ARE YOUR PERSONAL-CARE PRODUCTS MAKING YOU SICK?

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Most women have very specific “beauty” routines: one in the morning and another in the evening. You’re nodding your head in agreement, right? Cosmetics and personal-care products are the most marketed items out there, and women are the target audience. There are shampoos  promising luxurious and shiny locks and lotions for softer and sexier skin; don’t even get me started on the outrageous beauty-enhancing powers of lipstick and mascara! Unfortunately, the current chemical policy does not require manufacturers to disclose their products’ ingredients to the FDA or any government entity. Unlike the food industry, cosmetics and personal-care products are like the Wild West with a lack of regulatory constraints on labeling laws.

The average woman is exposed to over 500 synthetic chemicals each day, the majority of which are absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. The basic rule of thumb in the current climate of chemical regulation is simple: Chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Only a small percentage of these chemicals have been investigated for potential health risks and, even then, are studied in isolation. There is little investigation into the synergistic effects of synthetic chemicals when combined in a single product. So, women have been guinea pigs for years, and when the guinea pigs get sick, certain chemicals are put under the microscope as researchers look for correlations.

I have little confidence in the legislative wheels attempting to turn in our favor so that these products are safer. The Personal Care Products Safety Act, introduced this year by  senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Susan Collins of Maine, would strengthen industry regulations that have not been updated since 1938 but requires FDA investigation of only five potentially harmful chemicals.  While this is a good first step, it is certainly a baby step at best. Adding to my skepticism is that this bill is a revision of a previous bill introduced by the same senator in 2015. 

So, what do we do while we’re waiting for the government and FDA to ensure that all these products are safe? Step one: Don’t hold your breath. Step two: Be part of the solution (easier than it sounds).

The one power we have as consumers is where we spend our money. It’s a simple equation: The less money that people spend on toxic and chemical-laden products, the less incentive that manufacturers have to produce those products. Ultimately, we consumers get exactly what we demand. So, it’s no surprise that companies spend millions of dollars to “influence” those demands with flashy advertising campaigns. Do you want softer, sexier skin? Do you want shiny and voluminous hair? Well....duh! But are you willing to poison yourself to achieve your desires?

I could spend hours and write many pages detailing the potentially toxic effects of the hundreds of chemicals that wind up in our personal-care products. But let’s focus on a few of the most common chemicals that appear.


PHTHALATES

There are four types of phthalates used in personal-care products: diethyl phthalate (DEP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). Of these, diethyl phthalate is the most common. 

In personal-care products, phthalates are used as solvents and fixatives to preserve both color and fragrance. The word “fragrance” is just a catch-all name that can include thousands of different ingredients. But labeling laws being what they are, companies are not required to list all the ingredients that make up the fragrance in their products. Rest assured, where there is fragrance, there are phthalates and the greater the scent, the greater the number of phthalates. According to the American Chemistry Council, DEP can make up as much as 50 percent of the “fragrance” ingredient in some personal-care products.

Phthalates are of low molecular weight and can absorb easily through the skin to make their way directly into the bloodstream. Phthalates are classified as both endocrine disruptors and obesogens. They mimic the effects of estrogen, have been shown to lower testosterone levels and increase one’s risk of cancer and thyroid disorders. Phthalates can wreak havoc on your metabolism, increase your risk of insulin resistance, promote excess fat storage and  make it difficult to lose weight. Prenatal exposure to phthalates has been linked to ADHD, early breast development in girls, breast cancer, decreased I.Q. and increased anger and depression in boys.

WARNING: You typically won't see "phthalate" written on the ingredient list of ANY personal-care product. But when you see "fragrance," "perfume" or "parfum"... phthalates are there!

PARABENS

Parabens are widely used as a preservative and are found at higher levels in products that are more liquid. Like phthalates, parabens are also endocrine disruptors and are known to easily penetrate the skin and remain in body tissues. Parabens are linked to reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, cancer and skin irritation. The six types of parabens most commonly used in personal-care products are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, butylparaben and benzylparaben. Studies suggest that parabens increase the rate at which cancer cells grow. Parabens are not only linked to cancer, but they can reduce the effectiveness of Tamoxifen, a drug commonly prescribed to women with a history of breast cancer. Non-cancerous cells, when exposed to methylparaben, can start to behave like cancer cells, but, unlike “normal” cancer cells, their growth does not slow once exposed to Tamoxifen.

According to Dr. William Goodson III, “BPA and methylparaben not only mimic estrogen’s ability to drive cancer but appear to be even better than the natural hormone in bypassing the ability of drugs to treat it.”

WARNING: Because there are many different types of parabens, when reading labels look for ingredients that end in "-paraben." 


