How many personal-care products did you use already today? Shampoo, deodorant, lotion, makeup: The products add up, and so do the chemicals. Each day, the average woman uses a dozen products containing 160 chemicals, while men apply about 80 chemicals to their bodies — all before coffee! It's no wonder that 64 percent of beauty product users say they use "natural" items. But how can you tell if a product is truly natural and nontoxic? Follow these 10 tips for giving yourself a green makeover by Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the award-winning book Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.
Take the Toxicity Test
How toxic are your favorite products? Find out more than you wanted to know about what's in your mascara, lotion or the baby's soap on Skin Deep.
This free database created by Environmental Working Group analyzes nearly 50,000 personal-care products with the best available science sources, ranking each product from 0 (least toxic) to 10 (get rid of it and find a safer brand!). You may be surprised to learn how your trusted brands measure up!
Start with the Products Closest to Your Heart (and Other Sensitive Areas)
Look up the products you use most — that lotion you slather from head to toe, or the shampoo you can't start the morning without — and find a least-toxic brand (with a score of 0-2 on Skin Deep). Also think about where you use the product: It is most important to reduce toxic exposures to sensitive areas such as near breast tissue or on the baby's head.
Ignore the Marketing Claims and Look at Labels
Every cosmetic company wants you to think its product is "pure," "healthy," and will give your skin that "natural glow." Unfortunately, these claims mean nothing. Even the terms "organic" and "hypo-allergenic" have no legal standards when used on personal-care products. So companies can, and often do, use these words to market products that contain multiple toxic chemicals. You would be amazed (and outraged) at the number of products marketed "for sensitive skin" that contain allergens and skin toxicants! Ignore the claims on the front of the package. Flip the product over and look at the label.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify
When it comes to synthetic chemical exposures, less is better than more. Choose products with shorter ingredient lists and fewer or no synthetic chemicals. Scan for common chemicals such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, parabens, diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), diazolidinyl and imidazolidinyl urea, PEGs, quaternium 15 and fragrance — if a product contains any of these synthetics, it is a likely bet that you will be inhaling, ingesting or absorbing unnecessary toxins into your body as you prepare to greet the day or hit the town.
Avoid Synthetic Fragrance
What's that smell? Unfortunately, there's no way to know. Due to loopholes in labeling law, companies are not required to tell us what's in the "fragrance." These mixtures contain dozens or even hundreds of synthetic chemicals, some of which may cause allergies, asthma, neurological problems and hormone disruption. Many fragrances contain phthalates, which are linked to sperm damage and birth defects.
Avoid these hidden hazards by choosing products with no synthetic fragrance. Read the labels to double-check; even "fragrance-free" products may contain masking fragrances, which are chemicals used to cover up the odor of other chemicals.
Use Less Stuff
Before slathering a product on your body or spraying it around your home, it's worth asking: Do I really need this? Air freshener? (Open a window.) Bubble bath? (Not a good idea to sit in a tub full of chemicals for long periods of time.) Also, companies like to make us think we need a separate lotion for each part of our bodies and a different cleaning product for every room in the house, but a healthier (and less expensive) option is to buy one nontoxic product you can feel good about using.
It is especially important to use less stuff on babies, since their smaller bodies are more vulnerable to toxic exposures. Some pediatricians recommend using no personal-care products on babies; use plain water or food-grade oils instead.
Bye-Bye, Hair Dye
The truly safe, benign and effective hair color or relaxer has yet to be invented, although some green innovators may be getting close. Until then, think about joining the movement to Go Natural. Hair dye is not only toxic, it's messy, expensive and time-consuming. And since natural hair color matches skin tone (and as we age, our skin tone changes), most women look better with their natural hair color anyway! Join the Bye Bye Hair Dye support group on Facebook.
Support Companies You Trust
If you've taken all or most of the previous steps, it's time to up your game. For the truly green consumer, it's not enough to just read labels or just buy green brands; you also have to ask: What does this company stand for in the world? Many of the big companies make a green brand or two (hello, Estée Lauder/Origins, L'Oréal/Body Shop and Colgate/Tom's of Maine) yet continue to use toxic chemicals in the rest of their brands. These companies need to make across-the-board commitments to remove toxic chemicals from all their products. Use your dollars to support companies that are fully committed to safe products. Also, try to buy local!
We Can't Just Shop Our Way Out of This Problem
It shouldn't have to be this hard to make good choices about the products we buy. We should be able to walk into any store in any community and know that every product on the shelves is safe for our health. As long as it's legal for companies to put nearly any chemical into personal-care products with no required safety testing (and call it natural!) and to sell products with hidden toxic chemicals that are not listed on labels, consumers will be confused and the products with the best marketing programs, instead of the safest ingredients, will dominate the market. Visit SafeCosmetics.org to lobby for smarter laws.