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Almost from the moment of our arrival on the planet, we humans have been obsessed with improving the package we came in. Early Greeks turned to lead-based paint for that classic pale complexion. Middle Age mavens relied on exfoliants made from mercury. Yet our ancestors had no clue that these compounds contained deadly ingredients.

Not much has changed over the centuries. Without giving it a second thought, we diligently spritz, spray, paint and powder, blissfully unaware that our cosmetic and personal-care products expose us to more than 200 synthetic chemicals a day – many of which can cause allergic reactions, irritate your skin, affect your nervous and reproductive systems, even cause cancer.

If Looks Could Kill

Can those innocuous-looking jars and bottles of potions and powders really pose a health threat? Consider this: There are more than 5,000 cosmetic chemicals approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, many of which have never been tested for safety. Although not all of these chemicals undermine your health, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reports that 884 of them are toxic.

One of the greatest risks from using cosmetic and personal- care products comes from the daily exposure to carcinogenic chemicals and cancer precursors. Among the most widely used carcinogens are the coal-tar colors, listed on labels as FD&C and D&C colors. Made from the liquid or semisolid tar found in bituminous coal, these colors may be contaminated with benzene, naphthalene, phenol and creosol. All have been found to cause cancer in animals and, although the FDA maintains that the risk to humans is minimal, the World Health Organization considers every coal-tar color a probable carcinogen.

Unfortunately, carcinogens aren’t the only hazards in cosmetics. In the 1970s, scientists discovered a new threat – one with far-reaching effects that impact the health of both adults and children. Endocrine disrupters are chemicals that interfere with the normal functioning of our hormones and may cause infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, reproductive and breast cancer, and thyroid, liver and kidney damage. The most common type of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in cosmetics are the phthalates, particularly dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Used as a plasticizer and solvent, this chemical lurks in a number of popular hair sprays, deodorants, perfumes and hand lotions – not to mention most nail polishes. Unlike some chemicals that wash out of your system rather quickly, DBP accumulates in your body’s fatty tissue where it can linger for years.

Although it can take decades for these carcinogens and endocrine disrupters to do their damage, a growing number of people are getting immediate reactions to the chemicals in everyday beauty products. In fact, in a single year, more than 200,000 visits to the emergency room are related to allergic reactions from cosmetic ingredients, particularly synthetic fragrances, colors and preservatives. Reactions can range from a case of mild contact dermatitis (inflamed, itchy skin) to full-blown anaphylactic shock.

Although relatively few people experience such dramatic reactions, most of us would still do well to limit our exposure to potentially harmful chemicals when we can, or at least be aware of the kinds of health impacts and risks they might present.

Behind the Bathroom Door

It’s smart to raise your consciousness about the general threat posed by many cosmetic and personal-care products. It’s even smarter to pinpoint the specific hazards in the products you use every day. So grab your magnifying glass (you’ll need it to read all that fine print), and let’s do some snooping under the bathroom sink.


At least 90 percent of all mass-produced shampoos contain either diethanolamine (DEA) or triethanolamine (TEA), chemicals that react with other common shampoo ingredients to form potent cancer-causing agents known as nitrosamines. Shampoos also contain a number of ingredients that break down to form formaldehyde, including 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol, polyethylene glycol and DMDM hydantoin. Another chemical found in most shampoos (and many soft soaps) is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a detergent that can dry and irritate the skin.

Note: Although cosmetic manufacturers often claim that SLS is derived from coconut oil, it’s almost always produced synthetically. If you want to avoid it entirely, your best shot will be with small, health-oriented haircare brands (see sidebar at the end of this article for suggestions).


A number of studies have linked the use of permanent hair dyes, especially the darker shades, to an increased risk of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. One recent study by the University of Southern California also found that women who routinely dye their hair are three times more likely to develop bladder cancer. Along with coal-tar derivatives, hair dyes contain phenylenediamine, a carcinogen that can cause scalp irritation and even blindness. And guys, don’t think you’re immune. A study by Xavier University in New Orleans found that gradual hair dyes contained so much lead acetate that the researchers couldn’t wash it off their hands!

Based on this and similar studies, the Center for Environmental Health, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, sued Combe, Inc., the makers of Grecian Formula, for violation of California’s Proposition 65. Although the suit was settled and Combe reformulated the hair dyes to reduce the amount of lead acetate, lead is a cumulative chemical and even low-level exposure can ultimately result in muscle weakness, depression, brain damage, and cancer.

Natural henna offers an alternative. It is now available in a wider, more precise range of colors than in the past. Also, some health-oriented hair dyes have reduced levels of harmful chemicals in order to help you minimize health risks. If you’re determined to color your hair for the long haul, consider eliminating some other risk factors (like smoking) to help compensate.


