My initial interest in toxic-free products and foods was fueled by my realization that there were so many potentially harmful chemicals in the foods and products I was consuming on a daily basis. Have you noticed recently that some products you pick up have a label that say something like, “formulated without sulfates, parabens, petrochemicals, artificial dyes and artificial fragrances”? If you’re wondering what all of those are and why you should be glad your shampoo doesn’t contain them, you’re not alone. Prior to learning more about this subject, I completely trusted the fact that we live in a first-world country with credible regulatory agencies like the FDA, so it would be impossible that toxic chemicals would be in my deodorant or toothpaste, right?… Because there is currently a lack of scientific consensus about whether certain chemicals in cosmetics and bath products cause things like cancer and and developmental concerns, U.S. law allows companies to use these chemicals in these consumer products. In researching this article, almost every credible resource outlines the health concerns these chemicals are believed to cause but also states that there has not yet been overwhelming data to prove it. The Washington Post ran an interesting article recently with a line that sums it up well, “Should you worry about the chemicals in your makeup, lotion, shaving cream, soap and shampoo? The answer is a clear maybe.”
Here’s a quick guide to some of these chemicals — what they are in and why they are controversial:
Two very common sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). They make products foamy and sudsy, and I’ve noticed it is included in lots of shampoos, toothpastes and soaps. It is believed by some to cause skin irritation and nervous system disruption. The National Institutes of Health gives the full scientific lowdown on SLS here.
Parabens (like Isopropylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben) are chemicals that are controversial because they are thought to cause endocrine disruption, hormone imbalance, breast cancer, and infertility issues, etc. According to the FDA, parabens are used in cosmetic products at such low levels that there is no risk in exposure. You can read the FDA’s full summary on parabens here. What I found most compelling about the statement is this: “The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) does not authorize FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients, with the exception of color additives that are not coal-tar hair dyes. In general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation.” So cosmetics companies have the freedom to use chemicals like parabens in their products because there is no law to answer to in the United States. Comparatively, the European Union has placed a limitation on legal limits of some parabens in cosmetic products, and has prohibited others entirely.
Many of us tend to think of artificial dyes as existing mostly in foods like candy, Jello or Kool-Aid. But what about the salmon at the fish counter labeled “color-added”? Or why is your dish soap such a neon blue? “Chances are, if you take vitamins, use cough syrup, brush your teeth, wash your hands, shampoo your hair, launder your clothing and moisturize your lips on a daily basis — you come into contact with artificial dyes quite frequently,” says Forbes magazine. Read the full article here for an eye-opening look at artificial coloring which some scientists link to cancer and ADHD.
“The word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system,” according to the Environmental Working Group. So there is a good chance that your favorite designer perfume or scented lotion with citrus or floral notes isn’t actually derived from an actual lemon or lavender plant at all, but is instead is scented by chemicals created in a lab.
I don’t want to run around claiming that the sky is falling; that using these chemicals on our bodies will be the demise of the human race. Perhaps the reason that the scientific community has yet to convincingly prove the extent of these chemical’s toxicity is because they are indeed harmless. But I always come back to this basic thought. There are already misfortunes in life over which we have no control, like disease and infertility. If it ultimately it is proven true that these chemicals are harmful and can accelerate or exacerbate these conditions, and I could have prevented them by using shampoo or mascara that was $2 more expensive and I chose not to, I’m really going to kick myself later. So taking an extra minute to read a label and spending a few extra bucks on toxic-free products is worth it to me in the long run.
If you are interested in learning more about chemicals in cosmetics products, here are a few helpful places to start: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics & Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
Also, there are several companies that produce high-quality products without toxic chemicals. Check out some of these as alternatives to your current products: Tarte, 100% Pure, Honest, Burt’s Bees, and Acure.