Why Your Natural, Organic Soap, Cosmetics and Other Personal Care Products May Be Bad for You
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.
Kaye and Hahn first created Terressentials products for their own personal use. And as they shared their creations with friends in cancer support groups, they found there was a demand for products made from safe, organic ingredients. In 1996, they moved from the city to a farm in rural Maryland and turned their hobby into a business. Yet even today, nearly a decade and a half later, Terressentials is one of a minority of companies whose products are USDA-certified organic.
What's more, many stores refuse to stock their products. Some stores complain about having to deal with their small, artisanal business, wishing to place one order with one distribution company for every product in their store every few weeks, taking advantage of bulk discounts (not to mention the free lunches they get when their rep from the distribution company visits). But there might be another reason why Terressentials products aren't on the shelves of more health food stores. One honest store rep told Kaye she couldn't stock Terressentials products because their pure, natural ingredients would blow the cover on the other not-so-natural brands of "natural" cosmetics.
Another source of truly organic -- and safe -- products is Dr. Bronner's. David Bronner, the current president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, descends from a line of German-Jewish soap makers who have made liquid and bar soaps since 1858. Emanuel Bronner, David's grandfather, immigrated to America in 1929 and began making the product we know as Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap in 1948. Back then, there was no such thing as USDA organic certification, but Emanuel wanted his soaps to be as natural as possible. Today, David continues -- and even improves upon -- his grandfather's tradition. The company went certified organic in 2003 and fair trade in 2007.
Both Terressentials and Dr. Bronner's are signers of the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. They also participate in another campaign, one called Coming Clean, started by Organic Consumers Association (OCA) in 2004, the same year the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics was founded. (Full disclosure: I have served on the policy advisory board of Organic Consumers Association since 2007.) Ronnie Cummins, executive director of OCA, supported the work of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics but felt there was a niche OCA could fill to help consumers get the safe products they demanded.
The word "organic" is strictly regulated in food, but it meant practically nothing on the bottle of a shampoo or lotion. To Cummins, that made no sense. "A bottle of olive oil cannot claim it's organic unless it's actually organic if you are going to eat it, but what if it is used as massage oil?" The Coming Clean Web site includes "naughty" and "nice" lists, calling out brands like Avalon Organics, Desert Essence, Giovanni, Jason, Kiss My Face, and Nature's Gate for fraudulently labeling products "organic" and praising other brands for actually attaining and accurately labeling USDA organic certification.
Coming Clean had one of its first victories in 2005, when it settled out of court with the USDA, which promised to enforce the USDA certified organic seal on cosmetics that met the organic standards for food. More recently, this past June, Whole Foods Market (which carries most of the not-so-organic brands listed above) announced that by June 2011, it would require its suppliers to either reformulate their products so they are organic or remove misleading labels claiming to be organic.
Coming Clean teamed up with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and environmental health consumer advocate David Steinman in 2008, when it tested -- and found -- the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane in "natural" and "organic" products. 1,4-dioxane, which was also found in a number of conventional, popular cosmetics brands, is a byproduct of a process called ethoxylation, which OCA refers to as "a cheap short-cut companies use to provide mildness to harsh ingredients." Ethoxylation requires the use of the petrochemical ethylene oxide (a carcinogen), and it generates 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct.
Five brands tested free of 1,4-dioxane: Dr. Bronner's, Sensibility Soaps (Nourish), Terressentials, Aubrey Organics, and Dr. Hauschka. Perhaps this is because brands like Dr. Bronner's and Terressentials do not contain detergents. David Bronner points out that his company's products are soaps, not detergents, a distinction that many consumers are perhaps unaware of. Soaps, alkaline salts with fatty acids, are produced by a simple, straightforward reaction that has been used by humans for thousands of years. Long ago, humans used wood ash to obtain the alkaline salt that would turn vegetable or animal oils and fats into soap. Making detergent, on the other hand, is a more complex, energy-intensive process. Many detergents are made with petrochemicals like ethoxylates. While all cosmetics should be safe (and free of 1,4-dioxane), most consumers do not think they are purchasing petrochemicals when they select a "natural" or "organic" product off the shelf.
The European Union, which initially banned a list of 1,100 toxic chemicals from cosmetics in 2003, now bans over 1,300 chemicals. Meanwhile, in the U.S. consumers still are not promised safety, nor can they trust claims of "natural" or "organic." And new safety issues are arising before old ones are resolved (Cummins worries about newly developed products using nanotechnology). American consumers have had options like Dr. Bronner's for decades, and opportunities to obtain truly safe cosmetics exploded when the Internet became a part of everyday life in the 1990s. But it is still the responsibility of the consumer to become informed about cosmetic safety and seek out safe products. The vast majority of Americans who simply go to the store and choose a product off the shelf (likely assuming that any product legally sold in a store is inherently safe) receive no guarantee of safety.