Personal care products contain carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, plasticisers, degreasers and surfactants. This is a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products, drawn up by researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the US, re-published with permission on Naturalmedicine.co.za.

Scientists have found many common cosmetic ingredients in human tissues, including industrial plasticisers called phthalates in urine, preservatives called parabens in breast tumour tissue, and fragrance components such as musk xylene in human fat. Do these substances pose risks to the health of users, and what is their impact on the environment?

Have you ever counted how many cosmetics or personal care products you use in a day?

The chances are good that they include shampoo, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, hair conditioner, lip balm, sunscreen, body lotion, shaving products if you're a man, and cosmetics if you are a woman. And what about your children? On any given day you might rub, spray or pour sunscreen, nappy cream, shampoo, lotion, and maybe even insect repellant on their skin.

Most people use these products without a second thought, and believe that the government must certainly be policing their safety. But they are wrong. Health studies and pre-market testing are not enforced in the US. The South African government currently requires neither labelling nor testing of any of these products before they are sold. While some products in this country are labelled, many – particularly the cheaper ones – are not. And as people apply an average of 126 unique ingredients on their skin every day, these chemicals, whether they seep through the skin, are rinsed down the drain or are flushed down the toilet in human excretions, are causing concerns for human health, and for the impacts they may have on wildlife, rivers and streams.

Why personal care products?

At first blush it may seem that mascara and shaving cream have little relevance to the broader world of environmental health. Think again. In August 2005, when scientists published a study finding a relationship between plasticisers called phthalates and feminisation of male babies in the US, they named fragrance as a possible culprit. When oestrogenic industrial chemicals called parabens were found in human breast tumour tissue, researchers questioned whether deodorant was the source. And when studies show, again and again, that hormone systems in wildlife are thrown into disarray by common water pollutants, the list of culprits routinely includes personal care products, being rinsed down drains and into rivers.

The Environmental Working Group has researched and advocated on personal care product safety for five years and considers it an integral part of their work to strengthen the system of public health protection from industrial chemicals. Here’s why.

·         Industrial chemicals are basic ingredients in personal care products. The 10,500 unique chemical ingredients in these products equate to about one in every eight of the 82,000 chemicals registered for use in the US. Personal care products contain carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, plasticisers, degreasers and surfactants. They are the chemical industry in a bottle.

·         No pre-market safety testing required. This is a reality in both the personal care product industry and the broader chemical industry as a whole. For industrial chemicals, the US government approves an average of seven new chemicals every day. 80% are approved in three weeks or less, with or without safety tests. When tests are undertaken they are seldom carried out by independent specialists, relying instead on the data supplied by manufacturers. According to the agency that regulates cosmetics, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors, ‘... a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA’ (FDA, 1995). The industry’s self-policing safety panel falls far short of compensating for the lack of government oversight. An EWG analysis found that in its 30-year history, the panel has reviewed the safety of just 11% of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products. The FDA does no systematic reviews of safety. And collectively, the ingredients in personal care products account for one of every eight of the 82 000 chemicals industries have registered for commercial use with the Environmental Protection Agency. Nearly 90% of the 10,500 ingredients the FDA has determined are used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), the FDA or any other publicly accountable institution.

·         Everyone uses personal care products. Exposure is widespread, and for some people, extensive. The EWG’s 2004 product use survey showed that more than a quarter of all women and one of every 100 men in the US use at least 15 products daily. These exposures add up, and raise questions about the potential health risks from the myriad of unassessed ingredients migrating into the bodies of nearly every American, day after day.

While some companies make products that are safe to eat, or to apply to the body, others choose to use known human carcinogens or developmental toxins such as coal tar and lead acetate. When risky chemicals are used in cosmetics, the stakes are high. These are not trace contaminants like those found at part-per-million or even part-per-billion levels in food and water. They are the base ingredients of the product, just as flour is an ingredient in bread. These chemicals are found in significant levels in personal care products, nearly all easily penetrate the skin, and we ingest some directly from our lips or hands.

Are personal care products harming our health?

