Eco-Tip of the Week: 3 Things To Avoid In Personal Care Products

For many of us, comforting sensations come to mind when we think about our personal care products and how they make us feel, smell, and look.  But what really gives these products the characteristics we associate with that clean, shower-fresh feeling?

Alluring fragrances, silky smooth hair and skin, that squeaky clean anti-bacterial feeling:  they’re all brought to us by synthetic, lab-created chemicals, most of which are made from petroleum (yes, the brown, gooey bird lubricant that’s currently exterminating aquatic life in the gulf).  Shocking numbers of these chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety, and the few tests that have been done show that these chemicals can also pose serious threats to our health.

Fragrances are a particular problem.  They’re in everything from our spring-fresh deodorants to our coconut shampoos to the ultra-tuff shaving creams that get slathered every day on the faces of our male friends.  These fragrances are made from synthetic chemicals that have little to do with coconuts, limes, roses, or any other naturally occurring substance.  And why does this matter?  Because many people (30% of us!) have adverse reactions to the chemicals in these fragrances.

So, how do we know if our favorite personal care products contain nasty chemicals?  With hundreds of ingredients in these products, it’s difficult to identify all the potential hazards.  So we thought we’d simplify things and identify three groups of troubling chemicals:

1. Fragrances: Companies are allowed to identify fragrance ingredients in personal care products as no more than that: “fragrance.”  It’s like reading the ingredient label on a box of Ho-Ho’s and finding one word:  “food.”

Since the labels don’t give us useful information about what’s in most fragrances, we suggest looking for products that don’t contain them at all.  A label that says “fragrance” is not disclosing anything about what that mystery product actually is.  And it fails to mention that these undisclosed ingredients often trigger asthma, respiratory difficulty, headaches, and other health problems both in you and in the people around you.

As if that wasn’t enough, many fragrances contain phthalates, a class of chemicals that causes reproductive harm.

And finally, a group of chemicals called “musk fragrances” is often found in perfumes and body lotions.  These chemicals are anything but natural, and they cause reproductive problems.

2.  Parabens: Commonly used as preservatives in body care products, parabens disrupt normal hormone function and cause genetic damage.  Parabens are a class of chemicals that comes in many different flavors, for example:  methyl paraben, ethyl paraben, n-propyl paraben, isopropyl paraben, n-butyl paraben and benzyl paraben.  We suggest avoiding products with any parabens in them.

3.  Triclosan and Triclocarban: These chemicals kill bacteria and are used in many products from skin cleansers and lotions to soaps and deodorants and even toothpaste.   They also cause health problems, including genetic damage and reproductive problems. Though manufacturers claim to add these chemicals to protect consumers’ health, they are no more effective than plain soap and water – the original antibacterials.


(Interested in learning more about toxic chemicals in personal care products.  CEH friend and ally Stacy Malkan wrote a short, fact-filled, and fun-to-read book on the subject:  Not Just a Pretty Face.)

This post co-authored by:  Caroline Cox and Charlie Pizarro.