Lacking well-defined labels and regulations, cosmetics can be a tricky world to navigate. Know what to look for and what to avoid when you shop for everyday personal care products.
Big changes start with small actions, including what you put on your face and body. That’s the fundamental principle behind Protect Our Breasts (POB, protectourbreasts.org), a nonprofit educational initiative based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. POB’s young women ambassadors, clad in the organization’s signature green scarves and led by Executive Director Cynthia Barstow, personify a singular mission: to reduce rates of breast cancer and other diseases linked to toxin exposure from everyday products and choices. Knowing that early-life habits lead to lasting patterns, POB spreads its message through college and community outreach events, arming others—especially young women and men—with the information they need to choose safe products for every aspect of their lives.
“It’s increasingly clear that ‘safety’ is a difficult word to define for cosmetics, so I look at it holistically,” says Gay Timmons, a POB advisory board member and founder of organic personal care company Oh, Oh Organic. This means assessing everything from ingredients to packaging to environmental impact.
Here, the POB team and Environmental Working Group offer tips to identify common beauty-product toxins so you can protect yourself daily and fearlessly.
Look for worthy labels
Third-party certifications are a good place to start, because they equate to more transparency in ingredients and sourcing. Whether you’re buying shampoo, shaving cream, or a great mascara, POB recommends prioritizing the USDA Organic label (which denotes the same standard that is applied to food) or the NSF/ANSI 305 “contains organic ingredients” label, developed specifically for personal care items. Both seals require a high percentage of organic content and prohibit caustic synthetics.
Two more labels to keep on your radar: Ecocert—a sustainable-body-care certification used by European brands—and the Natural Products Association’s “natural” label.
Say no to endocrine disruptors
Endocrine disruptors receive particular emphasis in POB education. These ubiquitous chemicals (triclosan is one common offender found in personal care products) behave differently than “typical toxins,” says R. Thomas Zoeller, PhD, a UMass Amherst researcher and POB advisory board member. Endocrine disruptors can have a range of negative effects on hormones, according to the EWG, including increasing or decreasing hormone production, imitating hormones, or turning one hormone into another. Low-level endocrine-disruptive exposure has been linked to serious health consequences, from thyroid and prostate cancers to autism and ADHD.
If you have questions about any body care ingredient, search The Endocrine Disruptor Exchange, a comprehensive, nonprofit site that disseminates scientific evidence about these toxins.
Pay attention to the package
Remember: Endocrine disruptors aren’t found merely in the actual lotion or gel. “We now know that packaging has a huge influence [on toxin levels],” says Barstow. At its “safer alternatives” events, POB only permits products in containers that don’t leach potential carcinogens such as BPA (a well-known endocrine disruptor). Also on the “bad” plastics list: PVC, PS, and polycarbonate. Look instead for bottles that use PET/PETE and HDPE, so-called “good plastics.”