How Healthy Are Your Personal Care Products?

Americans love personal care products. Those products have an impact on our body and the environment that many people are not aware of. Buy eco-friendly!Americans love their personal care products. In 2010, we spent over $33 billion on those products. That is more revenue than the Gross Domestic Product of 100 nations. Those products that we love have an alternative impact on our body and the environment that many people are not aware of. I can almost hear you ask yourself; but aren’t those products regulated and safe?

Personal Care Products Regulation.

The personal care industry is regulated under the direction of the FDA by authority of Congress. To be compliant with FDA requirements, manufacturers must perform the following:

  • Product must not contain poisonous materials (even through contamination). An exemption exists for coal-tar dyes.
  • The product may not contain any decomposed substance.
  • Product may not be packed in unsanitary conditions.
  • The container may not be toxic.
  • It may not be branded with the intent of misleading consumers.
  • Container is not misleading.
  • Labeling is clear and readable.
  • Instructions for safe usage is required.

Unfortunately, personal care products are permitted to be sold without approval of the FDA unlike drugs or medical devices. Additionally, the FDA clearly states that manufacturers are legally responsible for product safety. There are no required tests to ensure that safety and no requirement to demonstrate a product’s safety.

Hidden Chemicals in Some Personal Care Products.

The materials permitted by the FDA are highly outdated and do not include a fair assessment of the risks many ingredients pose. While the potential impact from exposure from these chemicals may be small from day-to-day, the cumulative impact may be significant. Here are some of the more common ingredients you need to be on the lookout for:

  • Coal Tar: Found in shampoos, soaps, dyes, lotions, toothpastes and basically anything that has an artificial color. Coal tar is a sludge-like byproduct from the burning of coal. While it has been identified with multiple forms of cancer, most of those arguments are unsubstantiated.  The FDA regulates these products and those in use are generally regarded as safe (GRAS). There are current petitions calling for more extensive studies to determine the safety of artificial colors. Artificial colors have also been linked to increased hyperactivity in children; in Europe artificial colors need a label stating the potential side hyperactivity side effects. An exception for consideration is a product called concentrated coal tar shampoo used as a treatment for psoriasis. This product may present an elevated risk of cancer, but obviously isn’t for everyday use.
  • DEA/TEA/MEA: Found in personal care products such as soaps, shampoos, lotions, and many other cleaning products as well as makeup. DEA is a known carcinogen and prohibited in Europe.
  • Ethoxylated surfactants: A manufacturing byproduct includes 1,4-dioxane and is not an intended ingredient. Nonetheless, it is commonly found in personal care products and is cancerous if present.
  • Formaldehyde: Also seen as Diazolidinyl Urea / DMDM Hydantoin. Found in nail polish, hair gel, baby shampoo, and eyelash adhesive. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and banned in several nations outside of the US.
  • Fragrance: Typically includes phthalates (see further down on the list). Note that due to corporate laws, companies are not required to disclose the chemicals included in their fragrances. It is protected as a trade secret.
  • Hydroquinone: A skin bleaching product that lightens targeted areas. A suspected carcinogen, it is still allowed in use in the United States due to a 1982 rule published by the FDA expressing the product as “generally recognized as safe and effective”. In 2006 the FDA proposed a withdrawal of that rule and further studies which have not yet taken place nearly 10-years later.
  • Lead: This known carcinogen has tested positive in over 50% of brands reviewed. Unfortunately no federal standard exists.
  • Mercury: Identified in mascara. According to the World Health Organization, the inhalation of mercury can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems.
  • Microbeads: These are the near-microscopic plastic beads that mad scientists at chemical companies have been adding to your personal care products for a few years. The beads never decompose and continue to accumulate in the ecosystem and more specifically in the food chain. Unfortunately, microbeads are found in a wide range of personal care products. Avoid them due to the downstream affects.
  • Parabens: A preservative that has been observed to mimic estrogen. The FDA has deemed parabens as safe even in concentrated doses as recently as 2007.
  • Phthalates: Present in synthetic fragrances and perfumes. Unfortunately these chemicals are found in a wide range of products including nail polish, lotions, gels, shampoos, etc. Virtually anything with an artificial fragrance has a risk of including these chemicals. Phthalates in concentrated exposures interfere with testosterone production in men and are of elevated risk to children.
  • Placental extract: Includes enzymes extracted from actual animal placentas and is used in limited skin and hair products.
  • Polyethylene glycol (PEG): One of many different polymers; frequently designed to create the feeling of being smooth. There are too many variations to list them out, but avoid using PEG-4, PEG-6, PEG-7, PEG-8, PEG-14M, PEG-20M, PEG-32, PEG-75, and PEG-150 on damaged skin.
  • Propylene glycol: Found in moisturizers, sunscreen, makeup, and haircare products. It’s intended as a conditioner; but it frequently irritates the skin.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS, SLES): A synthetic detergent and foaming agent. It is believed to be an irritant, but not a carcinogenic. This chemical is widely used to create a foaming action. It’s added because consumers equate foaming to cleaning.
  • Toluene: Frequently used in the synthetic fragrance. Toluene is known to be toxic; but it is especially damaging to developing fetuses and infants.
  • Triclosan: Used for antibacterial purposes and frequently linked to the increase of resistant strains of bacteria. The FDA has explicitly expressed that they do not see a health benefit from including triclosan in hand and body soaps. This means if you’re concerned about being exposed to the product, just find a brand that doesn’t include it.

As you can see, some of these chemicals may at minimum cause some form of irritation to the skin or respiratory passages. In more concerning cases, concentrated doses of the chemicals are known to cause cancer. Unless you are a diligent label-reader before you make your purchases, chances are very good that you have most of these chemicals in your bathroom today.


Personal Care Products Breakdown.

It’s simply not realistic to say you cannot use any of these personal care products anymore. What’s important from here though is that you continue to educate yourself on the products you use. Read the labels and continue to ask questions. When you have an option that allows you to avoid the chemicals, take it.

Any single personal care product is not likely to cause you genuine harm unless you are pregnant (in the case of toluene) or do not follow the instructions for usage (applying to damaged skin).

Another consideration when picking your personal care products is whether the product is tested on animals. The European Union has banned the import and sale of toiletries and cosmetics tested on animals.  The United States has no ban on testing cosmetics on animals. If you don’t want products tested on animals, you will need to research the company to find out how they test their products.

Any true risks however, lie in the long-term usage of many of these personal care products. Your body just doesn’t need these chemicals and the more you are able to limit them the healthier you will feel and the healthier you will be.


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