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Being Careful About Personal-Care Products

From toothpaste to sunscreen, some conventional products meant to keep us healthy are actually doing the opposite. Don’t worry, though, there are alternatives

by Elizabeth Conkey on August 9, 2012 · 1 comment

When Kara Scieszka was pregnant with her first daughter back in 2004, she took every possible precaution to have a healthy pregnancy. Her doctor was very helpful in advising her about diet, exercise and what to expect with each passing month, but it wasn’t until she began preparing her home for the arrival of a newborn that she realized a bigger problem existed, one that her doctor hadn’t touched upon: What about everything she put on her body?

After doing a bit of research, Scieszka learned that whatever is put on the skin is absorbed directly into one’s bloodstream. Concerned, she began reading the labels on all of her beauty and skin-care products. The ingredients were extensive, and, for the most part, impossible to pronounce. Scieszka was surprised and frightened to learn that most of her products’ ingredients were seriously toxic and could harm both her and her baby.

She decided to take matters into her own hands and started making her own products right at home, using ingredients straight from nature. Thus, her business, Olive Naturally, was born.

“All of my products are made from 100-percent natural ingredients,” Scieszka explains. “And most of the ingredients I use are organic as well.”

The concept for Olive Naturally started as a personal-health journey for Scieszka and her growing family, but her business has blossomed into more than she ever imagined. In fact, her homemade lotions, butters, balms, and salves ship internationally and will soon be carried by several local retailers throughout the Capital Region.

Scieszka is not the only individual pursuing a more natural route for personal hygiene, but, at the same time, there remains an overwhelmingly large number of people who are unaware of the risks associated with using conventional personal-care products.

Only a little more than 11 percent of ingredients in personal-care products in the United States have been tested for safety. The remaining 89 percent that we know nothing about can be found in 99 percent of the personal-care products we purchase daily.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, the United States has banned fewer than 10 ingredients used in personal-care products. In comparison, more than 1,000 ingredients have been banned by the European Union.

The U.S. recently has made strides toward implementing stricter regulations in the cosmetics and personal care industry. On July 25, the Safe Chemicals Act was passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee and will soon be discussed on the U.S. Senate floor. If approved, this act would replace the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, which states that any chemicals used in personal-care products must be proven harmful before being banned. The Safe Chemicals Act would require that companies test the safety of all ingredients before their products hit store shelves.

Studies have shown that we absorb 60 percent of everything we put on our skin, and children’s bodies absorb 40 to 50 percent more than those of adults. This chemical leaching can cause a slew of medical nightmares, from relatively minor ailments like skin allergies to those more serious and life-threatening, such as birth defects and cancer.

The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is an excellent resource for those who want to learn more about what is really in their personal-care products. The EWG’s search engine is both helpful and terrifying, as it calculates the toxicity levels in each product entered. However, when you don’t have access to the Skin Deep database, make sure to avoid products containing these 10 ingredients. The EWG has dubbed them “the worst.”

1. Benzoyl Peroxide: A chemical used in many acne products and a possible cause for tumors. It is linked to DNA damage, toxic by inhalation, and an eye, skin and respiratory irritant.

2. Parabens: These are used as preservatives in products to increase shelf life and are not always labeled. They can be found in deodorants and other skin care products and are the leading preventable cause for breast cancer. They may also contribute to sterility in males, and cause hormone imbalances in females and early puberty in young girls and boys.

3. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: Used in car washes, garage floor cleaners and . . . 90 percent of personal-care products that foam. They can cause eye damage, depression, labored breathing and, in some cases, death.

4. FD&C colors/pigments: These are synthetic colors derived from coal tar that deposit toxins in skin. Absorption can cause oxygen depletion and death. Animal studies showed that almost all products containing these pigments were carcinogenic.

5. Dioxin: This chemical is found most often in antibacterial products. The scary thing is that it won’t appear in ingredient lists. Dioxin causes cancer, reduces immunity, causes nervous system disorders, and is a cause of miscarriages and birth deformities.

6. Sunscreen chemicals: Avobenzone, benzphenone, ethoxycinnamate, and PABA are commonly used ingredients that are known free radical generators. These ingredients cause cancer and damage DNA.

