Point Press, 2008), the PCPC’s approach to product safety tends to ignore the potential long-term effects of its products.
“Industry representatives prefer to frame the notion of product safety around short-term, acute consequences — think rashes — rather than the hormone-disrupting, gender-bending outcomes that might be associated with long-term exposure to some ingredients,” Baker explains.
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.
The campaign’s goal is to eventually force government regulators to ban known toxins from personal-care products, and it has sponsored a number of advertising campaigns to raise public awareness of the issue. While the FDA has shown little interest in the matter, several manufacturers in recent years have removed parabens from their products; others have reformulated their nail polish with safer ingredients.
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.
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. Epstein notes that we’re actually more vulnerable to toxins on our skin than to those in our food.
“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.
Of course, it’s not a single tube of lipstick or bottle of lotion that’s going to do you in. Of greater concern, say experts, are the potential bio-accumulative effects of multiple ingredients in multiple products over time, virtually none of which has ever been tested in combination.
For example, a 2008 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported high levels of oxybenzone, a common sunscreen ingredient, in 97 percent of the 2,517 volunteers that researchers have been monitoring since 2003. Meanwhile, a companion study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City linked this chemical to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers used sunscreen during pregnancy. And a 2005 study found oxybenzone to have stronger hormone-disrupting effects when mixed with other sunscreen chemicals.
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.
One of the most effective ways to reduce your exposure to potential hazards is to review the safety ratings for your favorite products at the Skin Deep Web site, which rates more than 50,000 personal-care items. The Environmental Working Group, which operates the site, also identifies toxic byproducts that don’t appear on labels (body-care products are not required to carry a full list of ingredients).
Experts like Epstein and Malkan suggest that an attitude of healthy skepticism also has protective value. Begin by ignoring product claims, since brand labeling makes a woefully inadequate guide to product safety. Tests have shown that products marketed for children (like baby shampoo or kids’ bubble bath) often contain more toxic ingredients than their adult counterparts. Even products labeled “hypo-allergenic,” “natural” or that have “organic” in the product name often contain allergens and synthetics. (The exceptions here are products that carry the green USDA organic seal — these are still held to relatively strict standards.)
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. (For more details, see “The Worst Offenders,” below.)
If possible, give products a sniff — fragrances that knock you flat are likely to contain synthetic fragrances and toxic phthalates, Malkan says. And even if you find a product labeled “no parabens,” “no SLS” (sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, a chemical banned in the EU and Central America) or “no synthetic fragrance,” you should still review the ingredients list for surprises.
Prefer a shorthand approach? Look for manufacturers that have identified themselves as signatories of the Compact for Safe Cosmetics or as “EU Cosmetic directive compliant.” At Whole Foods Market, you can look for the store’s “Premium Body Care Seal,” which it awards only to products that avoid all of the chemical ingredients described above.
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. Sophie Uliano, author of Gorgeously Green: 8 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life (HarperCollins, 2008), warms a little sesame oil and scents it with a few drops of essential oil to use as a preshower moisturizer. The Kabuki Springs & Spa and communal bath in San Francisco provides small dishes of sea salt for clients to exfoliate knees and elbows. Kitchen recipes for personal-care products abound online.
For those who don’t find much appeal in DIY kitchen cosmetics, there are a number of product lines that use nontoxic, plant-based ingredients (like amino acids, peptides and antioxidant fruit extracts) and smart packaging to deliver safe, no-compromise products that really work. Some companies are using grapefruit-seed extract and vitamin C as preservatives, while others have created airtight packaging to keep sensitive plant-based ingredients fresh without added preservatives. (You still want to read those labels carefully, though — the presence of one natural ingredient does not guarantee the absence of questionable others.) Kimberly Parry Organics (www.kimberlyparry.com) creatively avoids the whole problem of preservatives by making their super-clean body-care products fresh to order.
From the Inside Out
Even as more of us begin insisting on body-care products that are “safe enough to eat,” we’re also coming to terms with the fact that slathering on any kind of external-use product — even the edible kind — can only do so much.
A good night’s sleep will always be more effective at banishing dark circles than the best concealer. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits and legumes is a far more direct means to fresh-looking skin than the most cutting-edge cream. Getting adequate protein is essential to healthy hair and nails. Being active keeps a healthy flush in your cheeks. And truly happy, calm smiles are the genuine heart of loveliness. Managing stress can help keep the telltale signs of premature aging at bay.
How we take care of our whole selves will always be more critical to beauty than what we put on our skin. (For more on that, see “Health: The New Sex Symbol” in the December 2006 archives.) Yet, for many of us, there’s a real delight and satisfaction in surrounding ourselves with good smells, silky creams and rejuvenating serums.
The true benefit of educating yourself about personal-care products is that you can enjoy the best they have to offer while minimizing your exposure to potential toxins.
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.
Courtney Helgoe is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.