Kevin Hunt: Are These Chemicals In Your Deodorant, Shampoo, Soap Or Cosmetics?


Why do so many people care so much about what they put in their body and so little about what they put on it?

Europe's regulatory system bans close to 1,400 ingredients in cosmetic products, including carcinogens like parabens and toxic chemicals that can cause reproductive and developmental-health risks. The United States bans 11.

So after dining on certified-sustainable wild Alaska salmon and organic spinach, it's time to wash precious toddler Timothy with Johnson's Baby Shampoo. This gentle shampoo, a favorite for generations, is notorious among knowledgeable label watchers for its history of toxic-chemical use. Johnson & Johnson, after years of complaints, finally reformulated the shampoo earlier this year. It removed formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, potentially harmful chemicals, and now lists the shampoo as paraben-free and even soap-free.

Yet the new formulation contains PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, PEG-150 Distearate and Sodium Trideceth Sulfate — all ethoxylated compounds that, unless stripped, contain 1,4-dioxane, identified as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It's not listed as an ingredient because it's created in the manufacturing of the shampoo.

ShopSmart, a Consumer Reports magazine, includes 1,4-dioxane and other formaldehyde releasers on an ingredient watch list in a story about health risks in beauty products in its September issue now on newsstands. Another ingredient in the reformulated baby shampoo, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, was once named "allergen of the year" by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.

The magazine says the federal government has so little power over the industry that it can neither assess product safety, require full disclosure of ingredients or mandate recalls.

"It's pretty much self-regulated and that's really the problem," says Lisa Lee Freeman, the magazine's editor. "That's the root of the problem. There's not enough regulation."

The watch list:

Formaldehyde: Look for formaldehyde, formalin or methylene glycol. Often found in nail products, eyelash glues and hair straighteners.

Formaldehyde releasers and 1,4-dioxane: Look for polyoxyethylene and any ingredients that begin with "PEG" or polyethylene and end with "eth" or "oxynol." Often found in hair conditioners, anti-wrinkle creams, body washes, mascaras and makeup removers.

Phthalates: Diethyl phthalate, or DEP, and dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, have been labeled toxic by the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. Often found in perfumes, lotions, deodorants and nail polishes. Dimethyl phthalate, or DMP, in hairsprays is also a concern.

Avoid any product with DBP or "fragrance" listed as an ingredient.

"[Manufacturers] just say 'fragrance'" on the ingredients label, says Freeman. "That's considered a 'trade secret,' so they don't have to reveal there are phthalates in there."

Triclosan and triclocarban: High concentrations of this chemical used in antibacterial soap can suppress thyroid hormone concentrations and lead to premature puberty in females and low sperm count in males. The Food and Drug Administration last year told manufacturers of antibacterial soaps and body washes it must prove the safety and effectiveness of their products or either reformulate or remove them from the market.

These chemicals are also used in deodorants, body washes and toothpastes. If you read the label: Colgate Total Advanced Whitening toothpaste contains triclosan, Crest toothpastes do not.

Coal tar: Look for this ingredient, classified as a carcinogen by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, in dandruff shampoos and skin-treatment ointments. ShopSmart also warns about shampoos that contain selenium sulfide, a coal-tar derivative, and hair dyes with coal-tar color. When shopping for an anti-dandruff shampoo, look for active ingredients such as salicylic acid.

The easiest way to avoid phthalates, formaldehyde, nanomaterials and other potentially harmful chemicals, says Freeman, is to shop for health and beauty aids at Whole Foods.

"They've made it really easy," she says, "because they screen for ingredients, including the ingredients on our watch list."

Other retailers, including Target and Walmart, have also said they will screen some products they sell. Many products now attract consumers with natural ingredients like shea butter and aloe vera but still contain carcinogens.

"There's a lot of false advertising out there that's not being addressed by regulators," says Freeman.

To find out what's really in your shampoo or body wash or deodorant, check the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database. Search for specific products or rankings, from least to most hazardous potential.

Skin Deep lists eight baby shampoos with a zero hazard rating. Johnson's reformulated baby shampoo, with a four rating, is now considered a moderate hazard.

The more you know about the ingredients, the more you'll care about what you put on your body.

"It may seem complicated," says Freeman. "But it's really not."

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