How to be careful about personal care

Simplify your skin care: Streamline the number of personal-care products you apply on a regular basis — and don’t overdo using them. Choose lotions and washes with a smaller number of ingredients as well as fewer synthetic chemicals, suggests Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group. “Simpler is usually safer,” she says.

Avoid the worst offenders: “There are certain product types that are much more toxic than others,” says Stacy Malkan, author of a book on cosmetics’ potentially harmful ingredients. She cites dark permanent hair dyes, which can contain coal tar, a possible carcinogen according to the National Toxicology Program; hair straighteners that may contain formaldehyde, which has also been linked to cancer; nail products such as acrylics (although, thanks to recent consumer efforts, it’s now easier to find phthalate-free polish); and skin-lightening creams that typically contain hydroquinone, which the Food and Drug Administration has labeled a possible carcinogen and which has been barred from use in many countries.

Forgo fragrance: While cosmetics companies must label their products, there’s a loophole for “synthetic fragrances,” a catchall term for ingredients used to scent perfume, lotions or anything else. These substances are treated as trade secrets that do not have to be disclosed. “So ‘fragrance’ can be concoction of five or 500 components — we really just don’t know,” says Sattler, who adds that fragrances can contain phthalates and other chemicals that can cause allergies and irritation.

Read labels: Sometimes it feels as though you need a chemistry degree to understand even the simplest shampoo ingredient list. Nonetheless it’s still worthwhile to check labels, Houlihan says, looking out for potentially problematic ingredients such as methyl paraben, propyl paraben and butyl paraben, triclosan and ureas. But she notes that it can also be useful to look for products that have been certified organic by a third party such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To provide easy-to-use safety ratings, the EWG has put together “Skin Deep,” a free database that analyzes the ingredients in more than 70,000 personal-care products. She adds that Whole Foods has specific standards for the products on its shelves and that its “premium body care” logo indicates the absence of more than 400 questionable chemicals.

Carolyn Butler

An assortment of red lipsticks. (Mike Kemp)