If you’re just getting started on your journey to reduce toxins in your home, it can feel overwhelming because there are so many things you can do. Looking at your body care products (like soap, shampoo, make-up, skincare, deodorant, sunscreen, etc.) is often one of the first – but also one of the most frustrating – changes people tend to make. Let’s help you understand how to make these changes so your efforts are actually going to give you the results you want.
You can also listen to an expanded version of this post on The Missing Pillar of Health Podcast:
Do Ingredients in Body Care Products Matter?
Taking a look at the products you put on your skin is actually the first step in my courses and programs for a few reasons.
- The products you use regularly are replaced regularly too, so it’s easy to swap out when you’ve run out of what you’re using without feeling like you’re wasting something.
- Ingredients have to be included on the label, so it’s a great place to start practicing label-reading as a skill that I think is so important for every product in your home.
- What we put on our skin affects our toxic load so switching to healthier products is a great gateway to bigger changes down the road.
Now, I’m not going to quote some of those social posts that go around, saying things like “everything you put on your skin gets in your blood stream in 20 seconds” because there’s no credible science behind that.
However, while our skin can act as a barrier and protect us from some things, certain ingredients do penetrate the skin, and end up in our bodies.
One study done in California with 100 teenaged girls found that by switching cosmetics to those free of parabens, phthalates, and other hormone disruptors, the concentration of these chemicals in their urine dropped by 30 – 40% in just 3 days.
Hormone disruptors act in our bodies at much lower concentrations than other toxics and they are linked with such a wide range of health issues – from infertility to obesity to children’s development to autoimmune disease and more.
The other main concerns with skincare ingredients are allergens and irritants. Some ingredients cause a reaction in certain people immediately, others can build up a sensitivity over time. This makes it harder to identify the problem if you don’t know what to look for because the same product may be fine for a while but then all of a sudden trigger a reaction. Methylisothiazolinone is a common preservative that can have this effect and was actually listed as allergen of the year in 2013 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
Another unintended consequence of some ingredients is that they can increase absorption of other ingredients. So some ingredients in isolation may not be a serious concern, but in combination with others may pose increased risk. PEGs and propylene glycol may have this property and are common in many skincare and baby products.
Carcinogens may also be found in skincare products. These are commonly in very low amounts as potential contamination from the manufacturing process of chemicals like coal tar dyes and petrolatum. Some ingredients can react with others in the environment to release small amounts of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Examples of these include DMDM Hydantoin and Quaternium-15.
There are thousands of different ingredients used in skincare products. It would be impossible and impractical to understand what all of them are and what their risk profiles are. The good news is, you don’t have to do that.
If you’re starting from scratch, it can quickly feel overwhelming to know what you should switch and what products will work.
If this is you, I suggest starting with 3 – 5 products you use every day and that sit on your skin – like lotion, deodorant, make-up, sunscreen, etc. Those are going to have higher exposure risks than products you use once and a while or that rinse off, like shampoo.
How to Avoid Greenwashing
Learning how to read labels might not be your favourite task, but it’s such an important skill that will serve you well throughout your whole healthy home journey. As I mentioned earlier, the benefit of starting with skincare products is that ingredients have to be listed on the label so you can start seeing patterns between what’s on the front of the label and what’s actually in the product.
Which brings me to my first tip. And that is to avoid getting sucked in by the claims made on the front of the label. Terms like “non-toxic”, “natural”, and even “organic” in certain cases aren’t regulated and could mean everything from fully non-toxic to containing a plant-based ingredient or two along with a bunch of conventional ingredients.
Another marketing trick is to put what isn’t in the product in a big list – like phthalate, fragrance, paraben, etc. free. This often ends of being a distraction. What’s in a product is more important that what isn’t in a product.
You might be surprised to learn that there’s a difference between fragrance-free and unscented. Unscented can mean that fragrance ingredients have been added to mask the smell of other ingredients. Fragrance-free means that fragrance or masking ingredients have not been added. I wrote a separate blog post with more details on synthetic fragrance and why it’s a concern – you can read it here.
OK, now that you know a few of the marketing tricks to watch out for, it’s time to learn how to read the back of the label. Yes, the detailed ingredient list. And for this, apps like Think Dirty & Skin Deep can help.
Think Dirty & Skin Deep Label-Reading Apps
One of the simplest ways to check how healthy a product is, is to use a label reading app like Think Dirty or EWG’s Skin Deep. They allow you to search products and see how they rank on a scale of 0 being non-toxic to 10 being the least healthy.
These can be incredibly helpful tools, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are tools – not your whole toolbox.
Some key things to keep in mind as you use these apps:
- They don’t contain all products, so you may have to go ingredient-by-ingredient anyways. You can search by ingredient in Skin Deep online.
- I always recommend drilling down into the ingredient scores in the apps, instead of just relying on the overall product score. Some ingredients like allergens don’t show up as a concern, but if you’re struggling with skin issues or allergies you’re going to want to pay more attention to these. On the flip side, some skin irritants are rated very poorly – but if this isn’t a big concern for you, it might not be something you want to focus on if there are other more important ingredients to avoid in other products.
- Product formulations change over time as well, so compare what’s listed in the app with what’s on the product package or website to make sure you’re seeing an accurate rating.
The reality is, products will always be changing and depending on where you live and shop, you may have access to different options. This is why understanding labels and being able to confidently decipher their claims is such an important skill.
It will take time in the beginning. But once you’ve built the habit, it will be one that will serve you well for a long time to come. I hope this gives you some inspiration and confidence to start looking at your products a little differently.
I put together a free training with more details on reading labels, plus a video tutorial on how to use Think Dirty (it’s my preferred app). This training also includes lists of body care and cleaning product brands that are commonly thought to be green, and I tell you if they actually are or if they’re just greenwashed. You can grab that here.