Chemicals in Consumer Products

A comprehensive new study reveals that a wide range of consumer products contain chemicals known to disrupt hormones and/or trigger asthma. The study was conducted by the Silent Spring Institute and covered 213 products in 50 product categories, focusing primarily on personal-care products like lotion, hair products, toothpaste, shampoo; cleaners like laundry detergent and glass cleaner; as well as other everyday items from diapers to shower curtains to cat litter. In addition to conventional products, researchers tested the chemical content of “alternative” products in each category—those likely to bear qualifiers like “green,” “natural,” or “non-toxic.” The majority of these alternative products contained chemicals of concern, the institute reports, adding “Of the alternative sunscreens tested, the product with the highest number of target chemicals was actually one marketed for babies and children.” The sunscreen in question was California Baby SPF 30+ Everyday/Year-Round Face & Body, a small tube of which retails for around $20.

Researchers tested the products for 66 chemicals associated with hormone disruption (chemicals also known as endocrine disruptors) and asthma, and they found 55 of the target chemicals, which included:

Parabens: Chemicals added to consumer products for preservative/antimicrobial properties that are weakly estrogenic in vitro. The study found parabens only in personal care products. Most conventional products listed parabens on the label; in alternative products, parabens were detected in seven products, including three sunscreens that did not list them on the label.

Phthalates: Plastic additives and solvents in cosmetics and perfumes that have been associated with reproductive problems including reduced semen quality and respiratory problems. Researchers most often found DEP(di-n-butyl phthalate) in fragrances, perfumes and air fresheners, while vinyl products had the highest concentrations of any phthalates, specifically DEHP (bis (2-ehylhexyl) phthalate) which was found in concentrations of 28% in shower curtains tested and 14% in pillow protectors. No tested products listed “phthalate” on the label.

Bisphenol-A (BPA): A chemical ingredient in vinyl, epoxy resins lining cans, plastics, flame retardants and adhesives and a known endocrine disruptor. BPA was found in the vinyl shower curtain, detergents, lotions, shampoo and other products, but most had concentrations less than 10 micrograms per gram (μg/g).

Fragrances: The chemicals meant to make products smell a certain way, or mask other scents, are often industry protected secrets and may be synthetically based even when they are dubbed “natural.” They can cause allergic reactions and—in the case of synthetic musks—have estrogenic effects. The highest concentrations of synthetic fragrance chemicals in the study (above 1,000 μg/g) were found in perfumes, air fresheners and drier sheets and were generally higher in conventional products.

Of course, one product could be the source of many chemicals, and choosing alternative products does not necessarily offer an advantage. The study finds: “For example, a consumer who used the alternative surface cleaner, tub and tile cleaner, laundry detergent, bar soap, shampoo and conditioner, facial cleanser and lotion, and toothpaste (a plausible array of product types for an individual) would potentially be exposed to at least 19 compounds: 2 parabens, 3 phthalates, MEA [monoethanolamine, associated with occupational asthma], DEA [diethanolamine, associated with occupational asthma], 5 alkylphenols [surfactants in cleaners that are weakly estrogenic], and 7 fragrances.”

Of particular concern, the researchers conclude, is that many of these chemicals linger and combine in household air or are applied directly to the skin, increasing rates of exposure. And consumers do not have the tools to avoid specific chemicals of concern since they are often “not listed on labels or in online rating systems, which are based on product label.”

In lieu of better labeling, the Silent Spring Institute advises that consumers control their chemical exposures by using fewer products; exercising caution with how products are used indoors and on the skin; avoiding vinyl as well as fragrance- and triclosan-containing products; replacing store bought cleaners with homemade options like vinegar and baking soda; and getting involved in state and national efforts to better regulate chemicals.