Shampoo. Toothpaste. Deodorant. Lotion. Everyone uses these products as part of their daily grooming ritual. But have you ever flipped over the bottles and tried to decipher the ingredients listed in most personal care items? They can read like a foreign language: Propylparaben (lotion). Sodium lauryl sulfate (toothpaste). Methylisothiazolinone (shampoo). While the food industry is beginning to wake up to the dangers of artificial and processed ingredients found in what we put in our bodies, less attention has been paid to the regulation of what we put on our bodies.
Most people incorrectly assume that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates personal care products in much the same way they do our food supply. Unfortunately, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, passed in 1938, does not authorize or require the FDA to approve ingredients, making these items some of the least regulated on the market today. Companies are independently responsible for the safety of their own products and aren’t required to file any data on their ingredients.
As you can probably imagine, this has led to drugstore shelves being filled with merchandise listing carcinogenic and hormone disrupting chemicals in the name of producing it cheaper and making it last longer. Parabens, a common ingredient found in many cosmetics and lotions, can mimic estrogen in a woman’s body and disrupt hormonal levels. Some hide under technical sounding names like Quaternium-15, which is essentially a formaldehyde-releasing preservative used in many salons to procure shiny, manageable hair. As the body’s largest organ, the skin absorbs all of these chemicals from what we use on a daily basis.
The United States is significantly behind the rest of the world when it comes to researching and restricting such toxins. While the European Union has banned more than 1,000 chemicals in cosmetics, the FDA prohibits a mere ten. Other products are already outlawed in Japan and Canada. According to a 2007 study from the Environmental Working Group, an American advocacy organization, 98 percent of all products assessed contained one or more ingredients never tested for safety.
By now you’re probably asking yourself, “So what can a consumer do?” Minnesota is home to the Aveda Corporation, founded in 1978 by Horst Rechelbacher, which has long been a leader in organic personal care products made from natural ingredients. They have offered sulfate-free shampoo (often listed as sodium lauryl sulfate, a skin irritant), since 1996 and stopped using parabens more than two years ago.
Whole Foods Market developed a “premium body care seal” to designate items free of synthetic colors, preservatives and fragrances. Even mainstream retailers like Target now carry many alternatives to slathering your body with toxins throughout the day. However, these purchases still require some detective work on the part of the consumer — like our food supply, the term “natural” is only a marketing term that isn’t regulated by the government, rendering it essentially meaningless.
You can also make your own beauty products using common household items like olive oil, eggs and avocados. And homemade bath salts with natural fragrances make great gifts! Many Twin Cities area co-ops or local community education programs offer classes in making personal care products. Lastly, you can contact your elected officials and urge them to support legislation to tighten up regulation on this industry. The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 would overhaul the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and give the FDA recall authority, phase out ingredients linked to health risks and require full disclosure in product labeling.
The introduction of such legislation, in addition to the second look many consumers are giving to products they repeatedly use every day, provides hope for the future of our personal care regimen. Here’s to our changing times!