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Ask Eartha: Beware the chemical minefield of personal care products

Eartha Steward
Cosmetics on white background
Getty Images | Photodisc

Everyone has their morning ritual, but how many of us stop to consider what is inside the toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, lotions, and make-up used on a daily basis? These personal care products may potentially contain harmful parabens, phthalates, petroleum, sulfates and ingredients from the formaldehyde and amine families. Toothpastes with fluoride and deodorants with aluminum can also threaten our health. The scariest part is that we are the ones smuggling chemicals into our homes, slathering them directly onto our bodies and ultimately supporting companies that use chemicals. Fortunately the solution is as simple as becoming an educated consumer.

Parabens are typically used in beauty products as a preservative and germicide. United States citizens have been so exposed to ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben that parabens can be found in most adult urine samples, regardless of socioeconomic or geographical backgrounds. Products containing parabens put you at risk for certain cancers and exposure to EDS – endocrine disrupting substances – which can mimic or block the action of natural hormones in the body. In addition, parabens can leave your skin irritated. Despite these terrifying truths, 77 percent of our rinse-off cosmetics (i.e. make-up) and 99 percent of leave-on cosmetics (i.e. sunscreens) contain parabens.

Phthalates are commonly found in a number of nail polish brands, hair products, body lotions and deodorants. The most toxic phthalates are dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and Di(2-ethylhexyl). They have been linked to birth defects and are notorious for causing damage to your lungs, liver, kidneys and reproductive organs. While the European Union has recognized the risks associated with phthalate use and banned products containing them, the United States remains in the dark-ages of personal care with no federal regulation on phthalates. Even more startling is that an FDA analysis has found nearly two-thirds of our health and beauty products contain phthalates.

Pharmaceuticals are another cause for concern. Our body absorbs between 50-90 percent of the active ingredients in drugs, while the rest are excreted and flushed down the toilet. The residues of over-the-counter drugs, pharmaceuticals and even birth control pills can devastate the inhabitants of aquatic communities and cause pollution to our lakes, streams, and water supplies. Eighty million women throughout the world take “the pill” as an oral contraceptive. However, when residues from birth control pills enter our water supply, they have shown to affect a fish’s ability to reproduce. The best solution is to find a substitute to ecosystem altering drugs and to always properly dispose of unused medications. The City Markets located in Breckenridge and Dillon both offer Summit County’s Pharmaceutical Drug Take-Back Program.

Your individual ecological footprint measures the amount of natural resources required for your lifestyle. While your PPCP footprint refers to the impact of the “Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products” you use. The life cycle of these products include production, consumer-use and disposal. In addition to avoiding toxic ingredients, consumers also need to take packaging into consideration. Two billon disposable razors are thrown into our landfills each year, all of which can be avoided by purchasing reusables and items with plastic-free packaging.

The growing cosmetic industry is worth $35 billon a year and there is still no federal regulation on health and beauty products. If the government won’t protect you from harmful contaminants, then it is up to you the consumer to support companies that take the planet and personal health into consideration. Check out http://bit.ly/11o0Pc and http://bit.ly/pMXUsl, which both provide lists of eco-friendly product lines. The Environmental Working Group has created a database of information on nearly 15,000 personal care products. By visiting http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ you are able to research exactly what is inside the products you and your family use on a daily basis. Smart shoppers do their research, read the ingredient labels, and always consider how much waste is generated by the products they use.

Eartha Steward is written by Jennifer Santry and Caitlin Akkerhuis, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountryconservation.org.


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