Natural and Organic Products
You might expect a product labeled "pure, natural and organic" to be, well … pure, natural and organic. But you might be in for a surprise.
Unlike the food industry, there are no legal standards for organic or natural personal care products sold in the United States. This means that companies can, and often do, use these terms as marketing gimmicks. For example, the top-selling shampoo in the United States is Clairol Herbal Essences, which until recently claimed to offer users an "organic experience." However, there isn't much about this product that is either herbal or organic; it contains more than a dozen synthetic petrochemicals and has a moderate toxicity rating in Skin Deep.
Even top-selling brands in the natural products sector have been found to contain 1,4-dioxane, a synthetic chemical carcinogen.
New industry standards are emerging that may help consumers differentiate between the natural and not-so-natural products, but multiple standards with different meanings may not be helpful for consumers. For example, some require safety substantiation from a certifying body and others don't. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is advocating for a standard that means ingredients are both natural and safe for people.
What You Can Do
Encourage your favorite retailers and manufacturers of natural and organic products to clarify their use of the terms. Most importantly, be a critical consumer and remember that natural is a marketing term, not a legally binding description.
Science and health effects: 1,4-dioxane
Very few, if any, cosmetics or personal care products list 1,4-dioxane as an ingredient (i), even though an analysis by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics co-founder the Environmental Working Group suggests that it may be found in 22 percent of the more than 25,000 products in the Skin Deep database of cosmetics products (ii). That's because 1,4-dioxane is a frequent contaminant of common cosmetics ingredients (iii), but as a contaminant it is not listed among intentionally added ingredients.
Products That May Contain 1,4-dioxane
Because it is a contaminant produced during manufacturing, the FDA does not require 1,4-dioxane to be listed as an ingredient on product labels. Without labeling, there is no way to know for certain how many products contain 1,4-dioxane—and no guaranteed way for consumers to avoid it.
Most commonly, 1,4-dioxane is found in products that create suds, like shampoo, liquid soap and bubble bath. Environmental Working Group's analysis suggests that 97 percent of hair relaxers, 57 percent of baby soaps and 22 percent of all products in Skin Deep may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane (iv). Independent lab tests co-released by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2007 showed that popular brands of children's bubble bath and body wash contained 1,4-dioxane.
Besides sodium laureth sulfate, other common ingredients that may be contaminated by 1,4-dioxane include PEG compounds and chemicals that include the clauses "xynol," "ceteareth" and "oleth."
Where It Comes From
1,4-dioxane is generated through a process called ethoxylation, in which ethylene oxide, a known breast carcinogen, is added to other chemicals to make them less harsh. This process creates 1,4-dioxane. For example, sodium laurel sulfate, a chemical that is harsh on the skin, is often converted to the less-harsh chemical sodium laureth sulfate (the “eth” denotes ethoxylation), which can contaminate this ingredient with 1,4-dioxane.
Alternatives do exist, but many companies don't take advantage of them. Vacuum-stripping can remove 1,4-dioxane from an ethoxylated product, or manufacturers can skip ethoxylation entirely by using less-harsh ingredients to begin with (v). Organic standards do not allow ethoxylation at all. A study by the Organic Consumers Association (vi) shows that 1,4-dioxane is nonexistent in a variety of cosmetics produced and certified under the USDA National Organic Program, as well as other products.
Research shows that 1,4-dioxane readily penetrates the skin (vii). 1,4-dioxane is considered a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (viii) and listed as an animal carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program (ix). It is included on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known or suspected by the state to cause cancer or birth defects (x). The California Environmental Protection Agency also lists 1,4-dioxane as a suspected kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant.
It is highly unlikely that any one product containing 1,4-dioxane will cause harm on its own. However, repeated exposures from many different products add up. The same baby could be exposed to 1,4-dioxane from baby shampoo, bath bubbles and body wash in a single bath, as well as from other contaminated personal care products today, tomorrow and the next day. Repeated exposures to a single carcinogen, synergistic effects from exposures to multiple carcinogenic and mutagenic ingredients, and concerns about exposures at key points in development (such as pregnancy, infancy and puberty) are cause for concern even though little risk is evident from a single small exposure.