Naturally Rockford: Four tips for finding safe, organic alternatives to harmful personal care products

BLOOMINGTON, Minn.—Although they were created for maintaining and enhancing beauty, personal care products—everything you put on your skin, from shampoo, toothpaste, soap, cosmetics, to shaving products—pose ugly health concerns. According to studies conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in 2004, of the 14,841 name-brand personal care products evaluated, more than one-third contained at least one industrial chemical ingredient linked to cancer, and 79 percent contained harmful impurities that include known or probable carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, plasticizers and degreasers. However, with no government regulation of the words “organic” or “natural” in the personal care product market and no pre-market safety testing required, finding healthy, 100 percent toxin-free products is anything but easy.

“Because of the lack of government regulation, many companies continue to mislead and confuse consumers by labeling personal care products as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ when they contain just one or two highly-processed botanical extracts, and the rest is synthetic chemicals,” says Rosie Ward, MPH, CHES, director of health and wellness at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minn. “Therefore, consumers need to educate themselves on the ingredients of each product to ensure it’s entirely organic, because the government isn’t going to do it for us.”

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Office of Cosmetics and Colors says that a cosmetic manufacturer can use almost any raw material as an ingredient without approval. Under this policy, the FDA has only reviewed the safety of 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients in personal care products today. The EWG has found these ingredients account for one of every seven of the 75,000 industrial chemicals registered for commercial use.

Ward suggests consumers heed the following advice when looking for safe alternatives to hazardous personal care products:

Read labels and avoid toxic chemical ingredients. “It’s important to familiarize yourself with the names of certain toxic chemicals because of their link with certain types of cancer, hormone dysfunction, birth defects, and allergic reactions,” Ward says. Avoid chemical names ending in acid or alcohol. Specific chemicals to avoid include parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and butylparabens), phthalates, sodium laureth/sodium laurel sulfate, butyl/ethyl acetate, petrolatum, cocamide DEA/lauramide DEA, diazolidinyl urea, propylene glycol, toluene, synthetic colors and fragrances, mercury and triethanolamine.

Look for ingredients that are USDA approved as “100 percent certified organic” for foods. “Personal care products should be as pure as the foods we eat because recent studies show that we actually acquire more toxins through the skin than through our mouths,” says Ward. Products labeled 100 percent organic need to have, for example, a natural oil or wax base substance (sunflower or olive oil), a natural thickener (locust bean gum or acacia gum), a natural solvent (water or organic grain/grape/potato alcohol), a natural colorant (annatto, beets, grape juice), a natural essential oil fragrance (bay laurel or lavender), and a natural emulsifier (lecithin) that helps oils and waters to float freely without merging or separating out.

Especially avoid using nail polish, synthetic dark hair dyes, and synthetic perfumes/cologne. “Nail polish has been linked to birth defects, and the coal tar ingredients of dark hair dyes have been associated with cancer according to research,” says Ward. “Studies also show that many perfumes and colognes with added fragrances contain phthalates and parabens that are linked with birth defects and breast cancer.”

Look for organic products that have the lowest concern for safety. “There are around 300 companies out there that have joined the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, pledging to eliminate chemicals from their products that can cause cancer, mutations or birth defects,” says Ward. These companies include The Body Shop, Burt’s Bees, Kiss My Face, Aubrey Organics, Avalon Natural Products and TerrEssentials.

For additional resources about safe personal care products, visit, a Web site focusing on natural approaches to health and wellness hosted by Northwestern Health Sciences University.

from the March 21-28, 2007, issue

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