Body Care

Marita's Story

From Marita, age 52

I’ve been on a very consciences wellness path since the ’90s. I’d taken some classes where I learned a lot about body care products and the differences between synthetic chemical ingredients versus things that are truly natural. Once you become aware of some of the issues with many mainstream products, you just don’t want to buy certain things anymore. I couldn’t spend the money to radically make a shift and throw out all my body care stuff, but each time I ran out of something, I just replaced it with something better for me.

Later, after I’d been using only clean, natural products for several years, I came across this anti-aging cleanser and moisturizing system. I thought, “Oh, I’m getting to that age, and this sounds so good,” so I went ahead and tried it.

Two months after I started using the product, I was having some weird symptoms, and I felt overly tired. I didn’t know what to make of it all and just figured I was having some symptoms of menopause/perimenopause. I had a blood draw for a comprehensive hormone panel, and my doctor was alarmed at my estrogen levels. They were way into the 400s. At first she thought it was a lab error—the numbers should have been in the low double digits, and they were even higher than they would be for most pregnant women.

My doctor said that estrogen levels that high were very dangerous for someone my age and could cause other serious and even life-threatening health problems. Fortunately, she suspected the hormone imbalance was coming from something I was taking in or absorbing, like a personal care product; she knew a lot of anti-aging products have unhealthy ingredients and hormones that the companies don’t have to disclose.

My doctor encouraged me to look into my personal care products and compile a comprehensive ingredient list. She informed me there were undisclosed ingredients hidden in these products. She strongly urged me to stop using the cleanser and moisturizing system. When my estrogen levels were tested six weeks later, they had dropped from the 400s at that first visit down to 50. My energy levels rose steadily when I stopped using the creams and followed other methods my doctor suggested to flush out the excess hormones. My wonky symptoms didn’t return.

I was really angry and frustrated that companies can use these kinds of ingredients, especially without complete disclosure. If I didn’t have a knowledgeable, caring doctor who knows a lot about the effect of body care products on our health, I could have ended up with worsening symptoms or other complications. I also thought to myself that I knew better—I know the importance of good, clean products. But I just got caught up in the idea of something making me look younger.

It’s important to look at what you’re putting on your body and into your body. Just pick one thing, maybe a tube of better toothpaste instead of one with all the chemicals. Then you pick one more thing, and it just gets easier as you go. My business partner uses plain coconut oil as his hair gel—it doesn’t always have to be expensive. Once you start using things that are free of chemicals, you won’t want to go back.

I wonder how much it would take to buy a soap bubble, if there were only one in the world.
Mark Twain


Imagine applying a tube of lead to your lips, slathering lotion with carcinogens on your skin or washing a baby with hormone-disrupting soap. Doesn’t sound too attractive, right? But these are scenes that are unfolding in most households every day.

Whether it’s soap or shampoo, lotion or lipstick, many personal care products are often made with a dizzying list of not-so-gorgeous ingredients: lead, mercury, formaldehyde, carcinogens, parabens and phthalates. Every day, people are applying questionable ingredients to the largest organ in their bodies, their skin. And skin is permeable and can carry chemicals to a person’s bloodstream and other organs. Studies show that people of all ages—and even babies still in the womb—are absorbing these ingredients, and the chemical buildup is leading to health problems.

The hormone problem (it’s not just for teens!)

Some of the chemicals—especially two classes known as parabens and phthalates—mimic human hormones and can alter your body’s natural hormone system, which is also known as the endocrine system. A quick primer: The endocrine system is responsible for many lifelong vital functions including growth, cell division, stress response, metabolism, blood sugar regulation, behavior, intelligence and the development of your brain, reproductive system and nervous system.

Hormones are like messengers—they constantly move throughout your body, telling the receptors on your cells what to do. Getting the instructions right is obviously important for good health. The problem is that endocrine disrupting chemicals look and act like your hormones and give false information to your cells.

These endocrine disruptors have been blamed for playing a role in countless health conditions, diseases and disorders: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes, earlier puberty, infertility, thyroid problems, obesity and more. Chemicals can turn on certain genes, alter how the body functions and trigger the eventual development of disease.

Some products even intentionally add hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), says naturopathic doctor Stephani Waldron-Trapp, N.D., who practices at the Bloomington Natural Care Center in Bloomington, Minn. “Those hormones can get stored in fat cells and release spontaneously,” she says. “This can create significant hormonal imbalances in people.”

This is often the case in anti-aging creams, says Kara Parker, M.D., with the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, and those hormones aren’t often listed on the labels. Parker’s seen post-menopausal women whose estrogen levels would normally be around 10 nanograms per picoliter, and suddenly they’re measuring 300 to 400 nanograms per picoliter. In addition, the women with the higher levels of estrogen are reporting aggression, bloating and trouble sleeping. The problem is usually traced to a new anti-aging cream, and once the women stop using the cream, blood levels return to normal and the symptoms disappear.

So, why are some of these ingredients used in the first place? Generally because they’re inexpensive but effective at their purpose. Parabens act as preservatives. Phthalates are used as a solvent or to make a substance more flexible. Although some dangerous ingredients are finally being phased out, manufacturers may be reluctant to make changes because removing certain ingredients means spending time and money to reformulate products.

