How many personal care products do you use in a day? According to our survey of 2300 people, on average, respondents use nine products daily. These contain 126 unique ingredients. One man in 100 and fully 25 percent of women surveyed apply 15 or more products each day.

Your grooming ritual probably includes shampoo, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, hair conditioner, lip balm, sunscreen, body lotion, shaving products if you’re a man, and makeup if you are a woman.

And what about your children?  Sunscreen, diaper cream, shampoo and lotion are common kids’ products.

Most people use cosmetics and other personal care items without a second thought, believing that the government oversees their safety. Not so. No health studies or pre-market testing are required for these products.

Americans’ frequent exposures to cosmetics and personal care products raise questions about the potential health risks from the myriad of unassessed ingredients in them. These ingredients migrate into the bodies of nearly every American.

For instance, in August 2005, scientists from the University of Rochester reported that prenatal exposure to phthalates — chemicals found in personal care products and other consumer products — could cause the reproductive organs of male infants to develop abnormally (Swan 2005).

Studies have shown again and again that hormone systems of wildlife are thrown in disarray by chemicals from personal care products that rinse down drains and into rivers (NIEHS 2010).

At the Environmental Working Group we have researched and advocated personal care product safety for eight years and consider this issue an integral part of our work to strengthen the system of public health protections from industrial chemicals. Here’s why:

Personal care products are manufactured with 10,500 unique chemical ingredients, some of which are known or suspected carcinogens, toxic to the reproductive system or known to disrupt the endocrine system. Though some companies make products that are safe to eat, others choose to use dangerous ingredients like coal tar and formaldehyde, both human carcinogens, and lead acetate, a developmental toxin.

No premarket safety testing is required for the industrial chemicals that go into personal care products or the chemical industry as a whole. According to the Office of Cosmetics and Colors at the federal Food and Drug Administration, “…a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA.” (FDA 2012) The FDA does no systematic reviews of safety, instead authorizing the cosmetics industry to self-police ingredient safety through its Cosmetics Ingredient Review panel. Over its 36 years, this industry panel has rejected only 11 ingredients as unsafe in cosmetics (CIR 2012). By contrast, the European Union has banned hundreds of chemicals in cosmetics (European Commission 2012).

When risky chemicals are used in cosmetics, the stakes are high. These are not trace contaminants that may be measured in parts-per-million or even parts-per-billion in food or water. They are substantial components of the product, just as flour is a primary ingredient in bread.

Cosmetic ingredients do not remain on the surface of the skin. They are designed to penetrate, and they do. Scientists have found many common cosmetic ingredients in human tissues, including phthalates in urine, preservatives called parabens in breast tumor tissue and persistent fragrance components in human fat. Do the concentrations at which they are typically found pose risks? For the most part, those studies have not been done. But a small but growing number of studies serve as scientific red flags (Swan 2005, Sathyanarayana 2008, Swan 2010).

To learn about the safety of ingredients in personal care products, EWG has compiled an electronic database of ingredient labels for body care products and cross-linked these ingredients with large databases describing chemical toxicity and government determinations. The database also contains information about cosmetics ingredient restrictions in Canada, Japan and the European Union.

We consider the prevalence of possibly dangerous chemicals in personal care products cause for concern, and action!  Much study remains to be done on exposure levels and health risks. But what we do know shows that such study — and direct consumer action to avoid known toxic ingredients — is essential.

What are the limits of EWG’s Skin Deep? Skin Deep’s product ratings are based on the known hazards associated with ingredients listed on labels. These ratings represent EWG’s best effort to present solid information on cosmetic safety. But the answers are not as clear as we would like. Due to the weakness of the FDA’s cosmetics rules, many products with “green” ratings contain ingredients that have not been tested. These products appear to be free of ingredients that we know or suspect to present health hazards. But absence of evidence is not proof of safety. There may be chemical hazards that scientists have yet to identify. In cases where data are lacking, a “limited data” or “no data” rating is shown alongside the green hazard score.

EWG’s ratings are subject to revision based on new evidence in the scientific literature or new determinations by government bodies regarding the safety of chemicals used in these products.

EWG’s ratings are based on data suggesting that certain ingredients are hazardous. But we add a significant caveat:  in most cases it is impossible to predict whether a particular product poses a health hazard. Actual health risks, if any, will vary based on how much exposure each person has to a toxic ingredient, as well as that person’s age, health status, genes and other factors.

For practical purposes, EWG’s ratings represent the best available information on the safety of personal care product ingredients. As science advances, Skin Deep will embrace new insights into the safety of chemicals in personal care products.

References:

CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review). 2012. Ingredients found unsafe for use in cosmetics. Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel, Washington DC. Last updated February 2012. http://www.cir-safety.org/sites/default/files/U-unsafe%202-02-2012%20final.pdf

European Commission. 2012. Cosmetics Directive 76/768/EEC.
http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/sectors/cosmetics/documents/directive/#h2-consolidated-version-of-cosmetics-directive-76/768/eec

FDA 2012. Cosmetics Q&A: Prohibited Ingredients. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/CosmeticsQA/ucm167234.htm

NIEHS. 2010. Endocrine Disruptors. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Research Triangle Park, NC. http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/endocrine_disruptors_508.pdf

Sathyanarayana S, Karr CJ, Lozano P, Brown E, Calafat AM, Liu F, Swan SH. 2008. Baby care products: possible sources of infant phthalate exposure. Pediatrics. Feb;121(2):e260-8.

Swan SH, Main KM, Liu F, et al; Study for Future Families Research Team. 2005. Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environ Health Perspect. Aug;113(8):1056-61.

Swan SH, Liu F, Hines M, Kruse RL, Wang C, Redmon JB, Sparks A, Weiss B. 2010. Prenatal phthalate exposure and reduced masculine play in boys. Int J Androl. Apr;33(2):259-69.