Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and University of Illinois Extension

Personal Care Products

Kid on beachHow many personal care products do you use on a daily basis? Count them up. The average woman in the United States uses 12 products, the average man uses six. Take a look at the ingredients in your soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, aftershave, deodorant, conditioners, moisturizers, hair gels, lipsticks, mascaras, perfumes and sunscreens. Contrary to popular belief, the United States does not regulate cosmetics, hygiene products, or sunscreens for safety, long-term health impacts or environmental damage. Many common ingredients in personal care products can be harmful to people, wildlife and the environment. Some of the chemicals used are endocrine disruptors and have the potential to interfere with natural hormones, causing problems in the nervous and reproductive systems.

Most personal care products enter wastewater when you bathe or wash your hands. It seems like such a small amount, until you consider the billions of other people who also use these products daily. Since septic systems and municipal wastewater treatment plants were not designed to remove these chemicals, they are continually discharged into the environment. It is not yet clear what the long-term impacts of exposure might be, but there are some ingredients it may be good to avoid.

For more information about
each of these ingredients check out:

It's what you can't see

The Dirty Dozen

  • BHA and BHT
  • Coal Tar Dyes
  • Diethanolamine (DEA) and related ingredients
  • Dibutyl phthalate
  • Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
  • Parabens
  • Parfum (e.g., fragrance)
  • PEG compounds
  • Petrolatum
  • Siloxanes
  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • Triclosan and triclocarban

What can I do?
Reading labels Read the labels on products before you buy them. You can search for products and learn more about potentially unsafe ingredients in your personal care products at the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database or Good Guide. To find cleaning products check out Design for the Environment. More information about these issues is available at The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, The Story of Cosmetics and the David Suzuki Foundation. To learn how chemists are trying to develop safer chemicals take a look at The Great Lakes Green Chemistry Network.

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