Did you know that the vast majority of the items in the aisles full of body care products in the stores are harmful to your health?
Before I started my natural living journey, my favourite shampoo was Pantene. It was fairly cheap but still worked well, it smelled good, it had a nice lather, and it made my hair shiny and clean. That’s about all I asked for in a shampoo, and it had not occurred to me to wonder what those unpronounceable ingredients were, exactly.
As I began learning about the toxic chemicals that are used in products, I found that the ingredients in my favourite shampoo are associated with things like neurotoxicity and organ system toxicity. I don’t know about you, but to me that does not seem like a desirable side effect of washing my hair.
The skin is our largest and most absorbent organ. Toxic chemicals that are put on your skin are easily absorbed directly into your bloodstream. It is even worse to put toxic chemicals on our skin than to eat them, since the digestive system is designed to filter out junk and get rid of it, but the skin is not.
But aren’t these things regulated to some degree?
A good question. The answer should be yes, but unfortunately it is not. The government* agency under which the cosmetics industry falls is the FDA (or Health Canada). According to the EWG’s website, “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority to require companies to test products for safety. FDA does not review or approve the vast majority of products or ingredients before they go on the market.”
In essence, the cosmetics industry is responsible for regulating itself for safety, which to absolutely nobody’s surprise is not very effective. The industry’s safety panel has assessed less than 20% of the products on the market, and it’s recommendations are not even binding in any way on companies. Sounds crazy, right? I agree.
The terrible thing is that companies really do use harmful chemicals in their products and there is no one stopping them. Their sales are higher than ever, and people are totally ignorant about the toxic effects.
The EWG notes that “cosmetics companies may use any ingredient or raw material, except for color additives and a few prohibited substances, without government review or approval (FDA 2005, FDA 2000)”. There are ingredients used in products in the US that are banned in other countries, chemicals linked directly to things like cancer, immunotoxicity, allergies, and infertility, as evidenced in scientific, peer-reviewed articles and studies.
(*I live in Canada, and while the data is not as readily available, I do believe our regulations and products are very similar to those in America.)
So should I just buy the organic and natural products?
Unfortunately this is not exactly an easy solution. The terms “organic” and “natural” are essentially meaningless in the cosmetics industry. Even terms like “hypoallergenic” or “unscented” are not indicators of a healthier product in any way at all. Companies can use those terms to mean anything at all, even if it’s simply a marketing ploy.
The EWG states that “products labeled “organic” or “natural” can contain petrochemicals and no certified organic or natural ingredients whatsoever. Products certified as organic can contain as little as 10% organic ingredients by weight or volume (Certech 2008). FDA tried establishing an official definition for the term “natural,” but these protections were overturned in court (FDA 1998)”.
What about reading the labels and ingredients lists?
Yes, this is definitely a good place to start. Get to know the most commonly-used toxic ingredients, like sodium laurel/laureth sulfates, paragons, EDTA, and fragrance/parfum. Avoid those to begin with, and then figure out what the other ingredients really are. Use resources like the EWG’s Skin Deep Database, where you can type in the name of a product and have the already-done research pop up for you, outlining the ingredients and the hazard rating. This applies to everything from sunscreen to makeup to lotion and shampoo.
Remember though, that ingredient lists are not foolproof. As the EWG reminds us, “federal law allows companies to leave many chemicals off labels, including nanomaterials, ingredients considered trade secrets, and components of fragrance (Houlihan 2008). Fragrance may include any of 3,163 different chemicals (IFRA 2010), none of which are required to be listed on labels. Fragrance tests reveal an average of 14 hidden compounds per formulation, including potential hormone disruptors and diethyl phthalate, a compound linked to sperm damage (EWG & CSC, 2010).”
So now what?
Know that usually the healthier (but you still have to do your own research!) choices are often found in places like farmer’s markets or health food stores, or sometimes the “natural/organic” aisle of some grocery stores. Get to know the options, and try a few until you find one that you like.
Realize that a better and healthier shampoo may not perform in the way that you’re used to. That rich and thick lather that you get when you use your old shampoo is likely the result of the sodium laurel sulfate that is included, which is classified as expected or likely to be toxic or harmful to the non-reproductive organ system by the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List. It is also said to be a “strong irritant” to the skin, eyes, and lungs. The shampoo I use now doesn’t have that same kind of lather, and I admit – sometimes I miss that. would I trade my health for it though? No thanks.
One of my favourite products that I can recommend is Dr. Bronner’s. It’s a pure castile soap that has no added junk ingredients whatsoever. It is the only thing we use as body wash in our family, from birth right on up to the eldest among us (ahem, Daddy It comes in various scents, and I like the unscented baby one or the lavender one.
In our house…
We use a shampoo and conditioner that have very low ratings (that’s a good thing!) on the Skin Deep Database. We tried quite a few in our quest to find a good one, and thought I’m pretty happy with it, I’m open to trying new ones still. I’d also like to eventually get into the no-poo method once my baby-making/nursing/etc. hormonal roller-coaster days are behind me (hair can be so finicky during those periods!).
I am at various stages of changing the rest of my cosmetics and body care products over to more natural and less-toxic alternatives. Next up is making my own toothpaste, and when I can afford it – I’d love to get some natural mineral makeup. We use a non-toxic sunscreen, and I don’t really use a ton of other products. Perhaps I should write a post detailing my daily body care routine, since there is a lot more I could say here. (If I ever actually get around to writing it, I’ll be sure to link it here!).