7. DMDM Hydantoin and Urea (Imidazolidinyl): These are two preservatives that can cause joint pain, skin reactions, cancer, allergies, depression, chest pains, headaches, dizziness, chronic fatigue and insomnia.

8. Formaldehyde: A potent preservative considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde, also an asthmagen, neurotoxicant and developmental toxicant, was once mixed into many personal-care products as antiseptic, but is now found in common beauty products like nail polish and nail polish remover.

9. Fragrance: Fragrances are in everything from shampoos to deodorants to lotions, but the simple word “fragrance” on a list of ingredients can mean a concoction of as many as 18 different chemicals. Federal law doesn’t require companies to list any of the chemicals used in their fragrance mixture. Fragrances can contain hormone disrupters and are among the top five allergens in the world.

10. Triclosan and triclocarban: Antimicrobial pesticides in liquid soap (triclosan) or soap bars (triclocarban) disrupt thyroid function and reproductive hormones in both men and women. Also, using products that contain these chemicals can reduce your body’s resistance to bacteria.

Now that you know what to avoid, fear not! There are plenty of healthy alternatives available, and some are not as expensive or hard-to-find as you may think.

First, let’s talk sunscreen. We all know that UV rays can be extremely harmful to our bodies, thus our constant use of SPFs up the wazoo. But most sunscreens do more harm than good. It is important never to buy a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50, as these contain even more harmful chemicals. A great alternative to “regular” sunscreen is Badger brand sunscreen with an SPF of 30. Their all-natural and organic sunscreens contain simple, USDA Certified Organic ingredients, the primary active ingredient being zinc oxide. Like every other Badger product, this sunscreen does not contain any synthetic fragrances, dyes, or chemicals of any kind. Better yet, every single ingredient used is listed on the label, so you never have to wonder about what you are putting on your body.

Toothpaste can also be a doozy. Many people are not aware of the fact that most conventional toothpastes contain sugar as well as other surprisingly harmful ingredients, like titanium dioxide and chalk, just to name a few. Stick to brands like Tom’s of Maine or Weleda, both of which boast oral care products free of artificial colors, flavors, fragrances and preservatives.

Ladies: Instead of buying regular nail polish from the drug store, splurge and purchase a brand such as Zoya. All of their nail-care products, from polish to remover, are formaldehyde-free and smell way better than regular brands. Everyone else in your house will thank you when they don’t have to deal with that “nail-polish smell” for hours after you finish giving yourself a manicure.

As we’ve learned, antibacterial soaps do more harm than good. Washing your hands (and body) with a good, all-natural soap and warm water is just as effective. Try Dr. Bronner’s Magic 18-in-1 Pure Castile Soap. It cleans everything from your hands to your hair to your dishes and is 100 percent safe for your body and the earth.

Plenty of teens and adults struggle with acne. However, with active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide in the mix, it’s better to steer clear of Clean & Clear and Neutrogena. Instead, try a more natural brand like Yes to Carrots. The ingredients in their acne system (wash, toner, lotion and spot treatment) are 98-percent natural and completely free of parabens.

Most of us looking to beat body odor opt for brands like Old Spice and Degree. However, these odor-fighters and antiperspirants contain aluminum and other harmful chemicals that can cause breast cancer, among other ailments. Tom’s of Maine makes deodorants, antiperspirants, and a deodorant-antiperspirant combo that will keep you fresh all day without the harmful ingredients. Those of you who are a bit more adventurous can try making your own: Mix a quarter cup of baking soda and a quarter cup of arrowroot together in a medium-sized bowl. Mash in six tablespoons of coconut oil with a fork until well-mixed. Add essential oils if desired. Store in small glass jar or old deodorant container for easy use.

Lastly, it is important to remember that shampoos and conditioners contain just as many harmful chemicals as our other lotions and potions. Neuma hair-care products are free of synthetic fragrance, sulfates, parabens, aluminum compounds, formaldehyde donors, carcinogens, and environmental pollutants. J.R. Watkins is another healthy hair-care alternative. Their products are paraben-free, phthalate-free, SLS-free, propylene glycol-free, dye-free and pH balanced.

By taking the time to read labels and educating yourself and your family on the harmful effects of chemicals in everyday personal care products, you can both enrich and enhance your health and lifestyle.