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Personal Care Products: Everyday Pollutants on Your Body

Personal Care Products: Everyday Pollutants on Your Body


When was the last time you used soap, shampoo, or body lotion? Unless you're reading ingredient labels like a hawk–we're here to tell you that chemicals from these products end up on your skin, in the environment, and potentially even our drinking water.

Personal care products, or “cosmetics” as they’re referred to by law, extend far beyond makeup and perfume. They include lotion, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.–and they are laden with chemicals. In fact, a recent study has identified over 5,000 active ingredients that are on the market in a variety of personal care products. By design, these products contain pharmaceutically active compounds that are intended to have effects on your body. But what happens when this effect goes beyond it's purpose?

Many of the chemicals in personal care products are categorized as emerging contaminants. This means that the risks they potentially pose is not yet fully understood. Not only is there concern about the impact on human health, there is concern about how these emerging contaminants impact our environment and our drinking water.

Tap Score Water Testing

We, at SimpleLab wanted to specifically examine the impacts of personal care products on bodies of water, because this is the surest route that they might end up in our tap water. Read on to learn about:

  • The impact of personal care products extends beyond your skin
  • The current state of personal care product regulation
  • What the future might hold.
  • Personal Care Products By the Numbers:

    6 – The average number of products a man uses in the US daily.

    85 – The number of chemicals a man is exposed to daily through her personal care routine.

    12 – The average number of products a woman uses in the US daily.

    168 – The number of chemicals a woman is exposed to daily through her personal care routine.

    How Do Chemicals from Cosmetics End up in Drinking Water?

    When we bathe, personal care products drain into the sewer and travel to wastewater treatment plants. While these plants can and do remove many pollutants from sewer water, they are not designed to treat the thousands of chemicals in cosmetic products (or pharmaceuticals, for that matter). Many of the ingredients in personal care products pass through treatment plants and inevitably wind up in the environment.

    Once in streams, rivers, and oceans, these chemicals have been shown to cause both hormonal impacts and toxicity in aquatic life. They have also appeared in surface water, groundwater, and drinking water. Although found in very low concentrations (ng/L), these chemicals may still have an effect on ecological health. Because such a broad mix of compounds have been detected, it is immensely challenging to determine what specific health effects might be. However, the concern for these emerging contaminants is with long-term exposure. Because little is known about how these chemicals interact with one another once in water, continued study is crucial. In the meantime, we think the precautionary approach is warranted.

    What’s more is that personal care products in drinking water are not regulated in the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains an active program called the Contaminant Candidate List (CCL) to identify contaminants in public drinking water that warrant study, but the contaminant regulation moves at a snail’s pace compared to the products coming onto market.

    The Future of Personal Care Product Regulation:

    The biggest regulation challenge is the fact that products are tested for safety after they've gone to market. While there is a federal law designed to ensure that personal care products are safe, it has remained largely unchanged since 1938. As the EPA continues to examine the potential health risks, it will determine whether or not to regulate chemicals in personal care products. Much of that decision is based on whether a significant number of drinking water systems have concentrations of chemicals at levels the EPA finds concerning.

    However, there is good news!

    A bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) may be able to enact some serious change. The bill, known as The Personal Care Products Safety Act, would reform regulation of the products, requiring companies to ensure that their products are safe before marketing them. The bill would also give the FDA the tools it needs to protect the public and empower it to review the safety of ingredients.

    How You Can Reduce Your Chemical Footprint:

    We know it's hard to keep on top of all the products that we see and buy. There are a few options to reduce your exposure, however: 1) Consider buying products where you can pronounce and recognize the names in the ingredient list; or 2) check out the GoodGuide–it’s a great resource that can help guide your decisions when it comes to choosing products.

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