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March 23, 2018  |  Login
Danger in a Bottle: Deciphering Product Labels
By Dr Alan Greene

The major green issue with personal hygiene products, whether for adults or babies, is the ingredient list. The global eco-movement has encouraged the manufacture of natural products made of healthy ingredients that are nontoxic when absorbed into body tissues and organs and whose manufacture does not contribute to air, water, or food pollution.

So, you might wonder, if these wonderful products are so readily available, why aren’t the majority of parents using them? Good question.

Many consumers have no idea that conventional toiletries contain questionable chemicals. The FDA does not regulate personal hygiene products or their ingredients for safety before their release, and it has no legal authority to require safety assessments of cosmetics. This leaves the consumer unaware of potential dangers.

Of course, the FDA wants the ingredients to be safe, but its authority is limited. Consider these statements from the cosmetics handbook on the FDA Web site (emphasis mine): “Although the FD&C Act does not re­quire that cosmetic manufacturers or marketers test their products for safety, the FDA strongly urges cosmetic manufacturers to [do so]” and “With the exception of color additives and a few prohibited ingredients, a cosmetic manufacturer may . . . use essentially any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without approval.”1 The FDA also warns consumers that “the law does not require cosmetic manufacturers to sub­stantiate performance claims.” 

Manufacturers are not always required to list the toxic ingredients on the product label, even though these chemicals may permeate the skin and are found in body fluids and body fat, and that they may pollute the water supply and accumulate in our seas and rivers every time we wash them down the drain.

This is astonishing! I was surprised when I learned of the loopholes in protecting children from ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products. If you find something labeled “fragrance” or “flavor,” you don’t have any idea what chemicals are lumped under that term. The same goes for proprietary names and “other ingredients”: the law allows a manufacturer to ask the FDA to grant “trade secret” status for a particular ingredient. If trade-secret status is granted, the ingredient does not have to be listed on the label.2 

But as consumers go green, awareness is becoming more widespread. More parents are tracking down the real ingredient list and are learning how to identify the toxic chemicals they want to avoid. The following is a list of the cosmetic and personal care ingredients that I think are most im­portant to avoid, especially during pregnancy and for a young baby:

  • Parabens. This family of preservatives has generated controversy lately with the publication of some studies indicating that parabens may be associated with carcinogenic and weak estrogenic activity that could lead to tumors and even cancer. The results are not conclusive, so stay tuned to this controversy, which has generated a lot of emotion on both sides. You may see parabens listed on ingredient labels with many variations, such as methylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben. They are found in many popular baby products, including baby lotions, baby soaps, baby sunscreens, baby wipes, baby bubble baths, baby powders, baby oils, and baby shampoos—as well as in many products a mother may use, such as deodorants, moisturizers, shaving gels, and toothpaste.
  • Phthalates. Found as ingredients in fragrances, sunscreens, moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, and nail products, this family of en­docrine disruptors may also appear with many variations on the name, such as dibutyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, or cetyl triethylammonium dimethicone copolyol phthalate. They are controversial because some studies have shown that rodents receiving high doses of phthalates have shown hormonal activity and damage to the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, and the developing testes. In humans, preliminary research suggests a link between these chemicals and smaller penis size. Again, more study is needed, but some parents have found this worrisome.3

1.U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Cosmetic Handbook. 1992.

2.Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, sec. 701.3, rev. Apr. 1, 2002.

3.Swan, S. H., and others. “Decrease in Anogenital Distance Among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 2005, 113, pp. 1056–1061.

4.“Nail Polishes to Become a Little Safer.” Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. . Aug. 30, 2006.

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