PROTECT Yourself: Avoiding Harmful Chemicals In Personal Care Products

1. Learn which cosmetics companies avoid or are phasing out harmful chemicals. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is encouraging cosmetics companies whose products meet or exceed current European Union formulation standards to sign the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. To learn more about the compact and other cosmetics-related issues, visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, EWG’s Skin Deep and Think Before You Pink websites.

Parabens (the most common are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben) are chemicals commonly used as preservatives in many foods and cosmetic products, including makeup, moisturizers, hair care products, and shaving creams/gels (most major brands of antiperspirants and deodorants don’t contain parabens). Parabens can penetrate the skin and act like a very weak estrogen in the body — potentially turning on the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers.

Parabens have been found in breast tissue and breast cancers, but the correlation has not yet been shown to be causal. Parabens have also been found in many other bodily tissues because of their widespread use.

Phthalates are commonly used to hold color and reduce brittleness in nail polish and hair spray. They’re also a component of many personal care and cleaning product fragrances. Phthalates are endocrine disrupting compounds that have been associated with cancer, impaired fertility, and male birth defects. Phthalates don’t act exactly like estrogen, but they can disrupt the balance of other hormones that interact with estrogen, including testosterone. They are found in hundreds of products, including shampoo, lotion, perfume, and cosmetics. The most common phthalates are dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP). Phthalates are also used to line the insides of canned foods and beverages.

2. Avoid wearing perfume and using other products with fragrance. Phthalates not only often appear as an ingredient in fragrance, but they also often hide behind the term “fragrance.” In one ironic example, the popular perfume Poison contains ingredients that have been linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and immunotoxicity. Fragrances also often include chemicals that are allergy triggers or irritants.

3. Avoid using nail polish and hairspray, as they often contain phthalates. Dibutyl phthalate, for example, which is used to keep nail polish from chipping, has been found to increase the likelihood that laboratory animals will give birth to offspring with birth defects, especially of the male reproductive system. Other common ingredients in nail polish, such as toluene and xylene, are neurotoxins. If you do choose to wear nail polish and use hairspray, select brands with the least harmful ingredients, and remember to apply the polish and hairspray outside or in a well-ventilated area. If you frequent a nail salon, consider taking your own nail polish, one you know to be less harmful.

4. Avoid products whose content labels list placenta, placental extract, estrogen, or other hormones. Many personal care products — including cosmetics, shampoos, and styling aids — that are widely marketed to African-American consumers contain hormone-rich ingredients.

perfume5. Look for personal care products marked “fragrance-free” instead of “unscented”. The cosmetics industry is woefully unregulated, and companies often use reassuring labels that carry little meaning. Many of products labeled as “unscented” contain masking fragrances to cover up a chemical smell; these fragrances in turn may contain phthalates, which are endocrine disrupting compounds that have been associated with cancer, impaired fertility, and male birth defects.

6. Avoid personal care products that list parabens as ingredients. Identified as endocrine disrupting compounds, parabens have been found in the urine of almost everyone tested. These chemicals, which are commonly found in commercial products, are also often used as preservatives in cosmetics and such personal care products as deodorants, shampoos, conditioners, hair styling gels, shaving gels, and lotions. Common names for this class of chemicals include butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben.

7. Use sunscreen carefully. Instead of spraying on a chemical sunscreen, wear a wide-brim hat that covers your face and a shirt with extra-long sleeves (long enough to cover your hands), and a long skirt or pants. If you can’t cover up with clothes or carry an umbrella, look for a sunscreen with SPF 15-50 that contains zinc oxide, titanium oxide or avobenzon (at 3%) as active ingredients. These minerals reflect ultraviolet rays and aren’t potential hormone disruptors.

8. Take shorter showers. During warm showers, you not only inhale airborne chemicals from the water streaming over you, but you also open your pores to more easily absorb chemicals from your personal care products. Keep your showers short and sweet. And if your water supply is highly chlorinated, you might consider a charcoal filter for your showerhead.

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Image credits: Top: Photo by Disco-Dan on Wikimedia Commons. Bottom: Photo in public domain.