Don't be so sure about personal care products

By Marina Schauffler | May 27, 2017

“Raise your hand if you’re SURE!” a deodorant ad once proclaimed, playing to widespread insecurities about appearance and body odor. The promise of radiant confidence and magnetic appeal is what sells personal care products, generating U.S. manufacturers upwards of $60 billion a year.

Look past the advertising ditties, as director Jon Whelan does in his unsettling documentary “Stink!", and you may feel markedly less sure.

Each day, the typical American woman slathers on a dozen lotions, creams, gels and cosmetics — exposing her body to an estimated 168 unique chemical ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group. Men tend to use about half as many products with roughly half as many ingredients.


What you can do

— Acknowledge Sen. Susan Collins’ leadership in sponsoring the Personal Care Products Safety Act and urge Maine’s congressional delegates to support even stronger provisions.

— Pare back on unnecessary personal care products and avoid those with fragrance.

— Look up ingredients using the Skin Deep database and review the Campaign for Safe Cosmetic’s list of chemicals of concern (also check out Canada’s “Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist“).

— Learn more about toxic exposure by watching “Stink!” at

People assume these products are subject to governmental scrutiny, but what we routinely pour into our pores undergoes no systematic safety assessment. The personal care product industry is allowed to “self-regulate,” even though scientific research confirms that many of its product ingredients pose health risks.

Here are a couple facts more “clarifying” than any shampoo:

— Manufacturers are legally permitted to keep fragrance ingredients a trade secret, and a single product’s fragrance may contain dozens of chemicals — including those known to harm human health.

— Congress has not updated its cosmetics law since 1938.

Consumers cannot make informed choices when labels don’t reflect all product ingredients. As the law stands now, companies need not reveal what lurks beneath the umbrella term fragrance (or parfum) even if those chemicals are life-threatening.

“What type of proprietary information could be more important than the health of a child?” a distraught mother asks in “Stink!”, after her teenage son experiences anaphylaxis from exposure to the body spray Axe used by his peers at school.

Those who suffer from chemical sensitivities, asthma and allergies may be at highest risk, along with children, but the fragrances used in personal care products should concern everyone. These volatile or semi-volatile organic compounds vaporize readily and can persist in the air, provoking wheezing, migraines, seizures and longer-term concerns like cancer, reproductive disorders and learning disabilities.

Recognizing the threats posed by toxic chemicals, Congress recently updated the Toxic Substances Control Act (first written four decades ago) to impose stronger standards on chemicals used in consumer products. Yet another outdated law still permits the personal care products industry to function without careful oversight by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The European Union and Canada have banned upward of 1,300 chemical ingredients in personal care products due to evidence of health hazards, but with its limited powers the FDA has banned only 11 to date.

Sen. Susan Collins and Dianne Feinstein are working to tame the Wild West of unregulated cosmetics with the bipartisan Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would finally give the FDA power to complete thorough safety reviews and ban chemicals that fail to meet a strict standard for human health. Both senators deserve credit for leading this effort, which could be passed into law later this year.

Under the proposed act, the FDA would require manufacturers to register their facilities and products and to maintain safety records. Companies would need to report problematic health effects to the FDA, and the agency could “recall a cosmetic that is likely to cause serious adverse health consequences,” according to the bill summary.

Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, is heartened by the “real prospect for federal reform of cosmetics safety in the near future” and believes this bill will provide significant improvements.

There are still a few provisions, though, that he and other consumer advocates hope to see addressed. The bill as written does not require full disclosure of chemicals on product labels — including all those masquerading as fragrance.

And the proposed act calls for the FDA to review “at least five cosmetic ingredients” each year. At that pace, the agency might compile a list as protective as the ones the European Union and Canada have right now — in 250 years!

Why not rely on their scientific research and start by restricting the 1,300-plus chemicals already known to be hazardous? Presumably, having consistent standards across international borders would be helpful for manufacturers as well as safer for consumers.

Now is a good time for concerned citizens to “raise their hands” and speak out for the safety they deserve in personal care products. Only major regulatory reform will provide us with true assurance.

Marina Schauffler is a writer in the Midcoast whose work is online at

If you appreciated reading this news story and want to support local journalism, consider subscribing today.
Call (207) 594-4401 or join online at
Donate directly to keeping quality journalism alive at
Comments (4)
Posted by: Maggie Trout | May 29, 2017 17:46

Toxic dryer sheets and scented laundry products - air fresheners.  This is from a 1995 release printed , (not conducted), by the Ontario, Canada, equivalent of the EPA - please excuse the formatting:

There are many potentially dangerous products used in the home. To list the chemicals in each of them and the health risks for each of these would produce a truly huge volume. We have chosen fabric softener as the prime illustrative example for a number of reasons.

It is the most toxic product produced for daily household use. It has been found to be associated with numerous illnesses and chronic conditions. 


