Going Green with Body Care Products

Even if you have shampoos and soaps with organic chamomile extracts and other enticing ingredients, you may be surprised to learn that they can still contain ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects and hormone disruption. You may also be surprised to learn that the safety of these products does not have to be tested. Going green with body care products isn’t as simple as shopping freely at your local natural health foods stores. While organic produce and food terms are strictly defined and enforced, organic terms in the body care industry are not defined or regulated. This means that the terms “organic”, “natural” and “hypoallergenic” are not regulated in the body care products and cosmetics industries. Here is a quick guide to help you learn the ins and outs of going green with your body care products so that you can quickly find great products that are safe for you, your children and the environment. Remember that what you put on your body is generally absorbed into the body – think of how hormone and nicotine patches work when you think of these toxic substances being in your body care products! When you smell something from your body care product, it is because it is entering your system through your nose and respiratory tract. When you absorb toxins through your skin, nose and lungs, you then have to try to detoxify them. Many people cannot keep up with detoxifying these toxins and then their body has no choice but to store them in their body fat and elsewhere throughout the body. Disease can and does result from accumulated toxin exposure.

What to Avoid:

Synthetic Fragrances:

Synthetic fragrances are used to make products smell attractive and many times to cover up foul smelling chemicals used in the products, synthetic fragrances are a definite must avoid ingredient! Since “fragrance” is exempt from product labeling laws, you must be careful to avoid these harmful ingredients! The federal law’s loophole allows fragrance manufacturers to hide chemicals in chemical fragrances, including substances linked to allergies, birth defects, and even cancer. Anything listed on the label as “fragrance” can be kept secret and can include any number of toxic substances. Most contain phthalates which are linked to hormone disruption and cancer as well as birth defects (see below). Synthetic fragrances can trigger headaches and migraines (for the wearer and those nearby), and can cause physical pain and other symptoms to the growing number of Americans with Chemical Sensitivity Injury. The artificial musks often used in fragrances accumulate in the body and can be found in breast milk and blood. They are linked to cancer as well as reproductive and fertility problems in women. In August of 2005, scientists found a link between phthalate plasticizers and the feminization of American male babies. They also listed fragrance as a possible culprit. Since fragrances are one of the top 5 allergens, once you become sensitive (“sensitized”) to cosmetics, the American Academy of Dermatology (ADD) recommends using only fragrance-free products, and to avoid all perfumes, colognes, after-shaves, fingernail care products, and hair spray. “In 2003 an estimated three-quarters of all cosmetic injuries reported by consumers to FDA included symptoms consistent with sensitization — rash, redness, swelling, blisters, sores, lumps, inflammation, irritation, dryness, peeling, splitting, cracking, scars, choking, coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath, and wheezing” (EWG analysis of FDA 2004).

*Note: Products often claim on the front label to be fragrance free or “unscented” but can still have added “masking” fragrances to give off a neutral odor. Check the back label carefully and choose which companies you purchase from carefully. Anything listed as fragrance, fragrance oils, perfume, parfum, or similar wording should be avoided completely.


Phthalates are plasticizers that increase flexibility and strength. They are found in hair spray, nail polish, and perfumes and synthetic fragrances. While some are listed as phthalates on the label, many are disguised under the label “fragrance”, “fragrance oil” or “perfume oil”. Phthalates can mimic sex hormones so it shouldn’t be a surprise that research has shown that they are linked with reproductive anomalies. This is particularly troublesome for the growing reproductive systems of babies and young children. Phthalates are also found in hundreds of soft plastics products that infants through adults are exposed to everyday so exposure must be limited. Even infant teething toys can be a source! With so many hormonally linked illnesses, birth defects, cancers and so many children entering puberty early, we need to take a second look at what we are allowing in our body care products and plastic home products.

*Note: Phthalates were banned by the European Union in 2003.


Parabens are chemicals preservatives that help keep products bacteria-free. They are found in soaps, cleansers, moisturizers, shampoos, and toothpaste. Common names are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. Parabens can mimic sex hormones like estrogen. It is alarming that most women’s body care products have this ingredient which increases the risk of certain cancers. (Disruption of sex hormones increases the risk of certain cancers.) A study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology has already shown that parabens are stored in breast cancer tissue. Parabens are also linked with birth defects.

*Note: Along with phthalates, parabens were also banned by the European Union in 2003.

Coal Tar (coloring dyes)

These are the liquid by-products of coal distillation. They are found in many “FD&C” or “D&C” colors in makeup and hair dye. FD&C Blue 1 and FD&C Green 3 are carcinogenic (cause cancer). D&C Red 33, FD&C Yellow 5 and FD&C Yellow 6 have shown to cause cancer when they are applied to the skin. Make your life easier and healthier by avoiding all these coal tar dyes. Also, it is important to know that FD&C and D&C colors have mercury, aluminum, arsenic and other harmful poisons in them. Since FD&C colors are used in foods, you may also be eating these – not just putting them on your skin!

