6 Ways to Lower Exposure to Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Products

Many of the most popular products that we use every day on our bodies – including soaps, lotions, deodorants, hair products and cosmetics – contain dangerous chemicals that have been linked to birth defects, developmental disorders, obesity, asthma, infertility and even cancer.

Personal care products are under regulated, experts say.

Even low doses of these chemicals can add up over time, Dr. Shruthi Mahalingaiah, an assistant professor of environmental, reproductive, and women’s health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The New York Times 

So how is the average consumer supposed to shop smart and use products safely?

Experts told the New York Times that consumers should do their best to choose products that don’t increase overall exposure to toxins. This is important when the body is undergoing crucial cellular and hormonal changes, like during pregnancy, early childhood and puberty.

Researchers say making the shift to safer personal care products is like deciding to eat healthier food: You can take stock of what you put on, or in, your body and update your shopping cart with better options whenever you purchase new items. Here’s where to start:

  1. Understand what chemicals are worrisome
  2. Consider how you are using your products
  3. Consult a database, such as the EWG Skin Deep database
  4. Look for third-party certifications
  5. Ask for more transparency and stronger policies
  6. Understand which chemicals are concerning by consulting a database and doing research

“It is easy to demonize a product or one source of exposure, but the goal is really to reduce your overall body burden,” Mahalingaiah said.

Instead of trying to eliminate a chemical from your life completely, count how many products with dubious ingredients are in your routine and start cutting out items. You can repeat the process every month or so to continue reducing your exposure as much as possible.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees personal care products in the United States, has banned about a dozen ingredients for safety reasons. Canada, Japan and European Union countries have hundreds more chemicals that they have banned.

“It has to be emphasized that consumers are put in this difficult position because this huge industry is severely under-regulated,” said Ami Zota, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Chemicals must meet a high bar for causing harm to humans before they are regulated in the United States. Several states, such as California and Maryland, have enacted laws that will take effect in January 2025, banning additional chemicals based on the growing observational evidence against them.

For concerned consumers, “One approach is to reduce the things that you’re putting directly on your skin and that stay there for long periods of time,” Zota said.

So, you could more closely scrutinize the ingredients in a lipstick or a moisturizer than those in a product that goes on your hair or that you rinse off immediately, she said.

Also, consumers could cut back on harsh products they’ve used for years or decades. For example, several products with harsh chemicals are targeted at women of color in particular, Zota said.

Her studies and others have shown that women of color have higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals in their bodies and a higher risk of developing cancer and reproductive health issues compared with white women.

Surveys show that many Black women begin using chemical hair straighteners before age 10. And skin-lightening products are particularly popular among women of African, Indian, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian descent.

“Often the answer is not black or white,” said Amit Rosner, chief executive and co-founder of Clearya. “It’s somewhere in between, and different people can make different decisions around what they perceive as their personal risk.”

Some third-party certifications and seals of approval are intended to help consumers narrow down better alternatives amid aisles full of competing products. For example, “USDA Organic” can denote products made with organic ingredients, while “COSMOS Natural” products are audited not only based on ingredients but also their manufacturing processes and eco-friendly packaging, according to The New York Times.

All of these labels are a little different from each other, said Gloria Lu, a chemist who consults for cosmetics companies and is a co-founder of the skin care science blog Chemist Confessions. “The definition of what is ‘clean’ is evolving rapidly,” Lu said. “Each retailer or certifying organization may have their own definition of what clean means.”

Some experts say supporting companies that are more transparent about fragrance mixtures and choosing “cleaner” ingredients over traditional ones will help bring about wider change. Consumers can also report bad reactions to products by contacting manufacturers, calling an FDA consumer complaint coordinator, or filling out an FDA Voluntary MedWatch form.

But many experts say that strengthening FDA oversight is the only way to ensure the safety of products before we come into intimate contact with them. Some large personal care companies, like Beautycounter, the Estee Lauder Companies, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, and Unilever, have supported recent bills calling for more regulation.

How We Help Victims of Toxic Exposure

The attorneys of our birth defects victims’ alliance understand the pain that families face when coping with life-altering birth defects—and the frustration of knowing they could have been prevented. Our team has over 40 years of combined experience in birth defects litigation in cases involving semiconductor and electronics manufacturing, pesticides, and energy production. We have the resources and experience to fight on behalf of our clients against corporations that put them in danger. Call us to see how we can help you and your family receive justice for birth defects.