Confused about what’s ‘clean’ or not for cosmetics, personal care and baby products? There is a reason why

The cosmetics and personal care industry is largely unregulated, which is concerning because research shows that as much as 60-70% of what you put onto your skin gets absorbed. Plus, we are all on average using several personal care/cosmetic products per day. We look at the industry dynamics and why you should take matters in to your own hands when it comes to choosing products. We look at what to watch for (marketing here is very strong!) and common ways we can get caught out. Finally we focus on easy ways for you to choose safe ingredients for you and your family. Especially important if you’re trying to get pregnant, are pregnant or are a small and rapidly growing person.

I don't know about you, but I find knowing what is ‘ok’ and what is ‘not ok’ when buying personal care/cosmetic items for myself and for my son almost impossible. You pretty much need to either be Agatha Christie or have a PhD to wade through this marketing minefield.

Seems I’m not the only one confused.

Turns out there’s a reason why….

The beauty and personal care industry is frighteningly unregulated and companies often take real advantage of this when it comes to their marketing claims.

Here are some of the key things (backed by fact and science based studies - click the links for each study) that are really worth knowing:

If its made and sold by reputable corporations it must be ‘safe’? Right? Nope! The lack of regulation is particularly bad in the US where the FDA has no authority to require companies to test their products for safety. Ex some cosmetic colour additives or ingredients that are classified as ‘OTC drugs’ there is no review or approval required before sale. In fact, the beauty and cosmetic industry is one of the least regulated out there. This is despite the fact that 60-70% of what we put on our skin is absorbed in to our bodies!

Watch out for the marketing spiel: we all care about our kids and want the best for them. The corporations know this and it's why they use terms like ‘natural’ and ‘hypoallergenic’ to induce us to buy their products. Frankly these terms mean almost nothing - they are marketing speak to get us to trust their products and if anything they lull people in to a false sense of security. Not to mention adding to consumer confusion.

In fact the term ‘natural’ has its own set of issues and is almost certainly something to avoid. It really means very little (more to follow on this). ‘Free from’ labels also tend to make the consumer trust a product without realising that there may be other concerning substitutions in there. Once again, these terms are not policed and are totally open to interpretation. So ignore them. Even ‘organic’ labels on baby products don't mean that the product is entirely organic - it may be that a few ingredients within are, but, it doesn't mean there aren’t other things in there that you may not want.

Very few ingredients are carefully policed: Europe is actually much better than the US when it comes to this. The EU has banned around 1000 vs the US banning (ex colour additives) 11 ingredients or chemical groups. Outside of these, a company can pretty much use any ingredient or raw material it wants without review or approval.

In fact: the industry is mostly left to police itself: in the US the FDA has no authority to recall harmful cosmetics and manufacturers are not required to report cosmetic related injury to the FDA. The companies report it voluntarily. There is a Cosmetic Review Panel which in the past 30 years has spoken out against just 11 ingredients (after reviewing nearly 4000...hmmm...). Even then its recommendations are not binding.

I also know from my many years in Investment Banking that there are lots of specialist ‘ingredients’ companies whose job it is to continue to churn out lots of weird and wonderful specialist ingredients to make our products newer/better/more exciting. The companies are under constant pressure to ‘innovate’ and compete and I have seen it first hand.

Further, often when it comes to assessing safety, the focus is on skin/eye irritation rather than a potential contribution to more chronic long term conditions like hormone disruption for example.

Not all ingredients are listed: certain ingredients can be left out if they are deemed ‘trade secrets’.

Even small amounts can make a difference: often I hear that these products contain such small amounts an ingredient that by definition it must be ok. Wrong. The skin is our largest organ and absorbs 60-70% of what is put on it. In fact a 2004 study done by the CDC found that 97% of the participants had been exposed to Phthalates (a very common endocrine disruptor) found in skincare products - more on this below. Further, some products have enhancers to allow deeper penetration in to the skin. Studies have shown that even your nails absorb what is put on them. For example TPP (a substance used in nail polish) was shown to be at levels 7x higher in a person who had application 10-14 hrs previous.

Think about how much you use personal care items: even if there are only small amounts in each product, take a moment and think about how many and how often you use a personal care or cosmetic item. Deodorant, toothpaste, moisturiser, shampoo are just the very basics. In fact, a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that the average person uses 9 different personal care items a day, with 25% of women using as many as 15 and some several times a day. That really adds up.

One paper looked at urinary concentrations of Phthalate and Parabens and found that those who used perfume based products had nearly 3x the concentration of MEP in the urine than other women.

So in short - it does matter.

Small people are especially vulnerable: One study in rats showed very clearly that the greatest impact that one common Phthalate (DEP: found in personal care products) was on a developing person ie. pre-puberty. This was clearly demonstrated even at low doses.


So what are some of the things you need to watch out for ingredients wise? What can be impacted and why?

So this can seem like a minefield and to be honest it is a bit!

However, dont despair! Here are some of the basics to know about:

Broadly speaking the things as a parent (or parent to be) you want to watch for are:

  • Potential hormone disruptors (known as Endocrine Disruptors or EDCs) like certain Phthalates.

  • Antimicrobial agents or preservatives that can potentially disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria in your skin/gut etc (often found in certain preservatives ie. Parabens).

Digging in a bit further: where can you find these? Below takes you through a bit more detail of what/where and how - if you want a quick cheat sheet click here for the ‘loo break’ version.


Phthalates: known endocrine disruptors: common in products with added fragrance: Fragrance or ‘parfum’ as you may see on a label, can ‘stand for up to several hundred fragrance ingredients which are not disclosed to the consumer and often not even to the downstream users in the supply chain.’

