The cosmetic industry in the U.S. is largely unregulated. Although regulation falls under the domain of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), up until now they have done little to adequately police what chemicals go into our personal care products.
That said, as more and more evidence is presented on the health concerns involving certain ingredients in our beauty products, the government has in recent years started to finally pay closer attention. In fact, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins introduced a bill to Congress in 2015 that would require the FDA to better monitor personal care products. The bill, entitled the Personal Care Products Safety Act, would specifically require the FDA to investigate five potentially risky ingredients each year. And, if an ingredient is found to pose health risks, for the first time the FDA could ban or restrict its use.
The American Cancer Society and numerous other health organizations came out in support of this bill. However, now two years after its introduction, the bill has yet to be passed and we are, therefore, no closer to changes in regulation.
Until this bill passes and brings about real change, consumers are left to do the groundwork themselves to learn what health risks certain ingredients pose.
In your own quest to avoid controversial chemicals, make note that there are two key synthetic chemicals that are routinely mentioned by health professionals and health organizations as products to avoid: parabens and phthalates. Both chemicals pose key health risks, yet both are pervasively used in many personal care products.
Here is more about each of them:
Parabens are a common family of preservatives used across many personal care products including shampoos and conditioners, deodorants/antiperspirants, lotions, sunscreens and cosmetics. These preservatives are of concern because they can mimic the hormone estrogen and act as endocrine (hormone) disrupters. As hormone disrupters, certain studies have linked use of parabens with an increased risk for breast cancer. On top of these concerns, a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health also linked one type of paraben (propylparaben) to impaired female fertility.
Many cosmetic and hair care manufacturers have been voluntarily removing parabens from products due to consumer concern. However, there are still many products out there that contain parabens. The most commonly used parabens include: ethylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben. Of those, butylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben are deemed by the Environmental Work Group (EWG) to be of the most concern.
How do you avoid parabens? Read labels!
Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are a class of ingredients often used to soften plastics, but they are also commonly used as solvents and in synthetic fragrances to help fragrances linger. Widely used across many personal care products, these chemicals are linked to endocrine (hormone) disruption, reproductive system toxicity and, in some instances, cancer. It is no wonder that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) added phthalates to their list of harmful chemicals to avoid, aptly named the “Dirty Dozen.”
The most commonly used phthalates in personal care products include: dibutyl phthalate/DBP (used in nail polish and fragrances), diethlyhexyl phthalate/DEHP (used in eyelash glue and other products), diethyl phthalate/DEP (used in fragrances and hair conditioners) and dimethyl phthalate/ DMP (used in hairspray and fragrances). The two that pose the greatest health concern, DBP and DEHP, are banned from personal care products in the European Union, but are still prevalent in the United States. Both have been linked to decreased fertility in women and men, reproductive birth defects in baby boys, as well as some types of cancer.
What is especially concerning is the fact that it is not always easy to tell if a product contains phthalates. Why? Phthalates are often added to “fragrance” and not directly called out on labels, a direct result of a significant loophole in the U.S. federal law.
Some encouraging news on the horizon…Some companies have now voluntarily phased out the use of DBP in their nail product formulas due to consumer pressure. In addition, funded by a three-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is undergoing research to determine the risk of breast cancer associated with using products containing phthalates. The study, which began in 2015, is the largest one to date investigating the relationship between phthalates and breast cancer.
How do you avoid phthalates? The short answer—it can be challenging. Begin by reading product labels, specifically looking for: phthalate, DBP, DEHP, DEP, DMP and fragrance. In addition, consider health-focused/natural products. Many natural brands now even proudly note when a product is phthalate-free. Also, don’t forget that (as mentioned above) the current loophole in the federal law allows phthalates to be added to “fragrance” without disclosure to consumers. For this reason, you can also opt for products without “fragrance” on the ingredient list to be 100% sure that that the products are indeed phthalate-free.
Finally, also make note to check out our new iPhone app, HAIR
. Our curated list of healthy hair products specifically excludes any products containing parabens or products whose labels disclose they contain phthalates.
Happy shopping for healthier products!
*Sources: Environmental Working Group (EWG), The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.