"Natural" is a meaningless term on food product labels, and it's even more meaningless on personal care products, which are subject to lax regulations as it is. A recent study from the nonprofit Silent Spring Institute shows just how little you really can trust that seemingly reassuring term on shampoos, soaps, sunscreens, and other body products.
Part of a larger study on chemicals in brand-name consumer products, researchers at Silent Spring bought and tested 43 products that marketed themselves as natural or less-toxic alternatives to standard cleaners, personal care products, and household items. The range of products they tested were from brands, including Kiss My Face, Jason Natural Products, Nature's Gate, Tom's of Maine, Alba Botanica, Sun & Earth, Seventh Generation, and Ecover. Each one was analyzed for 66 chemicals linked to asthma and hormone disruption (chemicals that interfere with estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid chemicals, which leads to a variety of health problems including obesity and infertility).
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Of the 43 products the group tested, 32 contained "chemicals of concern"—things like hormone-disrupting phthalates, synthetic fragrance chemicals linked to asthma, and parabens, preservatives linked to breast cancer.
"If a person were to use one of our alternative cleaners, the laundry detergent, bar soap, shampoo and conditioner, facial cleanser and lotion, and toothpaste, they would be exposed to 19 harmful chemicals," says Robin Dodson, ScD, a researcher at Silent Spring and lead author of the study.
Some of the "green" cleaning products were legitimately green. Bon Ami scrubbing powder, for instance, had zero detectable levels of the 66 chemicals Silent Spring tested for, as did Seventh Generation's Free & Clear dish liquid and dish detergent.
Naturally Its Clean Tub & Tile cleaner, on the other hand, had high levels of diethanolamine, a chemical linked to asthma, and linalool, a commonly used natural oil that's also been linked to asthma. The researchers also detected low levels of hormone-disrupting phthalates. Ecover's Ecological Stain Remover for laundry was found to have high levels of linalool as well, as well as limonene, another natural oil thought to trigger asthma.
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The levels of the problem chemicals in supposedly "all-natural" personal care products were cringe-worthy. The worst offender was the Kiss My Face Moisture Shave Fragrance Free shaving cream, with nine chemicals of concern, including five different types of phthalates, two forms of alkylphenols (chemicals that help products penetrate the skin that act like estrogen), parabens, and diethanolamine.
Aubrey Organics Blue Chamomile Hydrating Shampoo for Normal Hair and White Camellia Ultra-Smoothing Conditioner for Dry Hair contained nine chemicals, between the two products, most of them fragrance oils like linalool and limonene that, although natural, have been known to trigger asthma.
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Burt's Bees Lip Balms tested positive for seven chemicals, mostly the asthmatic natural oils but also one form of phthalate and two forms of hormone-disrupting chemicals called nonylphenols, which may come from plastics or from ingredient processing. Nonylphenols are hard to avoid, Dodson says, given that they weren't listed on either the personal care products or the cleaners in which they were found.
Trying to find a sunscreen that contains neither hormone-disrupting chemical UV screens nor nanoparticle-size minerals (which are thought to cause brain and liver damage) is hard enough, but the results of this test showed that companies aren't making it any easier with vague labeling. Of the five "natural" sunscreens tested, which included products from California Baby, Jason Natural, Alba Botanica, and Nature's Gate, every one contained the chemical UV blocker octinoxate, and in many cases, that ingredient wasn't listed as one of the active ingredients. Fragrance chemicals were also detected in many of the sunscreens, even though some were advertised as containing no fragrance or masking scent, as were paraben preservatives, which also weren't listed on the label.
Still, some companies are questioning the validity of the study, suggesting that contamination from conventional products could have caused positive readings. "California Baby does not formulate products with any of the asthma-associated or endocrine disrupting substances identified by the Silent Spring Institute in their recent study," says Jessica Iclisoy, founder and developer of California Baby. "Nor do we use ingredients that might contain trace levels of these substances."
Iclisoy says California Baby is investigating that matter, adding that none of the manufacturers where they source raw materials use these chemicals.
"For example, we don't add parabens, either. None of the ingredients in our sunscreens even need preservatives," she adds.
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Can You Avoid These Chemicals?
It's hard to avoid toxic chemicals that aren't listed on labels, and Dodson added that the companies that sell these products may not even know they're there. Some chemicals, such as nonylphenols and phthalates, can be introduced when the product is put in packaging or at some other part of the production process. Most of the companies whose products were tested are looking into the source of the contamination.
And to be fair to these companies, the levels of chemicals found in non-"green" products were even more alarming. The four conventional sunscreens tested, made by CVS, Coppertone, Banana Boat, and Aveeno, contained an average of 22 chemicals each, and the shampoos from CVS, L'Oreal, Pantene, Pert Plus, and Dove averaged 11 asthma triggers and hormone-disruptors.
"We wanted to provide a clearer snapshot of what people might be exposed to," she says, adding that the Silent Spring group tested just a sampling of what's out there. "People are exposed to a wide range of chemicals in everyday products, but when products aren't fully labeled, we can't make informed decisions."
Popular online rating systems like the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database, which gives out product safety scores based on the ingredients listed on the label, aren't much help without adequate label disclosure, either.
So what can you do? Dodson suggests a few things:
• Just use less. The fewer cleaners and personal care products you use, the fewer chemicals you'll be exposed to, particularly the ones that don't appear on labels.
• Use sunscreens as a last resort. Rather than panic about all the unknowns in regular or natural sunscreens, opt for long sleeves and hats and hang out in the shade. After all, there's a lot of question as to whether sunscreens prevent melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, in the first place.