You all are beautiful.
Before I launch into a discussion of safety of body care ingredients, let’s get that straight: you are beautiful already.
Furthermore, the most important things you can do to take care of your body are not for sale. They don’t come in a bottle. You can’t put them on your shopping list. Sleep, healthy food, drinking water, exercise, de-stressing and smiling. If you don’t have these, no potion or cream will fully substitute for the lack.
Why Bother Reading Ingredients
Our society is facing many troubling unanswered questions. Among them, why are rates of cancer, infertility, hormone imbalance, and behavioral disorders skyrocketing? While undoubtedly there are many contributing causes, it might not be coincidental that 1 in 13 women are exposed daily to known or probable human carcinogens, or that 1 in 24 women to known or probable reproductive and developmental toxins through their personal care products. Our skin is semi-permeable, and so even though we don’t eat our cosmetics, in a way, our skin might.
On average, women use 12 products daily (men about half that). That’s easy to believe when you start counting soap, deodorant, toothpaste, mouthwash, shaving cream, aftershave, toner, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, lotion, lip balm… and that doesn’t even get into makeup. With an average of 14 unique ingredients per product, that adds up to roughly 168 different ingredients.
I’m not throwing numbers at you to elicit an “ooh” and “ahh,” or a freak and flee. The problem with those 168 ingredients is that they are underregulated. Personal care products and cosmetics are under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but until 2023 have only had 14 sentences regulating a $100 billion industry. As I covered in my article about legislative progress over the cosmetics industry, some states have stepped in to fill the gap and the federal Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 have made a start to providing greater consumer safety, but there are still safety gaps. The best advocate to ensure your products are best for you, is you. This means you need to learn what to look for.
Total Exposure – My biggest concern
Long–term, cumulative exposure is what concerns me most. Many ingredients have a threshold at which they are “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS). A single product will have less than that threshold. But what if that ingredient is in four of your daily, leave-on products? How does all that exposure add up when studies are showing that above the GRAS levels, problems arise?
Another area of concern is the “cocktail effect.” Many ingredients are innocuous when used alone but problematic when combined with other ingredients. Perhaps one product use contains this ingredient in isolation, but we rarely use one product at a time. We might apply lotion and sunscreen and foundation and perfume. This adds up to a “cocktail” of many combined ingredients. This common occurence is not considered in GRAS designations.
Not Enough Research in Ingredient Safety
Below are the ingredients I avoid in the body care aisles. I will tell you first, that there is not enough research to substantiate these concerns irrefutably. It is terribly difficult to correlate cause and effect from ingredients that are used alongside a hundred others and results that may show up only after years of exposure. However, there are the beginnings of evidence for each of these ingredients. Since there are easy alternatives, I play it safe and choose those alternatives.
Ingredients I Avoid
|Preservative across body care
|Endocrine (Hormone) disruptor
|Highest Concern: Butylparaben, Propylparaben;
Moderate Concern: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben
|Preservative across body care
|Endocrine disruptor, bioaccumulation, penetration enhancer
|High absorption, significant penetration enhancer, photoallergic reaction
|Retinyl Palmitate (vitamin A)
|Anti-aging, often in sunscreen
|Tumors may form when exposed to sunlight
|All body care
|May include Phthalates
|Secret, proprietary blend of any of 3000+ possible chemicals
|Anywhere there’s “Fragrance” (works as a fixer)
|Linked to altered reproductive development especially in boys, asthma, ADHD, breast cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, and autism spectrum disorders
|Never listed with ingredients
|Detergent in Shampoo, body wash, etc.
|Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen
|Preservative across body care
|Allergen, formaldehyde releaser
|Highest concern: Polyoxymethylene Urea
Moderate Concern: Imidazolidinyl Urea, Diazolidynol Urea
|Ceteareth, laureth, steareth, other “-eths”
|Detergent in shampoo, body wash, etc.
|1,4 Dioxane contamination
|1,4 Dioxane (a production byproduct) is a known human carcinogen
|pH adjuster across body care
|Toxicant, possible human carcinogen
|pH adjuster & emulsifier across body care
|Toxicant, irritant, suspected human carcinogen
|Use recommendations emphasize only short-term use and thorough washing
Even as you keep these terms in mind, know that with every step you take down the aisle, a massive marketing machine is waging war against your judgment with misleading or deceptive labeling. Arm yourself against that by reading my previous article “10 Labeling Traps.”
Next steps toward ingredient safety
My hope here is to empower and not to overwhelm. There are many good products out there made with alternative ingredients. Manufacturers have started to respond to consumer concern. (Another proof for the power of voting with our spending!) Do not open your bathroom cabinet and trash the contents all at once. That will only frustrate you tomorrow when you’re trying to get out the door and you have no shampoo, deodorant, or sunscreen. Analyze one product at a time and replace, if needed. Start with “leave-on” daily products, to which you have the highest exposure. Perhaps you and a friend can split the task.
Resources to help you evaluate product and ingredient safety
Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database: a continuously updated analyses of thousands of products, brands, and ingredients.
Think Dirty app: similar to the main EWG website for help on the go.
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: Lots more research of ingredients.
Not Just a Pretty Face: the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry: Stacy Malkan’s 2007 book was my wake up call to these issues.