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(Do) Judge a Product by its Label

Sierra Club Green Home’s tips for choosing the best natural skin care products for your health and the environment

How many different skin care products do you use? Shampoo, conditioner, hair mousse, hair spray, body wash, bar soap, shaving cream, moisturizer, body lotion, facial toner, foundation, sunscreen, eye cream, eye shadow, blush, mascara, perfume, and makeup remover are just a few of the products found in many American homes. The average person in the United States uses 9 to 15 of these skin care products every day, applying an average of 126 unique ingredients.

natural skin care products

Finding¬†truly¬†natural skin care products is a challenge, especially since labeling and certification remain mostly unregulated. We are drawn to “natural,” “hypoallergenic,” and “organic” beauty and skin care products. Yet, neither “natural” nor “hypoallergenic” have any regulatory meaning. “USDA Certified Organic” is clearly defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but absent that certification, you have to be careful. “Organic” can be used in the name or label without the product containing any organic ingredients other than water. Traditionally, the term “unscented” has meant that the product has no odor, and “fragrance-free” has meant that fragrance hasn’t been added to mask a bad odor. But neither of those terms is legally defined, so consumers must take their chances.

Figuring out whether person care products are safe is even more of a challenge. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to be regulating cosmetics. But the FDA has banned only nine ingredients and allowed certain color additives, while the European Union has banned or controlled over 1,100 ingredients. As the FDA admits, in the United States a cosmetic manufacturer may use most any raw material and market it without FDA approval.

And then there are the environmental impacts: Most personal care products are eventually washed down the drain. But wastewater treatment plants do not remove them. They are sent coursing through our rivers and streams, and ultimately our oceans. In the process, they poison aquatic animals and ecosystems.


Top Tips

At home

  • Use fewer products. Don’t believe the beauty industry’s hype. Most of us probably only need a couple of products daily–not the whole heap of cosmetics that we are told will make us look thinner, younger, and more attractive.
  • Make your own. Many personal care products can be made at home with a few ingredients you probably have in your kitchen. Save the environment and your wallet by trying some of the homemade recipes.

When shopping, look for

  • Familiar ingredients. If a product claims to be “natural,” check out the list of ingredients. If you’ve never heard of most of them or need a chemistry degree to pronounce them, the product probably isn’t as “natural” as it claims.
  • USDA Organic Seal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal means that a product’s ingredients are grown without pesticides and genetically modified organisms in a way that is good for the soil and the rest of the environment. The program only applies to plant- and animal-based products, so mineral ingredients can’t qualify. Also, because the USDA has flip-flopped on whether the program includes cosmetics, some manufacturers haven’t taken the time to try to qualify now that USDA’s door is open to cosmetics again.
  • Environmentally friendly packaging. Personal care products are traditionally packaged to be eye-catching, with little regard for sustainability. Choose products in recyclable containers with minimal packaging. Keep an eye out for manufacturers that recycle their containers.

Avoid

  • Phthalates. Phthalates help cosmetics penetrate the skin and make it feel soft. They lubricate other ingredients and help sustain fragrances. On the other hand, they are known to cause developmental and reproductive problems in laboratory animals. Some are hormone disruptors. If a product has phthalates, skip it.
  • Fragrances. Unless a product states that its “fragrance” comes from essential oils, it’s probably made from synthetic, petroleum-based ingredients. It’s worth steering clear of fragrances because they tend to have phthalates and–even if they don’t–they can trigger skin, allergic, and respiratory ailments.
  • Parabens. Even though they can cause skin irritation and itchiness, methyl, ethyl, propyl, and benzyl parabens are used in beauty products as preservatives. Animal studies have also linked parabens to brain and nervous system disorders and hormone disruption. Because they have been found in breast cancer tissues, some scientists have hypothesized (but not yet proven) that excess absorption of parabens from personal care products, perhaps in concert with exposure to other hormone disruptors, could alter breast tissue.
  • Dyes. Used as coloring agents in personal care products, some dyes have been linked to cancer, and may be developmental toxicants. Not all dyes are bad, however. The ones linked with adverse health effects include: D&C Violet 2, EXT D&C Violet 2, FD&C Blue 1, FD&C Green 3, D&C Red 4 and D&C Yellow 5.
  • Ethoxylated compounds. Studies have shown body washes, baby washes, shampoos, foaming hand washes, and other products are sometimes contaminated with the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane, which is a byproduct of a manufacturing process called ethoxylation. You can avoid 1,4-dioxane by skipping products with ingredients with myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth or any other “eth”; PEG; polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, or oxynol. Keep in mind, though, that some manufacturers take the extra step of removing 1,4-dioxane from their products. The product’s manufacturer or the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics can tell you which is which.
  • DMDM hydantoin. The preservative DMDM hydantoin is used in shampoos, conditions, moisturizers, sunscreens, and styling products. It can inflame allergies and is a skin irritant. More significantly, as it degrades it can form the carcinogen formaldehyde.
  • DEA, TEA and MEA. The foaming agents diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), and monoethanolamine (MEA) are found in shampoos, lotions, and creams. DEA, TEA, and, to a lesser extent, MEA, are irritants and sensitizers. There’s conflicting information about whether DEA is a carcinogen. In the interest of being safe rather than sorry, it seems prudent to skip products that contain these substances.
  • Nonylphenols. Found in body washes, gel masks, foaming shaving creams, and even liquid liners, nonylphenols are surfactants, or wetting agents, which allow a liquid to spread more easily. Unfortunately they are also long-lived estrogen mimics that tend to accumulate in the body. Research suggests that they may reduce male fertility, testicular size, and sperm quality. Many European countries are phasing them out.
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds. These preservatives may be found in personal care products ranging from body washes to foundations to blushes. Included in the group are benzalkonium chloride, cetrimonium bromide, and quaternium-15-all of which are caustic and can irritate the eyes. Quaternium-15 works by releasing formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Plus, it is the number one cause of preservative-related “contact dermatitis,” a skin reaction–usually a red, scaly patch–resulting from exposure to allergens or irritants.
  • Other ingredients. Of course, you should always avoid mercury, used as a preservative and identified as thimerosal; lead, found in some hair coloring products; and hydroquinone skin lightener.

