With literally thousands of chemicals and fragrances
added to everything from moisturizer to nail polish, how
do you know if your beauty product is safe?
We live in a chemical-infused world. Although there are
some benefits -- clean drinking water, for example --
when it comes to beauty products, chemicals are thought
by many to cause adverse health effects. That's because
chemicals from beauty products don't pass through your
digestive system where they might be filtered; instead,
they head right into your bloodstream.
It's important for consumers to understand that the
cosmetic industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA). Companies are required to list all
the ingredients in order of use, but they're not
required (by federal law) to test products for safety.
The FDA can only act if they have strong scientific
knowledge that a product is dangerous. That doesn't mean
that companies don't have safety standards, but it does
mean that claims like "natural," "botanical" or
"organic" are basically useless.
So where does this leave the consumer? The Environmental
Working Group (EWG) -- a non-profit, non-partisan
organization working to educate consumers about
chemicals in cosmetics -- created
Skin Deep a searchable database that analyzes about
25,000 beauty products and 10,000 different ingredients.
"It's about trying to pick better products in the same
category," says Kristan Markey, a chemist and research
analyst for EWG. For example, it's not reasonable to
stop using all soap, but you can choose milder soaps
with fewer ingredients. "It's a big challenge, but
basically, it's just a matter of slowly going through
your bathroom cabinet," Markey says. The best place to
start is by looking at the ingredients. However, even
that can feel like a Herculean task, given that most
ingredients are multi-syllabic words you can't even
pronounce, let alone have any idea what they do.
Here are some tips to get started:
Beware of the word "fragrance." You might think it's
something that simply smells pretty, but scents are
chemicals. The truth is, it's impossible to know exactly
which chemicals are in a fragrance. There are more than
5,000 different fragrances used in cosmetics and skin
care products, reports the American Academy of
Dermatology. Plus, not all chemicals are listed on a
label. To complicate matters, fragrance chemicals are a
leading cause of
allergic reactions to cosmetics. Choose "fragrance
free" whenever possible. Or, if the bouquet of lavender
fields is crucial for your morning shower, look for
products with no chemical preservatives."
Scrutinize Nail Polish
Phthalates -- used widely in nail polish -- are a big
topic of controversy and research. Scientists have been
studying this group of chemicals for at least 20 years
and have found that they may be linked to birth defects
in humans (they're definitely toxic to animals).
Unfortunately, phthalates often get hidden under
"fragrance," so it's hard for the consumer to know if
the nail polish contains it or not. The best tactic: Use
less nail polish -- perhaps just paint your toes and
skip the nails.
Use Hair Dyes Less Often
Salons are not required to list the ingredients in their
hair dye, Markey says, but we know that many contain
coal tar ingredients -- chemicals that have been linked
to cancer. Black hair dyes for men have also been found
to contain lead (called lead acetate), which has been
restricted in both Canada and the European Union.
Avoiding hair dye altogether is a tough pill to swallow
-- but try to go as long as possible between uses.
Avoid Skin Lighteners
"You want to avoid anything that changes your skin
composition," Markey says. Watch out for products that
have hydroquinone -- a chemical that bleaches the skin
and can cause lesions. The FDA has issued warnings about
it and recommended that it no longer be generally
recognized as safe and effective.
Choose Shampoo Carefully
Be especially wary of dandruff shampoos, because they
often contain selenium sulfide -- a neurotoxin and
possible carcinogen. If you can, avoid shampoos that
list ethanolamine or diethanolamine -- called TEA or DEA
on the label. These are nitrosamines, says Markey, which
are thought to be carcinogenic (though it's not clear in
what amounts). The FDA has also been monitoring the
contaminant 1,4-dioxane, which on a label could be
called "PEG," "Polyethylene," "Polyethylene glycol," "Polyoxyethylene,"
"-eth-," or "-oxynol-."
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
Once you start digging into the ingredients of many of
your favorite beauty products, it's easy to become
disheartened. After all, who doesn't like to look nice,
smell nice and have smooth skin and pretty nails? But
try to look for ways to cut down the amount of products
you're using: Drop a step from your skincare routine,
give your hair days off from washing, use fragrance free
whenever possible and always look for products with less