Polluted products

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are just some of the unhealthy ingredients that are prevalent in body care products:

  • A study of perfumes, colognes and body sprays showed that among 17 brand-name products, there was an average of 14 unlisted chemicals used as fragrance.1 Hormone-disrupting chemicals and allergens were commonly used in the fragrance blends, but these ingredients weren’t shown on the label because companies aren’t required to disclose the chemical mixes they use for fragrance and can list simply “fragrance.” 
  • A recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analysis of 400 lipsticks on the market in 2010 found lead in every single one. The two lipsticks with the highest levels tested at that time were from the popular brands Maybelline and L’Oréal2 (the FDA says the levels detected don’t pose safety concerns when lipstick is used as intended, but other consumer health advocates disagree and say there’s no basis for claiming the levels are safe). Lead can affect nearly every organ and system in your body, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which also says lead can accumulate in your body over time. Lead can damage the nervous system, cardiovascular system, kidneys and reproductive system. It can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, permanent damage in children’s brains and nervous systems, learning and behavior problems and lower IQ.3
  • In 2009, a Campaign for Safe Cosmetics study of children’s bath products found that 82 percent contained formaldehyde and 67 percent contained 1,4-dioxane.4 Both of these substances are classified as probable human carcinogens by the EPA5 6 and are banned from cosmetics in other countries. Again, at the time of the report, popular and trusted brands such as Johnson’s, Aveeno and Huggies contained one or both contaminants. (Since this report was published, Johnson & Johnson has pledged to remove formaldehyde and some other concerning chemicals from its child and adult brands by the end of 2015).7 The formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane weren’t listed on the ingredients label of any of the bath products because they’re not actually ingredients but rather are “toxic byproducts of the chemical manufacturing and product formulation,” explains the report.

Absorption through your largest organ: the skin

How readily the chemicals in these products are absorbed into the body depends on a number of factors, says dermatologist Valori Treloar, M.D., whose practice, Integrative Dermatology, is in Newton, Mass. She is co-author of “The Clear Skin Diet: How to Defeat Acne and Enjoy Healthy Skin.” Absorption varies based on how healthy the skin is, skin and air temperature, the size and type of molecule and what area the product is applied to (skin on and around the eyes, underarms and genitals is particularly permeable).

“The skin provides a slight barrier between the rest of our bodies and the outside world, but it’s also made to be permeable,” she says. “Think of the skin as similar in construction to bricks and mortar. There’s a material between cells that’s like the mortar, and these chemicals can flow more easily through the mortar to reach your bloodstream or to impact intercellular material that’s between the cells in your other organs and body parts.”

Although some molecules make their way in faster than others, tests of human blood, tissue and urine show that they’re definitely moving through the skin and into our bodies.

  • A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 97 percent of Americans are contaminated with oxybenzone, a common ingredient used in sunscreen and other personal care products.8 Oxybenzone is linked to hormone disruption, allergies and cell damage.9
  • A CDC study testing for the presence of seven phthalates in Americans showed that 75 percent of the subjects had four of the phthalates in their bodies.10 Phthalates are linked to delayed sexual development and smaller penis volume;11 asthma and allergies and problems with neurodevelopment, reproductive hormone levels and thyroid function;12 increases in aggression, depression and attention problems13 and DNA damage in men’s sperm.14
  • A CDC study showed that 75 percent of Americans are contaminated with triclosan, an antibacterial substance used in many soaps and other products.15 Triclosan has hormone-disrupting properties16 and is linked to cancer, developmental defects, and liver and inhalation toxicity.17

“The studies made me realize that putting something on your skin is kind of like eating it,” Treloar says. “So anything you put on your skin, you should probably be willing to eat.”

Although your body can detoxify some chemicals, it’s not really set up to deal with new manmade chemicals, Treloar says. “If you’re introducing a chemical we didn’t evolve with into the body, you’re asking your body to work harder, and some of these chemicals can be difficult to tolerate,” she says.

Creepy consequences

Even if your body is able to detoxify the ingredients, the chemicals can still do damage before they’re flushed from your system. Consider the conclusions of a few studies:

  • A review of studies on phthalate exposure and health concluded that “there are strong and rather consistent indications that phthalates increase the risk of allergy and asthma and have an adverse impact on children’s neurodevelopment reflected by quality of alertness in girls, decreased (less masculine) composite score in boys and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” The review went on to state that studies also showed an association between phthalate levels and impaired sperm quality, levels of reproductive hormones and thyroid function.18
  • Another study showed that baby boys who were exposed to phthalates while still in the womb showed various signs of delayed sexual development, including incomplete testicular development and smaller penis volume.19
  • One study showed that women who use permanent hair dye at least once per month more then double their risk of bladder cancer. And stylists who have been working more than a decade increase their risk for bladder cancer fivefold.20

Small dose? Still a big problem.

Some people argue that when products have such a small amount of a questionable ingredient, they must be safe to use. But research shows that isn’t true.

