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Is Your Shampoo Making You Sick?

You may be mistakenly comforted by the perceived oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over chemicals used in the manufacture of everyday products. For instance, the FDA prohibits the use of mercurychloroform and nine other substances in your personal care products. However, once you know the European Union (EU) prohibits the use of more than 1,300 chemicals in their personal care products, you may not feel as protected — and you would be right.

The number of chemicals restricted by the FDA is even more ridiculous when you consider there are over 84,000 different chemicals in use in your personal care products and only 1 percent of those have been evaluated for safety in humans.1

The difference between chemical use in the EU and the U.S. is that in the EU manufacturers must prove chemicals are not a health hazard before they are allowed in products, whereas in the U.S. they can be added without mandatory safety testing and only removed after enough people have suffered to get the attention of watch groups or the FDA.

Women are at greater risk than men from exposure as they routinely use nearly double the number of products per day. Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, products do not require FDA approval before being sold on the market.2 According to the FDA, the agency monitors safety reports on the products, although often the available information is limited and many consumers never report problems they experience.

If there is enough information to support a claim that the product causes harm, the FDA may ask for a court injunction, request the products are seized, initiate criminal action or request the company recall the product. However, they do not have the ability to force a recall.3 The very last thing you may expect to find in your shampoos, conditioners, facial washes or cosmetics is known carcinogens. But, if you live in the U.S., this is likely the case.

In 2009 the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of nearly 175 nonprofit groups, began pressuring Johnson & Johnson to remove two dangerous chemicals — 1,4 dioxane and the preservative formaldehyde, both of which are probable human carcinogens — from their merchandise, including their baby products.4 Three years later the company finally agreed to phase them out and by 2014 the chemicals were removed from their baby shampoo.5

Chemicals in Personal Care Products May Poison Water Supplies

One of every eight of the more than 84,000 ingredients in personal care products are pesticides, reproductive toxins, hormone disruptors or industrial chemicals.6 Many of these are degreasers, surfactants or plasticizers that are not biodegradable and may not be removed from wastewater prior to being released into the environment. Some of the more hazardous chemical compounds include 1,4-dioxane, parabens, phthalates and toluene.

Once used in your personal care products, whether shampoo, facial wash, lotion or cosmetics, a large percentage is washed away down the drain. 1,4-dioxane is one of those chemicals commonly used in shampoos and soaps that are highly sudsy.7 This chemical is also commonly found in paint stripper, dyes and varnishes. The chemical is not readily biodegradable, so it sticks around in your water supply.

In fact, it was just one year ago that a significant amount was detected in the water supply on Long Island, raising alarms with public health officials.8 But, this isn’t just a problem along the East Coast as the chemical has been detected in drinking water across the U.S., having been found at over 31 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sites9 on their National Priorities List.10 According to the EPA, 1,4-dioxane migrates easily into groundwater and is resistant to biodegradation in water and soil.11

According to the World Health Organization, the problem exists worldwide.12 1,4-dioxane is a potent environmental poison, listed as possibly carcinogenic and having organ toxicity, especially on the respiratory system, liver and kidneys.13 It is also a skin and eye irritant and a common ingredient in shampoos.

As the FDA does not require manufacturers to list all chemicals in their ingredients, it can be difficult to tell if the product you’re using contains this solvent, or any other chemical of concern. You may search your products on the EWG’s Skin Deep database to see what chemicals are used.14

Another chemical commonly found in your personal care products that leaches into groundwater, poisoning your drinking supply, is parabens. These chemicals are widely used in cosmetics and other personal care products to preserve the product and prevent the growth of bacteria, yeast and mold.15 They are also endocrine disruptors as they mimic estrogen in the body and disrupt your own hormonal system.

Parabens easily react with free chlorine resulting in halogenated by-products not easily filtered from your drinking water and more persistent in the environment than the original paraben species.16 Parabens have been found in groundwater in multiple areas around the U.S. as they are commonly used and disposed of in wastewater and garbage.17

1,4 Dioxane May Be Absorbed and Consumed

1,4-Dioxane is a common ingredient in shampoos or body baths that suds well. In 2013 the EPA conducted their own risk assessment and found it was “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”18 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined you may be exposed to the chemical in the air, on your skin or consumed in the water you drink.19 The chemical is readily absorbed through your lungs and gastrointestinal tract but less noticeably through your skin.

At lower doses, such as exposure on your skin or at low concentrations through your gastrointestinal tract, your body readily absorbs the chemical. At higher doses your body excretes the excess through your lungs and kidneys and it is eliminated without accumulating.20 As far back as the 1970s the CDC measured 1,4-dioxane in municipal water supplies at levels of 1 parts per billion (ppb).

In 1988 California placed 1,4-dioxane on their official list of cancer-causing chemicals as they recognized the dangers it posed for their citizens. Every year the EPA does an evaluation of chemicals currently in use, following the mandate of the Toxic Substances Control Act law passed in 1976.

In coming months the EPA will be evaluating 10 toxic chemicals, including 1,4-dioxane.21 However, the agency has not yet made the decision to regulate the chemical under the Safe Drinking Water Act that controls levels of chemicals found in your drinking water. EWG senior scientist David Andrew commented on the planned evaluation by the EPA of 1,4-dioxane, saying:22

“For a chemical to rise to the top of this [TSCA] list really raises alarm bells about the potential environmental contamination, as well as the residual health effects,”

The EPA has currently set a limit of 0.35 parts per billion (ppb) in public water supplies to mitigate cancer risk, but this is not a legal limit. An EPA database shows that 27 states now have levels of 1,4-dioxane at levels higher than this, increasing your risk of absorption through your skin when bathing and showering — a route your body readily accepts.