Your cosmetics and soaps are probably doing more harm than good. Clean, safe, fragrance-free, sulfate-free-no matter what the label claims, store shelves are loaded with beauty and hygiene products containing seriously harmful chemicals.
Broadly known as chemicals of concern and, more specifically, endocrine disrupting chemicals, these chemicals disrupt the body’s normal functions and may increase your risk of cancer, says Adana Llanos, PhD, MPH, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and an expert in chemical and environmental risk factors for cancer.
Llanos was studying the connection between breast cancer risk and hair dyes and chemical relaxers when she realized the scale of the issue, particularly in the United States where hundreds of chemicals banned from consumer products in other countries are allowed.
“We use a lot of different products every single day, not just on our hair. Toothpaste, moisturizers, sunscreen, deodorant, the list goes on. We put these products on our bodies. And many of them contain toxic chemicals,” says Llanos.
Other people in our homes, including children, use them too. “Products that could be toxic or harmful to us are more severe to children because they’re still developing,” says Llanos.
Scientific evidence from Llanos’s work contributed to the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulations Act of 2022, signed into law by President Biden at the end of December. The law increases oversight by the Food and Drug Administration so consumers will know exactly what’s in each cosmetic and personal care product available and if it’s safe to use.
We asked Llanos about what’s known about endocrine disrupters and health and how to find body care products that contain safer ingredients while we wait for the law to take effect. Here’s what she said.
What’s the problem with endocrine-disrupting chemicals?
Our hormones, collectively known as our endocrine system, impact everything in our bodies. Disruption can change your body and your health. Even exposures to small amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals over time can lead to problems, including issues with childhood development and onset of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and development of tumors, including cancer.
Endocrine disruptors have been linked to increased risk of diabetes and other metabolic disorders, early start of puberty, issues with fertility and reproduction, and more.
Are hair and body care products linked to disease?
My team and I are studying the relationship between chemicals in products marketed to Black women and health issues that disproportionately affect Black women to determine whether health disparities are connected to exposure to these chemicals.
As scientists, we’re cautious about claiming proof until we have multiple and large studies, but our smaller studies suggest we are onto something. With breast cancer especially, there is evidence that longer duration of hair dye and relaxer use is related to more aggressive tumors in Black women.
Now we’re diving more into specific products to understand what their ingredients do to human cells.
We’re also determining if products predominantly used by certain groups are more likely to contain chemicals of concern. Again, preliminary studies show we are onto something: A lot of the products marketed to Black women are among the most toxic on the market.
As we continue our research we’ll have more definitive answers.
For now, be aware: A product available in a store may contain harmful and toxic chemicals. This is one reason I’m a scientific adviser on the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project, led by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. This resource contains easy-to-understand information about chemicals to avoid as much as possible and why, including health conditions they’re linked to. The project also highlights Black-owned businesses that make safer, non-toxic products.
How can we find cosmetics, hair and beauty products, and soap without these chemicals?
With a bit of research, you can find great products that will not harm you.
“Be aware that products that claim to be ‘clean’ may not be.”
Be aware that products that claim to be “clean” may not be. Manufacturers can say “clean” on product labels like they can say “healthy” for food or supplements. There’s no legal definition, and until now no oversight and no FDA regulation.
Over time, as companies that make personal care products adhere to new rules, they will be registered with the FDA, report adverse effects their products cause, prove the safety of their products, declare all ingredients, and, ideally, stop using banned and restricted chemicals. Until then, you must do the work yourself to find products free of toxic chemicals.
At a minimum, look for:
- Phthalate-free (phthalates may be listed as DEP, DBP, or DEHP)
- Until the new law changes things, beware of the term “fragrance” on personal care products if the label does not provide a complete ingredient list. Manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients used to create fragrance. Products that do not disclose their full list of fragrance ingredients can include toxic chemicals. Look for products that are transparent with their full ingredient list.
Bottom line: The existence of toxic chemicals in most body care products does not mean you can never use lotion or deodorant or make up or get your hair done. It means do as much as possible to try to make safe choices to reduce those exposures.
Adana Llanos, PhD, MPH, is a cancer and molecular epidemiologist and an associate professor in epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She studies molecular and sociobiologic contributors to inequities in cancer outcomes and seeks ways to correct them. Llanos is an expert in chemical and environmental risk factors for cancer, disparities and inequities in health, genetics, minority health, and obesity.