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How to choose healthy and safe beauty products

It seems reasonable to assume that if beauty products like soap and shampoo are available for purchase on store shelves in Canada, they must be safe. But the truth is that manufacturers must only avoid a short “hotlist” of harmful ingredients, which does not include several that have been banned in the EU.

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It seems reasonable to assume that if beauty products like soap and shampoo are available for purchase on store shelves in Canada, they must be safe. But the truth is that manufacturers must only avoid a short “hotlist” of harmful ingredients, which does not include several that have been banned in the EU. And though the research is not yet complete, the list of chemicals often found in beauty products that clinical studies are tying to harmful health effects is growing.

Products that we put on our bodies eventually ends up in our bodies, said Celeste Cote, the toxics program manager at Environmental Defence. “A number of independent studies have confirmed this fact by measuring the levels of harmful chemicals in human blood and urine while monitoring the person’s exposure to personal care products containing the chemicals of concern — such as phthalates and triclosan, for example,” she said. While researching his book Slow Death by Rubber Duck, environmental Defence’s executive director Rick Smith tested his blood levels of phthalates (found in fragrances) and triclosan (an antibacterial substance) before and after using conventional beauty products. Over two days of exposure, his blood levels of phthalates increased 22 times, and those for triclosan went up 2,900 times.

Some components, such as those in fragrances or that are unintentional byproducts of ingredients, aren’t listed on labels at all, Cote said. “It’s difficult to avoid substances that aren’t listed on labels. This is why we’re asking Health Canada to mandate full disclosure of all ingredients from manufacturers.”

Environmental Defence has created a list of the “Toxic Ten” — ten ingredients commonly found in cosmetic and personal-care products that should be avoided. The list includes:

  1. Triclosan: Found in antibacterial products and a suspected hormone disruptor
  2. Fragrance or parfum: Can even be in products that are labelled “unscented”
  3. Dibutyl phthalate: Found in nail-care products, phthalates are thought to interfere with hormones
  4. Petrolatum: Also known as petroleum jelly, this is derived from oil and is in many products
  5. Formaldehyde releasing agents: Includes DMDM hydantoin, diazolldynl urea, methanamine, quarternium-15 and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  6. Parabens: Includes ethylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben and propylparaben
  7. Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium laurel sulfate: Found in products that create lather, like shampoo and body wash
  8. Cyclomethicone, cyclotetrasiloxane, cyclopentasiloxane and cyclohexasiloxane: Found in hair products, moisturizers and cosmetics
  9. Coal tar-derived colours: Also seen as P-Phenylenediamine or colours labelled “C.I.” and found in hair dye and cosmetics
  10. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytulene): Found in moisturizers, make-ups and some fragrances

“The good news is that many of these substances have a short lifespan in the human body, so once we rid them from our routines, the levels of them in our systems decrease dramatically,” Cote said.

For more information on cosmetic and personal product safety, check out Just Beautiful, the Skin Deep database or the books No More Dirty Looks or Healthy Beauty. You can also download the Environmental Defence pocket guide to safer cosmetic shopping.