Toxic beauty: Clean up your cosmetics and personal products stockpile

Consumers have options of finding out what the chemicals are in skin care products.

Consumers have options of finding out what the chemicals are in skin care products.


Lawrence Journal-World

Lotions, skin products and makeup have many types of chemicals in them, not all of which may be safe for consumers.

The Big Three


This class of chemicals, which includes methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and more, is strongly evidenced as a endocrine disrupter, skin toxicant and interferer of gene expression.


This class of chemicals, which includes diethylhexyl 2,6-naphthalate, diglycol/CHDM/isophthalates/SIP copolymer and polybutylene terephthalate, have been shown to be possible reproductive and developmental toxicants — especially in males.


This term actually is a catch-all for 3,163 chemicals — any one of which is called a “fragrance” when used. These include the phthalates mentioned above as well as octoxynols and nonoxynols, which have been shown to be hormone disrupters. In fact, one in 20 of the chemicals included as “fragrance” earned a Skin Deep hazard score of 7 to 10 — on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst.

For Tyra Kalman, it all started at a small farmers’ market. While on a trip, Kalman landed in the vendor’s stall of a woman with a line of body products made from beeswax.

“I met a woman who made all of her own skin care products, and I bought one of her lotion bars made from beeswax,” she says. “I loved the way it smelled and how great it felt on my skin.”

Later, when she began working at The Merc, 901 S. Iowa, Kalman borrowed a few books, including “A Consumer’s Guide to Cosmetic Ingredients.” She flipped over her everyday products and started looking up their ingredients in the consumer’s guide. The results, she says, were life-changing.

“I was appalled,” Kalman says. “I couldn’t believe that these three offenders are often found in cosmetics and other beauty products. Here’s what the Environmental Working Group says about their effects.

at the products I had been using for years were endocrine disrupters, linked to cancer, caused birth defects, among other horrors. That’s when I completely made the switch and started to really investigate the ingredients I couldn’t pronounce and didn’t recognize as botanicals.”

If you’re at home reading this right now, pop over to the medicine cabinet and pull out a bottle of lotion. Look at the ingredients. See any that you recognize, or are they ingredients that seem like they should be on the recipe for an atomic bomb?

Today Kalman’s job as wellness department manager is to make sure both she and her customers are as up-to-date and informed about what goes on top of their bodies as what goes in it.

The skin is our largest organ, though there’s very little to help consumers wade the waters clouded with long, hard-to-remember chemicals. Moreover, these products aren’t regulated in the same way our foods are. Meaning, if you want to know about a certain ingredient, there’s no USDA there to hand you a pyramid suggesting what to seek out and what to avoid.

Enter the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website. The site, which launched seven years ago, provides a chance for consumers not only to search for a particular ingredient, but also a specific product.

“The database is not static — changes are constantly being made to reflect the availability of new toxicity and safety data of cosmetic ingredients. Personal care products are also always being added and updated so that users will have access to the most up-to-date information,” says Paul Pestano, a research analyst for the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “To date, we have safety profiles and ratings for close to 69,000 products and over 7,000 ingredients.”

According to EWG, every day we use about 10 products on our skin. When asked, Kalman counted 11 she uses daily. Add up all the chemical ingredients, there’s a whole laboratory that could be on your skin at any one time — 365 days a year.

Kind of scary that you don’t know what’s in each of those ingredients, right? Really, how do you know if neopentyl glycol diheptanoate is friend or foe? On that front, EWG has tried to help link consumer concerns with cosmetic company honchos in an effort to get some of the more worrisome ingredients off the market.

“Our work with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has helped us connect with many cosmetics companies,” Pestano says. “We have seen a lot reformulate their products, leaving out the more hazardous chemicals and using safer ingredients. There are more products in the market now that are paraben-, phthalate- and ‘fragrance’-free than in 2004 when we started the database.”

The everyday consumer can create change, too. Kalman says that if, after researching on Skin Deep or in books like her consumer’s guide, you aren’t happy in an ingredient, call the company. She says she sees change all the time as a product buyer.

“Consumers don’t realize how their purchase choices combined with a phone call or an e-mail can reshape a company’s standards, especially in the natural product industry,” she says. “A lot of these companies are still owned by individuals and are still relatively small. They care deeply about the environment and their bottom line. They want feedback because they want to continue to compete in this growing marketplace.”

And if they won’t change? Kalman says information seems to help stem the “mourning” associated with letting go of a beloved product.

“I held on to one conventional product for years because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be satisfied if I switched. I looked for its equivalent on our shelves, found one and decided to risk it. My new product worked just as well as the old one, and that was that. No mourning involved,” she says. “Chances are there’s something out there that’s just as effective, desirable and luxurious.”

— Staff writer Sarah Henning can be reached at 832-7187.


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