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Why Your Natural, Organic Soap, Cosmetics and Other Personal Care Products May Be Bad for You

Personal care products can contain harmful ingredients. Even some labeled 'natural' and 'organic' aren't that good for you. Here's how to find the real deal.

It all began with toxic nail polish. About a decade ago, Jane Houlihan, who is now the senior vice president of research at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), was researching phthalates, a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, in nail polish. A few years later, the organization Health Care Without Harm, which was working to get phthalates out of medical supplies and equipment, noticed data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showing that women of child-bearing age had high levels of phthalates in their bodies. They wondered why -- and suspected cosmetics. Teaming up with Houlihan and EWG, they tested a wide range of personal care products -- none of which listed phthalates on their labels -- and found that over 70 percent contained phthalates.

The environmental groups then wondered what other chemicals were used in the cosmetics and personal care products that we put on our bodies every day. A lot, as it turns out. As EWG and partner organizations like the Breast Cancer Fund and Women's Voices for the Earth began researching chemicals in commonly used cosmetics, they found phthalates, formaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane (a carcinogen), and even lead in everyday products like lipstick, nail polish, deodorant, and shampoo. Many more ingredients hadn't been tested for safety -- ever. "Reading labels is important," says Stacy Malkan, one of the original co-founders of the cosmetics campaign and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, "but there are even more dangerous ingredients that aren't listed on the label. And it doesn't have to be this way."

Revelations like these led them to organize, forming the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2004. They began by sending out letters to cosmetics companies, asking them to sign their Compact for Safe Cosmetics, "a pledge to replace all hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives." That year, EWG launched its Skin Deep database, rating the safety of cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients. The first year, 100 companies signed the Compact (although most major companies did not), and the Skin Deep database listed about 7,000 products. Today, over 1,500 companies have signed the Compact, and the Skin Deep database lists over 60,000 products. Recently, the Campaign worked with Annie Leonard to produce the video The Story of Cosmetics. Also, a bill before Congress, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, would require more safety testing before ingredients are used in products.

In 2006, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics celebrated a victory when major nail polish brands OPI, Orly and Sally Hansen removed a "toxic trio" of chemicals (dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene) from their products. Nneka Leiba, a research analyst at EWG, says that many of the problematic ingredients are preservatives, including endocrine-disrupting parabens, formaldehyde, formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, and suspected carcinogen BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole). She stressed that many teen products EWG tested contained parabens and phthalates, which both have estrogenic effects, a significant finding because bodies of teenagers are especially sensitive to hormones. "Right now, we're not seeing a lot of preservatives being used that don't have associated hazards," says Leiba

. "We would like to see more options for companies and many more studies on the safety of these chemicals. Alternatively, we encourage companies to add 'best by' dates to cosmetics and stress their importance to consumers."

While the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics works to remove all harmful ingredients from cosmetics, some consumers rely on cosmetics brands marketed as organic and natural, hoping those products are safe. As Diane Kaye and Jim Hahn, founders of the body care products company Terressentials, could tell you, the word "natural" -- or even "organic" -- on a label means very little. Kaye is a cancer survivor who, at age 29, underwent an experimental, aggressive chemotherapy treatment that cured her cancer but left her with extreme chemical sensitivities. She and her husband purged toxic products from their home, adopted organic macrobiotic diets, and tried natural and organic cosmetics. Kaye's body still reacted to these products. "We were washing our hair with bar soaps and using olive oil as moisturizer," she recalls, telling how she abandoned even the so-called natural brands of cosmetics.

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