Non-Toxic Personal Care

Diane di Costanzo, The Green Guide - Deirdre Imus has been concerned about toxins in food since she was a teenager. More recently, while perusing articles in scholarly journals about dangerous food additives, Deirdre, who is married to radio talk-show host Don Imus, discovered that some of those same toxic substances lurked in the health and beauty products she had been buying. "I started going through everything, reading every label, throwing out the products that contained harmful chemicals," she says.

Deirdre also discovered that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows cosmetics to go to market without prior third-party testing for safety. The agency has never required the $20-billion-a-year industry "to label its products with any warning of well-documented risks . . . nor has the FDA banned the sale of a wide range of unsafe products to an unsuspecting public," says Samuel Epstein, M.D., chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and professor emeritus of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois at the Chicago School of Public Health.

Here are three categories of problematic ingredients to beware of. (For details on chemicals with a star*, see "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly," in Green Guide #94).


When it comes to labels on personal-care products, the FDA requires that ingredients be listed, with one crucial loophole: The catchall word "fragrance" is allowed to cover up the many individual substances used in the perfuming process. This makes for no small exception, since fragrancing components are the most likely to trigger allergic reactions. These can include contact dermatitis, which is characterized by redness, swelling, itching and fluid-filled blisters, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Nor is choosing "hypoallergenic" products a fail-safe strategy. "The use of the word 'hypoallergenic' on labels is unregulated and therefore doesn't necessarily mean anything," cautions Joan Muratore, senior project leader at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. (For more on allergens and labels, see sidebar at right.) And, despite statements such as that on Clairol's Herbal Essences website, which calls itself "your head-to-toe online guide to the Totally Organic Experience," the words "organic" and "natural" on labels are also not regulated with regard to personal-care products. More worrisome still, products that are perfumed with synthetic fragrances almost always contain a family of toxic chemicals called phthalates*.


This category of ingredients, used to prevent product spoilage, is the second most likely (after fragrance) to cause skin reactions. The vast majority of products rely on a family of synthetic preservatives called parabens*, which are common allergens. Also common are the formaldehyde*-releasing preservatives -- in Japan, the use of some of these, such as DMDM hydantoin* and imidazolidinyl urea*, is allowed only if the product carries a warning label.


Some of the FDA-approved coloring agents, listed as FD&C colors*, while sounding terribly safe and official, are anything but: some contain lead acetate*, a heavy metal* toxic to the nervous system; others are allergens or irritants, or linked with cancers. Read the rest of this article here.

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