Tips for Evaluating Product Safety & Reading Ingredient Labels

Reading ingredient labels is an essential part of switching to non-toxic products. You have to be careful to not make assumptions that a product is safe based on its label claims, like “all natural” or “dermatologist recommended”. That does not necessarily guarantee a product is safe. Here are a few tips that I found to be helpful in making decisions about products:

  • Scan the bottle first. What you’re looking for:
    • Are there any certifications on the product? USDA, leaping bunny, Oregon Tilth, etc… (I’ll do a blog post on these at some point)
    • Does it tout “all natural” or something to that effect and have no apparent evidence that support this claim?
    • Face-wash specific: does it say “oil-free” – that is a bad sign
  • Scan the ingredient list. What you’re looking for:
    • How long is the ingredient list? Are ALL the active AND inactive ingredients disclosed, if applicable?
    • What are the first five ingredients?
    • Are ingredients labeled organic?
    • Do you recognize the ingredient names as plants or fruits?
  • Learn the basic toxic chemicals to avoid and what is normal to expect in different products (like a lotion is usually a mix of water and a bunch of oils; shampoo will have some kind of foaming agent or soap in it)

I have discovered, after years of looking at different ingredient lists, that there are patterns to the words that are usually the toxic ingredients. There are similarities that you can use in your initial assessment to determine if an ingredient is worth a second look. These are some of the things that catch my eye when I scan a list of ingredients:

  • Words or parts of words: e.g., Butyl, propyl, methyl, lauryl, -ic, –ene, -ate, carbomer, petrolatum, paraffin
  • Numbers:  e.g., 1,4- or -120
  • Capitalized abbreviations: e.g., PEG, EDTA
  • Numerical prefixes or parts: e.g., penta, poly, deca, abbreviations (like EDTA),
  • Artificial dyes: (colors with numbers or the word “lake”) e.g., red 40
  • Fragrance or parfum (unless from essential oils or botanicals)

This image below nicely lays out how to identify petrochemicals in your products. I got this from a Canadian company called Cocoon Apothecary.  

Remember that this is a constant process, and even I continually agonize over comparing products, determining safety of ingredients, and sometimes fail to catch that one little deal-breaking chemical in the long ingredient list of a product. My bottom line recommendation is just be patient, take a few minutes to look carefully at products, and don’t be too disheartened if you think a product is safe and then find out it probably isn’t.

Other resources:

Toxic Chemicals and the Legacy of Rachel Carson (Part 1)

…the central problem of our age has therefore become to contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm – substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.       ∼ Silent Spring, p. 18

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson wrote these words in 1962. Silent Spring is one of the most significant publications in environmental writings, because it was the first time anyone had chronicled the human health and environmental horrors of pesticides and toxic chemicals. She was a marine biologist who dedicated her life to writing about scientific research, bridging the wide gap between social sciences and life sciences. She had the unique ability to translate facts and data into compelling and influential stories. Her ability to bring environmental issues into public conscience made her a pioneer in the field of ecology and many credit her as the spark that ignited the 1960s environmental movement.

Carson was instrumental in the banning of DDT, a toxic pesticide that is the focus of Silent Spring; this marked the beginning of a long struggle against the pollution of our environment from man-made substances.

Furthermore, we should remember that Carson was working during the 1950s and 1960s. She died in 1964 from breast cancer, which she chose to keep secret because she felt it would discredit her as a scientist. Most likely, this is true. As a female scientist, she had to work even harder to prove her worth to her colleagues and to a male-dominated Congress that she would address in 1963. Thus, she is rightfully known as one of the great women in history that made waves.

Although written over half a century ago (yeah, it sounds crazy when you frame it that way), it is frightening how relevant Silent Spring remains today. At the time of publication, chemical manufacturers were well underway in their total pollution of our ecosystems.

So, how did this start? In the early 1900s, chemists began experimenting with synthetic plastics and nylons derived from petroleum. These plastics were used in abundance in military equipment during WWII as a cheap, durable, and versatile alternative to natural materials. After the war ended, the petrochemical industry turned to the consumer market to maintain profits. DuPont’s motto of “better living through chemistry” became a motto for the 1940s and 1950s as pesticides, plastics, chemical beauty products, and miracle cleaning products became all the rage. With basically zero testing before introduction to consumer markets, no one really stopped to think about how all these new chemicals would impact humans, animals, and our environment.

Most of the damage done by environmental toxins is long lasting and slow to appear. Unlike the choking smog of London during the industrial revolution, much of our pollution creeps into our soil, our water, our very DNA, and stealthily tweaks essential biological functions for generations. It has taken massive and obvious tragedies, deaths, disfigurements, and communities ripped apart for us to take any action.

One of the most famous cases, which helped instigated the formation of the EPA’s Superfund program, took place in a small town called Love Canal. The short story is that a chemical company dumped toxic waste, covered it with dirt, sold it to the town, and disaster struck after a large rainstorm in the form of chemical burns, birth defects, mental retardation, and cancer.

This is the history upon which our fight against toxic chemicals stands. While there may be irreparable damage from persistent substances in our environment, we must remember that not all threats to our existence are transparent and immediately obvious; they are however, still urgent.

In part two of this post series, I will discuss the formation of toxic chemical regulations and current policy in regard to the oversight of the personal care industry.