In the wide world of personal care products and cosmetics, there are more synthetic and chemical ingredients than any one of us can shake a stick at, even in some product lines that look purely natural.
Unfortunately, some of the most questionable ingredients are the most widely used. Choosing and using pure products with absolutely clean ingredients absolutely all the time is tough, but knowing which chemical bullies to avoid whenever possible will make a huge difference to your, and the planet's, health.
Here are eight of the worst offenders that you should be looking out for on all product labels:
Found in: Hair shampoos, conditioners, and styling products; soaps and body washes; moisturizers; shaving creams and gels; cosmetics and makeup; toothpastes.
Parabens are synthetic preservatives. The cosmetics industry stands strongly behind the belief that parabens are safe, but a growing number of reputable studies say otherwise: They have been linked to cancer, biochemical changes, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and endocrine disruption.
Found in: Fingernail products; makeup, including lip products, eyeliners, eye shadows, blushes; deodorants; hair products, especially coloring products; feminine products; fragrances; perfumes.
Studies link phthalates with bioaccumulation in humans and wildlife, cancer, and developmental and reproductive toxicity. Who's at risk? Like it or not, we are all exposed to phthalates. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every person tested — all of them! — had detectable levels of phthalates in his or her body, though certain groups had higher levels and others were more susceptible to their ill-effects. Women of childbearing age and kids, with their still-developing systems, are at the greatest risk.
PRO TIP: Pay attention to added fragrances that are not natural or cited. Any product that contain unidentified “fragrance” is suspected to contain phthalates.
3. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
Found in: Anything that lathers: shampoos and conditioners, soaps and body washes/ cleansers, toothpastes, and whitening products, even moisturizers and mouthwashes.
Both are widely known to irritate skin, but they also may be linked to deeper health concerns. SLS and SLES are used in part to increase a product's penetration through the skin and increase the skin's ability to absorb. In fact, they are effectively used for topical drug delivery to decrease skin resistance. One concern with this is that other synthetic and chemical ingredients in the product will be delivered into our bodies more effectively too.
PRO TIP: Look at what other ingredients are in products that contain SLS or SLES to see what else will be absorbed thanks to that enhanced ability.
4. Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid (EDTA)
Found in: Cosmetics including moisturizers, skin care and cleansing products, personal cleanliness products, bath soaps, shampoos and conditioners, hair dyes and hair bleaches.
On the skin, EDTA is yet another irritant and may instigate allergies and contact dermatitis. This raises the question of how useful it is to use chemical stabilizers in skin products if they cause skin problems, but EDTA is nonetheless found in plenty of formulas. Deeper concerns about EDTA are related to prolonged and repeated use. Potential chronic health effects include reproductive and fetal effects and kidney damage. Jeepers creepers, is that called for? Apparently, EDTA is a mutagen in animals, but it's inconclusive whether it has that effect in humans.
Found in: Formaldehyde is not often seen on personal care product and cosmetic ingredient lists, but it's released by many commonly used preservatives.
Formaldehyde is indeed a very effective preservative (remember those frogs we were supposed to dissect in high school biology class?), but it's also definitely carcinogenic. A number of preservatives used in products are subject to either becoming accidentally contaminated with formaldehyde during processing or to interacting with other substances to release formaldehyde during use.
PRO TIP: Avoid products that use most common formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: Diazolidinyl urea, Imidazolidinyl urea, Dimethyl-dimethyl hydantoin, and Quaternium-15.
6. Propylene Glycol
Found in: Lotions and moisturizers.
The FDA gives propylene glycol the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) stamp of approval for pretty much any topical application. However, publicly registered Material Safety Data Sheets instruct users to "avoid contact with skin." Hmm. Beyond being a skin irritant and common cause of allergies and contact dermatitis, it's also measurably toxic to human cells and may inhibit skin cell growth, alter cell membranes, and cause chronic surface damage.
Found in: Nail polishes and nail treatment products.
Toluene has been linked with severe irritation of the eyes, skin, and lungs; central nervous system damage; kidney and liver damage; developmental effects; and birth defects and brain damage.
Found in: Deodorants, antiperspirants, and body powders; cosmetics, including eye shadows, powdered concealers, foundations, blushes, and bronzers; sunscreens and SPF products.
One of the main concerns about talc is that it is commonly contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen, though talc is suspected to be a carcinogen in its own right. Inhaling the superfine dust of talc is none too nifty for the lungs, and there is also cause for concern about an increased risk for cancer with regular topical use.
Adapted from an excerpt from my book Easy Green Living: The Ultimate Guide to Simple, Eco-Friendly Choices for You and Your Home, available where books are sold.
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