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Greening Your Personal Care Products: Essential Answer

By Lily Cheng

Q: I'm a Stanford alum who's been on a binge of finding healthy ways to live, and I have a lot of questions about personal care products. The things I'm focusing on now are shampoos and conditioners, soaps and toothpaste. Which products would you recommend that are healthiest for the body and for the environment?

Asked by Leah Yelverton, ’07, Gulf Breeze, Fla.

My own bathroom is crammed with products proclaiming they are “100% natural,” “eco-friendly” and “organic.” Each little bottle simply oozes green credibility, announcing its “low-impact,” “biodegradable,” “sustainable” or “holistic” properties. Scouring beauty boutiques for such environmental catchphrases might seem like an awful lot of trouble—so why do I bother?

My main motive is plain old caution. Modern personal care products contain a staggering 10,000 registered chemicals, and we lack adequate health and safety information for more than 90 percent of them. It seems like the more tests we run, the longer the list of skin irritants, allergens and possible carcinogens grows. Plus, the preservatives, plasticizers and synthetic fragrances used in products can be subtle chemical agents: Some are suspected to act as endocrine disruptors, changing how humans and animals respond to their own hormones. The truth is, we just don’t know enough about the long-term health and environmental effects of these complex chemicals.

The ultimate goal for concerned consumers is peace of mind and perfect hair. But as the number of “green” products increases, so does the confusion factor. Simply buying shampoo or soap should not require a degree in chemical engineering—or a lawyer specializing in false advertising suits.

So what to do? Fortunately, the classic motto “keep it simple” can help you decode most any drugstore-aisle conundrum. For starters, any gel, lotion, cream or powder you can do without is one less to worry about. And you can further reduce the potential chemical load on your body by picking products with the shortest list of complex chemical components.

Natural ingredients typically have a longer use history than things with long chemical names, which often means a higher level of health safety knowledge. While they are not absolutely guaranteed to be healthier—after all, cyanide is a natural ingredient, too—we often know where they come from, and that people have used them safely in traditional settings. Pesticide residues aren’t a huge concern in personal care product safety, but organic products do help eliminate any worries about broader environmental contamination from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

The word “natural” has been plastered on so many products it can seem meaningless, but standards and certifications separate the green from the merely green-washed. A Seal of Approval from the Natural Products Association indicates that 95 percent of a product’s ingredients come from a renewable resource found in nature, or a synthetic process “as harmless to the earth as possible.” Some retailers have developed their own standards. To meet the Whole Foods “Premium Body Care” classification, for example, products must be free of more than 300 specific, suspect ingredients and demonstrate low environmental impact during manufacturing and disposal.

Mysteries are for bookshelves, not your bathroom shelves. Look up mystery ingredients online: Some scary-sounding chemical ingredients might be harmless, but a simple Internet search before you purchase can help you to be sure. Skin Deep, for example, provides a useful cosmetic safety guide, and rates many ingredients on a straightforward 1-to-5 toxicity scale.

Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution. Modern chemistry gives us the squeaky clean feeling and rich lather we’ve come to love, so natural products might not deliver the results you want. Then there’s the cost. Industrial chemicals are often cheaper than milder alternatives. On a student budget, I try to make green purchases where they’ll do the most good. I look for products that shun artificial fragrances and dyes, biodegrade easily and use natural ingredients—usually in that order.

Though who doesn’t like to splurge on a bottle of organic once in a while?

LILY CHENG plans to receive her master’s degree in earth systems in 2010.

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