Natural Selections: Don’t Believe Every Bottle You Read
By Olivia Campbell
Rushing through the aisles, trying to outrun your baby’s inevitable grocery store meltdown and avert the toddler candy tantrum, you remember you’re out of baby soap. Being the informed and concerned parent you are, you grab a large bottle of “Natural-organic-soothing-hypoallergenic-unscented-tear-free-you’d have to be a terrible parent NOT to buy this” soap.
That evening, as your little ones splash in the sweet-smelling bubbles, you catch a glimpse of the ingredient list on that new bottle of baby wash—“PEG 80 Sorbitan Laurate, Cocamidopropyl Bentaine, Sodium Trideceth Sulfate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, PEG 150 Distearate …”*
What? How natural is it if you can barely pronounce it?
What makes a product natural anyway? Who regulates that term and other related terms? Surely companies have to meet certain standards to use these terms, right? How do you know this product is actually free of chemicals and toxins, and therefore worth the extra cost?
It turns out the answer is more complicated than it should be.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the use of the terms organic, natural, hypoallergenic, or any other enticing adjectives that adorn baby care products, which renders the terms essentially meaningless.
“Children are at particular risk from exposures to personal care product ingredients. Their skin is significantly thinner than an adult’s, their ability to detoxify and excrete chemicals can be limited, and at birth the blood-brain barrier that can block chemicals’ access to brain tissue is not complete,” said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “In short, their developing bodies are more vulnerable to damage from hazardous chemicals. Yet children’s products are not assessed for their risks to children.”
Since baby body care ingredients such as parabens, phthalates, and 1,4-dioxane have come under scrutiny as potentially toxic, parents have sought less harmful alternatives. Countless natural formulas and organic brands have been popping up in an effort to cash in on the newly informed market of parents. But magic words on the front of the bottle don’t necessarily translate into true ingredient safety.
In March, the Organic Consumers Association reported that an independent study found the known carcinogen 1,4-dioxane in more than 40 percent of body care products labeled natural.
“The FDA have become cheerleaders, not the police, for … the big cosmetics and body care companies. That’s why they tolerate vague, relatively meaningless standards for so-called natural products, which are typically conventional formulations made up of synthetic, often problematic and toxic chemicals,” said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. “Even the FDA admits that they do not regulate the safety of cosmetics and body care products and rely on industry-indentured scientists for drug testing.
The [Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act] contains no provision that requires demonstration to the FDA of the safety of ingredients of cosmetic products … prior to marketing the product,” said the FDA to nonprofit public health watchdog EWG.
Toxins are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency via their Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. The act declared that all 60,000 chemicals on the market at the time were safe, and created relaxed standards for the approval of new chemicals. Backed by the FDA, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review investigation process is voluntary.
The vast majority of ingredients have not been assessed for safety by the CIR, the FDA, or any other publicly accountable body,” said Houlihan. “Companies are free to use almost any ingredient they choose in personal care products, with no proof of safety required.”
In February 2007, the EWG released a report finding 1,4-dioxane potentially contaminating 55 percent of baby bubble baths, 57 percent of baby shampoos and 55 percent of baby soaps.
“1,4-dioxane is considered a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer … and has no place in natural or organic branded personal care products,” the Organic Consumers Association says. Some of the leading brands the report found to contain 1,4-dioxane are JASON Pure Natural & Organic, Giovanni Organic Cosmetics, Kiss My Face and Nature’s Gate Organics.
Hypoallergenic can mean whatever a company wants it to mean. Manufacturers are not required to submit substantiation of hypoallergenicity to the FDA. Dermatologists say the term is essentially meaningless.
Only the USDA regulates the term organic, so if a body care product contains agricultural ingredients, and can meet the USDA organic standards, it can be certified under the National Organic Program regulations.
So how do parents safely navigate through an industry plagued by a plethora of products claiming to be toxin-free? (Nontoxic doesn’t mean toxin-free).
“Parents and consumers can protect themselves and their children by reading ingredients labels carefully, seeking out alternative sources of information (especially on the Internet) and buying products—foods, vitamins, clothing and body care products—which display the USDA Organic seal, which is backed up by strict federal standards and verified by independent … certifiers,” Cummins said.
Another option to consider is simply using fewer products. Find truly natural products that offer all-in-one cleansing, such as bath soaks, bubble baths and hair/body wash. Less frequent washing will give your baby’s skin a chance to moisturize itself with its own natural oils, leaving less need for lotions. Buying and using fewer products is also cheaper, or at least should offset the cost of buying slightly more expensive soaps and lotions.
If you’re feeling particularly industrious, you can try your hand at making your own soap. Recipes for homemade soap are abundant. Another great source of safe, high-quality products are myriad homemade body care product websites, such as the Etsy handmade goods online marketplace.
Keep in mind that your baby is also being exposed to products you as a parent use. Babies suck and chew on any body part they can wrap their gums around. You touch your baby almost constantly, so they are inhaling, touching or ingesting whatever you’ve put on your own skin.
