6 Strategies for Choosing Non-toxic Personal Care Products

This past week concerned customers have been taking letters to Walgreen asking them to #MindtheStore by keeping products containing any of a list of 100 hazardous ingredients off their shelves. Similar previous efforts have resulted in Target and Walmart agreeing to take steps to reduce and eliminate hazardous chemicals in their products. Some might wonder whether this course of action is really necessary. I mean, don't our national laws and regulations prevent retailers from selling hazardous products in the first place?

Acceptable Levels of Risk

Although most consumers believe the U.S. government regulates the safety of personal care products, the sad truth is, personal products (a.k.a. cosmetics) are among the least-regulated products on the market. The current cosmetics law in the United States dates back to 1938, long before thousands of ingredients had even been invented. The FDA (charged with oversight of the cosmetics industry) has no authority to require pre-market safety testing, does not have the authority to regulate what goes into cosmetics before they are marketed for consumer use, and has no authority to require recalls of harmful cosmetics or even to require that manufacturers report cosmetics-related injuries to the FDA (source).

In fact, the cosmetics industry rather than a government agency is in charge of policing itself. Like many other industries before them (tobacco, alcohol, and now food), when faced with the possibility of meaningful government regulation (in 1978), the cosmetics industry volunteered to regulate itself by creating the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Panel. Who determines if ingredients are safe enough to be used in personal products?
"Acceptable levels of risk are entirely at the [Industry] Panel's discretion" (source).
What are those levels of risk the CIR finds acceptable? Consider this: personal care products are manufactured with 10,500 unique chemical ingredients. Out of 10,500 ingredients, CIR has assessed the safety of fewer than 20% or 2,100 of them (leaving over 8,000 untested), and found just 11 ingredients total to be unsafe. Personal care products sold in the United States contain ingredients banned for use in cosmetics in the EU, Japan, and Canada, and contain known carcinogens such as lead and formaldehyde (source). Despite all we have learned about pediatric environmental health in the past several decades:
the CIR doesn't look at the effects of exposures to multiple chemicals linked to negative health impacts; the cumulative effect of exposures over a lifetime; [or] the timing of exposure, which can magnify the harm for the very young and other populations. (source)

If you are uncomfortable with the level of risk industry finds acceptable, you'll have to seek products that adhere to a higher standard than the one set by the cosmetics industry for itself. Here are some strategies I've used to identify less toxic personal care products.

6 Strategies for Choosing Non-toxic Personal Care Products

Use the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database.
It's as easy as typing a product or ingredient into the search query. Low Hazard scores are better. I like to stay in the 0-2 range if at all possible. Two caveats: the database (maintained by a non-profit) is sometimes incomplete and not always up-to-date, so always cross-check ingredients lists. However, you can create your own customized report if your product is missing from the database or is rated according to an outdated formulation. I explain how to create a custom report in this post. There is also a Skin Deep App. Another organization that rates products (upon a number of dimensions) is Good Guide.

Shop at Natural Food & Drugstores.
Whole Foods and other natural food and drugstores have their own standards for what products they will carry. These products are not green enough for everyone (many of the "natural" and "eco-friendly" brands score in the Moderate Hazard range or above in the Skin Deep Database), but they will not contain the most offensive ingredients and are definitely a step up from what you will find at your local Walgreens.

Identify reliable brands and stick with those.
This is a useful shortcut if you can find one or more brands that you trust to use the safest ingredients while making effective products. For example, one of my favorite brands is Earth Mama Angel Baby, particularly for baby and kid products, because all EMAB products have a Skin Deep Hazard Score of zero (best possible rating). My family also uses personal products manufactured by The Honest Company, Tom's of Maine, Burt's Bees, and various Etsy stores (see links below for specific product recommendations).

Avoid the worst ingredients.
There are so many sketchy ingredients worth avoiding, it's hard to know where to begin. You may have heard about the problems with parabens, phthalates, triclosan, and fragrance. Here is a more exhaustive list of some of the most hazardous ingredients put together by EWG (read more about each ingredient and what products it shows up in here). Print it out and keep it in your purse.
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) 
  • Boric acid and Sodium borate 
  • Coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (including Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine) 
  • Formaldehyde 
  • Formaldehyde releasers – Bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidzaolidinyl urea and Quaternium-15 
  • Fragrance 
  • Hydroquinone 
  • Lead 
  • Methylisothiazolinone, methylchloroisothiazolinone and benzisothiazolinone (preservatives) 
  • Nanoparticles 
  • Oxybenzone 
  • Parabens (specifically Propyl-, Isopropyl-, Butyl-, and Isobutyl- parabens) 
  • Petroleum distillates 
  • Phthalates 
  • Resorcinol 
  • Toluene 
  • Triclosan & Triclocarban 
  • Vitamin A compounds (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinol) 

Sierra Club Green Home has a slightly different list (read more about each ingredient and why you should avoid here):
  • phthalates 
  • fragrances 
  • parabens 
  • dyes (for example, D&C Violet 2) 
  • ethoxylated compounds (ingredients with myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth or any other “eth”; PEG; polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, or oxynol) 
  • DMDM hydantoin 
  • Diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), and monoethanolamine (MEA) 
  • Nonylphenols 
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds (benzalkonium chloride, cetrimonium bromide, and quaternium-15) 
  • thimerosal (mercury) 
  • lead 
  • hydroquinone 

Seek products with familiar ingredients and/or USDA Organic certification.
A long list of unpronounceable ingredients is usually a bad sign. "Organic" and "natural" are potentially meaningless on their own (as are "hypoallergenic," "unscented," and even "fragrance-free"), but USDA Organic is regulated and certified.

Make your own.
As with cleaners and many other products, the safest and most natural route (and probably the most frugal too) is to make your own. I wouldn't recommend making your own contact solution, but lots of people make their own lotion or deodorant.

Please take action!

While I'm happy to share strategies I've used to avoid toxic chemicals with others, there's no denying it's a hassle. What we really need is meaningful toxic chemical reform. Click here to ask our representatives to take action on this urgent and important issue, and consider signing up for Safer Chemicals' email list to receive legislative updates and relevant petitions. You can also sign the petition to Walgreens here.

How do you avoid toxic chemicals in personal products?

Related Posts

Check out these additional posts about reading labels from Green Sisterhood bloggers:

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