Elizabeth Boulos is an educator dedicated to truth and transparency around ingredients, toxins and products, their impact on human and environmental health, and how they are marketed to consumers. She works with businesses on product sourcing as well as marketing and label transparency, and she helps consumers with customized safer and eco-holistic product recommendations for cosmetics and personal care, food, kitchenware, and cleaning products. She offers complimentary consultations through this link. Elizabeth’s Facebook group The Ingredient Insiders is a safe space to ask questions and where she shares free educational content.
We often focus on packaging when discussing sustainability, but ingredients have an important role in the conversation as well, and personal care products have some of the largest impact. The ingredients in our everyday products impact human and environmental health at every step in the supply chain: how they’re grown, sourced, consumer use, and even after they get washed down the drain! Additionally, there is little regulation for the safety of ingredients in these products. In the US, the last major federal law regulating personal care ingredients was passed in 1938; in Canada, there is merely a “suggested” list of about 600 ingredients that should be avoided. In the European Union there are more regulations, but loopholes still exist and many companies that sell “clean” formulations in the EU change formulations to be more toxic when selling products in other countries.
Many of the ingredients used in personal care products sound scientific and it can be difficult to determine whether an ingredient has any human or environmental impact. Below is a list of some common ingredients, found in products you likely have in your home. Flip over your skincare, hair, body, and cosmetics products. Do you see any of these ingredients listed? If so, it’s time to switch!
Fragrance is a toxic chemical cocktail. In addition to perfume and cologne, these are used in many household products, landing them on ingredient lists. They can be made of hundreds to thousands of ingredients, none of which need to be disclosed to consumers, which makes this the number one ingredient I recommend avoiding, even if other ingredients on the label look to be safe. Transparent companies will list all their ingredients. Fragrance ingredients often include hormone disruptors, known carcinogens and allergens. Appears on the label as: fragrance or parfum.
Heavy Metals are found in all color cosmetics, nail polish, eye drops, moisturizers, and sunscreens. Some metals are intentionally added as ingredients, while many are contaminants. As ingredients, they are used as a preservative or colorant, often in eye and lip cosmetics. Few companies screen for heavy metal contaminants, and only one – Beautycounter – screens 3x per batch, per product. Heavy metals are linked to cancer, developmental, reproductive and organ system toxicity, and environmental concerns. Appears on the label as: lead acetate, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate. Products that contain contaminant metals, which are most common, will not list them on ingredient labels.
Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde -releasers are found in shampoo, conditioner, bubble bath, body wash, and cosmetics. They are used as preservatives. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that is also linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. Appears on the label as: present where quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (bronopol), and several other preservatives are listed. This one can be tricky to identify without a science background.
Parabens are found in most mainstream personal care products, from moisturizers to toothpastes and makeup. They are used as preservatives, preventing bacteria and fungus growth, and are strongly linked to hormone disruption, harming fertility and breast cancer. Appears on the label as: butylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, or ethylparaben.
Retinol is found in anti-aging products, acne-products, and some sunscreens. It is used to increase skin cell turnover and strengthen skin against wrinkle formation. Unfortunately, the “con” list for retinol products is long and it should especially be avoided when pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive due to the risk of harm to the fetus. Additionally, retinol can be irritating to the skin, causing redness, dryness, or peeling. It cannot be used alongside any chemical exfoliants or acids and since it increases sun sensitivity, sun exposure should be limited, and you must wear an SPF (make sure the SPF does not contain retinol). Common preservatives used with retinols include BHT & parabens – BHT is linked to liver toxicity and parabens are a known carcinogen. Appears on the label as: retinol, retina-a, retinyl palmitate, retinoic acid.
Sulfates are what make shampoos, body washes, shaving creams and even toothpaste all foam and lather. Sulfates are surfactants, which means they attract both oil and water. This allows dirt and grime to be washed from the skin and hair easily. Some consumers find sulfates irritating to their skin, scalp, or eyes. Many sulfates are petroleum-derived sulfates and when manufactured, often become contaminated by the chemical 1,4-dioxane, which has strong links to cancer. In California, the EPA classifies 1,4-dioxane as a neuro, kidney, and liver toxin. This chemical does not appear on ingredient labels since it is a contaminant, making this a main reason to avoid sulfates. Appears on the label as: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).
Chemical sunscreen ingredients. There are many active ingredients found in sunscreen products including sunscreen and moisturizers with sunscreen that are not only toxic to humans via hormone disruption but are also extremely toxic to our aquatic life. Many studies link common sunscreen ingredients to coral reef damage, reproductive harm in many fish species, and tissue damage in dolphins. The only active ingredient in sunscreen that you want is non-nano zinc oxide. Appears on the label as: oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, avobenzone, benzophenone, among others.
Did you spot one or more of these ingredients on your product labels? Here are 4 ways to start switching to safer products.
- Switch when your product runs out. This is the most economical and least wasteful time to switch your products.
- Focus on products you use most. Since daily exposure, even in small amounts, can impact your health, switching the products you use most often is a good step to take.
- Trying to get pregnant, currently pregnant, or nursing? These are crucial times to switch for both parents as many products can impact fertility and fetal development.
- Scan or search for your products on Environmental Working Group’s database or their Healthy Living App. You ideally want EWG Verified products, or a score of 1 or 2. If you have kids, have them help you scan products! Note, scores do not account for contaminants, like heavy metals.
If you are ready to switch to safer products, here are a few brands I recommend shopping first because of their commitment to safety and sustainability.
- Beautycounter – available in the US & Canada. B Corporation, EWG-verified products, Fair Trade ingredients, vegan options, and Leaping Bunny Certified. Advocates for more health protective laws at country, state, and local levels, and has unparalleled safety screening processes that they transparently share with the industry. High-quality and professional performance. Products: skincare, cosmetics, hair and body care, and refillable packaging for many items. Get 20% off your first order through this link with code CLEANFORALL20 at checkout.
- Badger Brands – available globally online, check store locator page for details. Select products are USDA organic, Fair Trade and vegan. Products: bug repellant, sunscreen, lip care, baby care and muscle balms.
- Meow Meow Tweet – available globally through this link. Select products available at US retailers. Newly certified B Corporation, vegan ingredients, and Leaping Bunny Certified. Products: hair and body care.