In an effort to help protect children and hold the government accountable, the EWG has introduced the Kid-Safe Chemical Act to Congress. The legislation would require that the 62,000 chemicals already on the market and any new chemicals be tested and proven safe for infants, kids, and other vulnerable groups.
The EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database provides a wealth of information on ingredients, products, and companies. Search for your current products and see how they score, but be prepared to trash all of the body products in your house.
At the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, you’ll find a list of all the companies who have pledged to not use chemicals that are known to, or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation, or birth defects in their products.
* Actual partial ingredient list for Susan Brown’s Baby Foaming Shampoo and Body Wash found in the green and natural baby care section of drugstore.com. The package boasts “Sensitive, Tear Free, PH Balanced, Dermatologist Tested, Hypoallergenic.”
|Phthalates (pronounced ‘tha’-lates’)||These chemicals are used as plasticizers, solvents, and perfume fixatives in toys, detergents, food packaging, and personal care products. Phthalates can be found in teethers, bottle nipples, and pacifiers.||The FDA published: “It’s not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on health. An expert panel … concluded that reproductive risks from exposure to phthalate esters were minimal to negligible in most cases. In 2002, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review … concluded that exposures to phthalates from cosmetics are low compared to levels that would cause adverse effects in animals. We are currently beginning a survey of infant/children cosmetic products to determine the levels of phthalates so we can more accurately assess infant exposure.”||The journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics called Pediatrics (published in February 2009): “Children are uniquely vulnerable to phthalate exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors … and developing nervous and reproductive systems. Phthalates are known developmental and reproductive toxicants in animal[s].
Several human studies support adverse effects of phthalates on male reproductive function. Urinary concentration … has been associated with sperm DNA damage in male adults and is hypothesized to have widespread effects on endocrine and reproductive systems. In male infants … prenatal concentrations [of phthalates] were associated with decreased anogenital distance … exposure through breast milk was associated with abnormal reproductive hormone levels in three-month-old infants, suggesting that early human exposures may have an adverse impact on endocrine homeostasis. Of particular concern for children is sucking and playing with plastic toys and child care products that are used directly on the skin.”
|1,4-Dioxane||1,4-dioxane forms as a byproduct during the manufacturing process of certain cosmetic ingredients, and therefore doesn’t appear on any ingredient list. It is used as an industrial solvent and a foaming agent. Ingredients that can contain the contaminant 1,4-dioxane include sodium laureth sulfate and ingredients that include the clauses PEG, xynol, ceteareth, and oleth.||The US Department of Health and Human Services “considers 1,4-dioxane as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. Some cosmetics, detergents, and shampoos may contain 1,4-dioxane at levels higher than recommended by the FDA. Few studies are available that provide information about the effects of 1,4-dioxane in humans. Exposure to very high levels of 1,4-dioxane can result in liver and kidney damage and death. Scientists do not know whether 1,4-dioxane affects reproduction or the ability to fight infections in people or animals.”||The FDA: “The 1,4-dioxane levels we have seen in … cosmetics do not present a hazard to consumers,” the FDA stated in July 2007. “Concerns initially were raised in the 1970s, when studies at the National Cancer Institute found an association between1,4-dioxane and cancer in animals.”|
|Parabens||Parabens are used as a preservative to protect against microbial growth in cosmetic and body care products.||
The FDA says: “The Cosmetic Ingredient Review reviewed the safety of methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben in 1984 and concluded they were safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25 percent. Typically parabens are used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3 percent. In December 2005,
The Journal of Drugs in Dermatology (published in January 2009) wrote: “Parabens … have been extensively used in skin care, cosmetics, foods, and pharmaceutical agents as antimicrobial preservatives for many years. Published reports have emerged in recent years implicating parabens as potential carcinogens in breast cancer, uterine cancer, and most recently, skin cancer.
|Fragrance||When avoiding synthetic fragrance, be sure to buy fragrance-free products, not unscented products that can contain scent-masking chemical agents.||The EWG says: “Fragrances are the great secrets of the cosmetics industry, in everything from shampoo to deodorant to lotion, and falling straight into a giant loophole in federal law that doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the potentially hundreds of chemicals in a single product’s secret fragrance mixture. Fragrances can contain neurotoxins and are among the top five allergens in the world.”||
Flavor and Fragrance Journal had this to say: “Fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets and components that make up the fragrance portion of the product are not revealed on labels. Fragrance is increasingly cited as a trigger in health conditions such as asthma, allergies and migraine headaches. In addition, some fragrance materials have been found to accumulate in adipose tissue and are present in breast milk. Other materials are suspected of being hormone disruptors. The implications are not fully known, as there has been little evaluation of systemic effects. … At present there is little governmental regulation of fragrance.”
The Unusual Suspects: Ingredients to be wary of
Other recommended resources:
Safe Mama (product reviews and information)
Etsy online handmade marketplace
Olivia Campbell is a freelance journalist, wife, mother, and dancer based in Richmond, Virginia.