I know I’m late to this party (like, by many years). But, I’m done with my brand name shampoo.

My colleagues and I have thought a lot over the years about toxics and how to keep them out of our food and our bodies. But I must admit I’ve remained a stubborn hold-out when it comes to a lot of my toiletries and cosmetics—hair products, lipstick, lotions, soaps, etc. I’ve allowed myself to ignore harmful ingredients in the name of vanity or convenience or price. I’m usually a pretty savvy consumer, but when it comes to personal care products, I’ve also allowed myself to be greenwashed (excuse the pun).

Here’s what happened recently to get me thinking more seriously now about the toxics and harmful chemicals on my bathroom shelves:

Heading out for a long weekend in the sun, I chastised my husband (yes, sometimes I’m like that) for picking up the cheapest sunscreen at the drug store (to his credit, he’s frugal). Knowing what harmful chemicals lurk in most mainstream sunscreens, the garish red and yellow bottle screamed “toxic” to me. So, I marched back into the store and bought sunscreen in a bottle that cooed “natural”—a mossy green number with a leafy motif and a reassuringly crunchy brand name, and claims in soothing pale yellow script about special herbal ingredients. I felt better about putting this stuff on my toddler’s sweet little face. When I got back to the car, my better half inspected the ingredient list and laughed, “It’s the same stuff in a different colored bottle.”

I was hoodwinked. I paid twice as much for the exact same chemical brew, with some trace of herb added only for marketing purposes.

A couple days later, I happened to hear Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt on the radio talking about their book, No More Dirty Looks, a treatise on how the US (and Canadian) cosmetics industry—shockingly unregulated—gets away with selling us products with ingredients that can harm our health and our looks. (They also recommend lots of alternatives to buy and make yourself).

I got the book from the library, started my (incredulous) reading, spent way too much time poking around the Internet (found Annie Leonard and Ask Umbra being smart about cosmetics back in 2010), and commenced scrutinizing ingredient lists on everything in my bathroom.

The upshot: I’m going clean. Here are some of the ugly truths that have spurred me on:

  • Research by the Environmental Working Group shows that personal care products—from deodorants and lotions, to make-up and even baby shampoos—contain chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, skin problems, and other health effects.
  • In fact, one in eight of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, and hormone disruptors.
  • More specifically, at least 1 in 5 personal care products contain chemicals linked to cancer (some say as many as 1 in 3), 80 percent contain ingredients that commonly contain hazardous impurities (a.k.a. byproducts not required to be listed on ingredient lists), and 56 percent contain “penetration enhancers” that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skin—and into your body.
  • The cosmetics and personal care industries are basically self-regulating. Due to lax laws dating back to 1938, the Food and Drug Administration (which has an Office of Cosmetics and Colors) does not have the legal authority to review or regulate products before they are sold. They do not test personal-care products for safety before they hit the market nor require companies to test or provide safety data about their products. The FDA has little power to recall dangerous products. (What the FDA can do is conduct studies. They’ve been measuring 1,4 dioxane levels since 1979, for example, and since 2000 have issued feeble recommendations that manufacturers voluntarily reduce 1,4 dioxane limits.)
  • Voluntary industry safeguards aren’t working very well. Only 11 percent of chemical ingredients in cosmetics have been assessed for health and safety by the industry’s self-policing safety panel. (Mostly they test for short-term effects like rashes.)
  • In the 1970s, the 1980s, and again in 2013 (and lots of years in between), US lawmakers have introduced legislation to make personal care products safer. The cosmetic industry trade organization has fought hard against these measures and they haven’t gone anywhere. We’re exactly where we were in the 1930s, except with lots more chemicals to work with.
  • Canadian laws are stricter than American laws, but mostly they follow the FDA’s lead. To its credit, the Canadian government recently created a Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist that includes hundreds of prohibited and restricted chemicals and contaminants such as formaldehyde, triclosan, nitrosamines and 1,4-dioxane—all of which are allowed in US products.
  • Europe has banned over one thousand ingredients for use in personal care products. The US has banned only ten in almost as many decades.
  • Words used on product labels such as “organic,” “natural,” and even “certified hypo-allergenic,” actually have no legal meaning. In practice they usually mean nothing.
  • This gross stuff wends its way into our bodies. A number of studies have shown that the man-made chemicals in our environment and in consumer products—including cosmetics—show up in our “body burden.” Many of the chemicals found in cosmetics are absorbed by the skin into the body, and can be detected in blood or urine.
  • The thinking has been that personal products only deliver low doses of these toxics, so we shouldn’t worry about it. It turns out that the dose doesn’t make the poison. Low doses may even have more impact than high doses. Plus, we’re using all kinds of different products on a daily basis. Things add up. Plus, the timing of exposure matters—crucial times are prenatal, during certain stages of childhood development, and during puberty, but adults are vulnerable too.
  • It’s not just human damage. Personal care products are chock full of chemicals that act like estrogen and can harm wildlife. A 2004 study found that 57 percent of all products contain paraben preservatives, nearly 2 percent contain surfactants called alkylphenols and just over 2 percent contain estrogenic sunscreen ingredients.

