On getting Clean Seeing as the United States is a country that knows how to regulate everything, we were pretty shocked floored—to learn how few laws the federal government passed to regulate the personal care industry. It seems ironic that in a country where it’s so difficult to get a new drug to market, the products we use in our homes and on our bodies every single day can skip right onto supermarket shelves. Something about this didn’t sit right with Gregg Renfrew, who found that the more she learned, the more she realized what she didn’t know—and the more scared, and angry, she became.
“Eighty percent of the chemicals in personal-care products have never been tested for safety,” she explains. “It’s an unconscionable fact, and we all deserve better.”
And so Renfrew decided to do something about it: She launched a gorgeous skincare and cosmetics company called Beautycounter, almost exactly a year ago, where they’re “setting a new health and safety standard, because if our government won’t protect us from toxic chemicals in the products we use every day, then we will.” While the E.U. has banned or regulated more than 1,300 ingredients in personal care products, the U.S. has only banned 11, a fact that left our jaws on the floor. In response, Beautycounter has identified more than 1,500 chemicals and counting that they won’t use, either because the chemical is known to be harmful, or in their eyes, what might be even worse: The chemical and its long-term effects on health are completely unknown.
“You’d be shocked at the amount of chemicals that are used in the products we use every day—in our homes and on our bodies—where no safety data exists…essentially, companies are experimenting on us.”
WHAT’S AN ENDOCRINE DISRUPTOR?
We know they’re bad, but we’re not sure exactly what they do. Here, Renfrew breaks it down.
“The endocrine system is incredibly complex and important: It’s responsible for regulating everything from our mood, to our reproductive processes, to our growth and development, to our sexual function and metabolism. Exposure to endocrine (or hormone disruptors) is particularly scary because they’re so potent in small doses, as they mimic the hormones that our bodies produce in small amounts every day. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can lead to reproductive problems, metabolic issues, cancer, birth defects, and other devastating disorders.”
While the FDA theoretically governs personal care products, and the EPA oversees chemicals in general (including those used in household cleaners), according to Renfrew, “neither agency is resourced or empowered to demand safety data or require studies around long-term health impacts—ultimately, it’s completely legal for companies to use known carcinogens.”
Effects On Long Term Health
According to Renfrew, the incidence of cancer, ADHD, allergies, and autism is on the rise. “One in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer,” Renfrew explains, “while one in three kids will be diagnosed with ADHD, asthma, autism, or allergies.” She goes on to add: “What’s happening in our genes, physical environment, food supply chain, and cosmetics is a complicated dance. But our skin is our largest organ—it’s silly to assume that toxic chemicals we already know are linked to health problems, or chemicals that are understudied, aren’t having a profound effect on our health, especially when so many illnesses are on the rise.” In a recent study, common cosmetic preservatives called parabens were found in biopsies of breast cancer tumors at levels that are similar to their concentrations use in personal care products. “We can’t control everything,” Renfrew adds, “but the products that we bring into our homes and put on our bodies every single day is a good place to start.”
The Short List Of Chemicals To Avoid
We asked Renfrew for the most common—and most toxic chemicals—to avoid. (For a full rundown, check out Beautycounter’s printable Never List.
- 1 Fragrance. “It’s a trade secret, which means that companies are not required to disclose what’s in it—usually, there are dozens, if not hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals, including phthalates, which cause the fragrance to stick to your skin.”
- 2 Parabens. “The presence of this toxic preservative—an endocrine disruptor—is indicated by any word that ends in paraben, like methylparaben, propylparaben, etc. Many big companies have vowed to take parabens out of their products, though it will be important to ensure that they don’t replace them with something just as toxic. By law, preservatives are required in any product that contains water, so if a product promises to be preservative-free, and it doesn’t require refrigeration or immediate use, something is fishy. When this is the case, there’s a good chance that the product includes a raw ingredient—like aloe, grapeseed extract, or Japanese honeysuckle—that came to the formulator pre-preserved. Preservatives that are hiding with other raw ingredients do not need to be listed on the label.”
- 3 Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). “The surfactant Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) can cause skin irritation and allergies. The much bigger problem is that in the process of making it less harsh for the skin (ethoxylation), a carcinogenic byproduct emerges: 1,4-dioxane, which shows up on the label as SLES. It’s never listed on an ingredient label because it is a “contaminant,” but it’s often present where SLES appears. Avoid SLES whenever you can.”
- 4 Formaldehyde. “This is another preservative that you’ll never actually see listed on the label: It’s also a carcinogen, and it is linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. It’s likely present where quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol) are listed on ingredient labels.”
- 5 Phthalates. “Abbreviated to DBP, DEHP, and DEP, these plasticizers make products more pliable—and make fragrances stick to skin. They are endocrine/hormone disruptors commonly used in nail products, and they hide in ‘fragrance.’”
As Renfrew has learned more over the years, she’s kicked an ever-growing list of unhealthy products out of her own house, from her non-stick pans to her fragranced laundry detergent, to her kids’ mattresses, which (like the vast majority) contained chemical flame retardants. And while she counts herself on the end of the spectrum (“My kids want to kill me because I don’t let them eat blue M&Ms anymore, though keep in mind that this is about progress and not perfection”), we thought she’d be the perfect steward to lead us on an audit of our kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms. “The most essential step is to flip that bottle around and check the ingredient label.” And perhaps more importantly, Renfrew advises to look behind the marketing: “Terms like natural, pure, hypoallergenic, botanical, and green are unregulated and sadly don’t mean anything,” she explains, “and even if a product includes some organic ingredients, there’s certainly no guarantee that they’re not packaged with a toxic preservative or surfactant.” She also pointed us to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database for skincare and beauty products (they just launched a handy, barcode-scanning app, and rank products on a numerical scale with 1s and 2s being the cleanest), and the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for everything else, which uses a standard alphabetical grading system. “These are the best working tools out there right now for general home detox,” she adds, “and you’ll see that many companies score all over the map, so it’s really important to take a product-by-product view.” And it’s not all bad news, either: “If enough of us vote with our wallets, there will soon be a day when our kids won’t have to check the labels on the products they use every day—we can change the market.”
Our Room-By-Room Detox
We took Renfrew’s marching orders and looked through our cabinets, cross-checking with the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning as we went. It was time-intensive and laborious, and pretty disappointing: While we thought we were making good-to-decent choices, most of the products in our homes missed the mark, at least according to the EWG.
“One of the biggest concerns in the kitchen is anything antimicrobial,” explains Renfrew. “While it makes sense that people want to destroy germs, it also makes sense that things that kill mold and bacteria are potentially harmful to larger life forms as well—antibacterials and preservatives should be used with caution.”
“Most antibacterial soaps and hand-sanitizers contain nasty triclosan, a petrochemical that’s devastating to the environment, along with sodium Laureth sulfate (likely contaminated with 1,4- dioxane, a known carcinogen), the preservative methylisothiazolinone (this can cause allergies), and fragrances and dyes,” according to Renfrew. These two final ingredients are trade secrets, and accordingly, companies are not required to reveal their contents. “Ironic that the chemical and ingredient manufacturers’ are protected, isn’t it?” adds Renfrew. “The good news: There are great, safe hand soaps and cleaners that do not contain triclosan on the market, though, that work.”