According to the Environmental Working Group, most personal care products (such as lotion) contain at least one chemical linked to cancer and less than 1 percent of products have had all their combined ingredients assessed for safety. In fact, the average woman uses about 12 body and skin care products a day, each containing about 10 different chemicals, applying a total of 120 chemicals daily to her body. Only 11 percent of the 10,500 chemicals used in these products have ever been tested for safety. As many as one-third of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. Research shows that skin can absorb as much as 60 percent of whatever is applied to it.
As eco-conscious consumers everywhere learn about the health risks and eco-perils associated with conventional lotions, and realize that what you put on your body is as important as what you put in it, sales of natural and organic personal care products are skyrocketing, with projected revenues of $7.8 billion in the US in 2008. But without knowing how to decipher the ingredients listed on the label, or what better ingredients to look for, seeking out a green lotion may seem overwhelming. Learn which ingredients to avoid (and which to look for instead), as well as which labels and certifications will ensure a product's eco-friendliness, to take the uncertainty out of your next bubbly buy.
Ingredients to avoid: Common chemicals in lotions
The FDA requires that ingredients in food, drugs, and cosmetics be listed in descending order of quantity, but ingredient lists can be hard to decipher. Below is a list of the most common—and most damaging—chemicals found in body care products:
Phthalates are used as plasticizers—they give plastics more flexibility and make them less brittle—and in lotions and beauty products to make them smooth. They're also used to "fix" fragrances and make them last longer, to help products penetrate the skin better, and to prevent nail polish from chipping. A 2002 test of 72 name-brand beauty products found almost three-quarters contained phthalates.
Phthalates are linked to endocrine disruption; neurotoxicity and neurodevelopmental disorders; toxicity of the brain, kidneys, liver, and lungs; and birth defects in the male reproductive system. Research from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) shows a probable link between phthalates and asthma, as well as allergies. Phthalates are just one of the chemicals that the EWG found polluting the San Francisco Bay. Check out EWG's phthalates cheat sheet for more info.
What to look for on the label: Phthalates don't have to be called out on the label: any cleanser that lists "fragrance" in its ingredients can contain phthalates. Choose products with fragrances made from plants and essential oils, and those that spell out what's in their fragrance. Avoid products listing Diethyl phthalate (DEP), a known carcinogen, as an ingredient.
Parabens—preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria—are found in about 75 to 90 percent of cosmetic and personal care products. After washing off a body wash or soap containing parabens, these chemicals are discharged through wastewater systems and end up in waterways, where they appear to have estrogenic effects on fish. In humans, parabens can affect the endocrine system, which produces hormones. Acting like estrogen in the body, they increase the risk of breast cancer, with recent studies finding parabens in breast tumors. Skin exposure is more of a risk than parabens in food, since the digestive system breaks them down. Parabens have been found in breast milk, blood, and body tissues, and can enter a developing fetus. Parabens can also cause contact dermatitis (skin rashes).
What to look for on the label: Look for a cleanser or soap that say "paraben free" on the label. Avoid products that list methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben as ingredients.
Many popular lotions contain petroleum-based mineral oil. The production of petrochemicals used in bath and body products pollute the environment by releasing hazardous chemicals into the air and water. Mineral-oil body lotions support the hazards of the petroleum industry, which include about 2.6 million gallons of oil spilled every month during transportation and about 71 million pounds of toxins released into the air and water during refinement.
What to look for on the label: Look for mineral oil in the ingredients list.
Diethanolamine (DEA) is a known carcinogen. While DEA is not as commonly used today as it once was, check the label for TEA and MEA, which are often contaminated with DEA.
What to look for on the label: Look for TEA and MEA on the ingredient list.
Making sense of green claims on product labels
As if the ingredient lists weren't murky enough, a lack of regulation allows personal care product companies to tout their products' green attributes with claims that at times can be confusing and misleading, and without any third party certification that the claims are true. Learn more about product testing, labeling, and reputable certifications:
Lack of testing for safety of body cleansers
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of personal care products and cosmetics, which it describes as all products "intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body ... for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering appearance.
Yet, despite the fact that the FDA is charged with ensuring the safety of cosmetic and personal care products, neither the actual products nor ingredients are reviewed or approved by the FDA before they're sold to the public. It's up to the manufacturer to ensure that a product is safe, and to theoretically attach a warning label if it isn't. Clear safety guidelines are lacking, and no independent third-party safety testing is required. Submitting product formulations is voluntary, and according to the FDA, only about 35 percent of cosmetic companies do so. While the European Union (EU) approved a cosmetic ingredient listing of over 1,000 prohibited substances, the FDA list only prohibits eight.
One murky area is the term “organic.” While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains clearcut standards for organic food, the same can’t be said for body care products. The personal care industry is in turmoil trying to agree upon a set of standards. Some companies use the USDA certified organic food standard, which requires 95 percent of the ingredients to be organic. Others use the less stringent California state standard for organic cosmetic products, which requires at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. And still others label their products organic without meeting any external criterion.
In the meantime, a nonprofit standard-setting group called NSF International has released a draft set of rules for organic personal care products and a group of 30 cosmetic companies recently devised their own set of specifications called Organic and Sustainable Industry Standards (OASIS). How it all washes out remains to be seen.
On May 1, 2008, the Natural Products Association announced the Natural Seal for Personal Care Products, a new certification program that defines "natural" and includes an easily-identified seal. Advisers to the association include Aubrey Organics, Burt’s Bees, Badger Balm, California Baby, Farmaesthetics, Trilogy Fragrances, and Weleda.
While you're contemplating green attributes, you may also wish to join the cruelty-free movement. Just keep in mind: a company may claim that they don’t employ animal testing for their products, but without third-party verification, it’s hard to know whether these statements are in fact completely true. So stick to those products certified as cruelty-free by looking for products with the Leaping Bunny Logo or the Certified Vegan Logo. You can rest assured that no bunnies (or monkeys or cats for that matter) were harmed in the making of these non-animal-tested products.
Non-recyclable lotion bottles also use up fossil fuel resources and take up landfill space. Additionally, plastic bottles can take hundreds of years to decompose, while ingredients in leftover product —including phenoxyethanol and parabens—can contaminate soil and water.
- Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety database
- The Green Guide - Lotion: Chocolate or Bust
- Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep
- Riley, Trish (2007) The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Living. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.: 156-159
- Loux, Renée (2008) Easy green living: the ultimate guide to simple, eco-friendly choices for you and your home. New York: Rodale Inc.: 168-176
- Nutrition Business Journal - Natural & Organic Personal Care Report 2008
- Ashton, Karen and Green, Elizabeth Salter (2008) The Toxic Consumer: Living Healthy in a Hazardous World. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.: 40-81
- Winter, Ruth (2005) A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. New York: Three Rivers Press: 41-555
- Plum Organics - Toxin Free Home Guide
- The Green Guide - Lip and Eye Makeup