Labels on cosmetics and body care products are a tough code to crack. The industry is so shockingly unregulated that it's usually impossible to trust the claims that manufacturers place on their products. A word such as "natural" can be used by anyone for anything. Even "organic" is misleading. Companies are supposed to use an organic label only if all ingredients are certified-organic, but they can also say it's "made with organic" if it contains a minimum of 70 percent certified-organic ingredients. Regardless, 30 percent still leaves a lot of room for toxins.
The whole industry has a "innocent-till-proven-guilty" approach to ingredients. Unless a chemical used in beauty products is proven to cause harm to human health, it is classified as GRAS, or "generally recognized as safe." This classification is upheld by the U.S. FDA and hardly has the best interests of consumers at heart.
The best thing we consumers can do is read ingredient lists carefully in order to avoid chemicals that are known to be harmful, even though they continue to be widely used. Here is a list of the top 20 toxins to avoid, according to Gillian Deacon's 2011 book There's Lead in Your Lipstick: Toxins in Our Everyday Body Care and How to Avoid Them.
Coal Tar: A known carcinogen banned in the EU, but still used in North America. Used in dry skin treatments, anti-lice and anti-dandruff shampoos, also listed as a colour plus number, i.e. FD&C Red No. 6.
DEA/TEA/MEA: Suspected carcinogens used as emulsifiers and foaming agents for shampoos, body washes, soaps.
Ethoxylated surfactants and 1,4-dioxane: Never listed because it's a by-product made from adding carcinogenic ethylene oxide to make other chemicals less harsh. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found 1,4-dioxane in 57 percent of baby washes in the U.S. Avoid any ingredients containing the letters "eth."
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