It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the new, seemingly natural products on the market—just walk down the beauty aisle of your grocery store or step into a Sephora. What’s not so clear is what’s genuinely better for our overall health. Organic products cost more—sometimes a lot more. Are they really worth the extra money?
PARABENS—As Bad as They Sound?
Parabens are used to extend the shelf-life of most of our beauty products, but having products that stick around for long periods of time may not be as desirable as you may think. According to the American Cancer Society, “Studies have shown that parabens, which are used as preservatives in many skin care products (like lotion, make-up, and sunscreen), can be absorbed through the skin. In 2004, a small study found traces of parabens in some samples of breast cancer tumors.” What’s more, parabens have estrogen-like properties, which cause your cells (cancerous or not) to grow and divide. However, it’s important to note that the study did not look at paraben levels in normal tissue.
More cause for concern lies in the fact that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act doesn’t authorize the FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients. Within the FDA, there is virtually no regulation of the ingredients in our makeup, hair care, or lotions. Instead, companiesvoluntarily test their products with the Cosmetic Industry Review (CIR) process. This is in stark contrast to the European Union that has some of the strictest cosmetic laws in the world. To put things in perspective, the EU Cosmetic Directive bans 1100 ingredients, whereas the FDA has banned only nine. In a 2008 statement given by Jane Houlihan, the Vice President of Research at the Environmental Working Group, she said, “Companies are free to use almost any ingredient they choose in personal care products, with no proof of safety required.”
PHTHALATES—The Truth About Plastics
Phthalates are found in plastics—plastic storage containers, water bottles, and some food packaging. They have become a part of our modern lifestyle. The Environmental Working Group has found, “Phthalate plasticizers [are] linked to birth defects of the male reproductive system.” The statement went on to say, “Over the past four years, scientists have published at least 10 epidemiology studies linking phthalates to birth defects in baby boys, reproductive problems in men, abdominal obesity, increased diabetes risk, thyroid problems, as well as asthma and dermal diseases in children.”
It should come as no surprise to learn that the EU has banned several types of phthalates, whereas none are banned in the U.S., though the evidence of the harmful effects phthalates have on the human body is very clear. Not only do these plasticizers interfere with human development, evidence also suggests these chemicals weaken bones, and current research is being done to determine whether or not phthalates are endocrine disrupters.
FRAGRANCES—Should We Avoid What Smells Good?
Who doesn’t want to use fabric softeners or dishwashing liquid that smells like lemons or lavender? The fragrance-free versions often seem bland in comparison. But a lot of people are highly sensitive to fragrances which should lead us to wonder, what’s in those fragrances? And more importantly, what are the effects of using fragrances on our skin, on our clothes, and in our cleaning products?
According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, “Fragrances and perfumes in cosmetics, personal and household products are leading causes of allergy, sensitization, and irritation. Animal toxicity studies have found many to be hazardous. Fragrances are called ‘indoor air-pollutants’ by chemically sensitive individuals.”
Thousands of synthetic ingredients are used by the fragrance industry to create the perfumes and lotions we love to spritz and slather on. What’s more, fragranced products contain phthalates, which pose countless health concerns. In America, individual perfume ingredients don’t have to be listed on the product. Typically we only see “fragrance” on the label when in fact it may have taken twenty-five or more ingredients to make that one unique fragrance.
Is The Tide Turning?
Over the last few years there has been increased pressure on cosmetic companies to produce cleaner, safer products—and it looks like the companies are starting to listen. According to the Environmental Working Group, Whole Foods, the largest natural food retailer in the U.S., has disallowed the use of phthalates in products bearing its Whole Body Premium Standard Seal. It’s also worth noting that The Body Shop has already phased out many phthalates in its line of products.
But there is still more work to do. If you are interested in getting involved in the fight for better regulation of our cosmetic products, make a point of contacting your local government officials or state officials. Let them know cosmetic industry regulation is important to you and your families. Another way to get involved is to simply buy from companies that have taken measures to eliminate toxic chemicals. Look for products that are paraben-free and fragrance-free or better yet, 100% organic. And pay attention to the packaging of your foods and beauty products, which all too often contain phthalates. Look for glass containers. Remember, you can send a message with every dollar you spend.
For more information on product safety check out:
Healthystuff.org—A comprehensive website that allows you to search by brand to see what may be lurking in your apparel, children’s toys, and pet products. Healthystuff.org has tested thousands of products and keeps consumers informed of the latest news in consumer protection
Cosmeticdatabase.org—This site contains the Skin Deep database created by the Environmental Working Group. This database is very comprehensive—you search for a brand and you can immediately learn whether your product is considered to be a low hazard product or a high hazard product. You can also learn safer shopping tips and explore the frequently asked questions page, which offers an abundance of good information.