The trouble with added fragrance, is that they are often derived from Phthalates some of which have been shown to have hormone disrupting capabilities and are are classified as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals or EDCs. Click here for much more - specifically how this can impact your chances of conception and impact a developing baby.

Here is an extract from the report by the CDC on Phthalate exposure: ‘Research has found that adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for those phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.’

Translation: using personal care products (which women tend to use more of than men), particularly those with Phthalates, does show up in your body.

Not all Phthalates are created equally however. Two are worth keeping an eye out for on the ingredients list:

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) which has been associated with developmental delays, hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention in children. ‘Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and can disturb the thyroid and sex hormone homeostasis, both critical for pre- and early postnatal brain development.’

They are now used less, but, can found in nail polish/fragrances/hair sprays and as a solvent for dyes.

Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is another to watch for. An aromatic compound, often added as a stabilizer in personal care products and flexible plastics. DEP has been found to exhibit anti-androgenic activity. Exposure has been associated with increased breast cancer risk and increased body size in children . Further studies have reported associations between exposure to DEP and early puberty, neurobehavioral issues in school-age boys, and genital variations in infant boys.

As Kessler writes in an article for the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, these types of findings are concerning because most safety testing of cosmetics focuses on the potential for skin irritation, not higher-stakes outcomes such as cancers and reproductive problems.

Then of course a key reason not to use added fragrance with little ones: ‘Importantly, our data suggest that low-dose exposure to DEP in the prepubertal stage may lead to depletion of inorganic sulfate. We found that in prepubertal rats exposure not only changed the levels of sulfonated phenols but also sulfate itself.’. Sulfate is very important within the body for many processes but includes aiding the body’s own detox mechanism.

Avoid very harsh antimicrobial agents:

Triclosan: (TCS): This is an antimicrobial agent that is added to things like hand sanitisers, toothpaste and mouthwash. The trouble is over killing the bacteria on our skin and in our bodies is increasingly being linked to long term problems and particularly crucial for a person’s early days. Click here for more.

The good news is that it is banned in Europe and now banned from use in soap in the US, BUT, it is still in high concentration in other personal care products like toothpaste as well as mouthwash and various hand sanitisers and surgical soaps. TCS was detected in 75% of the population between 03-04 which just goes to show how easily absorbed and retained it is in the body. It was also found in a measurable level in the milk and blood of nursing mothers.

How does it cause problems? Research suggests a whole host of effects (lots of geeky detail in the study here). From altering the microbiome click here for a reminder the damage that can do which could explain why it has been linked to greater risk of allergies, intolerances and asthma developing in children click here for more on that. It has also been cited as an endocrine disruptor showing lower sperm count/progesterone/estradiol and testosterone levels in animal studies but also lower Thyroxine (T4) levels in human studies. In humans there has been research associating lower T4 in the mother to cognitive impairment in the child. The good news is that it is now less prevalent, but be on the lookout. Another reason to avoid overuse of products like hand sanitisers and very harsh antibacterial products. Avoid.

Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP): this is found in flame retardants but is is a plasticiser commonly used in nail polish (helps harden the polish I guess!). One study looking specifically at its use in cosmetics found that of ten nail polish brands, eight had detectable levels found within (despite three not even listing it as an ingredient - once again just goes to show how little the industry is policed).

How does it get in through your nails?! Believe it or not it does. The study looked at levels in urine post application and found that the levels in urine rose 7x 10-14 hours following!!!

How does it cause problems? There isn't a huge amount of data - however: emerging toxicological literature indicates that exposure is associated with endocrine impacts, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and genotoxicity. Short-term (21 day) exposure to TPHP in Zebrafish, for example, has been associated with altered sex hormone balance and disruptions of reproductive performance. Additionally….data in humans also suggest that TPHP alters endocrine function and impacts reproduction; altered thyroid hormone levels and decreased semen quality were both observed with increasing TPHP exposure. Click here to read the full study.

Watch out for your baby wipes: preservatives:

Ingredients you want to avoid are Bronopol: which is an antimicrobial agent commonly used as a preservative in many types of cosmetics, personal care products, and topical medications. A material data sheet published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes bronopos in the Toxicity Category I for eye irritation and Toxicity Category II for skin irritation, which indicate very high toxicity. The data sheet has also cited various animal studies linking bronopos to many risk factors and skin irritation.

DMDM Hydratonin: the problem with this preservative is due to its toxic formaldehyde component. It works (as a preservative) by ‘releasing’ formaldehyde, killing bacteria - thus increasing the shelf-life of cosmetics (e.g. shampoos, skincare products, hair gels, etc). Not really what you want on your body.

Despite this the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel have deemed it safe because the percentage is small. Would you want that on your baby’s skin multiple times a day?!

Methylparaben (MPB or methylparahydroxybenzoate) is often used as a preservative in personal care products, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and in the processing of foods and beverages. Parabens have been found to have estrogenic activity.


Feeling deflated? Yes - I did too….however, awareness is 90% of the battle:

It seems very complex to avoid nasties in cosmetics. Confusing to say the least. So what do you do? Well, over the coming weeks I will share the products I have found to be most trustworthy. In the meantime, some common sense applies:

  • It’s the same for food: the fewer ingredients the better - for example I love Water Wipes for my son. Just two ingredients. Brilliant.

  • Avoid added fragrance at every opportunity you can.

  • One ingredient alternatives: throughout my pregnancy and even now for my son I use organic coconut oil as a skin moisturiser.

  • Avoid marketing spiel like ‘natural’ - the top listed ingredients on a packet are the ones that are in the highest concentration and make sure to avoid the nasties above.

Not all products are bad so do not be disheartened - you just need to go looking for the good stuff. Honestly, awareness is 90% of the battle.

Click here for a quick ‘loo break/cheat sheet’ on what to avoid and look out for.

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This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.