Other Considerations

  • Antibacterial Products. We may be doing ourselves more harm than good when it comes to antibacterial products containing triclosan and triclocarban, especially since they have not been shown to have any significant benefit except to the immune compromised. Triclosan is now found in a majority of American surface waters and in breast milk. While no studies have as yet shown that this chemical causes anything more than skin irritation and susceptibility to allergies in humans, a study has found it harmful to the development of frogs. In addition, these antibacterial products leave surface residues, creating conditions that may foster the development of drug-resistant bacteria.
  • Insect Repellants. To ward off bugs, many insect repellants are laced with the synthetic pesticide DEET. While the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), claim that DEET is safe to use if you follow directions, some studies have found that DEET can slow motor skills and impair central nervous system function in humans, especially if used with permethrin (used on some outdoor clothing to repel insects). Eco-friendly options involve using repellants based upon “essential oils” (oils distilled from plants) instead of DEET. But repellants made from essential oils work by scent, and need to be applied every two hours or so. They can also be irritating and cause allergic reactions.An oil made from lemon eucalyptus is the only plant-based insect repellant so far approved by the CDC. If you decide to try it, do a patch test first. Products containing lemon eucalyptus oil are not recommended for children under three years of age.
  • Sunscreens. When it comes to a sunscreen, you need to block two wavelengths of ultraviolet light: UVA and UVB. The scientific consensus is that a “physical barrier” sunscreen, using titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, is better for your health than a chemical-based sunscreen because it doesn’t penetrate the skin. A physical barrier is also more environmentally friendly: chemical-based sunscreens are contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs. Avoid any sunscreen that contains phthalates or parabens.
  • Polyethylene beads. Many beauty products use polyethylene beads to provide scrubbing action. Unfortunately these little plastic particles are too small to be filtered out by sewage treatment plants and go straight to surface waters and to our oceans where they could be mistaken for zooplankton and poison our marine life.
  • Nanoparticles. Microscopic “nanoparticles” are being introduced rapidly to personal care products, generally to help other ingredients penetrate skin. Their safety hasn’t been fully investigated, though, so you may want to skip them for now.

Benefits…

…to your health
Avoiding personal care products with unsafe ingredients will benefit your health.

…to your wallet
Using fewer products will save you money.

…to the Earth
Choosing products that are not petroleum based will conserve resources. Avoiding toxic preservatives and hormone disruptors will protect our water and wildlife. Choosing products free of polyethylene beads will reduce plastic debris. And skipping antibacterial soaps in favor of plain soap and water may also help preserve our aquatic environments.


Common Mistakes

Not reading labels. Even if it makes you flashback to high school chemistry, scrutinizing a product’s list of ingredients is well worth doing, because the Food and Drug Administration isn’t protecting you.


Getting Started

  • Clear out your beauty clutter. Figure out what you really need, and clear out the rest. As you finish a product, switch it for a more eco-friendly product. Recycle what you can, and properly dispose of the rest.
  • Research your products. Check out the products you have using databases such as Skin Deep.

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