Skin Deep
September 7, 2004 8:06 AM   Subscribe

Skin Deep: A safety assessment of ingredients in personal care products. The Environmental Working Group has published a new report listing possible toxins in over 7,500 personal care products, including soap, toothpaste, shaving gel, and hair dye. The Executive Summary of the report is here, and the most handy tool for consumers is their Searchable Product Guide.
posted by Ufez Jones (10 comments total)
Great post, Ufez. I'll be wasting the rest of the morning searching in horror for all of the products I use daily. I've already discovered that the hair gel I use semi-regularly is one of the top ten worst in terms of, well, just about everything.
posted by 40 Watt at 9:03 AM on September 7, 2004

Ufez, this is really scary. [Ignorance is bliss]
posted by naxosaxur at 9:28 AM on September 7, 2004

For the sake of argument (and because I'm pretty horrified by the numbers for many products that I use), I think it's important to remember that just because something is harmful when used in a certain way doesn't mean it has those same effects when used differently (cigarettes may cause lung cancer when burned and inhaled, but they don't cause cancer when unlit and carried in the hand). Sure, it's scary that a lot of these ingredients haven't been tested for the specific uses they're put to here, but I don't think it's quite as scary as the site implies.
posted by biscotti at 9:54 AM on September 7, 2004

We are literally bathed in chemicals.
posted by PigAlien at 9:55 AM on September 7, 2004

Conscious Choice magazine did an article about toothpaste which had similar information, but this is much more extensive.

Everything is bad for you!
posted by SisterHavana at 10:56 AM on September 7, 2004

Excellent find, Ufez - thanks for sharing that one. I am happy to say that only my deodorant showed up on the products to avoid list.
posted by Lynsey at 10:57 AM on September 7, 2004

The really important thing about this report is that there are NO risks reported, just (potential) exposures. That utterly distorts their message, in my opinion. There are safe levels of everything (even uranium). If something doesn't come above the lower long-term exposure value, then it's not a problem. We live in an environment full of silica dust, for example: it's sand (but also asbestos, which is what they seem to be worried about, not that they bother to make the distinction).

Here's a quote where they admit it:
Boric acid and sodium borate. Boric acid and sodium borate are used in diaper creams and baby lotions, including Balmex and Desitin products. The CIR determined these ingredients should not be used on infant skin because “ rare instances, the application of Boric Acid powder to a diaper rash has been reported to cause fatality” (CIR 2003). It may be that the baby products EWG identified (Table 1) contain very low concentrations of these ingredients. It does not seem likely that these products could be causing fatalities that have gone unreported and unnoticed by the government. Nevertheless, it may be desirable for the companies using these ingredients to reformulate, considering the panel's standing recommendations and the severity of the reported risks.

What they're doing (without mentioning it) is invoking the precautionary principle to an absurd degree. Everything is listed as a (potential) danger; there is no rational risk assessment in this report. While their list inflames and scares, it does not really inform. There are some serious issues here (phthalates and other endocrine disruptors are very significant), but some real howlers too (PAHs in petrolatum? Give me a fucking break, or at least some real science). Because everything on their list is qualitative, there's no basis for judgement here.

Most of these additives have been tested to death (of rats and rabbits) by the US FDA, Health Canada, the EU DGHCP, and so on. The lower levels of human danger are well known for most of the ammendments the EWG report on. There certainly are problems we don't know about, and certainly things which need to concern consumers, but scare reports like this one verge on junk science. If the EWG wanted to do a good job, they should emphasize risk, a combination of toxicity and exposure, not just a laundry list of everything they thought might possibly be dangerous.
posted by bonehead at 10:59 AM on September 7, 2004

Bonehead, your points are well taken, but I would rather do what little is in my power to reduce the "chemical bath" PigAlien mentioned. For example, I appreciate knowing that Neutrogena is more toxic, even if by tiny increments, than Kiss My Face. Neutrogena has cultivated a very pure, snowy Scandinavian-fresh sort of image that's a good sell to an eco-conscious consumer, but since they're pimping themselves that way while using bad items, maybe some negative attention and loss of sales will stop them.

Also, as you point out, most of these chemicals harm in aggregate. Using a passel of minutely harmful products may not harm me a bit. But millions of people using them -- rinsing their contents into our rivers, tossing their containers into our landfills -- can't be doing the environment a service. I'd like for people to stop the more harmful practice of peeing their Prozac and birth control out to sea, but it's hard to make that argument to people who have a legitimate (or even illegitimate) medical need. We can all stop using the nastier varieties of personal products without pain, though.

I do agree with you that it would be useful for them to clarify their methods and discern between the risk levels more, but I'm glad they've done this much. Thanks to ufez jones for the helpful link.
posted by melissa may at 1:26 PM on September 7, 2004

It is a groovy link, and one I'm sure I'll share with people, but I must also chime in here and agree with bonehead. I have to say that some of their information is pure fearmongering.

Let me use sodium hydroxide as an example. They have it listed as a big bugaboo in a number of surfactant (cleansing) products.

When in fact, when sodium hydroxide meets the oil molecules in the saponification process, there is no NaOH left in the product at the the time it gets to the consumer. It is an ingredient in the manufacturing...but it is not an ingredient that the consumer ever actually comes in contact with.

Now, don't get me wrong, NaOH is very dangerous if incorrectly used...but the only danger is really to the person(s) using the NaOH to make soap, or in the case of most commercially available products, detergent.

(I make soap. I know soap.)
posted by dejah420 at 8:50 PM on September 7, 2004

The reason these kind of studies piss me off so much is that by painting with such broad strokes, by making so much noise, the good information (and there is good info here) gets drowned out by the nonsense. Cry wolf for everthing and people burn out and tune out. If you're concerned about everything, nothing is important. Priorities for lists like this are crucially important and that's where this report goes from good to junk.
posted by bonehead at 9:19 PM on September 7, 2004

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