Given all the concern about the many harmful chemicals present in our environment, you would think that the personal care products we use every day — items such as deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste — would be regulated to confirm they’re safe. Manufacturers, however, aren’t required to test these common toiletries for safety. In fact, manufacturers don’t even have to list each product’s ingredients on the label. For example, the cocktail of compounds found within a fragrance is considered a trade secret, which means no ingredient has to be listed individually. Testing has revealed an average of 14 hidden, unlisted compounds per fragrance formulation.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) has been covering this issue for more than a decade, and the organization explains that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the personal care products industry to police itself through the industry’s own Cosmetics Ingredient Review panel. But such voluntary self-regulation rarely works well, and the EWG reports that in the panel’s more-than-30-year history, it has declared only 11 ingredients or chemical groups to be unsafe. Plus, the panel’s recommendations about banning certain ingredients are not binding.
Here’s how the EWG explains the potential dangers of some toiletries:
“People are exposed to cosmetics ingredients in many ways: breathing in sprays and powders, swallowing chemicals on the lips or hands, or absorbing them through the skin. Biomonitoring studies have found that cosmetics ingredients, such as phthalate plasticizers, paraben preservatives, the pesticide triclosan, synthetic musks and sunscreen ingredients, are common pollutants in the bodies of men, women and children.
“Many of these chemicals are potential hormone disruptors,” the report continues. “Cosmetics frequently contain enhancers that allow ingredients to penetrate deeper into the skin. Studies have found that people exposed to common fragrance and sunscreen ingredients have health problems, including increased risk of sperm damage, feminization of the male reproductive system, and low birth weight in girls.”
Most marketing claims on personal care products are unregulated, and companies are rarely, if ever, required to back them up. The FDA says descriptions such as “hypoallergenic” and “natural” can mean anything or nothing at all. Head on over to the FDA’s website for additional information.
Avoid harmful ingredients and take a stand against labeling confusion in personal care products — and save money in the process — by making your own toiletries with the recipes shown here.
If you want to research your favorite commercial products, the EWG’s website features the Skin Deep Database which includes information and safety ratings for more than 69,000 body care products, including shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, makeup and more. Take this wealth of knowledge on the go by downloading the EWG’s free Skin Deep app, which lets you scan the barcodes of cosmetics and bath products for an instant safety rating based on ingredients and environmental impact.
Homemade Toiletry Recipes
Hannah Kincaid is an Assistant Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. She is an enthusiastic student of herbal medicine, organic gardening and yoga.