Mind, Body, Spirit - May/June 2018
- story by LB Kovac
If you’ve ever spent time reading the back of your lotion label, you’ve probably run into some words that you don’t recognize. Next to the friendly “coconut extract,” “lavender essence,” “eucalyptus oil,” and “water,” there’s indecipherable gibberish: “propylparaben,” “dimethicone,” and “petrolatum,” just to name a few.
The words do sound suspiciously like ingredients in some witch’s potion, but there’s no way a lotion company would put stuff like that in their products. Right?
It might not say it on the label, but “propylparaben,” a chemical commonly used as a “preservative,” is a derivative of hydroxybenzoic acid. In several studies, hydrobenzoic acid and its derivatives have been found in high concentrations in cancerous tissue.
Mind, Body, Spirit
Still, if the fact that there are trace amounts of potentially cancer-causing chemicals in your face lotion gives you pause, it would seem you have a couple of options. You could spend the rest of your life standing in the fluorescent lights of the personal care aisle, poring over the labels of lotions, cosmetics, and sun blocks and Googling the ingredients, one-by-one, to see if things like “dimethicone” are as scary as they sound.
Or, you could rely on a company like Environmental Working Group to decode those labels for you.
Environmental Working Group, or EWG, is a two-decades-old environmental organization that seeks to hold companies accountable for the products they make and services they offer. Founded by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles, the company lobbies on the local and national levels for more transparency in business and labeling practices.
EWG rose to prominence a few years ago in 2006 when the organization went head-to-head with soda manufacturers for knowingly including what EWG deemed as unsafe levels of benzene in sodas. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the benzene molecule is carcinogenic in nature but allows quantities smaller than 5 parts-per-billion.
EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database website now serves as a resource for those wishing to pull the curtain back on confusing labels.
Products that receive a 1-3 are deemed “safe.” These products follow EWG’s guidelines for ethical sourcing and testing, and use ingredients that are natural and non-toxic. The best of these products, which adhere to EWG’s most rigorous standards, get EWG’s seal of approval.
Wal-Mart is just one of the companies to show support for EWG. Last year, it made headlines for encouraging all companies that sell personal care products in its stores to get the EWG seal. Other retailers, like Target, have expanded their offerings to include EWG-approved products.
Products on the other end of the spectrum, 6-10, are the ones EWG claims are unsafe. Propylparaben is just one of the ingredients that can tank one of these products’ scores; “recorcinol,” “methylisothiazolinone,” and “amylcinnamaldehyde,” known immunotoxins, are flagged by EWG’s researchers.
Even if you’re not overly concerned with the health risks involved with using your favorite foundation (and not afraid of the occasional tongue-twister), you still might be served by EWG’s website. Because it labels and flags potential allergens in all of its reviewed products, the site is a great resource for allergy-sufferers. And animal lovers can revel in the fact that EWG won’t give out their seal if a company’s product is known to be tested on animals.
So, the next time you’re staring at the bottle and can’t decide what “coumarin” is, look it up.