Americans are obsessed with cleanliness. But in our zeal to kill bacteria, we’ve switched from good old soap and water to a host of high-tech antibacterial products – a practice many infectious-disease experts believe could create drug-resistant strains of “super bugs.

Most antibacterial soaps are based on triclosan – a kissing cousin to a common pesticide, 2,4-D. A persistent environmental contaminant, 2,4-D studies have shown that this endocrine-disrupting chemical is toxic to the blood, liver and kidneys. More frightening, Swedish researchers from Stockholm University have found high levels of triclosan in human breast milk.

Your alternatives? If antibacterial action is important to you, look to essential oils like lavender and tea tree oil. For general purposes, a 30-second sudsing with pure soap and warm water will leave you plenty clean.


Along with aluminum compounds, which some researchers have linked to Alzheimer’s disease, both deodorants and antiperspirants contain talc — a problem if you like aerosols. Talc can irritate the respiratory tract when inhaled and even damage your lungs. And if you use feminine hygiene sprays containing talc, you could be upping your cancer risk. A study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that, since the chemicals found in talc-based products migrate up the vaginal canal to the reproductive tract, women who use feminine deodorant sprays have a 90 percent greater risk of developing ovarian cancer. Stick with vinegar and water if you’re doing occasional feminine cleansing.

For underarm deodorizing, choose an herbal-based, non-aluminum-chloride roll-on, rock-crystal or spritz-on product. Those with a mineral-salt base also tend to inhibit perspiration (a priority for some). Also, many essential oils inhibit the bacteria that cause odor while lending a fresh, safe scent. (See how to make your own deodorant by visiting “How to Make Your Own Deodorant“.)


We all have our favorite fragrance. But what’s in that bottle?

There’s no way for consumers to tell, since fragrance is protected under the trade-secret laws and isn’t required to carry an ingredient label. Perfume manufacturers have more than 3,000 different chemicals they can use to make scented products – 84 percent of which have never been tested for safety. Of the handful that have been studied, the National Academy of Sciences found that the benzene derivatives and aldehydes commonly found in fragrance were capable of causing allergic reactions, central nervous system disorders, cancer, and birth defects. For people who are chemically sensitive (about 15 percent of the population), fragrance can cause serious reactions, including migraines, asthma attacks, muscle weakness, memory loss, and nausea.

Try creating your own custom blends of essential oils instead.


“Wear sunscreen” – it’s become the mantra of dermatologists as a preventative against skin cancer. But according to British researchers at the University of Oxford, padimate-O, a popular sunscreen addition, can damage DNA when it is exposed to sunlight. Other ingredients, known as the benzophenones, are weak estrogens and can cause cells to weaken or die. For safer sunning, switch to a sunblock based on natural minerals like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.


Good skin starts as clean skin, but conventional cleansers, toners and moisturizers are packed with petroleum-based chemicals, synthetic detergents and alcohols that strip the skin of its natural oils and degrade its protective function. Studies have also shown that petroleum-based emollients (like mineral oil) delay the healing of damaged skin by inhibiting the skin’s natural ability to repair itself. And many of the toners and moisturizers we rely on for clear, soft skin contain plasticizers like sorbitol and polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP) – chemicals that can remain in the body for months after use.

Fortunately, straightforward, healthier options aren’t hard to find. For example, most basic plant oils (almond, avocado, jojoba, apricot-seed, etc.) make excellent moisturizers and facial cleansers. Aloe vera is a good after-sun soother and hydrator. Unadulterated witch hazel is still one of the best ones around. Fruit acids are natural exfoliants and de-agers. You can look for these ingredients in the products you buy, and you can also use them to make your own (see sidebar at end of article).


When it comes to painting your nails, you can pick your poison. Nail polish can contain up to 50 percent toluene, a petroleum distillate similar to benzene. Manicurists exposed to this solvent occupationally experience five times more spontaneous abortions than women who aren’t exposed. And, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances, even a home manicure can expose users to high levels of toluene. Along with toluene, nail polish can harbor formaldehyde. A suspected carcinogen, endocrine disrupter and neurotoxin, formaldehyde is banned in Japan and Sweden. Numerous studies have also shown that exposure to formaldehyde can cause severe asthmatic reactions, skin rashes and hives.

Fortunately, many manufacturers have begun removing formaldehyde and toluene from their products. But this doesn’t mean women are home free. A number of manufacturers add dibutyl phthalate (DBP) to help the polish form an even film as it dries. Since this hormone-disrupting plasticizer is water soluble, it leaches out of the polish every time your nails come in contact with water, making it a source of repeated exposure. Since DBP is easily absorbed by the skin, it’s not surprising that researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have found particularly high levels of DBP in women of childbearing age. Clean, healthy, well-groomed nails are attractive au naturel. For glossy shine, try buffing them instead!