A group of experts on endocrine disruption recently reviewed the studies and data on the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, referred to here as EDCs. Their review, published in the journal Endocrine Reviews in 2012, concluded that “there is now substantial evidence that low doses of EDCs have adverse effects on human health” and that “these recent studies have suggested wide-ranging effects of EDCs on the general population.” 21

The scientists on the review also said that “dozens if not hundreds of environmental chemicals are regularly detected in human tissues and fluids, yet very little is known about how these chemicals act in combination. Several studies indicate that EDCs can have additive or even synergistic effects, and thus these mixtures are likely to have unexpected and unpredictable effects on animals and humans.”

Chemical exposure is an important area of health for people to be aware of, says Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for the National Institutes of Health. “We can see at least associations in epidemiological studies between the amount of chemicals that are present in the general population and adverse effects,” she says. “Even low doses may be unsafe.”

Dr. Theo Colborn, founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colo., was one of the scientists on the 2012 endocrine-disruption review. “We know that even in minute amounts, such as parts per billion or parts per trillion, these chemicals can interfere with every major organ system,” she says. Besides, Colborn adds, even if the small amount present in one product is acceptable, people don’t use just one product every once in a while.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, “On average, American women use 12 personal care products a day, and men average six products daily. That means an adult is likely to be exposed daily to 126 unique chemical ingredients in personal care products alone.”22 Most of these ingredients have never been proven safe and many are at least questionable.

To make matters worse, some ingredients may be excluded from a product’s ingredient list. Some dangerous substances, such as formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, are byproducts of the manufacturing process or are released from other ingredients, so they’re not technically ingredients even though they’re present in the product.

You’re the one looking out for you

Consumers might assume that no one would put harmful ingredients in products, and that if they were, surely the government wouldn’t allow those products to be sold. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Although more than 1,000 cosmetics ingredients are banned in the European Union, the United States has banned only nine, says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, based in San Francisco, and author of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”

In the U.S., the FDA has oversight of cosmetics, but with the exception of color additives, it does not actually subject products to pre-market approval.23

According to the Environmental Working Group, “Nearly 80 percent of the 12,500 ingredients FDA has determined are used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety” by FDA, the cosmetics industry’s own self-policing safety panel or any other publicly accountable institution.24 On top of that, “more than 750 personal care products sold in the U.S. violate industry safety standards or cosmetic safety standards in other industrialized countries.”25

“It’s absolutely critical to our health to reduce our toxic exposures, and the great thing about personal care products is we can easily do something about this and make changes today,” Malkan says. “We have control over the products we put on our body and in our body, so this is a great place to start protecting yourself and your family.”


1 Not So Sexy. The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance. Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. May 2010.

2 Lipstick and lead: Questions and answers. Food and Drug Administration.

3 Learn about lead. Environmental Protection Agency.

4 No More Toxic Tub. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. March 2009.

5 Formaldehyde. Environmental Protection Agency.

6 1,4-Dioxane (1,4-Diethyleneoxide). Environmental Protection Agency.

7 Johnson & Johnson to Remove Formaldehyde from Products. Katie Thomas, The New York Times. Published Aug. 15, 2012.

8 Calafat AM, et al. Concentration of the sunscreen agent, benzophenone-3, in residents of the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2004. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2008;116(7):893.

9 CDC: Americans carry body burden of toxic sunscreen chemical. Environmental Working Group.

10 Blount BC, et al. Levels of seven urinary phthalate metabolites in a human reference population. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2000;108(10):979.

11 Swan SH, et al. Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2005;113(8):1056.

12 Jurewicz J, et al. Exposure to phthalates: reproductive outcome and children health. A review of the epidemiological studies. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health. 2011;24(2):115.

13 Engel, SM, et al. Prenatal phthalate exposure is associated with childhood behavior and executive functioning. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2010;118(4):565.

14 Duty SM, et al. The relationship between environmental exposures to phthalates and DNA damage in human sperm using the neutral comet assay. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2003;111(9)1164.

15 Calafat AM, et al. Urinary concentrations of triclosan in the U.S. population: 2003-2004. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2008;116(3):303.

16 Triclosan: What consumers should know. Food and Drug Administration.

17 Pesticides in soap, toothpaste and breast milk – Is it kid-safe? Environmental Working Group. July 2008.

18 Jurewicz J, et al. Exposure to phthalates: reproductive outcome and children health. A review of the epidemiological studies. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health. 2011;24(2):115.

19 Swan SH, et al. Decrease in anogenital distance among male infants with prenatal phthalate exposure. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2005;113(8):1056.

20 Gago-Dominguez M, et al. Use of permanent hair dyes and bladder-cancer risk. International Journal of Cancer. 2001;91(4):575.

21 Vandenberg LN, et al. Hormones and endocrine-disrupting chemicals: low-dose effects and nonmonotonic dose responses. Endocrine Reviews. 2012;33(3):378.

22 Nonprofits: Endorse the campaign. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

23 FDA authority over cosmetics. Food and Drug Administration.

24 Why this matters – Cosmetics and your health. By Jane Houlihan. Environmental Working Group.

25 Cosmetics with banned and unsafe ingredients. Environmental Working Group.