How to be careful about personal care:
Simplify your skin care. Streamline the number of personal-care products you apply regularly and dont overuse them. Choose lotions and washes with fewer ingredients and synthetic chemicals, suggests Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group. Simpler is usually safer, she said.
Avoid the worst offenders. There are certain product types that are much more toxic than others, said Stacy Malkan, author of a book on cosmetics potentially harmful ingredients. She cites dark permanent hair dyes, which can contain coal tar, a possible carcinogen according to the National Toxicology Program; hair straighteners that may contain formaldehyde, which has also been linked to cancer; nail products such as acrylics (although, thanks to recent consumer efforts, its now easier to find phthalate-free polish); and skin-lightening creams that typically contain hydroquinone, which the FDA has labeled a possible carcinogen and which has been barred from use in many countries.
Forgo fragrance. While cosmetics companies must label their products, theres a loophole for synthetic fragrances, a catchall term for ingredients used to scent perfume, lotions or anything else. These substances are treated as trade secrets that do not have to be disclosed. So fragrance can be concoction of five or 500 components. We really just dont know, said Sattler, who adds that fragrances can contain phthalates and other chemicals that can cause allergies and irritation.
Read labels. Sometimes it feels as though you need a chemistry degree to understand even the simplest ingredient list. Nonetheless, its still worthwhile to check labels for potentially problematic ingredients such as methyl paraben, propyl paraben and butyl paraben, triclosan and ureas, Houlihan said.
It can also be useful to look for products that have been certified organic by a third party such as the Department of Agriculture, she said. The EWG has compiled Skin Deep, a free database that analyzes the ingredients in more than 70,000 personal-care products and provides easy-to-use safety ratings. To search the database, go to www.ewg.org/skindeep.