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Don't Take a Chemical Bath

girl looking at a shampoo bottle label

By Judi Ketteler

With literally thousands of chemicals and fragrances added to everything from moisturizer to nail polish, how do you know if your beauty product is safe?

We live in a chemical-infused world. Although there are some benefits -- clean drinking water, for example -- when it comes to beauty products, chemicals are thought by many to cause adverse health effects. That's because chemicals from beauty products don't pass through your digestive system where they might be filtered; instead, they head right into your bloodstream.

It's important for consumers to understand that the cosmetic industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Companies are required to list all the ingredients in order of use, but they're not required (by federal law) to test products for safety. The FDA can only act if they have strong scientific knowledge that a product is dangerous. That doesn't mean that companies don't have safety standards, but it does mean that claims like "natural," "botanical" or "organic" are basically useless.

So where does this leave the consumer? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) -- a non-profit, non-partisan organization working to educate consumers about chemicals in cosmetics -- created Skin Deep a searchable database that analyzes about 25,000 beauty products and 10,000 different ingredients.

"It's about trying to pick better products in the same category," says Kristan Markey, a chemist and research analyst for EWG. For example, it's not reasonable to stop using all soap, but you can choose milder soaps with fewer ingredients. "It's a big challenge, but basically, it's just a matter of slowly going through your bathroom cabinet," Markey says. The best place to start is by looking at the ingredients. However, even that can feel like a Herculean task, given that most ingredients are multi-syllabic words you can't even pronounce, let alone have any idea what they do.

Here are some tips to get started:

Minimize Fragrances

Beware of the word "fragrance." You might think it's something that simply smells pretty, but scents are chemicals. The truth is, it's impossible to know exactly which chemicals are in a fragrance. There are more than 5,000 different fragrances used in cosmetics and skin care products, reports the American Academy of Dermatology. Plus, not all chemicals are listed on a label. To complicate matters, fragrance chemicals are a leading cause of allergic reactions to cosmetics. Choose "fragrance free" whenever possible. Or, if the bouquet of lavender fields is crucial for your morning shower, look for products with no chemical preservatives."

Scrutinize Nail Polish

Phthalates -- used widely in nail polish -- are a big topic of controversy and research. Scientists have been studying this group of chemicals for at least 20 years and have found that they may be linked to birth defects in humans (they're definitely toxic to animals). Unfortunately, phthalates often get hidden under "fragrance," so it's hard for the consumer to know if the nail polish contains it or not. The best tactic: Use less nail polish -- perhaps just paint your toes and skip the nails.

Use Hair Dyes Less Often

Salons are not required to list the ingredients in their hair dye, Markey says, but we know that many contain coal tar ingredients -- chemicals that have been linked to cancer. Black hair dyes for men have also been found to contain lead (called lead acetate), which has been restricted in both Canada and the European Union. Avoiding hair dye altogether is a tough pill to swallow -- but try to go as long as possible between uses.

Avoid Skin Lighteners

"You want to avoid anything that changes your skin composition," Markey says. Watch out for products that have hydroquinone -- a chemical that bleaches the skin and can cause lesions. The FDA has issued warnings about it and recommended that it no longer be generally recognized as safe and effective.

Choose Shampoo Carefully

Be especially wary of dandruff shampoos, because they often contain selenium sulfide -- a neurotoxin and possible carcinogen. If you can, avoid shampoos that list ethanolamine or diethanolamine -- called TEA or DEA on the label. These are nitrosamines, says Markey, which are thought to be carcinogenic (though it's not clear in what amounts). The FDA has also been monitoring the contaminant 1,4-dioxane, which on a label could be called "PEG," "Polyethylene," "Polyethylene glycol," "Polyoxyethylene," "-eth-," or "-oxynol-."

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Once you start digging into the ingredients of many of your favorite beauty products, it's easy to become disheartened. After all, who doesn't like to look nice, smell nice and have smooth skin and pretty nails? But try to look for ways to cut down the amount of products you're using: Drop a step from your skincare routine, give your hair days off from washing, use fragrance free whenever possible and always look for products with less ingredients.