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Friday, June 1, 2007

A pretty problem: Avoiding dangerous ingredients and finding healthy beauty products

Recently I calculated about how much money I'd spent on face, hair, and body products over my lifetime. The number was so shocking that I'm not going to repeat it here, but I will say it was enough to buy a new compact car or a pretty nice extended vacation, one complete with high-thread-count sheets and beachside spa treatments (see there I am, already back to products).

And I didn't get to that number by purchasing excessively expensive products, either. No $100 jars of wrinkle cream made from the tears of ducklings or $60 deep conditioners from top-secret beauty labs in France. Most of my products fall in the $7 to $30 range. Over time though, it really adds up.

So it was already an issue with a lot of personal financial weight when someone recommended the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database, which reviews ingredients in beauty products for general health and safety. According to the Why This Matters article on the website, we apply an average of 126 ingredients to our bodies every day. That seemed high only until I took a look at the back of the bottles I had in the bathroom.

I'd heard the vague rumblings about how product companies put all sorts of unhealthy things in products, how the industry wasn't properly regulated, and so on, but because it seemed like it would open a whole can of worms (it did), I stalled on researching it. Finally I decided that if I was going to continue to spend as much as I do on products, it was worth the effort to get ones that didn't do more harm than good. And once I started looking, I realized that a ton of products, even the supposedly natural ones, had all sorts of stuff that various agencies around the world had deemed unsafe or questionable.

Some of the ingredients I'm now watching out for are clearly not the sort of thing you want in or on your body. Stuff like mercury, lead, and phthalates. But there are also ingredients which studies have suggested lead to health problems, though nothing totally definitive has been published yet.

But my take on it is that I'd rather be safe than sorry. I don't want my vanity to be my undoing. Maybe it's because I had two aunts who died of cancer (breast and ovarian), and it's unclear why. Perhaps it was genetic, but I also wonder if it was something environmental, something that they were exposed or some product they both used.

The database uses a scoring system, with low scores indicating healthier products. You can also look at the risks associated with particular ingredients, and though I started out just seeking the lowest products on the scale, I've since tempered my approach to reflect the health issues I'm most concerned with.

The primary shortcoming of the database is that it's limited. When I go down to one of the natural pharmacies close to me (I'm close to Elephant Pharm, Pharmaca, and Whole Foods), half the products aren't represented in the database. Then it becomes a matter of reading ingredient lists, cross-checking them against my little printed-out list of the worst-of-the-worst.

This whole process takes time and has turned me into that crazy person standing in the cosmetics section staring alternately at my little notebook and the back of a bottle, but if this is something that I'm going to continue to spend the equivalent of cars and vacations on—and it is, because I like smooth, moisturized skin; shiny, pretty hair; and makeup—then I'm definitely going to make sure that the stuff my skin is absorbing daily isn't likely to give me cancer, going to make me have flipper babies, and isn't doing weird things to my hormones.

I thought this would be a good space to share some of the things I've found over the course of my ongoing quest for healthier products. I'll tackle both general issues (Are bad ingredients the key to good products?) and detail what I've found by trying out some of the healthier options I've been able to find. First up? Hmmm, maybe "Lipstick: the continuing saga."

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Have you looked into sun screen? I am trying to focus first on things that I apply on large parts of my, and my kids' bodies. I know it is complex, as we have to weigh the dangers of the chemicals against the dangers of UVA/UVB rays.