Everyday Hazards: How to make healthy and green purchases

Primary tabs

Everyday Hazards: How to make healthy and green purchases

January 20, 2016

January 20, 2016

Buyer beware, some of the products we use every day to keep us clean and healthy, might contain ingredients that are really causing us and the environment harm. 

Whether it’s cosmetics to look our best, shampoos, or antibacterial soaps to rid our homes from germs, how do we know which ones are safest and most effective? And how can we make better and more informed decisions when purchasing these products?

“There are a few tips consumers can follow, e.g., read the labels and avoid specific ingredients like parabens, phthalates, triclosan, or fragrance,” said Paul Pestano, research analyst for the Environmental Working Group, a consumer safety advocacy group. 

Parabens, like methylparaben and propylparaben, common preservatives found in cosmetics, are chemicals that have recently received negative publicity for being endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen.

Despite these concerning reports, both methylparaben and propylparaben are on the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe list.

“When it comes to personal care products, the cosmetics industry is largely unregulated, and companies can formulate products with almost any ingredient they wish, most of which have not been tested for safety,” said Pestano.

Over the past decade, researchers at the Biodesign institute at Arizona State University have found some chemicals found in everyday consumer products are toxic to human health and the environment.

Chemicals used in plastics, soaps, food, fabric, mouthwash, and many other products are inevitably rinsed down drain, but that is not the end of their story. These chemicals tend to stick around in water, food and soil, sometimes for decades, contaminating the environment. Some even take up residence in blood and fat stored within human bodies.

“The chemicals that we use, whether we blow them into the air or put them into the water or have them in our food, they also pass into us,” said Rolf Halden, PhD, professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University. “We become a repository for all that toxic chemistry.”

But most consumers are not aware of human health risks to their loved ones, or even babies.

Rolf Halden, in collaboration with Professor Laura Geer from SUNY Downstate Medical Center, led a study that found parabens are transferred through umbilical cords from pregnant women to their fetuses.


Triclocarban is an antimicrobial compound that can be found in soap, deodorant, mascara, clothing and a variety of other products.

“We discovered it, studied it for years, to find out it is the most common and the most highly concentrated pollutant among all the pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are being monitored by the EPA, across the nation,” Halden said.

This toxin, an endocrine disruptor, and its chemical cousin triclosan, have been found throughout the United States in fish, food, people, babies, breast milk, and in amniotic fluid. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are particularly concerning because they mimic hormones, which can change the way that our body develops, how we behave, and how we feel, Halden explained.

Antimicrobial chemicals, like triclocarban and triclosan, are added to products in order to kill germs that make us sick. But according to the Food and Drug Administration, there is currently no evidence to support that antibacterial soaps are any better at preventing illness than regular soap.

“There are many cases where government agencies, industry, and health experts disagree on what is “safe,” but there really isn’t a difference in the definition. Rather, it is more likely that there is a difference in the interpretation of the scientific evidence,” said Pestano, “Organizations like EWG err on the side of caution in order to protect public and environmental health, while governmental and health agencies typically take a more conservative approach, relying on outdated science or looking at chemicals in isolation. Additionally, the large chemical and cosmetics industries also aim to stymie any advancements in chemical safety testing and regulation.”

And there is little incentive from within the industry to change the current regulatory environment, with the personal care product market expected to grow to $17.6B market by 2020, according to a recent Markets-and-Markets report

According to this article, it can take 12 to 40 years for the FDA to ban a single chemical, meanwhile, the industry is introducing 500 to 1,000 new chemicals annually. That means that there are hundreds of chemicals on the market that science knows either very little or nothing about.  

Regrettable Substitutions

Even if a chemical does manage to be banned, the industry will often replace it with a similar ingredient.

For example, products that state that say they are “paraben free” may be better for health or the environment, but that is not necessarily the case. Chemicals are often replaced by different chemicals that are just as bad.

“Unfortunately, there is a history of ‘regrettable substitutions,” Halden explained, “You take out one chemical of concern, and replace it with a chemical cousin that is structurally similar and just as bad. We’ve done this with the flame-retardants; you know, one by one, again and again. We are doomed to fail if we cling to this approach without addressing the root cause of the problem.”

Chemicals like BPA have been removed from many products for being an endocrine disruptor, but are being replaced by the chemicals BPS and BPF, which have very similar health concerns.

“That is not just a regrettable substitute, it is an intentional delay of addressing a known human health threat.” Halden said, “Gaming the system, manufacturers can place a ‘BPA-free’ label on a bottle, and sell it to wary consumers knowing that these will not be any safer off. And so consumers are fooled into believing they are safe while they don’t really get what they want.”

The Solution?

Rather than make more chemicals that are toxic, affect the way we grow and develop, and last for millennia before breaking down, the industry needs to switch to a greener model.

“We cannot have this linear lifestyle of extracting stuff, using it, then calling it waste and putting it in landfills,” said Halden, “Everything has to become circular. We need to design chemicals where the building blocks, the elements, can be reintegrated back into a circle, so we can use them over and over again.”

In order to help consumers make informed decisions now, the Environmental Working Group has developed shopping guides and a cosmetics database that has information on the safety of specific products, and individual chemicals.




Written by: Ally Carr