Built to Last

With industrial chemicals making up the bulk of mass-produced cosmetic and personal-care products, you’d think they would last forever. Not so. Since mainstream cosmetics often sit on store shelves for months before you buy them, strong preservatives are added to keep bacteria at bay. Yet many of these preservatives, including DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15 and diazolidinyl urea, release formaldehyde as they degrade.

German researchers recently identified at least one of these compounds, diazolidinyl urea, as a genotoxin and urged a reevaluation of their use. Other studies have found that another group of widely used preservatives, the parabens, mimic estrogen. One recent study by the Danish Center for Environmental Oestrogen Research found that two of these compounds, butyl- and propylparaben, have estrogenic properties comparable to bisphenol-A, a hormone-disrupting chemical used to make plastics.

Lax Laws, Persuasive Politics

So how do these potentially dangerous chemicals get into your bathroom? While most consumers believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures the safety of the cosmetic and personal-care products we use every day, the truth is that the FDA doesn’t have the authority to require safety testing before a product appears on store shelves. What’s more, manufacturers aren’t required to report cosmetic-related injuries or submit safety data on the ingredients used in their products.

Falling under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress, the FDA is charged with monitoring the safety of every morsel we eat and every drug on the market, both over-the-counter and prescription, not to mention the scores of medical devices available. Pitted against these critical consumer goods, cosmetics fall somewhere around the bottom of the agency’s pecking order and consequently receives the lowest priority when it comes to regulatory power and funding.

Thanks to weak, ineffective consumer regulation, the cosmetics industry is in the enviable position of policing itself – and it’s the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association’s (CTFA) job to keep it that way. The vast majority of cosmetic companies in the U.S. rely on the CTFA to protect their interests by compiling safety data from industry-funded scientists and by refuting independent research that shows that the ingredients used in hair dyes, deodorants, lipsticks and skin creams are potentially dangerous.

But not everyone in Congress is convinced by the CTFA’s tactics. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), noting that “the cosmetic industry has borrowed a page from the playbook of the tobacco industry by putting profits ahead of public health,” attempted to strengthen cosmetic regulations in 1997. And former representative Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced a bill that would have required cosmetic manufacturers to list the ingredients on the products used by professional cosmetologists, especially hair dyes. When the legislation failed, one congressional staff member reportedly said, “Until further action is taken, [consumers] are worse off than guinea pigs. At least with guinea pigs, someone is watching.”

Natural Imposters

While the vast majority of cosmetic and personal-care products are born in a chemist’s lab, cosmetic companies are increasingly positioning themselves as “natural” in response to consumer demand for healthier products. Using aggressive, well-funded marketing campaigns, these companies give themselves the appearance of caring about consumer’s health and the health of the planet while still protecting conventional manufacturing practices – and consequently their bottom-line.

Some cosmetic companies have turned healthy, eco-friendly marketing into an art form. Known as greenwashers – a term coined by journalist Jon Entine in an exposé about The Body Shop’s dubious business practices – these companies cover up their chemical origins with feel-good claims of health, environmentalism and social responsibility. “Image is what the cosmetics industry sells through its products,” says John Bailey, the former director of the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors. But, while wrapping their goods in a bit of recycled packaging and adding a few botanicals to a base of cheap, readily available chemicals may increase their profits, it doesn’t change the fact that these products have a negative impact on your health and the environment.

While passing conventional cosmetics off as natural may be misleading, it’s not illegal. According to Bailey, the words “natural” and “botanical” have no legal meaning. “They [the manufacturers] could wave a tube of plant extract over a bottle and declare it natural,” he notes. And, as far as cosmetics are concerned, the term “organic” doesn’t fare much better. Unlike foods, which recently became regulated under federal law, organic cosmetics have no standards to adhere to. These natural imposters aren’t just littering the shelves of drug and department stores. They may be lurking in your neighborhood health food store – often sitting right next to chemical-free products. While these products usually include fewer chemicals than their conventional counterparts, some still contain petroleum products, artificial fragrances, coal-tar colors and synthetic preservatives. Unless you read the label, you just don’t know.

Healthy Alternatives

In light of all this emerging information, and in response to consumer demand, a growing number of companies are turning their backs on synthetic chemicals in favor of natural ingredients. These too can be found in health food stores. But separating truly nontoxic cosmetic and personal-care products from natural wannabes requires some careful sleuthing.

Reading all those tiny labels and researching all those ingredients can be a confusing proposition at first, but it gets easier as you become familiar with how cosmetic labels are written and as you start to recognize which questionable chemicals are most likely to be in which products.