To learn about the safety of ingredients in personal care products, the EWG compiled an electronic database of ingredient labels for 52,928 name-brand products and cross-linked it with 52 toxicity or regulatory databases.
The EWG considers these results cause for concern, not alarm. Much study remains to be done on exposure levels and health risks. But what we do know shows that such study – and direct consumer action to avoid known toxic ingredients – is absolutely essential.

Cosmetic ingredients do not remain on the surface of the skin – they are designed to penetrate, and they do. Scientists have found many common cosmetic ingredients in human tissues. Do the levels at which they occur pose risks? For the most part, those studies have not been done. But the study showing feminisation of human male babies in the US to be linked to a common fragrance component (diethyl phthalate) joins a small but growing number of studies that serve as scientific red flags when it comes to the safety of ingredients in personal care products.

Are our products affecting wildlife, rivers and streams?

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sought to understand human exposures to phthalates, they passed up food, water, air or human blood testing, and targeted urine instead. When ingredients in personal care products seep through human skin into our bodies, many end up in human excretions. Other ingredients get washed down the drain when we wash our hair and bodies in the shower, or clean a day’s makeup and lotion off our faces at the end of the day.

A growing number of studies in the field of testing that targets what are known as ‘PPCPs’ – pharmaceuticals and personal care products – have found personal care product ingredients in rivers and streams across the US. And some ingredients have been linked to impacts on wildlife – those that target the hormone system, for example – that have been linked to feminisation of fish and other aquatic life. Personal care products are chock full of chemicals that act like oestrogen and raise concerns with respect to wildlife. Examples? 57% of all products contain paraben preservatives, nearly 2% contain surfactants called alkylphenols, and just over 2% contain oestrogenic sunscreen ingredients, according to the EWG’s 2004 product assessment.

The EWG’s research shows that 50% of all products on the market contain added ‘fragrance’, complex mixtures of chemicals, some persistent, some neurotoxic, and some newly found to harm wildlife. Researchers at Stanford University published work in 2004 showing that mussels lost their ability to clear their bodies of poisons when exposed to parts-per-billion levels of common fragrance musks.

When the ingredients in our products are harming wildlife, what must be their impact on us? That is a question that remains unanswered by an industry with near-complete discretion over product safety, and that is making slow progress in screening ingredients for safety.

What to do – and not to do?

- Use the ‘What not to buy’ list at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com to avoid particularly problematic ingredients such as mercury, lead and placenta, and the products that contain them.

- Use fewer products. Is there something you can cut from your daily routine, or a product you can use less often? By cutting down on the number of chemicals contacting your skin every day, you will reduce any potential health risks associated with the products you use.

- Use the ‘Advanced search’ feature of Skin Deep (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/search.php) to find products that have fewer potential health issues. Choose a product category and exclude the hazardous ingredients – carcinogens and neurotoxins, for instance – and Skin Deep will generate a custom shopping list for you.

- Read labels. Marketing claims on personal care products are not defined under the law, and can mean anything or nothing at all, including claims like organic, natural, hypo-allergenic, animal cruelty free, and fragrance free. Read the ingredients label carefully to find evidence that the claims are true.

- Use milder soaps. Soap removes dirt and grease from the surface of your skin, but also strips away your body’s own natural oils. Choosing a milder soap may reduce skin dryness and your need for moisturisers to replace oils your skin can provide naturally.

- Minimise your use of dark hair dyes. Many contain coal tar ingredients that have been linked to cancer in some studies.

- Cut down on your use of powders. In particular, avoid the use of baby powder on newborns and infants. A number of ingredients common in powder have been linked to cancer and other lung problems when they are inhaled. The FDA warns that powders may cause lung damage if inhaled regularly.

- Choose products that are fragrance free. Fragrances can cause allergic reactions. Products that claim to be ‘fragrance free’ on the packaging may not be. They could contain masking fragrances that give off a neutral odour. Read the ingredients label – in products truly free of fragrance, the word ‘fragrance’ will not appear there. Find fragrance-free products with our advanced search.

- Reduce your use of nail polish. It’s one of the few types of products that routinely contains ingredients linked to birth defects. Paint your toenails and skip the fingernails. Paint nails in a well-ventilated room, or outside, or avoid using nail polish altogether, particularly when you are pregnant. Browse our custom shopping guide for advice on nail polishes that contain fewer ingredients of concern.