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In seeking out personal care products that are better for our bodies and the environment, we often look to the claims on the front of product packaging like “all-natural” or “cruelty-free.” And while many products may boast natural ingredients that weren’t tested on animals, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best for our bodies or the planet. In fact, many can contain harmful ingredients including parabens and phthalates. These controversial chemicals can take on many names, or no names at all in the case of fragrances (more on that in a bit), making it even more difficult to identify them. An overwhelming number of conventional personal care products contain phthalates, which are used to homogenize products by dissolving solid ingredients. Parabens are also widespread in the personal care industry, used as preservatives that prevent bacterial contamination. A good thing in theory, but in practice, parabens have been linked to a number of serious health concerns including cancer. Neither of these classes of chemicals are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), mostly because the agency says they pose no health risks.

7 Ways to Avoid Parabens and Phthalates in Personal Care Products Dan Century


Experts, however, disagree, arguing that parabens and phthalates are not inactive but actually quite harmful to the body. In fact, they’re considered major endocrine disruptors, which can alter metabolic function in the body, and according to the Washington Post, “Both phthalates and parabens act on estrogen pathways, which in humans have been associated with such varied effects as decreased sperm count, endometriosis and insulin resistance.” Parabens and phthalates also wind up in the environment, mostly in our waterways and oceans, where they have been linked to fertility issues in marine animals.

Ready to Ditch Parabens and Phthalates?

Here are some simple steps to help you get started.

1. Always read your labels! Front of packaging claims can be–and often are–misleading. Get in the habit of reading the product ingredients just like you would for food.

2. Know the difference between Latin names and chemicals. Long words are a little bit intimidating, especially when they’re in tiny print on the bottom of a small deodorant stick. But not all long words are bad ones. Aloe barbadensis, for example, is just the Latin name for the highly beneficial aloe leaf plant (good). Methylparaben, however, is a member of the paraben family, and therefore poses health risks (bad).

3. Know the pseudonyms. Personal care ingredients that include: “ethyl,” “butyl,” “methyl,” and “propyl” are from the paraben family even if the word “paraben” isn’t in the name. Phthalates generally include the term “phthalate” in the name, like “diethyl phthalate.” But not always, as the next item on this list explains.

4. Avoid fragrances and parfums. Essential oils are naturally fragrant botanicals with numerous benefits. But fragrances? Not so much. Fragrances or parfums are typically hotbeds for phthalates, but manufacturers aren’t required to list the actual ingredients in fragrances because they’re considered proprietary formulas sacred to manufacturers. (Just imagine if everyone knew the exact formula for Chanel perfume, for example.) One single fragrance can contain dozens or more ingredients, many of them phthalate-based. Look for products instead that list the scents specifically, and those should be named as essential oils or labeled as “no synthetic fragrance” or  “phthalate-free.”

5. Avoid plastic. A so-called “clean” personal product can lose all of its integrity if it’s in a plastic jar or bottle. For real. That’s because plastics, particularly soft plastic (like a shampoo bottle or toothpaste tube), can contain phthalates, which are prone to leaching, particularly if there’s a high oil content in the product like hair conditioner. Look for plastic with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5 and avoid those with 3 or 7 as there’s a greater risk of phthalates in those.

6. Get to know artisan personal care manufacturers. There is a boom in personal care products happening right now that’s pretty amazing. In cities all across the U.S. and around the world, artisan personal care products are popping up—from deodorants and moisturizers to makeup and hair care. Small batch manufacturers are crafting these products by hand with ingredients you probably have in your own kitchen. Why? Because they’re free of harmful ingredients like phthalates and parabens, and they are as effective (if not more so) than conventional products. Yes, it turns out that nature itself is a better aesthetician than scientists.

7. Make your own. Of course, the foolproof way to have total control over your exposure to parabens and phthalates is to start making your own personal care products. Just like cooking at home with fresh ingredients is a healthier choice for your body and the planet, so is a move towards DIY personal care products, pioneer style.

7 Ways to Avoid Parabens and Phthalates in Personal Care Products Personal Creations

DIY Personal Care Product Recipes 

Lead image source: Kiersten Marie/Flickr