What's Inside? Decoding Product Labels
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.
The FDA requires that makers of cosmetics and personal care products list
all ingredients on the package label. Ingredients must be listed in descending
order according to their amounts, in general.
But as Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist with the nonprofit
Environmental Working Group points out, “labels rarely list all the ingredients
The most common example: seemingly simple ingredients like “fragrance” or
“flavor” can actually contain hundreds of different chemicals, Sutton tells
WebMD. The FDA agrees with companies that listing all the ingredients would be
unreasonable, says Sutton, so they aren’t required to.
This “fragrance mystery” regularly stymies dermatologists and their
patients, says Leon Kircik, MD, a dermatologist and spokesman for the American
Association of Dermatology. “The fragrance is often what people are allergic
to, and it can be extremely hard to identify the exact ingredient,” he
Manufacturers can also get exemptions from labeling law for trade secrets,
in which case a chemical will only be listed as “…and other ingredients,”
Skin Deep at cosmeticsdatabase.com is a safety guide to cosmetics and
personal care products from researchers at the Environmental Working Group.
Skin Deep pairs ingredients in more than 41,000 products against 50 toxicity
and regulatory databases, making it the largest integrated data resource of its
kind. Just enter a product name or ingredient to find out if there are any
known toxic effects.
While it may be hard to find out what’s in your body spray, discovering
the ingredients in most cleaning products is nearly impossible. Some
companies do list all ingredients on their product labels. But for others, what
are gray areas in the labels on personal care products turn into black holes
The Consumer Products Safety Commission regulates labeling for most
hazardous household products. This includes cleaners, car wax, battery acid,
drain opener, and the like.
These products are required to list their main ingredients that are known to
be hazardous; and what not to do (e.g., don’t spray in eyes), along with first
aid information. But other ingredients need not be listed.
“These products can contain virtually anything, without mentioning it on the
label,” says Sutton. “Most people assume that if it’s on a store shelf, it’s
gone through some kind of review. But in fact, we don’t have the health and
safety review to know these products are safe. Most of the time, you really
have no idea what you’re spraying around your house.”
To find out what's inside the products you're using, visit the National
Library of Medicine's Household Products Database.
You can also do some careful label reading. There are safer, "green"
cleaners available if you know what you're looking for. Opt for
"non-toxic," "biodegradable," and "petroleum-free"
products and ones that list all ingredients. Beware of labels that say
"fragrance" without specifying the ingredients in the fragrance, or
that list a few specific ingredients and then use catch-all categories like