TRICLOSAN

Triclosan is an antibacterial ingredient most known for its presence in conventional hand-sanitizing gels and sprays. But triclosan can also be found in shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, acne creams and solutions, soaps, mouthwashes and wound disinfectants. Like phthalates and parabens, triclosan can disrupt the endocrine system and has an affinity for the thyroid gland.

Triclosan is a registered pesticide with the EPA but has made its way into the world of personal healthcare products in the last 15-plus years. The CDC has measured triclosan and its metabolites in the urine of 75 percent of people tested, and analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) from 2003-08 showed that exposure to triclosan is linked to an increase in body-mass index

Triclosan is lipophilic (fat-loving) and not well metabolized by the body. As such, it tends to get stored in our fatty tissues and even makes its way into breast milk.

WARNING: Triclosan is also found in anti-bacterial consumer goods like cutting boards, yoga mats and clothing and can be present under the name “Microban.”

ETHANOLAMINES

Ethanolamines are ammonia-based compounds used as foaming agents and emulsifiers in shampoos, facial cleansers, bubble-bath liquids and body washes. Though ethanolamines are not harmful on their own, they can produce carcinogenic nitrosamines when combined with N-nitrosating agents. Ethanolamines can also be found in eyeliner, eye shadow, blush, foundation, sunscreen, shaving creams and hair dyes.

There are three types of ethanolamines: diethanolamine (DEA), monoethanolamine (MEA) and triethanolamine (TEA). You might also see this compound listed as “cocamide DEA,” which is a chemically modified form of coconut oil. Though this compound gives the appearance of being “natural,” it is still an ethanolamine and in 2012 was added to the California Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer.

WARNING: Studies suggest a link between topical skin exposures to ethanolamines and cancer in lab animals.

SULFATES

You’ve probably heard about the dangers of sulfates and, like many people, are already actively avoiding them. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are two of the most well-known sulfates and are common ingredients in toothpaste, shampoo, detergents and facial cleansers. Sulfates are foaming agents that provide the satisfying, bubbly experience of these products. Unfortunately, sulfates strip the skin of its natural protective barrier, which leaves us more vulnerable to other toxic chemicals and could cause contact dermatitis, rashes and dry, flaky, itchy skin. Even at low-use concentration, sulfates can penetrate the skin and make their way directly into the bloodstream.

The difference between SLS and SLES is that SLES has undergone a process to make them less harsh. Though this process called “ethoxylation” may make SLES less corrosive to the skin, it produces a byproduct called 1,4-dioxane—a compound determined by the EPA to be a human carcinogen.

WARNING: 1,4-dioxane is not an ingredient that is intentionally added to products and will not appear in the list of ingredients. Rather, it’s a contaminant found in polyethylene, polyethylene glycols (PEGs) and any ingredient ending in -eth (like sodium laureth sulfate, myreth, ceteareth and oleth).

Now that I’ve bummed you out… what’s the solution?

  • Switch to brands that avoid these toxins. One of my favorite brands for personal-care products is Acure Organics. You can order their products online, and you can also find them at your local Sprouts, Natural Grocers and Whole Foods.

  • You can save a lot of money—and have fun—making your own personal-care products. It’s easier than you think and doesn’t take much time. I make my own shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lip balm, body butter, deodorant and “signature scent.” With just a few basic ingredients and a collection of essential oils, the sky’s the limit. 


  1. Persad, Michelle. “The Average Woman Puts 515 Synthetic Chemicals on Her Body Every Day Without Knowing.” Huffington Post. 7 March 2016. i Web.

  2. Press Release: “Feinstein, Collins Introduce Bill to Strengthen Oversight of Personal Care Products” 7 March 2019. ii Web.

  3. Colliver, Victoria. "Study: BPA, Methylparaben Block Breast Cancer Drugs." SFGate. 13 Sept. 2011. iii Web.

  4. Calafat, Antonia M., et al. "Urinary concentrations of triclosan in the US population: 2003-2004." iv Environmental health perspectives 116.3 (2008): 303. Web.

  5. Lankester, Joanna, et al. "Urinary triclosan is associated with elevated body mass index in v NHANES." (2013). PLoS ONE 8(11): e80057. Web.

  6. National Toxicology Program. "NTP Toxicology and Carcinogenesis Studies of Triethanolamine (CAS vi No. 102-71-6) in F344 Rats and B6C3F1 Mice (Dermal Studies)." National Toxicology Program technical report series 449 (1999): 1. Web.

  7. Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate vii International Journal of Toxicology December 1983 2: 127-181. Web.

  8. "Public Health Statement for 1,4 Dioxane." Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. Web.


WHITNEY MORGAN