A few tips:

  • Cosmetic ingredients are listed in descending order, with the largest amount of a particular ingredient listed first. If the first few ingredients are obvious chemicals – with names like DEA, aluminum chloride, propylene glycol or sodium lauryl sulfate – put the product back on the shelf.
  • Artificial colors, fragrances and preservatives usually appear near the end of the ingredient label. Colors are the easiest to spot because of the FD&C or D&C designation.
  • Synthetic fragrance is also easy to decipher since it is listed simply as “fragrance.”
  • Preservatives come in many forms, but the parabens are usually preceded by the words butyl-, ethyl-, methyl- or propyl-.
  • Look for cosmetics based on plant oils and ingredients instead of petrochemicals. Seek out colors derived from natural minerals (like titanium dioxide), fragrance from essential oils and natural preservatives like vitamins A, C and E or grapefruit seed extract.
  • Natural cosmetic and personal-care products may also employ a variety of herbal extracts, botanicals, vitamins and minerals that can promote healthy hair, repair aging skin and deodorize and kill germs. But again, don’t assume that the mere presence of small quantities of these healthy ingredients ensures a healthy product.

Ultimately, the absence of the dangerous chemicals is the essential thing. To that end, one of the best ways to ensure a healthy product is to make it yourself! It doesn’t have to be complicated. A bottle of plant oil with a few drops of lavender essential oil makes a superb, all-purpose moisturizer. A halved lemon can soften elbows, bleach brown spots and whiten nails. So, the next time you’re in the market or health food store for supplements and organic veggies, check out their health and beauty counter – and prowl the oil and produce aisles while you are at it. Put that gorgeous body of yours in the hands of Mother Nature, and then give your magnifying glass some well-deserved rest.

Get the Good Stuff!

Here are just a few of the healthier-than-average personal-care brands worth checking out at your local health food store. Most of these brands take pains to avoid incorporating mineral oils, petroleum-based products, coal-tar colors, artificial fragrances and other major nasties.

However, do keep in mind that some or many of the products even in these lines may contain small amounts of less-than-desirable chemicals and preservatives.

In most cases, that’s because the manufacturer’s have simply decided that the risks presented by certain ingredients (like sodium laureth sulfate or paraben preservatives) are not important enough to justify the inherent cost trade-offs of alternative ingredients (such as natural antioxidant preservatives), which are substantially more expensive.

Also keep in mind that many alternative products that are packaged to look and sound “natural” may not be. Some contain all the same ingredients as their conventional counterparts and are just marketed with a natural, feel-good slant.

In the end, you have to be the final arbiter of what goes in, and on, your body. Armed with good information, you are in a better place to weigh costs, benefits and risks, and to make the decisions that are right for you …

  • ABRA Therapeutics
  • Alba Botanica
  • Aubrey Organics
  • Avalon Organics
  • Beauty Without Cruelty
  • Better Botanicals
  • Burt’s Bees
  • Desert Essence
  • Dr. Haushka
  • EO
  • Ecco Bella
  • Gioranni
  • Hemp Organics
  • Jakare
  • Kiss My Face
  • Nature’s Gate Organics
  • Obsessively Organic
  • Organic Essentials
  • Paul Penders
  • Rachel Perry
  • Shikai
  • Trillium Herbal

Or Make Your Own …

One way to get around the preservative problem – and be absolutely sure you know exactly what is going into your personal-care products – is to make your own! Here are two small-batch recipes you can make with items from your local grocery or health food store.

Whether you’re making or buying, the general rule with products that will go on your body is the same: Use the highest quality, organic ingredients you can get your hands on, and use while fresh.

Alpha-Hydroxy Enzyme Mask

Here’s an excellent exfoliating mask that can help reduce the appearance of fine lines and skin discolorations when used 2 to 3 times a week.

1/2 ripe papaya
4 strawberries
1 tbs. Brewer’s yeast

Cube the fruit and process in a blender until smooth. Pour into a small bowl and mix in the brewer’s yeast. Apply evenly to the face and neck. Allow the mask to remain on the face for 10 minutes before rinsing thoroughly with tepid water. Yield: 1 application.

Cocoa Butter Cuticle Oil

When dry cuticles become ragged and split, they can allow dirt and germs to invade the matrix of the nail. Keep your cuticles soft and healthy with this chocolate-scented oil.

2 tbs. jojoba oil
1 tbs. wheat germ oil
1 tbs. cocoa butter

Place all ingredients in a small saucepan. Heat gently until the cocoa butter has completely melted. Stir well and cool. Pour into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. To use, massage a small amount into the base of each nail, gently pushing back the cuticles. Yield: 2 ounces.

Got the home-beauty bug? Try these do-it-yourself cosmetic formulas or check out Kim Erickson’s book, Drop Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics.

This article has been updated. It was originally published in the March/April 2003 issue of Experience Life.

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