Finding Safe Personal Care Products

February 12, 2012

Q: I know that there are many issues with personal care products being unsafe for our health, but where do I look to decipher safe personal care products from those that aren’t?

The average American uses about 10 personal care products each day, resulting in exposure to some 100 unique chemicals. But the vast majority of the 12,500 chemicals used by the $50 billion beauty industry have never been assessed for safety, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), a coalition of eight non-profits concerned about the health of cosmetics and personal care products. 

“Many of these chemicals are linked to adverse health effects like cancer, birth defects and other serious health issues,” CSC reports. And with cosmetics chemicals showing up in breast milk and umbilical cord blood, not to mention rivers, lakes and drinking water aquifers, it is indeed a problem that affects us all. Unfortunately for American consumers, these products aren’t held to the same high safety standard as foods and drugs in the United States, and as such manufacturers do not have to disclose ingredients on their products’ labels. That means it’s up to consumers to educate themselves as how to find safe personal care products to buy and which to avoid if human health and the environment are concerns. 

To the rescue comes the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which launched its SkinDeep database back in 2004 to give consumers a way to learn about what’s in the products they use on their skin and bodies. Today, SkinDeep—which is free to use and has a user-friendly, keyword-searchable interface—features health and safety profiles on 69,000 different cosmetics and personal care products.

“Our aim is to fill in where industry and government leave off,” reports EWG, whose researchers cross-reference hundreds of safety studies and nearly 60 toxicity and regulatory databases against thousands of product ingredient labels to help consumers find the safest cosmetics and personal care items. Beyond searching for your most frequently used creams, gels and elixirs to get the low-down on their safety, users can also learn what to avoid by browsing the site’s “What Not to Buy” section. Harsh soaps, anything with chemical fragrances, many nail polishes and most dark permanent hair dyes top the list of products health-conscious consumers should steer clear of—or at least check out on SkinDeep. The website lists safer versions of all these product types for those who just can’t live without.

But public health advocates and environmentalists alike, of course, would prefer that all personal care products could be trusted to not be rash-inducing, carcinogenic or otherwise harmful. CSC has been lobbying Congress about the need for stricter laws and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight, and last year was instrumental in getting the Safe Cosmetics Act (HR 2359) introduced into the House of Representatives. While the bill stalled in committee, it would have required the FDA to create a list of specific contaminants likely to be found in certain cosmetics ingredients and provide testing protocols to determine which ones qualified for warning labels, phase-outs or outright bans. Whether a similar bill will come up again anytime soon remains to be seen. In the meantime, consumers should make sure to visit the SkinDeep database and research safe personal care products before lathering up.

CONTACTS: EWG’s SkinDeep Database; CSC

EarthTalk is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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Comments (2)

  1. Erin Ely says:

    I agree that the skindeep database is a great place to start, it’s not the only place and also not the last word.

    One of the issues with ratings in the skindeep database: if they do not have any information on the ingredient, they give it a “0” rating, which can lower the over all score for a product in the database.

    Another issue, is that most of the ingredients that have “scientific” information are chemicals, synthetic chemicals…. Botanical ingredients do not have the same level of scientific review because big manufacturers of personal care products don’t use botanical ingredients, they use chemicals, because they are cheap ingredients.

    So you can find many great botanical ingredients in products and they will say they have no data on them. Botanical ingredients have been safely used for 1000’s of years.

    Also, if you care about Organic, then the skindeep database will not help you decipher anything about this issue.

    Many, many personal care products are deceptively labeled as “organic” while they are not… they may have some organic ingredients but they are not organic and for me personally this is a big issue.

    When I buy a personal care product if it has the word “organic” on it, I want it to be truly organic. That means CERTIFIED organic = 95%+ organic ingredients. (this is the food standard, which at this time is the only standard for personal care products. If the label says certified organic, then the body care product is food standard organic).

    The best place for information on this issue is on the Organic Consumers Association’s coming clean campaign, where they expose the organic fakers in the market place.
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/bodycare/index.cfm

    You can also check the Good Guide for information, which is a bit different than the skindeep database.
    http://www.goodguide.com/

    • david says:

      Great stuff Erin, thanks for taking the time to let us know about other places to check for personal care products!