Making “safer” accessible to all

Lindsay McCormick is a Research Analyst.

I find purchasing shampoo and other common personal care products to be a surprisingly stressful experience – I pace the aisles at the drugstore for a good 10-15 minutes, read every product ingredient list, contemplate the legitimacy of claims like “paraben-free” or “no artificial colors or fragrances,” and weigh the impact on my wallet. In the end, I usually choose a moderately priced product with some sort of ingredient safety claim brightly printed on the front label, and hope the extra $2 I spent will actually reduce my exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Many consumers are hungry for information and solutions that help reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals.  As more research links exposures to common ingredients in personal care products and health impacts – like certain parabens to reduced fertility; certain phthalates to asthma, reproductive disorders, and neurological effects; and triclosan to obesity – many consumers want to feel empowered to take action. That’s why the results of a recent intervention study are so intriguing: researchers found that exposures to certain chemicals fell in a population of low-income Latina girls after using personal care products labeled as being free of such chemicals for three days.

The implications of this study raise several interesting questions that I’ll explore in this post. Specifically, are personal shopping choices an effective way to avoid chemical exposures?  And, is this strategy equally available to everyone in our society?  


The study

Researchers from UC Berkeley, the California Department of Public Health, and the Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas enlisted a group of Latina high school students in the Salinas Valley in California to conduct a youth-lead, community-based intervention study. The study was designed to test the effectiveness of a personal care product intervention in reducing specific chemical exposures to adolescent girls. Named the Health and Environmental Research on Makeup of Salinas Adolescents Study or “HERMOSA” (Spanish for beautiful), the study engaged its youth researchers in all stages of study design and implementation.

Professional and youth researchers identified and selected personal care products advertised as free of specific chemicals through techniques available to consumers, including reading ingredient lists and labels and searching consumer-facing product profiling websites (e.g., EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database). The researchers specifically targeted phthalates, parabens, triclosan, and benzophenone-3, which have known or potential endocrine-disrupting (hormone disrupting) properties and are commonly found in personal care products. Because phthalates are often not listed on ingredient lists, the researchers selected products that either did not list fragrances among their ingredients or were labeled as “phthalate-free.”  The participants, 100 primarily low-income Latina adolescents aged 14-18 from Salinas Valley, were asked to use the selected personal care products (including shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, soap, deodorant, make up, and toothpaste) exclusively for three days.

The researchers analyzed pre-intervention and post-intervention urine samples for the targeted chemical compounds. The results showed decreases in several of the compounds following the three-day intervention: methyl paraben decreased on average by 43.9%, propyl paraben by 45.4%; mono-ethyl phthalate by 27.4%; triclosan by 35.7%; and benzophenone-3 by 36.0%.  Mono-ethyl phthalate is a metabolite (breakdown product formed in the body) of diethyl phthalate (DEP). In contrast, there were no significant reductions in mono-n-butyl phthalate (metabolite of di-n-butyl phthalate, DnBP) and mono-isobutyl phthalate (metabolite of di-isobutyl phthalate, DiBP) concentrations.


So can we shop our way out of the problem?

The authors found reductions in exposure to several toxic chemicals – but what do these findings mean for the average consumer, outside the context of an intervention study?

Most people in the U.S. are not aware of the pervasiveness of hazardous or potentially hazardous chemicals in consumer products and the general lack of adequate government oversight of products and their ingredients. Some companies capitalize on this through use of undefined or misleading labels and claims – such as “green” and “organic” that don’t necessarily reflect actual reduced toxic chemical use in personal care and other fragranced products. Consumers must be extremely well-versed in environmental health and available chemical and product evaluation tools to even attempt to navigate the Wild West of product ingredients.

For informed and engaged consumers, this study does show promise that labels and consumer-facing databases provide reliable information and have the potential to be used to modify personal exposures.  However, it is worth noting that exposure was not eliminated (reductions of 25-45%), indicating that there are other sources of exposure to these chemicals, and that there are limits to how much personal care product choices can reduce an individual’s exposure to toxic chemicals. Indeed, the study’s authors suggest that the limited reductions observed for the phthalates may be due to their widespread use in other common products and exposure through ingestion of contaminated food.

Furthermore, it is often hard to know if products advertised with safer ingredient claims are actually safer, given that many chemicals have not been thoroughly studied and hazardous chemicals are often replaced with structurally similar or other untested alternatives. This isn’t of course to say that the marketplace shouldn’t be targeting for removal of chemicals of known concern (that’s a good thing!), but as those chemicals are removed, their replacements need to be demonstrably safer.  While EPA’s voluntary Safer Choice program works to do just that – giving EPA’s seal of approval to household and industrial cleaning products that only use ingredients EPA has deemed safer based on specific criteria – the program does not currently review personal care products (though there is an interest in expanding into this space).

