Going Green: Toxins in Your Shampoo? Clean Up Your Beauty Routine

These days, many people are increasingly concerned with living a healthy lifestyle.  We exercise daily. We purchase organic foods and free-range, grass-fed meat. We grow our own fruits and vegetables. We try to get eight hours of sleep every night. We drink wine... for the antioxidants, of course. But how many of us take a moment to evaluate our personal care products for harmful chemicals?

Hiking: healthy exercise, healthy air! Bonus points if you have a cute rescue pup along. Lainey Piland photo

You can get a good night's sleep, do yoga daily and eat your homegrown organic kale for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but your health could still be at risk from carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting chemicals lurking in your shampoo, deodorant, lotion, soap, or makeup. Any personal care product is suspect.

The Issue

Wait a minute, there are dangerous chemicals in my shampoo?  Doesn't the government regulate that sort of thing?  Unfortunately not. According to information from the Environmental Working Group, the Food and Drug Administration does not require products to be tested for safety and does not review or approve ingredients before products are sent to store shelves. This means that your shampoo company can use any ingredients they well please, without having to prove they are safe to use.

The U.S. cosmetic industry's self-policing Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel has deemed a total of 11 chemicals too dangerous to use in personal care products. The European Union, however, has banned the use of over 1,400 chemicals in personal care products due to health and environmental concerns.  Many of those banned ingredients are regularly used here in the U.S.

Why are certain ingredients so dangerous? Many of them are carcinogenic, meaning they cause cancer. Other ingredients are endocrine disruptors, which means that they interfere with the normal function of our hormones - reproductive hormones in particular. The use of such chemicals in personal care products is especially concerning because, well, we use these products on our skin.  All over our bodies.  And our skin readily absorbs them (some products actually contain compounds to increase skin absorption of the product). Many of these chemicals accumulate in our internal organs and fatty tissues, where they can potentially reach high enough levels to cause cancer, affect reproduction, or cause other health issues.

Those same chemicals can also be ecotoxic, or toxic to the environment and wildlife. Chemicals in our personal care products typically enter the environment when we wash them down the drain during showers, when we wash our hands, flush the toilet, etc. This water then travels through the sewer system to a wastewater treatment plant.  While excellent at removing the icky yucky stuff and disinfecting the wastewater, these plants are unfortunately unable to remove chemicals from personal care products before discharging the wastewater into the environment via rivers, the ocean, or bodies of water such as Puget Sound.

If you're feeling skeptical and thinking it seems impossible that cosmetic companies would use harmful, cancer-causing chemicals in products that we apply to our bodies... I agree completely! However, this is the unfortunate and unfathomable reality. Read on and find out for yourself...

What Can I Do?

Clearly, our personal care products can pose serious threats to our health and the environment.  But how do we know if the shampoo in our shower or lip balm in our purse is harmful? One quick and easy rule of thumb is to look at the ingredient label.  If it contains a long list of ingredients that you cannot pronounce and/or have not a clue what they are - then you probably don't want to put that product on your body.

One of the best methods for determining product safety--and the one which I rely on--is to gather all of your products and look them up on the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. This well-researched and easy to use database will give your products a score of 0-10 based on the toxicity of their ingredients. The higher the score, the more toxic the product. Once you locate your product, you can see toxicity scores for individual ingredients and a list of associated health and environmental concerns. They even offer an app for your smartphone: with a quick scan of the barcode, you can find your product on the database. Fair warning: this can be a scary endeavor!

If, after looking up your products, you decide that you need to find less-toxic options, the Skin Deep database can help with that as well. Simply select the product type you're looking for from the menu, and the database will pull up all of the options, categorized from the lowest toxicity score to the highest. The mobile phone app is helpful for finding safe products while in the store.  Scan the barcode, find the toxicity score, and determine whether you want to purchase the product or fling it back onto the shelf and run away! Don't be fooled by products with the word "natural" on the label - this term is essentially meaningless, and many purportedly "natural" products still contain harmful ingredients.  Read the label, and look it up!

My Own Experience


I found out about the Skin Deep database several years ago, and have had a nagging feeling since then that I needed to switch to safer personal care products.  It wasn't until about 6 months ago that I finally took the time to research new products, and surprisingly (or perhaps not), finding safe products that were reasonably priced, actually worked, and which had a score of 2 or lower on the Skin Deep database ended up being a rather exhausting endeavor.

If you're interested and need some recommendations... here are the products I currently use, which emerged victorious from my hours of research:

Shampoo and conditioner - I purchase these items from Face Naturals (toxicity score 0-1).  These products smell divine, are made from organic ingredients that you can actually pronounce, aren't tested on animals, and are reasonably priced, for the most part (they last a long time!).  Just a warning to anyone making the switch from conventional to natural shampoo and conditioner: you will probably hate it at first. Your hair might feel flat, greasy, and just not good, but stick with it.  You'll go through a transition period of 1-2  weeks, and then you will love your hair! It will be light, clean, and shiny, with no residue buildup that typically happens with conventional shampoo. To really clean my hair, I add a sprinkle of baking soda to my shampoo every other day.

Lotion - I use plain ol' organic coconut oil (toxicity score 0). Trader Joe's sells it for about $6 per jar - the best price I've found so far.  Rub it into your skin and use a clean towel to dab away the excess, if needed.

Soap/Body Wash - I use Dr. Bronner's castile liquid soaps (toxicity score 0-3). The lavender scent is heavenly and relaxing, and the peppermint is refreshing! Plus, the crazy bottles give you something to read in the shower.

Deodorant - I make my own using Deodorant Recipe #3 on this page. (all ingredients have a score of 0).

Makeup - I purchase all of my makeup (except mascara) from Rejuva Minerals (toxicity score 0-1). For me, this consists of powder foundation, blush, and eyebrow powder. These products are free of toxic ingredients, packaged in biodegradable paper containers, and are not tested on animals. Plus, my blush is made with crushed rose petals. ROSE PETALS! I feel like a princess every time I use it. Their products might look pricey, but I promise they last a long time and are well worth it. I use Physician's Formula Organic Wear mascara (toxicity score 1) which works well and can be purchased at most drugstores for a price comparable to "regular" mascara.

There are many other products available which are safe and effective - the ones listed above are just the products that I personally decided to go with.

There you have it: my total collection of beauty products

Whew! This was a long post.  If you made it this far... thank you.  This is an important health and safety concern which the majority of the population probably isn't aware of. Please tell family and friends, feel free to share this blog post, and be sure to leave any of your own personal tips, experiences, or questions in the comments below.

You can also take action and join the effort to pressure cosmetic companies to remove toxic ingredients from their products.  The Story of Stuff is petitioning Proctor & Gamble to do just that: read more and sign the petition here.

Note from the Nature Nerd:  I realize this post is slightly different from the content I usually share on this blog, but the issue of toxic personal products is critically important to both human health and the environment. After reading the Story of Stuff petition linked above, I decided to write this blog post immediately. The petition calls out Proctor & Gamble for "pinkwashing" their products in honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  To "support" breast cancer awareness and encourage consumers to purchase their products, the company slaps a pink ribbon on the label... the very same label which lists cancer-causing chemicals in the ingredient list.  This is a slap in the face to anyone whose life has been touched by cancer, and is completely inexcusable. These companies need to be held accountable for the dangers their products pose to consumers.


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