Unfortunately that’s not the way things work in the US, where products are brought to market with no requirements for safety testing. Of the 80,000 chemicals currently in use, only a few hundred have been tested for safety.
Buyer Beware: Chemicals in Our Shampoo
In the European Union, where the precautionary principle prevails, more than 1300 chemicals have been banned from use in cosmetics. In the US, that number is 11. Why? According to the FDA, “Under U.S. law, FDA does not have the authority to require cosmetic manufacturers to submit their safety data to FDA, and the burden is on FDA to prove that a particular product or ingredient is harmful when used as intended.” While in the EU manufacturers have to prove a product’s safety before bringing it to market, no such requirement exists in the US, and the FDA has scant resources devoted to testing chemicals currently on the market.
Responding to this antiquated system (not overhauled since 1938) is a bill seeking to regulate the personal care industry. The Personal Care Products Safety Act would require manufacturers to submit ingredient lists to the FDA and pay a percentage of gross sales to fund FDA safety research. The bill has been referred to committee and has yet to be brought before the House or Senate.
In the European Union, where the precautionary principle prevails, more than 1300 chemicals have been banned from use in cosmetics. In the US, that number is 11.
Complicating matters further is emerging research suggesting that chemicals in combination may have more pronounced effects than when we encounter them independently. While one chemical may increase cancer risk, in the presence of certain other chemicals, that risk may double or triple.
Though the government does little to protect us from potentially harmful chemicals, an ever-increasing number of citizens have gotten wise to the ways of the cosmetics industry thanks to the work of activists and watchdog groups. The Environmental Working Group has spent years researching and educating the public about hidden dangers in beauty products, including carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals. Their Skin Deep database now includes more than 73,000 products rated for safety on a scale of 0-10, allowing consumers to look up their shampoo, sunscreen, and deodorant to see how they fare. (Keep in mind that the EWG compiles available data on product ingredients listed on labels. Many products in the database indicate data gaps.)
The EWG has also brought out a mobile app to make it easier to check product safety while you shop, and their new “EWG Verified” labeling for products meeting their safety standards aims to make consumer decision-making easier still.
Look up some of the products you use every day and you may be surprised. Some conventional products score quite well, while some well-known “natural” products don’t. But what if your product’s ingredients aren’t listed on their labels?
Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals in Black Women’s Hair Products
Some researchers are looking into the causes of ethnic disparities in exposure to many of these chemicals of concern. Black women tend to have higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals like parabens and phthalates than their white counterparts. These chemicals interfere with the production of hormones and have been linked to increased risk of obesity, cancer, and other hormone-related diseases that African Americans suffer at disproportionately high rates.
A recent study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute and Battelle Memorial Institute published in Environmental Research examined popular haircare products used by Black women and children and found endocrine-disrupting chemicals in all the products tested.
They tested eighteen products — including relaxers, hot oil treatments, hair lotion and leave-in conditioners — for 66 chemicals, including phthalates, BPA and parabens. Eighty-four percent of the chemicals they found weren’t listed on product labels. Eleven of the products tested contained chemicals prohibited by the EU’s Cosmetics Directive or regulated by California’s prop 65.
Multiple Harmful Chemicals in a Single Product
Lead author for the Silent Spring study Jessica Helm says the study responded to a need for more information about where African American women get exposed to the hormone-disrupting chemicals found with greater prevalence in blacks than other populations in the US. Black women, Helm said, “suffer disproportionately from endocrine disorders. We see a consistent pattern of hormone-related disease.”
Of particular concern to Helm is children’s routine exposure to the chemicals in these products. “We know kids are susceptible to the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Research shows that exposure around puberty leads to an increased risk of breast cancer.”
What surprised Helm most was the prevalence and number of chemicals found in these products, as many as thirty in a single product. Helm notes that the chemicals found may have different and more pronounced effect in combination.
“We know kids are susceptible to the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Research shows that exposure around puberty leads to an increased risk of breast cancer.”
Study authors hope that consumers armed with this new information may make more informed choices about their hair care products, though considering that many of the ingredients researchers found didn’t appear on product labels, the cards are stacked against us. Helm notes that, “awareness [about these chemicals] is pretty low across the board, regardless of ethnicity.”
Silent Spring has developed a free mobile app called Detox Me in an effort to help consumers understand and reduce sources of exposure to harmful chemicals in their homes and workplaces. It includes the products analyzed in the study and suggests alternatives. “We believe knowledge is not just power,” write the app developers, “but a prescription for prevention.”
Helm recommends seeking plant-based alternatives when possible. “We know from previous research that products made from plants tend to have fewer of these chemicals.” She also suggests trying DIY options like coconut oil and advises steering away from fragrances, which often contain hormone-disrupting chemicals. She cautions that even strong-smelling essential oils may affect hormones and should be used in moderation.
Tips for Making Smarter, Safer Choices
Awareness of our broken toxics regulation systems can go a long way to protecting you and your family from chemicals with unwanted health effects. Now that you know finding safer products requires a little research, you can use these tips to choose safer personal care:
- Look up the products you’re considering buying in the EWG database to check safety ratings.
- Don’t assume a “natural” label means safe, since the term has no legal meaning.
- Choose products with fewer ingredients to limit your toxic load. A simple castile soap is often enough to wash hair and body.
- Use as few products as possible. Dermatologists now recommend washing less frequently to prevent sensitivities from developing. Read This Dermatologist Tells the Real Truth About What Your Doing to Your Skin.
- Consider simple, one-ingredient alternatives you can find in your kitchen, like coconut oil and cornstarch.
- When possible, avoid fragrance, including essential oils, to limit exposure to unlisted fragrance chemicals. Beware of products with long ingredient lists.
Perhaps one day reason will triumph, and cosmetics manufacturers will be required to prove the safety of their products before releasing them to consumers. Until then, be vigilant and do your research before assuming products on store shelves are good for your health.
- COUNCIL DIRECTIVE of 27 July 1976 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to cosmetic products (76/768/EEC) (OJ L 262, 27.9.1976, p. 169)
- Measurement of endocrine disrupting and asthma-associated chemicals in hair products used by black women. Jessica Helm et. al. Environmental Research. Volume 165, August 2018.
- Prohibited and Restricted Ingredients, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, US Department of Health and Human Services: www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/GuidanceRegulation/LawsRegulations/ucm127406.htm