Despite all this, the notion that we, as consumers, can reduce (at least to some degree) our personal exposures to chemicals in personal care products with tools readily at our disposal is good news.


Unequal access

Even with these encouraging findings, it’s important to remember that not everyone in our society has equal access to safer personal care products. Environmental impacts, including exposure to toxic chemicals via consumer products, often disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities.

A recent article on public awareness and engagement on chemicals policy aptly describes the problem of unequal access to low-toxicity products:

As nonprofits continue to make more information available about safety concerns with consumer products, the market is responding with premium-priced organic or niche products that do not contain known or suspected hazardous chemicals. Consumers who are educated about the hazards and alternatives and have the financial means to pay a premium compared to less expensive mainstream or secondhand products can take advantage of these (possibly) safer products. However, issues of equity must be considered in chemicals policy reform, since researchers have found associations between lower socioeconomic status and higher levels of exposure to certain hazardous chemicals. (Caroline Scruggs and Rachel Moore)

Unequal access to premium products formulated with safer chemicals may be contributing to disproportionate exposures. In fact, a 2013 analysis of the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Biomonitoring Survey data identified 12 compounds (including parabens and phthalates) presenting environmental justice concerns, such as higher levels of exposure in low-income and/or minority populations. The most recent CDC biomonitoring data also demonstrates higher exposures to phthalates and parabens among African Americans and Mexican Americans as compared to white Americans.

The HERMOSA study participants were primarily from low-income families. Thirty-eight percent lived in households with an annual income below the federal poverty line, and only one third reported that at least one parent had completed high school. Prior to the intervention, the participants had higher levels of parabens, certain phthalates, and benzophenone-3 than the national average for female adolescents, as identified through the CDC data.

These girls had a unique opportunity to participate in a youth empowerment intervention study, where they learned about chemicals in personal care products and were provided with products carefully selected in advance by researchers. But in reality, adolescents living in low-income communities across the U.S. – like so many others in our society – face barriers to using such products.  Here are a few reasons why:

Financial barriers

Personal care products bearing low-toxicity claims can be quite expensive – a simple Google search demonstrates the high premium companies are able to charge. Paying the high price for these products is simply not an option for most people.

Access barriers

Access to personal care products formulated with safer chemicals is not equal in all communities. The authors note that, in their experience, personal care products advertised as being free of specific hazardous chemicals were difficult to find in low-income communities. Conversely, dollar stores – which tend to be disproportionately located in communities of color or low-income communities – have been found to consistently carry products with hazardous chemicals.

Language barriers

According to the 2011 Census, more than 60.5 million Americans speak a language other than English in the home, and nearly a quarter of those speak English either “not well” or “not at all.”  In the HERSOMA study, 57% percent of the participants reported that they speak “mainly Spanish” in the home. The benefits of labels on personal care products are not equally realized, as many people living in the U.S. cannot easily read these labels.

Education level

Education level may impact people’s ability to read and interpret product labels. One study found that nearly half of patients with allergies to preservatives and fragrances experience major difficulties reading cosmetic ingredient labels, and this finding was strongly related to education level.


Leveling the playing field

Under the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetics Act (FFDCA), premarket review and approval of ingredients added to personal care products (covered under the cosmetics provision) is generally not required.  Given the limited government oversight, this niche market providing products claimed to be safer emerged to cater to concerned consumers.

But is this really the solution?  Should individual consumers be expected to grapple with the potential toxicity of shampoo every time they go to the store – if they have the luxury to do so? Wouldn’t it work better and be fairer to make the systematic changes needed so that safer products are available to and affordable for everyone in our society?

Reducing the use of hazardous chemicals in personal care products across the entire market will require a multipronged approach including updating the outdated law, ensuring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appropriately implements the current law, and driving the market towards safer chemicals through non-regulatory approaches.

EDF specifically pursues the third strategy by encouraging and facilitating market-based solutions. We’re working with Walmart to adopt and implement a safer chemicals policy for household and personal care products and are taking the lessons learned to other retailers and product manufacturers in our Behind the Label initiative. When leading retailers, like Walmart and Target, make commitments to safer chemicals, it sends a powerful signal across the supply chain to phase out hazardous chemicals—helping to bring safer and affordable products to the shelves. That’s not to say that “green” niche products don’t have a role to play: they demonstrate consumer demand for safer products and show larger companies that formulating safer products is possible.

In her keynote address at the National Conference on Environmental Justice in March, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy passionately stated that “poverty and pollution go hand in hand.” In order to start changing that, we need to make systematic changes that benefit all communities in our society. One part of that change is making sure that safer products are available and affordable to all.


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