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Greening Your Personal Care Products: Nitty-gritty

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.

Common concerns about traditional personal care products

While striving to make personal care products more effective—or more attractive—traditional brands have added more and more chemicals to their ingredient lists, without full knowledge of their health and environmental effects. The number of chemicals found in everyday products is astounding: more than 12 percent of all registered chemicals (roughly 10,500) are used in personal care products. The FDA regulates the dozen or so of these chemicals that are already known beyond a doubt to be harmful, but most products don’t need FDA approval to reach the market. The take-home lesson? Seeing a product for sale in your local drugstore doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Health concerns

Our chemically inclined lifestyle may pose long-term health risks . . . or it may not. Toxicology is a complex science, and we simply don’t know for certain what is safe, what is dangerous and what is downright deadly. But the average American uses at least 10 different personal care products each day; we are literally bathing ourselves in chemicals we know very little about. Only 11 percent of chemicals used in personal care products have been tested for toxicity, but even ones we know to be unsafe like mercury, lead and coal tar are still used in some products. Other chemicals may cause skin irritation, allergies, hormone disruption or even cancer. But because some harmful chemicals are present only in tiny concentrations, and others may have mild effects for the majority of consumers, it’s difficult to determine when a product becomes unhealthy—and even harder to know how these ingredients will interact with other chemicals in our bodies.

Environmental concerns

PPCP drawing

Source: EPA

It’s great to keep hands germ-free with antibacterial soap, but what happens when the soap washes down the drain? Germ-fighting agents like the antibacterial triclosan and triclocarban keep on working even as they enter our rivers and ecosystems. They can upset the natural balance of microscopic life, and even foster new strains of super-bacteria that are resistant to our best drugs.

It’s not just soap suds, either: shampoo, conditioner, face wash, exfoliator, masque products, toothpaste and innumerable other products drip from our drains into the world. The chemicals thus released appear to interfere with nature in many different ways. Triclocarban, for example, acts like testosterone in lab animals and human cells. It and several other personal-product chemicals act as endocrine disruptors, causing growth abnormalities, cancer, and feminization or reduced sperm counts in fish, birds and reptiles.

Chemical accumulation in the ecosystem is rapid and disconcerting. Many synthetic chemicals do not break down readily, instead recirculating throughout the ecosystem, reentering drinking water reservoirs, and continuing to accumulate in living cells.

Just as it’s difficult to pin down the health effects of our personal care products, it’s tough to measure their environmental consequences. What we do know for sure is that these chemicals don’t just disappear once they go down the drain.


Alternative options for personal care products

Some products like hair relaxers and nail polish are hard to make without toxic chemicals, but appealing alternatives are available for many others.

Fewer, milder chemicals

Pick up any shampoo: Chances are good you’ll find “fragrances” among the ingredients. Because fragrances are considered trade secrets, their ingredients do not have to be disclosed to the FDA or any other regulating agency. This seemingly harmless word can mean anything, and often contains carcinogens, neurotoxins and other chemicals deemed toxic under federal law. The same goes for many synthetic dyes. Yet, because they serve only secondary purposes, dyes and fragrances can be readily replaced with natural alternatives.

There are often less harsh or environmentally harmful chemicals that work nearly as well as their industrial-strength cousins. Sunscreens are designed to guard against sun damage, but once in our bodies, the chemicals they contain may actually do harm as well as good. “Barrier” sunscreens that stay on the surface of skin (like titanium oxide and zinc oxide) are probably a safer bet than those that absorb into skin (like oxybenzone).

Biodegradable products can also lessen overall environmental impact by using chemicals that break down easily and are recycled back into the ecosystem.

Natural ingredients

Natural ingredients in place of industrial chemicals can reduce the uncertainty of what is in our personal care. The term “natural” generally means a product is extracted from plants or rocks without synthetic processes.

Plant-derived ingredients, however, are still synthetic. These compounds are produced using industrial chemical processes, and may differ little from petroleum-based materials. Both can be man-made, slow to break down and potentially unsafe. A safer choice, even when derived from petroleum, might be “plant-identical” ingredients like synthetic vanillin.

Organic ingredients—those grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers—are perhaps the greenest option, because they reduce the overall environmental impacts from the agricultural industry.


Comparing different standards and certifications.

What to look for What is it Comments
NPAC logo Natural Products Association Certified

Minimum 95% natural content.

Prohibits some synthetic ingredients, with plans to revise in 2010.

WFBPBC logo Whole Food Brand Premium Body Care

“Meet the strictest standards for quality sourcing, environmental impact, results and safety.”

Prohibits more than 250 synthetic ingredients. Created in partnership with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

USDAO logo USDA 100% Organic USDA Organic

Minimum 95% organic ingredients

USDA Made with Organic

Minimum 70% organic ingredients

Prohibits almost all synthetic ingredients. Same standards as those used to certify organic foods.

OASIS logo OASIS Organic

Minimum 85% organic ingredients

OASIS Made with Organic

Minimum 70% organic

Not yet available.

Prohibits some synthetic ingredients. Plans to increase organic content requirement to 90% and 95% over time.

NSF logo NSF Made with Organic

Minimum 70% organic ingredients.

Starting 2009. Prohibits some synthetic ingredients.

For more information:

Is it Organic? Well, Maybe” Jessica Merrill, New York Times, October 20, 2005.

Cost Concerns

Just like traditional personal care products, “green” products are available across a price range reaching from the affordable to the exorbitant.

While the green product market is growing—hence, ripe for competition to push down prices—green alternatives to industrial chemicals and processes may cost more. Therefore, products with a higher percentage of natural or organic ingredients tend to be pricier.

Luckily, new products are emerging every day; chances are good you’ll be able to find affordable alternatives in every category. Green, organic and natural products constitute the fastest growing areas in the personal care industry, with more than 1,400 new products introduced since January 2007.

Practical Concerns

It seems you can find “green” personal care products everywhere these days, including popular drugstores and even bookstores. The largest variety of products, however, can be found at natural food stores and, of course, on the Internet.

Use natural products as you would any other, though it’s never a bad idea to read over the directions for use. Keep in mind that in removing or replacing many of the popular chemicals used in personal care, alternative products may feel different than what you’re used to. Shampoos without sulfate-based surfactants (a skin irritant), for example, may not give you a rich lather, but they will still deliver on clean (and perhaps healthier) hair.

Navigating the Rules

The FDA exercises some oversight on the cosmetic and personal care industries. Two key pieces of legislation form the basis for regulating these products. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits adulterated and misbranded cosmetics from reaching stores, while the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires all ingredients (except ones that are trade secrets) appear on the product’s label. The FDA also prohibits several categories of ingredients and restricts the use of mercury compounds, hexachlorophene (a preservative) and sunscreens in cosmetics.

In addition, some individual states—like California and Washington—have passed more stringent laws to help protect consumers against unsafe chemicals.

What are Stanford students and alumni using?

I was curious to see what green products other environmentally minded Stanford students and alumni are using, so I took an informal Internet poll of my friends, classmates, and residents and alumni of Synergy House, an ecologically leaning student residence. Here are some of the products they recommend:

Brand Products

Alba Organics

Facial moisturizer, face cream, body wash

Arm & Hammer

Baking soda

Aubrey Organics

Shampoo, conditioner

Burt’s Bees

Lip products and others

Desert Essence

Face wash, conditioner

Dr. Bronner’s

Soap, shampoo, all-in-one


Dish soap

Emerald Forest

Shampoo, conditioner


Shampoo, conditioner

Nature’s Gate


Tom’s of Maine

Toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorant

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

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