What's In Your Personal Care Products?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 24, 2010
6 min read

It smells good. It feels good on your child's skin. And all her friends are using it. But is it the healthiest choice?

When it comes to choosing shampoos, lotions, and other personal products for your kids -- or helping them make good choices -- it's not an easy question to answer. That’s because although there’s been a great deal of attention about chemicals like phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde found in many personal care products, it's not clear what the risks are, if any.

While some manufacturers are voluntarily removing a handful of controversial chemicals from their products, you'll still find a number of chemicals in everything from moisturizer to makeup. American teens and adolescents, who tend to like to experiment with new personal care products, may be getting more chemical exposure than American women. In a 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group, 20 teenage girls used 17 products a day, five more than the average U.S. woman. The study found 16 chemicals with potentially harmful health effects in blood and urine samples of the girls, aged 14 to 19.

Many parents assume that ingredients in personal care products are safe or they wouldn’t be allowed to be used. But that’s not necessarily the case, says David Andrews, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

“Premarket safety testing is not something that’s necessarily done for cosmetics or personal care products,” says Andrews. “I know it was eye-opening for me -- the lack of information on the health and safety of the chemicals that end up in our everyday products.”

Here’s a look at three of the more common controversial chemicals and the science behind whether they could be harmful to your kids.

Phthalates work as softeners in personal care products such as cosmetics and shampoo, as well as flexible plastics like children’s toys. Several studies -- both in animals and humans -- have found that phthalates might have some effects on hormones.

Two phthalate studies that attracted a lot of media attention were conducted by Shanna Swan, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Both looked at how phthalates exposure in pregnant women might affect their sons.

One study showed that 3- to 6-year-old boys of women who had high levels of phthalates during pregnancy were less likely to engage in “typical male” type play such as play-fighting and playing with trucks. The other study showed that 1-year-old boys of mothers in the high-phthalates group showed signs of impaired production of testosterone, the male sex hormone.

While experts agree that more research is needed to determine whether phthalate exposure affects male fertility, Swan believes that it may affect the development of boys. “We know phthalates are in these products. We know they get in our bodies. The debate comes over how risky they are,” she says.

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.”

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.

“There was a wealth of new literature all repeating the same studies that high levels of formaldehyde caused cancer,” says CIR Director F. Alan Andersen, PhD, who spent 22 years with the FDA as a regulatory scientist. “So we’re pretty comfortable that we know how the industry is using it and they’re below the levels we’ve established.”

However, if you want to keep your kids from all personal care products containing formaldehyde, you may have difficulty. A recent study commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in conjunction with the Environmental Working Group, found formaldehyde in baby lotion, baby bubble bath, and baby shampoo. The chemical was not an intentional ingredient but was a byproduct of the manufacturing process.

Parabens are some of the most commonly used preservatives in cosmetics such as moisturizers, shampoos and conditioners, and many types of makeup. In the Environmental Working Group study of teenage girls, all 20 participants tested positive for two parabens: methylparaben and propylparaben.

Parabens entered the radar of environmental advocacy groups because several studies have found parabens in tissue samples of breast cancer tumors. However, those studies were far from conclusive and were unable to show a direct connection between paraben exposure and an increased risk of breast cancer.

Because parabens are typically used at levels between 0.01% and 0.3% and have been deemed safe in cosmetics at levels as high as 25%, the FDA official stance is that currently there’s no reason for consumers to be worried about using cosmetics that contain parabens. However, the FDA continues to evaluate the chemicals.

If you are concerned, it’s relatively simple to tell if parabens are in a product your child wants to try. Check the label and look for ingredients such as propylparaben, benzylparaben, methylparaben, or butylparaben.

As environmental advocacy groups such as Environmental Working Group point out, the ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are not regulated. Indeed, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gives no authority to the agency to approve cosmetic ingredients -- except for specific coloring additives in certain hair dyes.

According to the FDA’s web site, “Cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation.”

However, you can check products for many chemicals -- such as phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde -- by visiting the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. The online guide looks at the safety of more than 7,600 ingredients in nearly 62,000 products. You can use it to narrow the cosmetics field to find potentially healthier products.

Until there are comprehensive safety standards for personal care products, read the labels for suspect ingredients in the makeups and lotions your teen is clamoring to use. And use common sense. Mary Beth Genter, a toxicologist and editor-in-chief of International Journal of Toxicology from the American College of Toxicology, says, “Everything depends on the level of exposure.”