Personal Care Products or Pretty Poisons?

Recently I have been reading Big Green Purse by Diane MacEachern. It’s a book of advice on environmental advocacy via responsible consumerism. I didn’t read it cover to cover because a lot of the information in it is kind of second nature to me (and I hope most people!) at this point. For example: biking as opposed to purchasing fossil fuel (duh). One of the striking chapters for me was the one about personal care products. I guess that I was aware, on an intuitive level, that many personal care products are not good for the environment (or our bodies) because they often come in un-recycleable or unnecessary packaging, and contain chemical ingredients that are toxic in some way. However, I never really got into the specifics of what the toxins in so many of our personal care products actually do. I found this user-friendly list of common toxins in personal care products on It is pretty comparable to the list found in Big Green Purse. Once you get down to the nitty-gritty of what these toxins do to us (and to the animals and plant life that are affected by run-off from our showers), it’s pretty horrifying that manufacturers are allowed to use these ingredients at all.

MacEachern indicates in her book that there is very little government regulation over the ingredients in personal care products. To find out more, I checked out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website and found these clif notes to FDA Authority Over Cosmetics (the inclusion of other personal care products is implied). Basically, the FDA says that manufacturers are responsible for guaranteeing the safety of their own product and for providing consumers with a list of ingredients. The implication is that if consumers don’t want to absorb harmful toxins into their skin, they have to do their homework. Obviously manufacturers are typically more concerned with their bottom line than they are with the well-being of their consumers; therefore they are going to keep their definitions of “safety” pretty loose, and are going to make their labels as indecipherable as possible.

I am a general advocate of personal responsibility. I think that people should have the right, and the responsibility, to choose how to live their lives. I’m not big on government regulation. However, I think that if that’s the way we’re going to play it in this country, then there needs to be some guidelines around transparency. If we’re going to allow people to choose whether or not they would like to risk cancer to keep their skin smooth, there should be warning labels attached to these products that let people know the risks. It shouldn’t be so difficult to figure out what is or isn’t “safe.” This is the whole argument surrounding the warnings attached to packs of cigarettes. Why isn’t this extended to other arenas? Because most people probably won’t relate their breast cancer back to their deodorant?

The issue of financial ability to buy safer products could begin to be addressed by warning labels, too. If people know that a product is bad for them, and why, they are less likely to buy it, and more likely to spend their money on a safer alternative. The more people spend money on safe products, the more the price is going to drop until it’s affordable enough for everyone. Until there are better regulations on personal care products, there are organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that are working to bring easy access to information to the masses. I highly recommend checking out their website!

Anyhow, before I get all foaming-at-the-mouth-ranty; I did what MacEachern suggested and took inventory of the products that I use. Her suggestion was to either cut your total number of products used by three, or decrease the number of days each week that you use all of your personal care products. By not using as many products, or by not using them as much, you can then afford to start replacing the products that you do use with safer, toxin-free products. Here’s all the products I currently use each day. Next to each one is a toxicity rating from the EWG (go here for a quick and easy toxicity rating for the products you use, plus suggestions for safer ones!):

Toxicity Rating Scale: 0-2 Low Hazard, 3-6 Moderate Hazard, 7-10 High Hazard

  1. Herbal Essences Shampoo for Wavy and Curly Hair –5
  2. Herbal Essences Conditioner for Wavy and Curly Hair – 5
  3. Dove Soap – 3
  4. Tom’s of Maine Apricot Deodorant – 4 This one surprised me. It must have something to do with the fragrance, since the unscented formula is only a 2.
  5. Sensodyne Toothpaste – 4
  6. Aveeno Naturals Radiance Face Lotion – 6
  7. Covergirl Smoothers Concealer – 2
  8. L’oreal Perfect Match Foundation – 5
  9. Rimmel Translucent Powder – not in the database
  10. Covergirl Blush – 9
  11. Maybelline Stilletto Mascara – 6
  12. Burt’s Bees Lip balm – 2
  13. Burts Bees Face Wash – 2
  14. Coppertone Sport Sunscreen 70+ – 4

The first thing I noticed is that I am kind of surprised by the overall number of products I use. I generally consider myself pretty low-maintenance. I don’t use hair products or a million different facial products. I don’t use a lot of make-up. But 14 items still feels pretty big. I don’t really see myself cutting down on the number right now, but I will cut down on the number of times I use each product each week (with the exceptions of soap, deodorant, and toothpaste – those have daily significance!).

I am actually somewhat surprised by how few of the cheap-o products I use are really bad. I wish that I was surprised that one of the higher numbers on my list, Aveeno face lotion, is greenwashed to make it seem better for you than it really is (the addition of  some natural ingredients justifies them calling their mostly-chemical lotion “natural”) . As a result of this inventory, I will be getting rid of that Covergirl blush immediately. I will be working on finding replacements for the Shampoo and Conditioner first, as those are things that are rinsed down the drain and more immediately affect the environment. Then comes the face lotion and the mascara. Etc.

It could be a learning curve to replace my toxic products with safer, more enviro-friendly products.  Though they are really bad for us and the environment, I can’t deny the power of parabens.  When I happen upon a good replacement product, I’ll post it here! In the mean time, I leave you with 3 questions: 1. How many products do you use each day? 2. What are your favorite low-toxin products, and why? 3. How do you think toxins in personal products should be regulated, and why? Please share your thoughts!

3 responses to “Personal Care Products or Pretty Poisons?

  1. Basically, the FDA says that manufacturers are responsible for guaranteeing the safety of their own product and for providing consumers with a list of ingredients.

    Believe me, I am no scientist or health care professional nor do I know about the specifics that go into guaranteeing the safety of products but I do know that they are tested on animals (I’m not trying to get into a debate here, I don’t like it as much as anyone else) via scientific means (which I have seen close up) prior to being approved for public absorption.

    Now whether or not you feel that beagles, pigs, and monkeys are acceptable test subjects for these tests is your own decision. I myself am quite allergic to many different things sold for your body (deodorant, soaps, and detergent as well as several prescription medications that I had tried over the years to control long term medical conditions) so I am all for more open notification. I just don’t want people thinking that the companies aren’t doing their due diligence when it comes to testing prior to market.

    • Right – I didn’t mean to say that the products are not tested. It’s my speculation that they are primarily tested to make sure that they’re not going to have immediate negative effects, like melting your face off, for example. Admittedly, I haven’t looked into the testing practices of personal care product manufacturers, but I don’t think that there’s probably much thought put into long-term effects of product ingredients. I could be wrong. But, if I am wrong I have seen evidence that there are conflicting studies available – studies that “prove” that ingredients in personal care products can cause cancer or other illnesses. However, I understand that studies are often skewed to support whoever is paying for them. In the mean time, I’d rather be safe than sorry! = )

  2. Pingback: Adventures in Self-Destankification | chaos to clarity

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