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

SLS is an emulsifier in soaps and cleaners. Shown to cause eye and skin irritation in some individuals, this ingredient has also been shown to cause “severe epidermal changes” to mouse skin. Whether or not it causes cancer is now being debated.

Mercury and Lead (heavy metals)

Even though mercury is unsafe for use in cosmetics according to the FDA, according to the green guide, mercury is allowed as a preservative in eye-area cosmetics. The eye area easily absorbs toxins through its delicate, fine skin into the bloodstream. Mascaras can contain lead and also can have mercury in them in the form of the preservative thimerisol (thimerosal). It is also used in eye drops, nasal sprays and other products. The FDA has a list for some of these products. It can be seen by clicking this link: http://www.fda.gov/cder/fdama/mercury300.htm.

Mercury is a powerful nervous system toxin and accumulates in the body. It is a possible human reproductive or developmental toxin and a possible human carcinogen. The CDC and EPA estimates that 1 in 6 women is already mercury toxic enough to affect the developing nervous system of a baby during pregnancy. Mercury has also been linked to mood issues like depression, anxiety, as well as gastrointestinal complaints, and may contribute to nervous system illnesses like multiple sclerosis and others. Many parents have witnessed a strong connection between mercury and autism spectrum disorders and ADHD. Mercury is also currently used in vaccines, fluorescent light bulbs and many other products around the home. (When you buy those compact fluorescent light bulbs to save energy and help with global warming you must dispose of them properly – not in the regular trash.)

Lead is found in body care products in the form of lead acetate in hair dyes and makeup. Lead is a brain and nervous system toxin as well as a known carcinogen and hormone disrupter. It accumulates in the bones. While the public generally knows the importance of avoiding lead in old paint, some china, and some older water pipes going into homes, other modern sources of lead are often overlooked. It is used in many modern products and often leaches off in small “acceptable” levels and into your body. PVC plastic is an example as well as fumes from leaded gasoline.

Some sources have indicated that lead and mercury are also used in other makeup products such as lipstick without being labeled. Be sure to research your makeup company carefully and use products from a company that has a concern for your health and the environment.

Chemical Antibacterial agents

While antibacterial products may seem like a great idea for germ conscious people, in the long run it may do more harm than good. Chemical antibacterial agents are in soaps, deodorants and other body care products. These chemicals can cause the bacteria to become resistant meaning that the chemicals become less and less effective at killing the bacteria. More harmful chemicals then have to be used if there is a real and serious risk of infection. Most homes and situations do not call for antibacterial soaps and cleaners, but talk to your health care provider if you have any concern.


This is a cancer causing ingredient found in cosmetics. Avoid products which contain DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15 all of which contain formaldehyde and are easily absorbed through the skin and nails. Formaldehyde is a VOC (volatile organic compound) which evaporates when wet. This means you may be absorbing it through your skin as well as breathing it in as a vapor. Also, bronopol (aka 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol) breaks down into formaldehyde and may also form nitrosamines which cause cancer. Formaldehyde is also used in many products around the home, furniture (especially pressed wood products) and as a clothing/fabric finishing. It is important to go organic in these aspects as well. (Make sure your organic cotton clothing and sheets weren’t processed with toxic dyes and finishes like formaldehyde. Truly organic clothing is usually a bit more expensive but is worth the cost. For more information, please see my article “Why Organic Cotton” by clicking on this link: http://www.allthingsnaturalstore.com/why%20organic%20cotton%20article.htm).

Petrolatum (Petroleum jelly, Vaseline)

Found in a variety of body care products, petrolatum is a petroleum product which is a non-renewable resource and can cause allergic reactions in people.

Phenylenediamine (PPD)

PPD is an ingredient in many hairdyes and may cause skin irritation and respiratory issues. Banned in Europe, it is “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen. Avoid when listed as PPD, oxidation dyes, amino dyes, para dyes, or peroxide dyes.


Toluene is a solvent (a liquid that helps to mix two or more liquids together). It is found in nail polish and nail polish remover. Besides being a skin and respiratory irritant, it can damage kidneys, cause birth defects, and can cause liver damage. It may also be found as an ingredient listed as methylbenzene or phenylmethane. Toluene is also easily contaminated with other harmful poisons or form more toxic breakdown products.

Glycol Ethers

Glycol Ethers are also widely used solvents found in nail polish, deodorant, perfumes and other cosmetics. Some glycol ethers are reproductive system toxins. Exposure can also cause anemia as well as irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Avoid ingredients listed as EGPE, EGME, EGEE, DEGBE, PGME, DPGME and those with “methyl” in their names.

DEA (Diethanolamine)

DEA is a common ingredient in shampoo. It is a suspected cancer causing agent.


