The Good, The Bad & The Ugly — Investigating Personal Care Products

All natural! Organic! Vegan! Not Tested on Animals! No SLS! No parabens! No phthalates! If you’re trying to live a greener, gentler, more Earth-friendly lifestyle or have done any looking into personal care products not produced by the industry’s biggest names, you’ve seen all of these claims and more. But how valid are they? Are you really doing something good for yourself and the planet by buying products with these declarations?

The answer to these questions is, alas, a resounding “maybe.” If that seems strange, recognize that, like narrow ties and platform shoes, certain ingredients frequently used in personal care products may come into, or go out of, public favor. Do any research among those “natural” skin care product manufacturers, for instance, and you’ll quickly discover that shea butter is currently “in,” as is coconut oil. On the flip side, there are phthalates, currently very much out of favor. If you’re not aware of phthalates, they’re a group of chemical compounds in very wide use. According to the Sierra Club website, phthalates are used in vinyls to make them softer and more flexible, but they’re also used in cosmetics and fragrances, among other items. Phthalates can be absorbed through the skin (though they also find their way into the human system via other means). The Sierra Club notes that, while the US government regulates industrial discharge of this group of chemicals, their use in personal care products is not regulated. In fact, phthalates have been banned in the US in children’s vinyl toys. Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, classifies one type of this chemical, dibutylphthalate (DBP) as a 10 (the highest hazard score), indicating that this chemical is a known human immune system toxicant. Additionally, the European Union has classified it as unsafe for cosmetics, banning its use, and has declared it very toxic to aquatic organisms and dangerous for the environment. It’s a known human respiratory toxicant. Workplace exposure to this chemical is limited. There are other concerns, as well, but you get the idea.

The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.

Look for an ingredient list on the personal care products you use every day. If you’re like most Americans, you’re going to run across a number of ingredients you’ll have trouble pronouncing, much less understanding their functions. So what do you do? There are several possibilities. You can keep using what you’re using and not worry about ingredients. At the other end of the spectrum, you can avoid those personal care products with hard-to-pronounce ingredients and buy only those with components you have no trouble recognizing. This is a difficult route, as you’ll likely have to mail order at least some of them, and it’s probably going to be a much more expensive path, as well (one of the advantages of synthetic chemicals is that they are often cheap, or relatively cheap, for manufacturers). For me, another possibility makes the most sense: be your own researcher, your own advocate. Yes, it’s undeniably more effort, but in the long run it allows you to balance costs and ingredients with which you’re comfortable. Additionally, you, not cosmetics corporate titans with stockholders to please, have control over what goes onto, and ultimately into, your body. For me, at least, this third path provides a point of equilibrium between price and product.

There are a number of websites that can serve as your guides if you’re trying to figure out which personal care products may be better or worse. Two of the better-known are GoodGuide and the aforementioned Skin Deep, Environmental Working Group’s ingredient safety database. GoodGuide rates products, and their manufacturers, on health, environmental management practices, and social issues (commitment to local community). Skin Deep rates products on a 0 to 10 scale, with scores of 0 to 2 constituting a low hazard, 3 to 6 indicating a moderate hazard, and 7 to 10 pointing out a high hazard. Skin Deep also allows you to look up individual ingredients in any personal care product, a nice feature considering that no database can list every product made by every manufacturer.

GoodGuide, which also has an iPhone app where you can scan barcodes and get instant data in the store.

GoodGuide, which also has an iPhone app where you can scan barcodes and get instant data in the store.

Besides enabling you to feel better about the products you use often, there’s another benefit to being your own advocate: it allows you to discover new products that might become your favorites. The number of small-scale producers of creams, moisturizers, soaps, lotions, cleansers, lip balms, etc. is incredible. Yes, too many of them make claims for their products that I consider far-fetched (although for those offering a money back guarantee if you’re not satisfied, it’s tough to argue). But that aside, the variety available to us is delightfully bewildering. Stay within your budget, but don’t be afraid to try something new.

And to set the record straight, just because a product is on store shelves, it doesn’t mean it’s safe. Personal care products are not, repeat, not required to be tested for safety. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has theoretical authority over these products. While no one doubts the FDA’s authority to regulate drugs and food additives, the agency doesn’t have the power to demand that cosmetics be safety-tested before they’re put in front of consumers.

Further, when it comes to “organic” and “natural” personal care products, let the buyer beware. According to the National Organic Program (NOP) website, the “FDA does not define or regulate the term “organic” as it applies to cosmetics, body care, or personal care products.” The result? Unscrupulous manufacturers can put almost anything into a personal care product and label it “organic.” The organic certification regulations in the US are a national shame, but right now, the only way to know you’re getting organic ingredients or an organic product is to look for a certification. In the case of a product, that will be the USDA’s green and white circle on the product label, proclaiming “USDA Organic.” With ingredients, ask for certification agencies, such as Oregon Tilth or QAI. And there is no legal definition for “natural” in products of this type. Again, anybody can put any chemical into your shampoo or deodorant and tell you their product is “natural.”

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll bring you reviews of personal care products we’ve tested ourselves. We’ll tell you what we like and whether we’ve found any questionable ingredients in these products. Remember, your skin is the single largest organ you have. Shouldn’t you take care of it?

Top photo illustration by Johanna Björk, based on photo by Thomas Münter, Flickr Creative Commons.

About author
Stephanie Zonis was born with a spoon in her mouth — a tasting spoon, that is. She began cooking (especially baking) at a very early age, and for a short time even ran a highly illegal baking business from her long-suffering parents’ house when she was in high school. After acquiring a Master’s Degree in Foods, she eventually discovered the Internet in 1997. She’s been writing about food and developing recipes, especially where chocolate is involved, ever since. During those few moments when she’s not cooking or writing or thinking about food, Stephanie enjoys reading, walking, political discussions, and volunteering at a local no-kill cat sanctuary. She has been a member of a medieval re-creation group for longer than she’ll admit and loves absurdist humor.
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