Natural cosmetics creator Paul Penders sheds light on what's really in your personal care products and offers tips on how to select healthier options

According to a study conducted in 2006 by Chemical Safe Skincare Research, the average woman uses 12 toiletries each day, which cumulatively contain as many as 175 different chemicals. Since about 60% of products applied to the skin are absorbed, she will absorb five pounds of chemicals each year.

That wouldn't necessarily pose a problem if those ingredients were organic, as they would then merely interact with the body's natural processes and be expelled.

Side effects of synthetic chemicals:

The problem arises, however, when many of the ingredients are synthetic. Although most of the 10,500 or so man-made chemicals that are used in skin care products don't cause harmful side effects, between 2,000 and 3,000 ingredients may cause reactions ranging from skin irritations and allergies to hormonal disruptions, birth defects and even cancer. In fact, most scientists agree that at least 80% of the more than 200 different types of cancer are caused by exposure to toxic synthetic chemicals.

The truth behind 'fragrance':

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that one in five cosmetic products may be contaminated with impurities that raise the risk of cancer. Many of these carcinogens are hiding on the product label behind the term "fragrance". Others are not specifically listed at all. Although manufacturers must list all ingredients in skin care and hair care products, in many countries they can list "fragrance" as a general category instead of detailing each ingredient. This is a problem because fragrances can themselves be comprised of complicated mixtures of hundreds of chemicals, some of which can be dangerous. Many well-known fragrance components have been linked to allergies, rashes, and disruptions to the endocrine and hormone systems.

Phthalates affect fertility:

For example, phthalates are plasticizing agents that can cause birth defects in the reproductive system of boys and lower sperm-motility in adult men. Phthalates were found in nearly three-quarters of 72 products tested recently by the EWG, although the term "phthalate" was not listed on any of the product labels. Makeup, skin care products and hair care products can all contain these dangerous ingredients.

Some moisturizers cause cancer:

Another cancer-causing petrochemical has also been found in many personal care products. Based upon its research, the EWG estimates that 1,4-Dioxane could be present in almost half of all body firming lotions and one third of all facial moisturizers, anti-aging products, body lotions and eye creams. Laboratory tests conducted independently by the EWG identified 1,4-Dioxane in dozens of popular products for both adults and children. In some cases, levels of the carcinogen were measured at more than twice the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recommended maximum. But because it is produced during manufacturing, the FDA does not require 1,4-Dioxane to be listed as an ingredient on product labels. Also, the agency has little authority over the cosmetics industry, although it has been measuring 1,4-Dioxane levels since 1979 and is working with manufacturers to reduce levels on a voluntary basis.

Is your sunscreen protecting you?:

Sunscreens are also problematic. In June 2007, the EWG released a study showing that over 650 popular sunscreen products are either ineffective or cause harmful side effects. That represents 83% of the 785 name-brand sunscreens with SPF ratings of 15 or higher that were analyzed.

According to the report, many of the problems derive from the complex formulation of newer sunscreens. For example, some sunscreen chemicals can break down when they are exposed to sunlight so those products must be formulated with stabilizers. The EWG noted that more than half of the products it examined contain ingredients that may be unstable alone or in combination with other ingredients. Just 17% of the products analyzed for the study were found to be safe and effective, blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few or no ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards. Many of these products contain micronized and nano-scale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which provide strong UVA protection. Repeated studies have found that these ingredients do not penetrate healthy skin, indicating that consumers' exposures would be minimal.

Lead in lipsticks:

Lipsticks can also contain harmful ingredients. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recently found that up to two thirds of red lipsticks may include dangerous levels of lead. Ingesting lead can cause learning, language and behavioral problems such as reduced school performance and increased aggression. Pregnant women and young children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure. This builds on prior research from Dr. Feingold tying the usage of lipsticks made with synthetic colors to mood swings, allergic reactions and other side effects.

Protect yourself:

With so many harmful chemicals found in everyday products, here are some things you can do to minimize your exposure:  

  • Read labels and learn about which chemicals can affect your health.
  • Opt for cosmetics that use natural ingredients that are known to provide health benefits or be neutral.
  • Use fewer products to minimize your exposure to toxins.

    Personal care plays an important role in not only how we look, but how we feel about ourselves. You don't need to deprive yourself of this indulgence to stay healthy. Just make sure the ingredients that you put on your skin can be properly processed by your body once they are absorbed.