Now that you know what to avoid, you may be wondering if there are any healthy options left! There are many! Just read your labels. Usually if a company is avoiding the above ingredients, they are taking your health seriously and the product is generally safe. I’ve compiled the list of ingredients to avoid and have also listed some of my favorite products below. You may choose to print this selection of the article and take it with you when you shop to make it easier to remember the lists.

Katie’s Favorite options: (We carry many of these at the clinic but the others are easy to find locally here in Dubuque and at most natural foods stores across the country)

Aubrey Organics shampoos, conditioners, deodorant, hairspray, sunscreen

Amrita “Bugs Be Gone” bug repellant made from pure essential oils

Dr. Bronner’s soaps

Seventh Generation Laundry Detergents and laundry softeners

(You can find more healthy alternatives through The Green Guide website and the Environmental Working Group website.)

If you find a great product you love and want to see it listed here, email me so I can include it – I’m always looking for more great products!


What to avoid completely:

Synthetic Fragrances: *Note: Products often claim on the front label to be fragrance free or “unscented” but can still have added “masking” fragrances to give off a neutral odor. Check the back label carefully and choose which companies you purchase from carefully. Anything listed as fragrance, fragrance oils, perfume, parfum, or similar wording should be avoided completely.
Phthalates: (While some are listed as phthalates on the label, many are disguised under the label “fragrance”, “fragrance oil” or “perfume oil”)
Parabens: (methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben)
Coal Tar (coloring dyes) “FD&C” or “D&C” colors especially FD&C Blue 1, FD&C Green 3, D&C Red 33, FD&C Yellow 5, and FD&C Yellow 6. Make your life easier and healthier by avoiding all these coal tar dyes. Dyes should be from plants and other naturally safe sources.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Mercury and Lead (thimerisol, thimerosal)
Chemical Antibacterial agents
Formaldehyde (bronopol, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)
Petrolatum (Petroleum jelly, Vaseline
Phenylenediamine (PPD, oxidation dyes, amino dyes, para dyes, or peroxide dyes.)
Toluene (methylbenzene or phenylmethane)
Glycol Ethers (listed as EGPE, EGME, EGEE, DEGBE, PGME, DPGME and those with “methyl” in their names.)
DEA (Diethanolamine)

For more information, please go to the EWG (Environmental Working Group) website and click on their cosmetics category. You can go directly there by clicking here.


**A Note of Caution: Tricks and marketing gimics:

Many companies that have caught on to the popularity of plant and herbal extracts are cleverly disguising their poisons and know how to label their products to seem natural, safe and organic. The front of the label is usually not where you get the real information. Always read the back of the label and read all of the ingredients listed. Even if there are pure essential oils or organic plant and herbal extracts (all of which are great), the product may also contain synthetic fragrances and the other toxic chemicals listed above.
What you can do if you’ve been affected:

If you have been using products with the above-mentioned ingredients, here is what you can do to help your body to recover from these exposures and get on the path of healthy living:

Avoidance: Avoidance of all of these problematic ingredients is key since it is difficult for your body to detoxify and heal if it is under continuous exposure. Also, if you can get family members to avoid these products and pass along this information to those you come in frequent contact with and care about that is helpful in reducing your exposures and they will be healthier too! Do not use nail polish or hair dye while you are or plan to become pregnant. Do not use products with phthalates or parabens if you are or plan to become pregnant. Do not use products with synthetic fragrances if you are around a pregnant woman or are yourself are pregnant.  Pregnancy cautions generally also pertain to nursing mothers.
Take a good multi-vitamin. Detoxification pathways in your body rely on amino acids from proteins as well as a lot of B vitamins, magnesium and other minerals. Since many cheap multi-vitamins contain their own toxic ingredients, it is important to select vitamins from trusted sources. They will usually be more expensive but you will be helping your body rather than potentially harming it further. Taking supplements should not replace healthy eating but should be used in addition to eating a well-balanced primarily organic diet.
If you are facing any specific health concern, contact someone who specializes in natural health and environmental medicine. They should be able to help you to understand how your issue may be related to environmental toxins that you have been exposed to through air, water, food, body care products, home products, etc. There are specific protocols and guidelines for different illnesses and symptoms as well as for different toxins and heavy metals.
While the current state of affairs in the cosmetic and body care industry isn’t pretty, there are a lot of healthy alternatives…you just have to search them out and read labels. Let the industry know that you won’t be fooled by toxic products with a hint of peppermint. When it comes to body care products, go green and get healthy!



The Green Guide www.thegreenguide.com Dirty Dozen SSC: The Dirty Dozen Ingredients In Personal Care Products by Diane di Costanzo http://www.thegreenguide.com/doc/100/10uglies

MSN Health and Fitness www.health.msn.com

Beauty and the Beasts “Cosmetics might not be as safe as we like to think.” by Maggie Koerth-Baker for MSN Health & Fitness


Environmental Working Group www.ewg.org Cosmetics section

© 2007-2014 Katie Blair