Each day most of us bombard our bodies with a multitude of grooming aids, body care and medicinal products, scents and solvents – some containing very questionable ingredients. The same basic ingredients are not only used in the inexpensive product lines found at the local drug store, but also in many "gourmet" products, often billed as "natural." And for babies, with their especially sensitive skin, and children, some products can cause negative reactions ranging from rashes to respiratory problems. Capitalizing on our insecurities, the personal care products industry – a $21 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone – can seem hell-bent on cleansing, beautifying and pampering us to oblivion.
Besides our health, the environment is affected. The majority of personal care products are based on petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. We shower them off and down the drain they go – polluting our waterways and endangering animals and plants with synthetic ingredients that either don’t break down or are slow to biodegrade.
The Natural and Non-Allergenic Hype
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set no clear legal definition for the word "natural." It can refer to materials that are derived from natural sources, which means basically all materials, including petroleum. These materials can be refined and stabilized with a host of synthetic dyes, fragrances, surfactants, colors and preservatives. Chris Nanni, M.D., a dermatologist at the Washington (D.C.) Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, says, "I see a lot of patients with allergic contact dermatitis [skin rashes] from using so-called ‘natural’ skin products. People are being exposed to some ingredients that they have never been exposed to before, or in higher concentrations than ever before."
In many "hypoallergenic" products, only the most commonly allergenic substances are left out, while other undesirable ingredients may still be included. The suspected carcinogen and lung irritant talc is listed as the first ingredient on Almay’s hypoallergenic eye shadows, for example. As for "organic" claims on cosmetics, the cosmetics industry traditionally has only recognized that as a substance containing a carbon atom. Unless an ingredient is identified on the label as "certified organic," chances are it wasn’t grown according to organic standards.
Michael Wrightson of Logona, a line of grooming products, says, "Consumers must define what they mean by natural. At that point, they can look for companies that meet their expectations for both simplicity and performance." Other labeling items, such as "cruelty-free," can mislead consumers, too. But by learning more about products and ingredients, you can shop smarter and safer.
Many personal care products contain known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins and hormone disruptors. Synthetic as well as natural fragrances are frequently allergenic. Some ingredients, like lanolin, which comes from sheep's wool, can be contaminated with pesticides. Other chemicals interact with nitrites to form carcinogens called nitrosamines. As David Steinman and Samuel Epstein, M.D., write in The Safe Shopper’s Bible, "None of this would be so important if the skin were not so permeable. Cosmetic ingredients most certainly are absorbed through the skin."
All cosmetic products need some type of preservative to protect them from microbial, bacterial and fungal invasion. Both natural and synthetic preservatives, like fragrances, can cause allergies, sensitization and irritation. Grapefruit seed extract is a gentler, effective preservative, used in Aubrey Organics products, for one. Familiarize yourself with some of the most common irritants and ingredients to avoid before your next trip to the cosmetics and personal care aisles.
It’s Your Choice
Dr. Nanni’s bottom line: "If you’re using something and it’s working well, then continue to use it. But be aware that you can experience a condition called ‘delayed hypersensitivity,’ whereby you can use a product for a long time before becoming sensitized to it." Since a predisposition to allergies can be passed on to children, parents with sensitivities should take care to avoid exposing their kids to potential allergens.
Don’t be fooled by industry PR. As Dr. Nanni advises, "Go for simple products with the fewest ingredients, the least irritating chemicals for you, and which are the least environmentally polluting." Make your choice of a grooming product based on careful label reading, coupled with your idea of the ingredients you most want to avoid, the companies you most want to support, and effectiveness of the products you’ve tried.
And, he cautions, manufacturers change ingredients in products all the time, "so your favorite product can have new things added to it." Take stock of products in your bathroom, phase out the most potentially harmful altogether, and replace necessities with more benign brands.