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Clean Living: Are Your Personal Products Putting You at Risk?

How many personal products did you use this morning? If you’re like the average woman in this country, you applied 12 different beauty products to your body, which equals exposure to 120 different chemicals. If you’re an average American man, you used 6 products and unknowingly applied 80 different chemicals. These chemicals dominate seemingly mundane skin and hair products (e.g. lotions, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, etc), cosmetics, and toiletries (e.g. toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, etc) - all the basics of the typical American morning routine. Yet, those statistics alone aren’t the scariest part. The fact is, the government doesn’t require safety studies on personal care products. In fact, 89% of the over 10,000 ingredients used in personal products are not evaluated for safety. This means manufacturers can put whatever they want into their products under whatever name they choose. To boot, the law protects “proprietary information,” which allows companies to keep their ingredients “secret.”  If you check your product labels, you will see vague ingredients such as “fragrance,” “parfum,” “natural,” or “emollients.” Why is it so important to know what's in these products? Our bodies inevitably end up inhaling or especially absorbing the toxins when we apply them. Day after day, this can add significantly to our toxin load. The skin, after all, is the body’s largest detox organ. Today, let's explore the most common unhealthy ingredients in personal care products, examine the health impacts of these and share strategies you can use to create a healthier self-care routine.

Toxins and Their Health Impact

Let’s first dive into the hidden toxins commonly found in your personal care items and their related health risks.

Phthalates – Hormonal mimics that wreak havoc on our reproductive and endocrine systems. A 2008 study showed 100% of people tested had phthalates in their body.

Found in: perfume, soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, body washes, lotion (fragrance) and nail polish, hair spray, cosmetics (plasticizers); also found in plastic containers, which leach into product

Look for on label: phthalate, DEP, DBP, fragrance

Linked to: obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes, allergies, asthma, ADHD, birth defects, low sperm counts, early puberty in girls

Parabens Hormonal mimics that are used to halt microbe growth in personal products.

Found in: cosmetics, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, deodorant, facial cleansers & scrubs, eye makeup

Look for on label: anything ending in –paraben

Linked to: endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, cancer, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, skin irritation

Isopropyl Alcohol  A solvent used as a disinfectant and denaturant, a toxic substance that changes another substance’s natural qualities. It is also used in antifreeze and shellac.  Yikes!

Found in: hair color, hair spray, body rubs, lotion, after-shave lotion, perfume, cosmetics

Linked to: headaches, flushing, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, skin damage

Propylene Glycol (PG) - A wetting agent and solvent. This is also the active ingredient in antifreeze!

Found in: cosmetics, hair products, lotion, after-shave, deodorant, mouthwash, toothpaste

Linked to: brain, liver, and kidney dysfunctions. Stick deodorants contain a higher concentration of PG than is allowed for industrial uses.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)A wetting or foaming agent considered the most toxic ingredient on this list. When they are combined with other chemicals, which always happens, they form nitrosamines, which are considered a potent form of carcinogen. SLS/SLES is also used to clean engines and garage floors.

Found in: cosmetics, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste

Look for on label: any word with –eth in the middle

Linked to: eye damage, depression, diarrhea, skin irritation, labored breathing

Diethanolamine (DEA), Momoethanolamine (MEA), and Triethanolamine (TEA) Hormone disrupting chemicals commonly used in products that foam.

Found in: bubble bath, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, soap, facial cleansers

Look for on label: cocamide DEA or MEA, lauramide DEA

Linked to: liver and kidney cancer

Healthier Product Alternatives

Let’s explore some healthier, less toxic options to help us look (and smell) good. Although the best choice at times may be to go without certain products, the fact is we can always find better options for all our personal care items. Some mainstream, commercially made product lines are already reducing or eliminating phthalates and parabens from their formulary. Look for “phthalate and paraben free” on your labels.

Other companies go a few steps further by forgoing most if not all of the most worrisome chemicals. A few examples include Dr. Bronner (e.g. for soap, hair care, lotion, lip balm, shaving cream), Burt’s Bees (e.g. for lip care, facial cleansers and treatments, lotion, soaps, moisturizers, sunscreen, bath salts/oils) and Tom’s of Maine (e.g. for toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorant, soap). Add your recommendations for natural and organic product companies in our comment section! Finally, check out the Organic Consumers Association’s Personal Care and Cleaning Products Safety Guide online for additional recommendations.

Make Your Own Products

You don’t need to go any farther than your kitchen to find safer personal care options. Here are a few ideas to get you started on the road to recreating your favorite self-care items.

  • Plain yogurt acts as a great cleanser for oily, acne-prone skin. Fingerpaint it on, and then rinse with warm water.
  • Whole milk makes for a great facial cleanser for dry skin. Apply with a cotton ball, and then rinse with warm water.
  • For a great post-shampoo treatment, rinse with vinegar to smooth your hair and decrease the frizzies.
  • Epsom salt and 10-15 drops of an essential oil make for a relaxing bath ritual. (Lavender is my favorite choice for relaxation or tea tree oil for stimulating my immunity when I am coming down with a cold.)

For additional information and ideas on making your own versions of favorite self-care products, check out this fantastic resource (PDF), Natural Recipes for Personal Care Products, created by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics as well as Ellen Sandbeck's book Organic HousekeepingAdditionally, consult the Environmental Working Group for more information about toxins, sources and health impact. 

We can make a conscious effort to scrutinize our personal care product labels just as carefully as we do our food ingredients and slowly transition to safer products. I encourage you not to dump everything as soon as you get home as you will find that may cost you a small mortgage payment. Start small, make some of your own products, and wisely shop for safer alternatives.

I would love to hear from our readers who have already begun transforming their self-care product choices. What healthier options have you found that work for you? What recipes do you use to make your own? Share your tips and feedback, and thanks for reading!

Written by Cindi Lockhart - Sr. Program Manager of Health and Nutrition Coaching

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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