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Phthalates continued...

In another study in 2008, high levels of phthalates were found in the urine of babies that were recently soaped or slathered with baby shampoo, powder, or lotion. There was no connection made to the amount of phthalates and any reproductive problems, but the study got a lot of attention because the questionable chemicals were in products especially targeted toward babies.

In 2008, Congress banned specific levels of certain phthalates (BBP, DEHP, and DBP) in toys, citing studies showing the toxic effects of these substances. The EPA is adding eight phthalates to their “Chemicals of Concern” list, meaning the agency will keep a close watch on the chemicals with more stringent limitations -- and even banning -- possible in the future.

“We recommend looking to avoid phthalates,” says Andrews. “One of the concerns is that we know the chemicals end up in the bloodstream.”

But if you want to avoid these chemicals, it’s not as simple as shopping for products without phthalates listed on the ingredient label. It’s often difficult to know if phthalates are in a product because manufacturers aren’t required to list the specific chemicals that make up fragrances -- and those fragrances can often contain phthalates, which are used to make smells last longer. To be sure, look for labels that say “no phthalates” or “phthalate-free.”

“The level of risk you want to assume and how cautious you want to be is a personal choice,” says Swan. “Some people will go out of their way to avoid every conceivable risk and some will say they aren’t going to worry about anything. Most people fall somewhere in between.”

Formaldehyde

That stinky chemical that kept your frog intact in high-school science class may be a preservative in your home, found in some of your family’s cosmetics and other personal care products.

There’s little debate that formaldehyde can pose health risks. Short-term exposure can cause skin irritation from physical contact or wheezing, watery eyes, and burning in the nose when inhaled.

The long-term effects of formaldehyde exposure are less certain. After research found that formaldehyde exposure caused cancer in rats, the Environmental Protection Agency classified the chemical as a “probable carcinogen.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.

But the amount of formaldehyde used in grooming products and cosmetics is much smaller than the amounts tested in most studies, making it hard to draw firm conclusions about risk.

Formaldehyde limits for personal care products are set by the Consumer Ingredient Review -- an independent scientific review group funded by the personal care products industry and supported by the FDA and the Consumer Federation of America. The CIR set healthy product limits in 1984 and then revisited them in 2002.

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