More than skin deep: 5 FAQs on health risks from personal care products

Scented grooming products such as shampoo or deodorant often contain harmful chemicals that pose significant health risks, health experts say.

In this post, we will use a Q & A format to inform you about these risks.

If you buy your personal care products from a reputable store, can you assume they’ve been tested for safety?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Even prominent retailers such as CVS or Walmart don’t exercise that kind of control over their supply chain.

Government does not insist on regular safety testing either. Neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor any other federal agency requires cosmetics to be tested for safety before they are sold.

To be sure, government agencies may take action to protect consumers if there is evidence that a product is unsafe. But that is not the same as advance testing.

Even getting companies to disclose all of the ingredients in scented products is problematic. Due to a legal loophole in federal law, ingredients in these products may be deemed a trade secret. The labels on products therefore may not tell the whole story of what is actually in them.

What types of scented products may contain harmful chemicals and which chemicals are potentially harmful?

Many different grooming products are made from chemical compounds that carry health risks. These products include not only cologne, but also deodorant, soap, shampoo and even laundry detergent.

Health experts are increasingly concerned about phthalates, a group of chemical substances frequently used in fragranced personal care products such as shampoo and soap.

Another chemical that is cause for concern is styrene. Laboratory research on animals has linked styrene to several different types of cancer.

What are the health risks from these chemicals?

Research points to a wide range of health conditions associated with long-term exposure to scented products. These conditions include migraine headaches, asthma and a variety of other problems.

Phthalates and other chemicals used in grooming products may also have negative consequences on the male reproductive system. Research at North Carolina State University suggested such chemicals can negatively impact testosterone activity. This, in turn, can result in problems with fatigue, erectile dysfunction and building or retaining muscle mass.

What about the risk of cancer?

Researchers say that hundreds of other chemicals used in scented products are potentially carcinogenic.

It is also widely known that asbestos exposure comes with very serious risks. That is why recent reports of asbestos in cosmetics marketed to young girls caused such concern, as we noted in a post last month on make-up products.

What can you do to try to stay safe from dangerous chemicals in scented products?

There are several websites aimed at promoting transparency about the ingredients used in fragranced products.

For example, a nonprofit organization called The Environmental Working Group has a database of nearly 74,000 consumer products, as well as other resources to promote healthy cleaning and safe cosmetic use.

The International Fragrance Association has also compiled a list of the ingredients that manufacturers may include in their fragranced products.

One of the easiest things to do is to limit your exposure to scented products where possible, such as by purchasing unscented products instead.

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