Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Diana Kaye never gave the ingredients in her shampoo much thought-until, at 29, a bout with cancer forced her through a tough course of chemotherapy. She recovered, but the chemo left her with multiple chemical sensitivities. After her illness, Kaye and her husband redoubled their efforts to live a healthful life: They ate organic and vegetarian foods, bought chemical-free household cleaners, and stocked their bathroom with shampoos and soaps labeled “all natural.”
The changes kept Kaye’s chemical sensitivities at bay, with one exception—her body still reacted to the personal care products. Perplexed, she started reading labels on her shampoo and lotion bottles and was surprised to find long lists of synthetic chemicals. When she returned to the health food store to buy a synthetic-free shampoo, she was dismayed to discover that there weren’t any.
Over the next few years, Kaye funneled her frustration into a business model. In 1992, four years after her cancer diagnosis, she and her husband founded Terressentials and began making the shampoos, soaps, and other products she’d searched for in vain.
Back when Kaye started her crusade for products free of synthetic chemicals, public and political interest was negligible. But that’s changed, in a big way.
Just last year, the European Union passed a directive dictating that personal care products must be free of chemicals known or strongly suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutations, or birth defects. As a result, over 1,200 chemicals were banned. But almost all of them are still authorized for use in the United States. Believe it or not, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require makers of shampoos, soaps, or deodorants to test products for safety before they’re sold. Among the roughly 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products, only 11 percent have been evaluated for safety.
So if you care enough to buy organic broccoli and steer clear of trans fats, it’s time to start looking at the chemicals you put on your body, because your skin absorbs them with spongelike efficiency. Just as the pesticides on produce can be hazardous to your health, the chemicals lurking in your favorite shampoos, soaps, or lotions might be raising your risk of cancer, infertility, endocrine disorders, and more.
“We aren’t trying to alarm people,” says Kevin Donegan, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “But we aren’t talking about just a single exposure; we’re talking about multiple products with multiple chemicals used daily for years.” The average woman uses 12 personal care products each day, exposing herself to a total of 168 chemicals, according to “Skin Deep,” an analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Spurred by pressure from Donegan’s group, the EWG, and others, some manufacturers have begun to make changes. In January, L’Oréal, Revlon, and Estée Lauder promised to reformulate their products for the U.S. market in compliance with the stricter European laws. And in May, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics received written promises from more than 150 other makers of cosmetics and personal care products to phase out harmful ingredients over the next three years.
In the meantime, you can find some solace in the aisles of health food stores, though it’s not always easy to know which products are purest. Last spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it wouldn’t allow its “Certified Organic” label to be used on personal care products. That leaves no national standard governing the use of the words “natural” and “organic” for such products; manufacturers can use the terms, but it’s hard for consumers to know just what they mean.
Another roadblock is the fear manufacturers have that consumers won’t like the look and feel of synthetic-free products. “In today’s market, people aren’t going to buy a shampoo that isn’t sudsy or looks brown in the bottle,” says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. And for the most part, synthetic chemicals are what give a shampoo its color, fragrance, and those all-important suds.
“Ultimately, you need to deal with the expectations of the consumer,” says Morris Shriftman, senior vice president of marketing at Avalon Natural Products, which recently removed parabens from its product line. “It’s not a perfect world.”
But it could be. A few small companies, like Terressentials, are able to shun all chemical ingredients. Today, Kaye and her husband pride themselves on creating products so natural they’re edible.
“Look at the ingredient label on your shampoo and ask yourself if you’d serve a meal made from those ingredients to your family and friends,” Kaye says. “That’s the only way it can be.”
Catherine Guthrie is a writer in Bloomington, Indiana.