Ask Eartha: Are There Personal Care Products One Should Avoid?
I like to think of myself as a pretty eco-friendly person. I recycle, compost and I try to pay attention to the ingredients in foods I buy. But when I was washing my hair this morning, I realized that I don’t have any idea what’s in my shampoo or conditioner. Are there any chemicals in personal care products that I should avoid?
Thanks for your question this week, Jayne! Shower time is a great opportunity for reflecting on life’s big questions, and this is no exception. From toothpaste and deodorant to soap and shampoo, we use personal care products every single day. In fact, a survey conducted by the Environmental Working Group determined that the average American uses nine personal care products daily, and like you, most of us have no clue what these items are made of — let alone how to pronounce the ingredients. This is totally understandable! Reading labels can be time consuming, and who has hours to spend in the grocery store? To avoid the brain damage of over-analyzing our every decision, we put a lot of stuff on and into our bodies without pausing to think about the potential ecological and health impacts. Not to worry! Here are the top three ingredients to look out for and some guidelines to keep in mind:
Here in the High Country, sunscreen is a must. But some of the ingredients in sunscreen might cause you to raise an eyebrow. Oxybenzone, a chemical which absorbs UV rays, is common in many sunscreens.
However, when paired with other ingredients that act as so-called “penetration enhancers,” it can also be absorbed into the skin. In lab experiments, oxybenzone behaves as a weak estrogen and can impact reproduction in animals. It’s also been linked to endometriosis, which is a uterine disorder. Environmentally speaking, researchers have found that oxybenzone damages coral reefs, even in small doses. While we don’t have enough information to declare that oxybenzone is completely safe or harmful to humans, it’s best to err on the side of caution and look for sunscreens that use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide instead (which are better for the corals, too).
Banned in the European Union (but not in the U.S.), synthetic parabens are used as preservatives in products like toothpaste, deodorant, lotion and shampoo. These compounds prevent the growth of fungus, bacteria and other nasty cooties.
However, they’re also a known hormone disruptor. Parabens mimic estrogen and have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer. And while many products contain (what are considered) safe amounts of parabens, public health advocates worry about the cumulative effects of these products building up in our bodies. Parabens have also been detected in mammals such as dolphins, sea otters and polar bears.
Many times, you won’t find the word “paraben” alone on an ingredient list, but if you see methylparaben, ethylparaben or anything similar, the product contains parabens.
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent added to products to help prevent the spread of germs. It’s been found to disrupt hormones, cause cancer in mice, and when it gets into the water supply, it kills tiny bacteria at the bottom of the food chain.
Over-use of triclosan could also lead to antibiotic resistance. Because of these concerns, in 2016 the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan in soaps and body washes — turns out you can eliminate bacteria just as well by washing thoroughly with regular soap and water. Despite the ban, triclosan is still lurking in products such as deodorant, shaving cream and toothpaste, so check the labels on these items before you head to the checkout counter.
Unfortunately, this is not an exhaustive list. You can learn more about which compounds might be hazardous and how your favorite products stack up by checking out Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. Other great resources to check out include SaferCosmetics.org and MadeSafe.org, which is a certification for safe and non-toxic consumer products. Apps like ThinkDirty allow you to scan barcodes to get the details on potential hazards in specific products. And some good news from retailers! Recently, both Walmart and Target introduced policies to only carry products that meet certain standards and to push for greater ingredient transparency from manufacturers.
Once you’ve found a few personal care products that meet your criteria, you’re done! The next time you head to the store, you’ll know exactly what to buy. So instead of wasting precious time agonizing over which shampoo to buy, you can head over to the ice cream aisle and contemplate which flavor to get instead.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.