Tips from a PhD on Reading Labels to Avoid Obvious Toxins in Personal Care Products

by Ashley S. Cooke on February 6, 2014

Hi, my name is Ashley. I work at The S File and I recently attended a discussion, titled “How to Read a Product Label.” Led by Sarah Evans, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Pediatrics at the Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Evans answered common questions about harmful ingredients in personal care products that we share below.

Do chemicals in personal care products get into our bodies?

CEHC Pocket Guide - Avoid BPA-1

Pocket-size cards like this one were handed out.

Absolutely.  When adults were tested, they were found to have a body burden (the total amount of toxic chemicals in a body at a certain time) of over 200 synthetic chemicals.  As a general rule, one can assume that as the number of used personal care products increases, the number of chemicals found in the body will also increase.  This trend is also true of infants whose body burdens have been tested.

How can we avoid toxic chemicals in our personal care products?

The truth is that we can’t be sure of what’s in our products.  U.S. regulations on personal care products are not comprehensive, so we are left with the responsibility to find personal care products that are safe.  When reading the ingredients list on personal care products, one must read with a very critical eye.  As a consumer, the odds of knowing what’s in your products are against you – as some ingredients are considered “incidental”, they do not have to be included on an ingredients list.

So what can we do to keep ourselves safe?  Because of the lack of transparency in conventional products, many have turned to brands that create their products by using safer ingredients.  Dr. Evans wasn’t able to give us recommendations for safer brands, but The S File has a few personal favorites, and you can view our choices for healthier makeupbaby shampoo, and sunscreen.  For moisturizers, Ms. S tries the edible stuff first: organic cold pressed coconut oil or organic cold pressed olive oil. During this past winter season, she has been loving 100% pure shea butter. If you’d like help finding off-the-shelf  products, here are some tips that can help you navigate through the many choices you have!

  • Purchase fragrance-free products

While certain ingredients and “fragrance” must be listed on ingredients lists, “incidental” or ingredients within that fragrance mix do not have to be specified.  When tested for all synthetic ingredients, many phthalates, which are hormone disruptors, were found within that fragrance mix.  These chemicals have been linked to a myriad of conditions, including obesity, diabetes, allergies, asthma, and disruptions in reproductive development in boys.  While wearing no fragrance is best, if scent is a priority in your family, “natural fragrance” may be a better choice as it shouldn’t be synthetic or contain phthalates.

  •  Avoid anti-bacterial products

    CEHC Pocket Guide - Avoid BPA-2

    This helpful card by Mount Sinai helps straighten out the worst plastics from the safer ones.

Most anti-bacterial products contain triclosan, an endocrine disruptor that may disrupt thyroid hormones.  The truth is that there’s really no need for anti-bacterial soaps or sanitizers.  To get clean, soap and water is just fine!

One parent voiced her concern over her daughter often using her friends’ scented hand sanitizer at school.  Dr. Evans pointed out that one should not panic; as these chemicals are so prevalent in our environment, one must choose their battles and implement good habits when they can.  She even noted that hand sanitizers can be helpful in schools during flu season!  So in a nutshell, do the best you can – but no need to panic!

  • Avoid hair straightening products used at the salon and nail polishes.

Formaldehyde is often found in hair straightening products that are used in the salon and in most nail polishes.  If you often get your hair straightened, you may want to speak with your stylist and see if safer chemicals are available.  For nail polishes, Dr. Evans suggested brands that are labeled “three free,” which indicates that the product is a safer alternative.

  • Avoid products that contain Polyethylene Glycol (or PEG.)

Used in products to dissolve oil and grease, PEG can strip protective oils from the skin and hair, making them more vulnerable to other toxins.  Check for Polyethylene Glycol on the ingredients list of your personal care products.

Can I trust labels that say products are “organic” or “natural”?

Not always – often times those labels don’t mean anything! “Natural, green, organic” are all terms that are used in green-washing (or marketing that promotes a product as being “green,” whether it really is or not.)

NSF305_COI_BlueIt’s hard to find labels that you can trust, but for personal care products, there are some that are more trustworthy, like the National Sanitation Foundation’s label for cosmetics.  NSF/ANSI 305: Personal Care Products Containing Organic Ingredients is a new American National Standard that defines labeling and marketing requirements for personal care products that contain organic ingredients.  The voluntary standard allows the “ contains organic ingredients” designation or products with organic content of 70% or more that comply with all other requirements of the standard.

What can we do to stop companies from putting these harmful chemicals into personal care products?

As total avoidance is impossible in a world where chemicals have to be proven unsafe in order to be banned (instead of having to be proven safe to be passed,) it is important that we try to change legislation.  Write to your state and federal government and let them know you care about this issue, that you support the Safe Chemicals Act and that you’re paying attention to how our politicians vote on these issues.

Where can I find credible information on safer products in the home?

The S File has some great tools and tips you can use to keep your family safe, but below are some more great resources that were shared at the discussion!



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