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Protect Yourself From Harmful Chemicals in Cosmetics and Household Products

by Laura Costa, Ph.D.
Vice President of Membership, RI NOW

Every day, women are exposed to chemicals in cosmetics, household cleaners, plastics, food, water and many other sources. Common household chemicals have been linked to more than 200 health problems including asthma, depression, anxiety, various cancers (including breast, ovarian and brain), birth defects and developmental disabilities, as well as reproductive, cardiovascular and immune system disorders. Many of these chemicals are stored in our bodies and accumulate over time to cause health problems after years of gradual exposure.

The bad news: women are exposed to a far greater number of harmful chemicals than men . In general, women use more personal care products (such as makeup, perfume, nail care and hair care products), do most of the household cleaning (still!), eat more foods with artificial sweeteners, handle more indoor pesticides (e.g., bug sprays), sprinkle more carpet freshener, and burn more scented candles than men. For these reasons, women are at higher risk for health problems due to long-term, low-level exposure to harmful household chemicals. Although women are at higher risk than men, the group with the highest risk of all is young children. The liver is the main organ that removes toxins from the body and until two years of age, babies' livers are underdeveloped and not fully capable of removing harmful chemicals from their bodies.

The good news: most household chemical exposure is preventable . By altering your practices, you can decrease exposure to household chemicals. By reducing your family's daily chemical exposure, you can reduce the chances of developing illnesses such as cancer, anxiety, respiratory problems, and even heart disease and stroke attributed to low-level exposure during a long period.

Reducing exposure is not as difficult as you may think. Once you learn about the safe, natural alternatives for the chemical-containing products in your home, it's simply a matter of learning which products and ingredients to choose and which to avoid. For personal care, cleaning products and pesticides, it means learning about the ingredients listed on the product labels. Here are some tips to help you do that.

In choosing cosmetics and household cleaners, AVOID or MINIMIZE the following:

  • Products that contain ingredients with long, difficult-to-pronounce names. These are usually synthetic ("man-made") chemicals that are untested for their effects on human health.
  • Products with strong scents or odors. This includes perfume, cologne, scented lotion, powder, etc. These items contain chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which destroy brain cells, disrupt hormone function and can cause cancer. When inhaled, these VOCs have easy access to the brain, bloodstream and organs. As toxic vapors, VOCs also "offgas" from new plastics, carpeting and toys, nail polish, paint, etc. Avoid or "air-out" these items for as long as possible before installing or placing them in a closed-room. (Unless you use an effective air purifier, your indoor air often is more polluted than the air outside your home due to fumes offgassing from products you bring inside.)
  • Products with ingredients listed as "fragrance", "perfume" or "scent".
  • Products with "Warning", "Caution", or "Danger: labels (i.e., cleaning products and pesticides). These labels are there because one or more of the ingredients has the potential for causing serious harm or death.

For safer options/alternatives, look for:

  • Products labeled "organic" or "all-natural" (personal care products and foods), but read further to see how these terms are defined. To ensure organic standards, look for "USDA Certified Organic" or "Quality Assurance International" labels.
  • Personal care products with plant-based oils such as almond oil or jojoba (rather than petroleum-based oils) and an ingredients list you can read and understand.
  • Simple, natural cleaners such as baking soda, vinegar, and lemon juice. Avoid antibacterials (e.g., triclosan) in all products since they are unnecessary for effective cleaning and can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause serious health problems.

More Info:

National NOW Conference 2010 Resolution - National Safe Cosmetics Act

NOW Board Passes Resolution on Safe Personal Care Products

NOW supports scent free conferences

Take Action!

Develop and pass legislation to protect women and girls

California passed the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 (SB484) to call for additional oversight and protection in the cosmetics industry. Taking action is important because the FDA does not review cosmetic ingredients for their safety before they come to market, nor does it have the authority to recall hazardous products.

You can work to pass state legislation similar to the California bill that:

  • Requires cosmetics manufacturers to disclose to the state any product ingredient that is on state or federal lists of chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects.
  • Allows state agencies tasked with protecting women and girls to demand manufacturers supply any health related information about cosmetic ingredients.

Host a "toxic conversation"

Invite activists and friends to a party and ask each one of them to bring along one or two of their favorite cosmetic products and one of the household cleaning products that they use most often. Read the product information labels and discuss "just what is in the make-up I am wearing" and "how harmful are these chemicals I use to clean my home anyway?"

To prepare for your party, gather information about new science related to chemicals in cosmetics and cleaning products:

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