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Top Toxins to Avoid in Personal Care
Top Toxins to Avoid in Personal Care
Between brushing your teeth, shampooing your hair, putting on lipstick and slathering on sunscreen, you’re exposed to a staggering amount of chemicals in personal care products each day. And while you might not think that what you put on your body matters as much as what you put in it, remember that skin is the body’s largest organ, and it readily absorbs many chemicals—both healthy and unhealthy—into the bloodstream.
Luckily, the natural personal care category has exploded in the past decade, growing from a few select “hippie” brands sold in co-ops to a cornucopia of options that you can find at natural foods stores and online, and even in mainstream stores such as Target and Walgreens. These products have also become significantly more effective, more luxurious and easier to use in recent years, thanks to improved formulation techniques and consumer demand for safe alternatives to toxic chemicals.
But to find safe skin care products, you have to look beyond buzzwords like natural and organic. Since no government regulations exist to govern the use of these terms, companies tack them onto products at will. Certifying agencies such as the Natural Products Association and retailers such as Whole Foods have developed their own standards for what they deem natural and safe. These are helpful guides, but to really assess a product, turn over the box, bottle or tube and scan the ingredients list.
Deciphering ingredient labels
When scrutinizing labels, follow a few guidelines. First, simpler is better. If a product has a long list of ingredients, many of which you can’t pronounce, chances are it contains chemicals you’d be better off avoiding. Next, look for botanical and mineral ingredients in lieu of chemicals. For a true botanical ingredient, labels will list the common name (such as green tea extract), followed by its Latin moniker in parentheses (Camellia sinensis). Statements such as “mint-scented” and “natural pine aroma” are most often artificial. And just like food labels, the closer to the beginning an ingredient is listed, the more predominant it is in the product. In other words, if you see a few herbs, oils or butters tagged on at the end, they’re likely present in miniscule amounts.
Ingredients to avoid
There are many acceptable, healthy ingredients with long or complex names. But without a chemistry degree, it can be tough to discern the good guys from the villains. Here’s a cheat sheet of the top personal care ingredients to avoid.
Parabens. Once ubiquitous in skin care, methyl-, propyl-, butyl- and other parabens ward off bacteria to preserve products' shelf life. But these chemicals, which the skin absorbs rapidly, mimic estrogen, thus raising breast cancer risk, and can damage the male reproductive system, according to several studies. Research published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology in 2004 found parabens present in all 20 breast cancer tumors tested. Since safer preservatives (such as sodium benzoate) exist, most natural companies ousted parabens long ago, and many mainstream brands have followed suit.
Fragrance. Fragrances are considered trade secrets, so manufacturers don’t have to disclose what they consist of, even though they can include a host of damaging chemicals. Along with irritating the skin and causing more serious allergic reactions, synthetic fragrances can contain phthalates, which are linked to hormone disruption, sperm damage and even premature puberty. A 2010 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics study discovered the phthalate diethyl phthalate (DEP) in 12 of 17 fragrance products tested, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found DEP in 97 percent of Americans examined.
Oxybenzone. A popular chemical sunscreen that blocks both sunburn-inducing UVB and cancer-causing UVA rays, oxybenzone has estrogenic effects that can elevate cancer risk and cause birth defects. Animal studies have shown that oxybenzone alters the liver, kidneys and reproductive organs. It also triggers allergic reactions in some people. And like phthalates, oxybenzone lingers in the body: A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in July 2008 found oxybenzone in 97 percent of the 2,500 urine samples tested. Mineral sunblocks with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide offer natural, nontoxic and, according to many dermatologists, superior UVA-UVB protection.
PEG, ceteareth and polyethylene compounds. Ethoxylated chemicals are used as detergents, emulsifiers and solvents but can be contaminated with the byproduct 1,4-dioxide, which the Environmental Protection Agency lists as a probable carcinogen. According to the Food and Drug Administration, manufacturing processes have improved, thus decreasing the levels at which 1,4-dioxane exists in most products. But to stay on the safe side, avoid ingredients that have undergone ethoxylation, namely any PEG followed by a number and chemicals ending in –eth.
DMDM hydantoin and diazolinyl urea. These powerful antimicrobials and preservatives break down and release formaldehyde, which the World Health Organization classifies as a known human carcinogen. They also trigger allergic reactions, aggravate asthma and hinder the immune system.
Benzalkonium chloride. Several studies have linked this strong antimicrobial common in personal care and household cleaners to severe skin, respiratory and eye irritation. Benzalkonium chloride is thought to be especially troublesome for people with asthma or eczema. A study published in the journal Microbiology in January 2010 suggests continued use of products containing this potent germ fighter can foster bacterial resistance.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA). According to the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens, 12th Edition (2011), BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” This personal care preservative, also found in processed foods and food packaging, causes stomach cancers and ransacks sex hormones in rodents, according to research published in the journal Toxicology in March 2005.
Diethanolamine (DEA). This softening agent gives shampoos and lotions lather, but it can react with other chemicals to create the carcinogen nitrosodiethanolamine. Animal studies have linked DEA to organ damage; it’s also thought to be toxic to aquatic species.
By: Melaina Juntti
Melaina is a freelance writer and editor in Madison, Wis., who focuses on natural health and wellness. Her work has appeared in Men's Journal, Delicious Living, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Natural Solutions, Inside Triathlon and Triathlete magazines.
May 17th, 2012