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How to Find Safe Cosmetics in a Toxic World

baby-shampoo-safe-not-toxicStacy Malkan  |  First appeared in en*theos |  September 2013

How many products did you put on your body today? Shampoos, deodorants, lotions and soaps promise to make us feel shiny, fresh, soft and clean. But how clean are these products, really?

In 2002, I was part of a group of women who decided to investigate. Over the past decade, we’ve tested hundreds of personal care products at labs, researched the chemicals in cosmetics, and our partners built the Skin Deep database to score tens of thousands of personal care products for toxicity. 

We created the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and went knocking on the doors of the world’s largest beauty brands, asking them to stop using chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects. I tell these stories in my book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

Along the way, we uncovered many uncomfortable truths about the products we rub on our bodies, spray in our homes and put in the tub with our children.

Knowledge is power. In that spirit, from all this research, here are the Top 10 things you need to know about toxic beauty and how to choose safe, healthy products.

1: Toxic chemicals are in products – and in our bodies.  

Most personal care products — from shaving cream to mascara, and even baby shampoos – commonly contain chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive problems and other health problems that are becoming epidemic. We absorb these chemicals through our skin, inhale and ingest them, and they get inside us. One study found 13 hormone-altering cosmetic chemicals in the urine of teenage girls. Another study found hundreds of synthetic chemicals inside the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies. It’s time to get toxic chemicals out of products we put on our bodies.

2. Small exposures can add up to harm.

The cosmetics industry says it’s safe to put toxic chemicals into personal care products because the amount in each product is so small. But nobody uses just one product or chemical at a time. For my book, I researched my teen beauty routine and discovered I’d been exposing myself to over 200 chemicals a day, many of them toxic – all before breakfast. This adds to chemical exposures from our air, water and other household products, and the toxic load is adding up.  

3. Nobody’s minding the store.

Most people think if a product is on the shelves, somebody is making sure it’s safe. But the federal law that governs cosmetics is more than 70 years old. It allows companies to put nearly any chemical into cosmetics, even carcinogens, with no safety testing required. The European Union bans chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects from cosmetics, but it’s perfectly legal for those products to be sold in the U.S. The government should be protecting us, but it’s not.

4. Some of the most toxic cosmetics are marketed to women of color.

Products promising lighter skin and straighter hair are problematic because of their message about what
is considered beautiful. But the research shows that hair relaxers and
skin lighteners share a second problem: the products contain ingredients such as hydroquinone, placenta and petroleum byproducts that are linked to cancer, reproductive and hormonal problems and skin sensitization.

5. We can give the beauty industry a makeover.

The good news is, we get to decide which products we put on our bodies and which companies we support with our money, and that’s a lot of power – especially for women, since we’re buying 85% of consumer products. Safer personal care products are available but you have to do some research to find them. Read on for my best tips and tools for giving your beauty routine – and the beauty industry – a makeover.   

6: Simple is Beautiful.

The first step to cleaning up your beauty routine: Simplify. Choose products with fewer or no chemicals, avoid synthetic fragrance, and use fewer products overall – especially on kids and when pregnant. Less is better than more when it comes to chemical exposures. The companies love to make us think we need a different lotion for every part of our bodies or a different cleaning product for every room in the house, but it’s better to buy one high-quality nontoxic product, or even make your own (vinegar and lemon juice works great for cleaning).  

7: Do a Skin Deep Dive.

Find out what’s in your favorite brands, and how to find the safest options, on the Skin Deep database, an excellent free resource that ranks products on a scale from 0-10 (most toxic). You can also research products by category – for example, the database lists over 1,000 shampoos, with the truly natural and least toxic products listed first.  Choose products with green circles that score 0-2.

8: Just say no to toxic products.

If you don’t want toxic products, avoid the big beauty brands – they’re all using toxic chemicals even though safer alternatives are available. The Dirty Dozen list is a good place to start learning which chemicals to avoid. You can cut down on toxic exposures dramatically by avoiding chemically intense hair and nail treatments, and also fragrance. Look for nail polishes that are free of the “toxic trio” of chemicals (toluene, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde), or based on green chemistry concepts (such as water-based nail polish.) The best innovation is happening among the smaller companies; supporting them is one of the most powerful things you can do.

9. Connect and share with others.

We all want safe products, so please share what you’re learning (and products you love) with loved ones, and especially the young people in your life. Show them Annie Leonard’s 8-minute video, The Story of Cosmetics – a fun, informative film that has been viewed more than a million times. Connect up with likeminded others at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, host a House Party, check out the DIY recipes for making your own cosmetics, and make sure all your friends know about the Skin Deep database at

10. Let’s give the laws a makeover too.

We can’t just shop our way out of these problems. We also need laws that protect our health. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is advocating for laws that require companies to phase out carcinogens, to study the health effects of chemicals, and be fully transparent about what’s in their products. Go to the Safe Cosmetics website to learn more and send a message to your elected officials. Tell them you want legislation that will make cosmetics safer for everyone.

Sign up for my one hour class with en*theos for a deeper dive into these topics. 


Comments (1)

  1. Elizabeth ong:
    Aug 24, 2014 at 09:14 PM

    I just worried about this news.i have a grand daughter .and I should know all her using.from the soap lotion and
    Shampoo.those companies that doing this they just want a bulk profit they don't care. Peoples life.well whatever
    You do you can get it too.

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