You may think of your skin as a protective barrier, but because of its pores, it acts more like a screen. That’s why medication patches applied to the skin can deliver drugs into the bloodstream. That means that any personal care products you put on your skin can also potentially enter the bloodstream. It has been estimated that if you use conventional personal care products like shampoo, toothpaste and shower gel every day, you can absorb almost five pounds of chemicals and toxins into your body every year. Putting chemicals on your skin or scalp may actually be worse than eating them. When you eat something, the enzymes in your digestive system help to break it down and flush it out of your body, but when you put these chemicals on your skin, they are absorbed straight into your bloodstream without any filtering. Because they do not go through the digestive system, there are no enzymes to break them down, and they tend to accumulate. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reported that of all the chemicals used in personal care products, nearly 900 are toxic, and other groups attack that figure as being far too conservative.
In 2016 the Obama administration passed a Chemical Safety Act intended to improve the situation, but even at that time, it had unclear funding sources and vague enforcement goals. So far, the U.S. has not required any mandatory testing for personal care products before they are sold, and laws governing cosmetics and personal care products have been so limited that it has been perfectly legal for manufacturers to put known carcinogens in them. The toxic impurities can come from substances in the manufacturing process, breakdown products from cosmetic ingredients, or environmental contaminants. The damage to health from impurities can potentially be greater than those from the product ingredients.
In testimony before the United States House of Representatives, EWG’s Vice President for Research testified that “…more than 1 in 5 of all products contain chemicals linked to cancer, 80% contain ingredients that commonly contain hazardous impurities, and 56% contain penetration enhancers that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skin.”
The federal government sets no standards for ingredient purity, so the cosmetic industry polices itself. Some manufacturers buy ingredients certified by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP), which may contain lower levels of impurities, but the criteria that USP uses for certification are not made public. Some companies purchase or manufacture purified ingredients, but many do not, and neither consumers nor government health officials have any way to know. This means that product purity is a business decision. Companies can compare the cost of using certified or purified ingredients against any costs that might result from liability for selling products that may contain carcinogenic impurities. Because the latency of cancer is usually very long and because cancer can have multiple causes, it would be very difficult to trace an individual case of cancer back to a particular carcinogen at a particular time, so the risk of the manufacturer being charged with liability is very low. This is true both for using toxic ingredients and for using toxic impurities.
You can obtain safer products by looking for the Environmental Working Group’s EWG VERIFIED™ mark, which you can find on baby products, hair products, makeup, nail products, skin products, and oral care products. EWG will only license products that score in the “green” range of EWG’s Skin Deep® database (which you can also use). These products will not contain any of the chemicals on EWG’s “Unacceptable” list or any ingredients on EWG’s “Restricted” list that do not meet the restrictions set by authoritative bodies and industry institutions.
EWG derived the lists from research done by many agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Health Canada; the European Union; the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC); the National Toxicology Program (NTP); the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); the International Fragrance Association; the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics; Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare; the Personal Care Products Council’s Cosmetics Ingredient Review; and California’s Proposition 65 list of known carcinogens and reproductive toxins. There are more than 40 chemicals on EWG’s Unacceptable and Restricted lists, too many to list here.
Two hazardous ingredients not included in EWG’s list are plastic microbeads and nanoparticles. Microbeads are tiny plastic particles, usually smaller than two millimeters, used as exfoliants in personal care products such as facial scrubs, body washes, makeup, and toothpaste. The problem with microbeads is that they don’t disintegrate or biodegrade. About 8 trillion microbeads are washed down our drains across the United States every day. They end up in waterways where they absorb toxins in the water, such as pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil, and other industrial chemicals. Microbeads can end be a million times more toxic than the water around it. They are consumed by fish and other marine animals, and some of them end up on our dinner plates.
Environmental activists focused their efforts on eliminating microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics, and President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. Rinse-off cosmetics were an easy target because manufacturers were already required to list microbeads as ingredients in those products. Unfortunately, the legislation allows companies to continue using microbeads in many other products, including cosmetics that can be left on the skin, as well as detergents and many other things that also go down the drain and into our waterways. Since the manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients, it’s almost impossible for activists to know which products contain microbeads. The next step may be to push for mandatory labeling to force disclosure.
There is an urgent need for a total ban on microbeads. According to the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by 2015 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Microbeads also decimate coral populations by destroying their digestive systems.
Nanoparticles are microscopic particles that have the diameter of one to 100 “nanometers,” which is about 1/8000th the width of a human hair. . The health concern with nanoparticles is that they are small enough to get inside our bodies by being inhaled or by penetrating our skin, and researchers at MIT and the Harvard School of Public Health found that certain nanoparticles can damage DNA. They looked at five types of nanoparticles that are commonly found in personal care products as well as clothing, toys, and other products, where they help to extend shelf life, kill microbes, and improve texture. The five materials— silver, zinc oxide, iron oxide, cerium oxide, and silicon dioxide—are normally too big to penetrate the skin or to be inhaled, but when they are turned into nanoparticles, they can penetrate our cells more easily. For example, zinc oxide is normally considered the safest sunscreen, but when it was delivered in nanoparticles so that it penetrated the skin, it was found to produce free radicals, which can damage DNA and lead to disease, including cancer. Researchers are also concerned about the possibility that nanoparticles may accumulate in tissues over time and cause serious health issues. Nanoparticles are used in sunscreens because the smaller particles are less visible on the skin—you don’t see a white color. Some products use “micronized” particles, which are better. They are still small but cannot penetrate skin like nanoparticles do.
Other personal care products can present similar dangers when they contain nanoparticles. For example, nanoparticles in cosmetic powders can contaminate the lungs. Nanoparticles are also showing up in our food, as preservatives, and for thickening and coloring. Unfortunately, U.S. companies aren’t required to reveal nano-sized ingredients on the label. (In contrast, the European Food Safety Authority requires that foods containing nanoparticles be labeled.) As with genetically modified organisms, it seems the government is permitting industry to use the new technology without testing it first, using consumers as subjects in a giant science experiment without their consent.
Nanoparticles can also harm the environment. They are so tiny that they easily slip through wastewater treatment plants and contaminate our waterways and soil. In August 2012, scientists found that soybean plants absorbed zinc oxide nanoparticles from sunscreens, cosmetics, and lotions into their leaves, stems, and beans.
The Wilson Center at Virginia Tech has a Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies that has a list of products that contain nanoparticles. The list does not contain all the products, but it is better than nothing. In general, it indicates that we should avoid processed foods, which are more likely to contain nanoparticles, and we should check personal care products against EWG’s Skin Deep database.
Unfortunately, since the federal government does not regulate personal care products the way it does food products, anyone can claim their product is “natural” or “organic.” That does not mean the product contains only natural or organic ingredients; it could still contain chemical toxins, impurities, and nanoparticles. According to the Organic Consumers Association, the word “organic” doesn’t mean anything unless the product is certified by the USDA National Organic Program.
When I shop, I look for the EWG VERIFIED™ mark. If I’m not sure about a product, I look it up on the EWG Skin Deep database. For a small donation, EWG will send you a Quick Tips for Safer Cosmetics shopping guide that you can take with you when you shop.