            1. It is widely advertised, widely used.
            2. The effects of its toxicity are insidious; a user becomes "chronically maladapted" to it. The exposure is so constant that it can be difficult to connect the product with the signs of reactivity it causes. Neurostimulant/irritants and central nervous system toxins used in these products are known to produce an addictive-type response that may cause the user to experience a feeling of pleasure when the product is directly inhaled. Regular users of fabric softeners (and perfumes) also often claim they "can hardly smell it". This too is an effect of chemical ingredients on neural receptors.
            3. The product is designed to impregnate fibres and slowly re-release for an extended period of time. That re-releasing affects the health not only of users, but those around them.
The following information contains a partial list of the chemical ingredients of fabric softeners and the potential effects of exposure to them as quoted from manufacturers' Material Safety Data Sheets. For the purposes of this document, Central Nervous System has been abbreviated to CNS. CNS toxin exposure symptoms include: dizziness, disorientation, nausea, headaches, mood swings, numbness in face or extremities, pain in neck or spine, memory loss, aphasia (difficulty speaking), confusion, irritability. CNS disorders include: Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Dementia, Seizures, Multiple Sclerosis, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Hyperactivity, Strokes, Attention Deficit Disorder, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Risks of Perfumes and Scented Products
The chemicals listed on the following page (along with Methylenechloride, Ethanol, Formaldehyde, and other petrochemicals and neurotoxins) are among the 4,000 chemical ingredients used in the manufacture of perfumes and scents. The Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) collected samples of every perfume sold in North America in 1993. Every sample contained Toluene (a proven carcinogen and neurotoxin designated as Hazardous Waste worldwide). Many also contain chemicals to mimic the pheronones (sex hormones) of insects, musk ox, apes, and pigs. (Sounds romantic, doesn't it) The health risks of these products are so varied and extreme it almost defies comprehension.

Chemical Ingredients in Fabric Softeners/Dryer Sheets:
Alpha-Terpineol: "Causes CNS disorders. Highly irritating to mucous membranes. Aspiration into lungs can produce pneumonitis or fatal edema. Lesser exposures can cause decreased circulation, headache, depression of CNS and/or respiratory function, ataxia (loss of muscle coordination), behavioral changes. Prevent repeated or prolonged skin contact."
Benzyl Acetate: "Carcinogenic. Vapors irritating to eyes and respiratory passages, exciting cough. In mice, pancreatic cancer, hyperanemia of the lungs. Can be absorbed through skin causing systemic effects. Do not flush to sewer system."
Benzyl Alcohol: "Associated with CNS disorders. Irritating to upper respiratory tract. Can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sudden drop in blood pressure, CNS depression, death due to respiratory failure."
Camphor: On E.P.A.'s Hazardous Waste list. "Avoid contact with eyes, skin, clothing. Do not breathe vapours. Inhalation can be fatal. Properties: anesthetic, neurotoxic, carcinogenic. Chronic effects of exposure may include liver and/or kidney damage. Medical conditions aggravated by exposure. Kidney disorders, liver disorders, heart disorders, skin disorders, allergic or respiratory conditions. May cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, irritation of respiratory tract, loss of consciousness. Conditions to avoid: heat".
Ethyl Acetate: On EPA.'s Hazardous Waste list. "Narcotic, may cause headache, narcosis, stupour. Irritating to eyes and respiratory tract. May cause anemia with leukocytosis and damage to liver and kidneys. Wash thoroughly after handling."
Limonene: "Prevent contact with skin or eyes. Properties: irritant, sensitizer, carcinogenic. Always wash thoroughly after using, especially before eating, drinking, applying cosmetics. Do not inhale."
Linalool: "Narcotic. Associated with CNS disorders and respiratory disturbances. Attracts bees. In animal testing: ataxic gait, reduced spontaneous motor activity and depression, depressed heart activity, development of respiratory disturbances leading to death."
Pentane: "Danger: Harmful if inhaled. Inhalation of vapor may cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, irritation of respiratory tract and loss of consciousness. Contact can cause eye or skin irritation."

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | May 29, 2017 16:16

I am so happy to read this article. To educate the public about a possible personal product health hazard is truly enlightening. I would never have thought that chemicals in my deodorant might be harmful. I too thank you for writing this!

Posted by: Maggie Trout | May 29, 2017 13:19

"As weeds become tougher to control, Monsanto continues to introduce effective products that provide growers convenient pre-mix solutions for improved weed management,” said Craig Rogers, North American selective portfolio lead" for Monsanto.""

All that science and they refuse to conscience the correlation between the, (cosmically profitable), use of chemicals which destroy the natural balance.  Studies are rarely done on low-level chronic use, and exposure.

Posted by: ANANUR FORMA | May 27, 2017 11:28

thank you for writing this!!!

If you wish to comment, please login.
Note: If you signed up using our new subscriber portal, your username is the email address you registered with and your password is in all caps