What’s REALLY In That? Hidden Ingredients in Consumer Products

On Monday we began talking about synthetic or artificial fragrances. Fragrance surrounds us. It’s in our cleansers, our body care products, everything. Even unscented baby wipes often have fragrance listed as an ingredient. What is the risk in being surrounded by fragrance, besides altering our ability to smell?

While my initial goal in researching this article was to discuss the risks associated with artificial fragrances, it has become clear that undisclosed chemicals are a problem not only in fragrances, but in consumer products in general. Even so-called “natural” alternatives have unlisted irritating chemicals in them.

Secret, Secret, Who’s Got a Secret? The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act

In 1967 the FDA and FTC enacted the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. As a result, all consumer products are required to have a label including what type of product it is, the quantity or volume of the product in the package, a manufacturing or distribution address, and an ingredient list. This is great in theory, but there are loopholes.

Labeling regulations vary based on the type of product. “Over the counter drugs” such as antibacterial soap, deodorant and sunscreen are required to list their “active ingredient”, while cleaners are required to list compounds controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency. Cosmetics require all ingredients listed in descending order of predominance, except for “incidental ingredients”.

Incidental ingredients are often a part of another ingredient or are ingredients that are present at an “insignificant level”. They can also be things that are used in the manufacturing process that have “no technical or functional effect”, like defoaming agents. (Speaking of defoamers, did you know silicone oil is often added to frying oil to minimize spattering? But I digress.)

Companies are also not required to disclose any ingredients in their product that might be considered “trade secrets”. In order for an ingredient to get “trade secret” status, the manufacturer must apply to the FDA and explain why this item qualifies as a trade secret. If approved the manufacturer must only state “and other ingredients” on the label.

Likewise, fragrance chemicals can be listed simply as “fragrance” instead of by their chemical name. There are hundreds of different chemicals that can be listed as fragrance, and none need to be disclosed.

It’s not so clear what’s in your deodorant now, is it?

Risks of Hidden Ingredients

In 2012 researchers conducted a study where 213 products from 50 different consumer product categories (cosmetics, sunscreen, cleansers, personal care, and vinyl products) were tested to identify endocrine disruptors (chemicals that interfere with your hormone systems) and asthma-associated chemicals. The highest levels of asthma related and hormone disrupting chemicals were found in things like perfume, air fresheners, dryer sheets, and sunscreen.

Researchers looked at 170 conventional products and 43 “alternative” products. They tested for chemicals and ingredients that are known to exacerbate asthma or disrupt hormones. One of the most alarming finds is that “many detected chemicals were not listed on product labels.” This result was not restricted to the conventional products either. Several of the “natural” or “alternative” products included undisclosed ingredients known to be problematic.

Some of those chemicals include:

  • pthalates: Used to make plastic pliable. An endocrine disruptor which probably causes breast cancer, asthma, allergies, and liver damage.
  • triclosan: Antibacterial. Suppresses thyroid hormone and increases estrogen production which can increase the risk of cancer, stroke, and premature puberty.
  • toluine: A solvent that can cause tiredness, loss of appetite, and color vision loss.
  • ethyl acetate: Used in perfumes because it evaporates quickly and leaves the perfume scent behind. Affects central nervous system and causes irritation to eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.
  • parabens: Preservative, bactiricidal. Weakly estrogenic, possibly linked to breast cancer and skin DNA damage.

In household exposure studies, concentrations of these chemicals were found airborne, and in the dust of people’s homes.

We found higher concentrations of [endocrine disrupting substances] in indoor air compared to outdoor air, and lack of correlation between indoor and outdoor concentrations for most of the chemicals, which suggests that they have primarily indoor sources.

Who Is To Blame?

Given the data, that chemicals which are not disclosed on the label are often found in consumer products, you can see how current labeling requirements can be problematic for people who need to, or simply desire to reduce their exposure to these chemicals. Chemicals that we know cause cancer or trigger respiratory problems for a large population.

Even the government, the body that regulates these products for consumers, realizes the risks. The Canadian Lung Association recommends eliminating fragrances altogether, and the Centers for Disease Control has an “Indoor Environmental Policy” that states “Personal care products (colognes, perfumes, essential oils and scented skin and hair products) should not be brought into, used, or otherwise applied at or near actual workstations, in restrooms, or anywhere in CDC facilities.”

But they’re okay for us.

Reducing Exposure

With fragrances designed to mask scents in “unscented” products, cleaners and cleansers containing undisclosed ingredients, and a barrage of toxic exposure from pesticides and herbicides sprayed on our food and lawns, how in the world are we supposed to protect ourselves? Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Make your own. I make a lot of my own personal care products and I don’t buy any commercial cleaners except soap. Look online, or if you want an easy resource, “31 Days to Detoxify Your Life” has recipes and information to help you in every area. Clean the floor with water and vinegar. Make your own deodorant (1/4c coconut oil, 1/4c arrowroot powder or cornstarch, and 1/4c baking soda fills up a conventional deodorant container perfectly, just keep it in the fridge in the summer). Stop using shampoo.
  • Learn to love dandelions. A monoculture is never natural, and that’s what a typical lawn is supposed to be… grass. Give in. Let the dandelions move in, and in the spring when the leaves are young, gather yourself a little salad.
  • Don’t eat the Dirty Dozen. There is a list called the Dirty Dozen that is the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables. Choose to buy these things organic. The EWG also has a list called the Clean Fifteen, and these are the 15 least contaminated fruits and vegetables.

By being intentional and finding substitutions we can eliminate many of these things from our lives. The household exposure study concluded that there was a significant source of toxic chemicals coming from inside the homes, and by making changes in our use of products should be able to reduce our family’s exposure.

When it comes to accurate labeling, I wish there were a more simple solution. Safe Cosmetics works to lobby for safer products and expose the chemicals hidden in cosmetics.

The next time to go to the store, know that the label might not be accurate. Choose wisely. Enjoy the smell.

Are you surprised by any of the research findings? Are there any changes you are going to implement in your home?

If you want to read some really interesting research, here are two of the studies I quoted in this article:

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