Taking “Toxin-Free” Personal Care to the Next Level

Personal care products are an integral part of everyone’s daily routine. From freshening your breath to styling your hair to moisturizing your skin, it’s nearly impossible to step out the door without slathering some part of your body with a personal care product—especially if you’re a woman. On average, women use 12 of these products a day, while men use six.

But there’s a dirty secret that may be hiding in your personal care products. In the US, the widespread and mostly unregulated use of petrochemicals (yep, chemicals produced by refining petroleum products like oil) in everything from shampoo to aftershave means that we’re practically swimming in synthetic and potentially toxic chemicals. Every day, women expose themselves to an average of 168 chemical ingredients, and men to an average of 85.

Of the approximately 84,000 chemicals on the market, only 1 percent have been studied for human use.

Of the approximately 84,000 chemicals on the market, only 1 percent have been studied for human use. “You don’t know the safety,” says Myriam Zaoui Malka, who is the cofounder of Ingredients® and has 25 years of experience in holistic health and personal care brand development. 

Malka explains that the dearth of testing can be traced back to 1938, when Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which pretty much left regulatory oversight of ingredients up to the cosmetics industry itself. Since then, the industry has defeated every attempt to revise the law. More than 40 nations have stricter regulations than the US, and some of them have banned or restricted over 1,400 cosmetic chemicals for safety reasons. By comparison, the FDA has banned or restricted only 11.

More than 40 nations have stricter regulations than the US, and some of them have banned or restricted over 1,400 cosmetic chemicals for safety reasons. By comparison, the FDA has banned or restricted only 11.

The lack of consumer protection is bad news for your body. Topically applied synthetic chemicals can cause contact dermatitis and allergic skin reactions—but their dangers are more than skin deep. There’s a common misconception that chemicals in topical products can’t penetrate your skin. On the contrary, says Zaoui Malka, “Your skin is one of the biggest organs in your body, and it’s like a sponge.” When you swallow something harmful, your digestive system may break down the substance and eliminate it from your body before it enters your bloodstream. But when harmful chemicals are absorbed through your skin, there’s no equivalent defense—they hit your bloodstream directly.

Some of the chemicals you absorb from personal care products may accumulate in your organs and body tissues, where they can wreak havoc over time. An array of petrochemicals commonly found in personal care products—including phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde, and more (see the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ “Chemicals of Concern” for a fuller list of ingredients to avoid)—have already been linked to serious health issues, including cancer, diabetes, reproductive and neurological harm, birth defects and developmental problems, immune system suppression, asthma, and autism, among other negative side effects.

Choosing products made from natural, plant-based ingredients and scrutinizing ingredient labels for known toxins can help you protect yourself from harmful chemicals—but buyer beware. Some companies exploit loopholes to make it look as if their products do not contain toxic ingredients when, in fact, they do. For example, they may label their products as free of the preservative formaldehyde (a human carcinogen found especially in hair straightening and nail hardening products), yet still include formaldehyde-releasing compounds that pose a risk of toxic exposure.

In recent years, the “clean beauty movement” has led many personal care brands to voluntarily exclude known toxins from their products. While it’s a step in the right direction, Zaoui Malka notes that problems with toxicity and transparency remain rampant in the industry. In formulating and labeling products for Ingredients®, “I’m stricter than the clean movement,” she says, for several reasons.

For one, cosmetics companies are not legally required to fully divulge all of the ingredients in their products. Zaoui Malka explains that even “clean” companies typically don’t disclose fillers and preservatives used to manufacture each “single” ingredient that appears on the label. Across the industry, brands don’t have to list the breakdown of ingredients used in fragrances or that they deem a “trade secret.” That means potentially harmful ingredients may go missing from labels. “There is a lot hidden, even with ‘natural’ brands,” she says.

To make matters worse, many brands try to capitalize on the clean beauty aesthetic with greenwashed packaging that makes claims like “nontoxic,” “natural,” or even “organic”—all unregulated terms—while the product inside is anything but. And even though many brands are moving away from attention-grabbing offenders like parabens, Malka isn’t convinced that the next generation of petrochemical-derived preservatives now replacing them is any safer.

Some type of preservative is always necessary to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi in shelf-stable products, but Zaoui Malka notes that synthetic preservatives also kill beneficial bacteria and fungi that live on your skin, setting you up for an array of skin problems. When absorbed internally, these preservatives disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria and fungi that live in your gut, too, leading to more serious issues such as digestive distress and suppressed immune function. While many organizations that certify clean cosmetics allow synthetic preservatives, Malka refuses to use them in her formulations, opting instead to include probiotics as a natural preservative that also supports your skin’s and your gut’s microbiome.

It’s clear that your health and safety depend on using personal care products that are truly toxin-free. But what will it take for the industry to turn over a new leaf? The Personal Care Products Safety Act, a 2019 bill to amend the 1938 law, is still making its way through Congress, but the chances of it passing are slim. Ingredients® cofounder Eric Malka emphasizes that consumers must demand a higher standard, one that encompasses “what they’ve been asking for all along: purity, transparency, safety, simplicity, and honesty,” he says. Myriam Zaoui Malka adds that all stakeholders within the personal care products industry—from chemists to manufacturers, brand leaders, and retailers—need to respond to that demand by “taking responsibility for the safety and the health of the consumer,” she says. “Change needs to start from the top.”