Ever rubbed on a fragrant lotion, or aimed a cleaning spray at a smear of
grime, and wondered, “what’s in this stuff, anyway?” Don’t rely on the product
label to tell you -- at least, not without some digging.
In an increasingly chemically dependent age, it can be surprisingly hard to
know what’s inside all the bottles we bring into our homes. Some product labels
are more complete than others, but few list every ingredient -- and some barely
“People are surprised to find that dozens of toxic chemicals are in the
[conventional] household products we use every day, and go almost totally
unmonitored and unregulated by our government,” says Alan Greene, MD, clinical
professor of pediatrics at Stanford University and author of Raising Baby
Many of these chemicals are inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or ingested
(if you don't wash your hands before you eat). Then they can enter the blood
and body tissues, potentially causing health risks. In a CDC study, researchers
found at least 148 chemicals in the bodies of most Americans. A separate study
by the Environmental Working Group found 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord
blood of newborn babies.
Industry and government representatives say that minute levels of these
chemicals pose no realistic risk to people. Others contend that although single
exposures may be small, we are all exposed to a complicated mixture of
chemicals all day, every day. No one knows what the long-term risks may be.
Environmental and health advocates say the safest bet for consumers is to
reduce unnecessary exposures and make informed purchasing decisions.
Still, ordinary consumers who want to know about the ingredients in their
household products “start out at a disadvantage,” according to Greene. Labels
are not as revealing or simple as one would hope. However, “people have
more options than they’re usually aware of,” he tells WebMD. “You just have to
know where to look.”
Personal Care Products
Although the Food and Drug Administration regulates cosmetics and personal
care products (as well as food and medicines), its authority over cosmetics in
the marketplace is surprisingly limited.