Many people lather themselves with body-care products every day, thinking they are doing something good for themselves. But the stew of chemicals present in most off-the-shelf products could be doing more harm than good.
"There are a lot of toxins in popular body-care products, and research shows that these chemicals do cause harm," says Ashland-based naturopathic physician Jo Jenner.
The first step to avoiding potential harm is to turn the bottles around and read through the ingredients, Jenner says.
Don't be fooled by the terms "natural" and "organic" plastered on the front of the bottles, Jenner warns, because a few organic ingredients often are mixed with a cocktail of other manufactured chemicals.
"People need to do a little research so that they know what to look out for when they're buying these products. ... You can get a lot of information on your computer, or read a book," says Jenner, who has been practicing naturopathic medicine for 25 years.
"If it has like 20 ingredients you can't pronounce, avoid it," says Dr. Bonnie Nedrow, a naturopath at Hidden Springs Wellness Center in Ashland.
"If you can't pronounce the word, there is a high likelihood that it's a chemical."
Ingredients to watch out for include: fragrance, parabens, phthalates, polyethylene glycol, abbreviated PEG, isopropyl alcohol and propylene glycol — abbreviated PG — and the list goes on and on.
Some of the chemicals used in cosmetics are known carcinogens, hormone disrupters and reproductive toxicants, and they can cause a mixed bag of reactions, such as allergic skin irritation or discoloration, headaches, nausea and depression, Jenner says. They also can impede the body's natural mechanisms for staying healthy.
Both physicians recommend a cosmetics database website called "Skin Deep," maintained by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental-health research and advocacy organization, at www.ewg.org/skindeep.
There, users can type most brands and products into the database's search bar, and it will spit out a toxicity report. The website includes an array of other resources to help consumers safely navigate this generation's cosmetics universe.
Nedrow recommends her clients use products with a toxicity rating of no more than 2.
"Basically people in Ashland — and Southern Oregon, in general — are looking for organic food and being pretty careful about what they eat, but they don't think so much about what they put on their bodies," Nedrow says. "You really don't want to put anything on your body that you wouldn't be willing to eat."
In the summer, Nedrow recommends, avoid sunscreens and opt for sunblocks. Anything with titanium oxide will be a block, she says, and will protect underlying and outer skin layers. Sunscreens typically are laced with potentially harmful chemicals and protect only the outer layer of skin, she says.
Ashland Food Co-op, Shop'n Kart, Medford Food Co-op and other local stores offer safe, high-quality body-care products, says Ashland naturopath Geoff Houghton.
Limited testing makes it hard to know what effect body-care chemicals might have on people, Jenner says, "but it's scary considering how frequently we use these products."
About 87,000 chemicals are registered for commerce in the United States, according to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, and several thousand are used by the fragrance industry to produce lotions, soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and an array of other personal-care and beauty products.
According to a study by U.S. Congress's investigative arm the U.S. Government Accountability Office, less than one-tenth of those chemicals have been tested for potential health effects.
There is no federal law that requires government testing of new chemicals before they are introduced to the market for consumers. The Environmental Protection Agency has a 90-day window to ban a new chemical once it's been submitted for manufacturing consideration, but if it can't prove that a chemical poses a health risk during that span, then it is approved for consumption.
Manufacturers are not required to provide the EPA with safety data of new chemicals, but that information can be requested by the EPA if the chemical is shown to cause a health risk to consumers.
"When you get into it, what you find is that what we don't know is immensely greater than what we do know, and what we do know is overwhelmingly scary," Nedrow says. "We're not going to get laws passed to change this as fast as we need to, so we need to be conscious."
"As a naturopath, I want to protect people," Jenner says. "Our federal government is not protecting people and letting them know what's going on with these chemicals, so it's up to us.
Jenner sometimes teaches classes through the city of Ashland Parks and Recreation Department and Ashland Food Co-op about how to avoid toxic body-care products. She makes all-natural lotions, soaps and lip balms for personal use, and she suggests that others do the same.
She walks people through the process during her classes and says anyone can start if they are willing to put in a little research time.
"We can really make a difference by just changing what we're putting into our personal environment," Jenner says. "People can't just assume that these chemicals are safe."