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Our Secret Club: Learn What We Know Now

We recently hosted a fascinating discussion at our SF store with representatives from the Breast Cancer Fund, a San Francisco- based non-profit that works to prevent breast cancer by eliminating our exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation linked to the disease, and Beautycounter, a company that creates safe and effective skin care and cosmetics for women and their families. We spent the evening discussing beauty products and the many hidden chemicals that we are all exposed to through them. Though of course we all learned a lot that evening, the conversation was predicated on the fact that everyone there already believed there are chemicals in every day products that are bad for us. Living in San Francisco, a very “green” focused city, we take for granted that people know this. However, we all recognized that most people in this country don’t have access to this information.  It made me feel like part of a secret club, one where everybody in it knows a secret that we wish everybody else knew.

One surprising fact that I discovered that night was that products marketed as “paraben free” can still contain ingredients contaminated by the parabens used to preserve those ingredients themselves. For example, grapefruit seed extract, a natural ingredient, may itself be preserved with parabens, triclosan and other chemicals which contaminate the finished product. Parabens are  known endocrine disruptors of which a ban is currenlty being considered in the EU.

Another set of chemicals that are known hormone disruptors are phthalates, often used in fragrances or in soft plastics. Phthalates block the hormone androgen, the hormone that makes males have male characteristics. Higher phthalate levels in pregnant women’s blood have been linked to shorter anogenital distance in male infants, a characteristic that make males less distinct from females.

As the hormone system is so intricately connected, it likely has other effects as well. As phthalates are often found in synthetic fragrances and manufacturers do not have to list the inputs to fragrance on a bottle, the panelists were asked how you can know what kind of fragrance you are using. It was explained that if a fragrance lingers more than three or four minutes on your skin, then it is likely a synthetic fragrance.

One fact I learned about BPA that I didn’t already know, was that there has been a correlation found between higher levels of BPA and lower male sperm count. BPA has already been banned in baby bottles in our country but still exists in the lining of many canned products.

When asked why there are chemicals like these that are banned in Europe but allowed here, the panelists explained that one big difference is industry lobbying. Chemical companies lobby heavily to keep things the way they are. The European political system doesn’t have the space for that kind of industry influence.

At our event, we asked Sarada Tangirala, program manager for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics at the Breast Cancer Fund, how she judges what products to use. She said that, besides doing research on every ingredient, there are three shortcuts she uses that make her feel more comfortable with a product

  1. The manufacturer has made some public commitment to safer products.
  2. There are no suspected toxins on the label.
  3. The company lists every ingredient, including the makeup of fragrances, on the label.

In addition, Sarada suggested using the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep app, which rates many personal care products on the market. Another app that was mentioned as useful was the Think Dirty app. In addition, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has a list of chemicals to avoid that can be found on their site, and Beautycounter publishes a Never List, which is the chemicals it won’t include in their products. This list includes all of the chemicals banned in the EU plus about 250 more.

Another list Sarada suggested using as a resource is Prop 65. In 1986, Proposition 65 was introduced in California to promote safe drinking water. Prop 65 created a list of chemicals known to be carcinogens and reproductive toxins that manufacturers cannot include on their product without clearly labeling that product as inclusive of Prop 65 ingredient. Even today, these rules are not always abided by. For example, The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) in Oakland announced recently that it has reached legal agreements with 26 major companies to remove “Cocamide DEA” from their shampoos and personal care products, as this chemical is listed as a carcinogen under Prop 65 but was still in widespread use.

Most interesting to me, was how the Breast Cancer Fund talked about raising the floor and raising the ceiling. Stores like Sprout SF are raising the ceiling by providing the highest quality of products for those that know to look for them, and companies like Beautycounter are creating the best formulations of personal care products without chemicals. Yet the average person buying products off of grocery store shelves and assuming they are safe should be protected as well. That is why we need legislation that raises the floor to keep toxic chemicals off our shelves all together.

Everyone I meet in this “secret club” talks about how they try to let others in on the secret, and the most people roll their eyes or just don’t want to hear it. How can we spread the word and let others know that not everything we come in contact with at this country is safe? At Sprout, we constantly struggle with this. The best we can do is keep writing messages like this and hope that you pass them on. We can also urge you to get involved with great organizations like the Breast Cancer Fund, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, or Environmental Working Group so that we can support their efforts to raise the floor and make the world safer for even those who don’t know what we know.