It turns out a lot of my stuff is packed with chemicals with sinister sounding names I can’t pronounce. The worst offenders are products I was convinced I needed: the expensive conditioner and styling goop my hairdresser recommends, the perfect shade of long-lasting (read: extra toxic) lipstick.

Greenwashed by Baby Wash. Photo: Anna Fahey.

Greenwashed by Baby Wash. Photo: Anna Fahey.

Guess what? There’s lead in most lipstick. That’s a proven neurotoxin and I’m putting it on my mouth! In fact, in a 2011 study, 400 lipsticks were found to contain lead. Another study this year found that a wide range of brands contain as many as eight other metals, from cadmium to aluminum. Many people apply their lipstick more than 20 times a day. And the problem here is that metals tend to accumulate in the body—especially bad for pregnant women and their offspring.

What makes me feel even worse is that there’s nasty stuff in my daughter’s baby shampoo. Just like the sunscreen, I bought it because it claimed to be more natural. On the bottle it says “natural oat formula.” The brand, Aveeno, is marketed as natural and earth-friendly. They tout their use of “only high-quality natural ingredients—grown in regions that provide an ideal environment for the plant to thrive and produce beneficial ACTIVE NATURALS® ingredients.” Whatever “active naturals” are, one gets the impression that this is pure and healthy stuff. (Check out their ingredients page).

But the ingredients list on the bottle tells a different story. Yes, there’s a miniscule amount of avena sativa kernel extract in there—that’s oats. Otherwise, the stuff is chock full of laboratory chemicals. When I began searching these ingredients online, I ran across a class action by some parents in New Jersey against Johnson & Johnson—Aveeno’s parent company. Like me, these folks were misled by the claims on the bottle only to find the stuff contained the exact same suspect synthetic and chemical ingredients found in regular shampoos, including some of the worst byproducts like 1, 4 dioxane and Quaternium 15 which releases formaldehyde, both known carcinogens.

  • Yuck. And that’s just the carcinogens! There are also ingredients I’m putting on my kid’s head—and in her bath water (which she sometimes drinks!)—linked to “organ system toxicity,” and others that are likely endocrine disruptors linked to reproductive and genital abnormalities.

    I am a terrible parent.

    For the record, I had the extreme privilege of using only the highest priced, fully organic, imported-from-Europe products when my girl was a little baby. But now that she’s pushing four, I’ve let down my guard.

    As I’ve pointed out, these crazy ingredients are not unique to my daughter’s shampoo. They’re in mine too. They’re everywhere!

    There are a couple reasons to single Aveeno out here, even though there are lots of similar lines marketed to people like me, that is, anybody willing to pay a premium for a pretty bottle and sense of (false) security. As mentioned, this is a product I was slathering all over my daughter. It happens to be made in Canada. And—and here’s some good news—prompted by growing concerns raised by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and other citizen groups, Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Aveeno, Neutrogena, and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, has announced that they will be removing carcinogens and other toxic chemicals from their baby and adult products globally.

    That means that pressure from consumers can be successful. It’s good reason not only to rid your medicine cabinet of toxic stuff but also to demand accountability from manufacturers and policymakers for getting harmful substances out of our cosmetics and personal care products once and for all. Here are some resources for doing both:

    • Check the products you have and ones you’re thinking of buying on Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
    • Familiarize yourself with the worst offenders. Here’s David Suzuki’s handy list of the ‘dirty dozen’ chemicals to avoid. Parabens are endocrine disruptors and may be linked to breast cancer. Phthalates can cause reproductive problems. Petrochemicals are, well, petrochemicals. They come under all kinds of nicer sounding monikers. Sodium laureth sulfate and sister chems usually come with carcinogenic bi-products. Anything with “fragrance” can contain a slew of nasty chemicals that go unnamed because of trade secret protections. Remember that certain chemicals are listed under numerous different (sometimes sneaky) names.
    • You can find all kinds of inexpensive and effective alternatives at your health food store or co-op. In doing so you’ll be supporting more sustainable small businesses. (For the truly adventurous: Make your own). O’Connor and Spunt are convinced you’ll actually look better when you rid your skin and hair care regime of drying, irritating, harmful chemicals.
    • Ask your legislators to act (let’s let the FDA do their job protecting us). Put pressure on retailers to clean up their shelves. And demand safe products from the big beauty corporations. You can learn about what’s happening and how to get involved by checking out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.