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The Five Worst Environmental Pollutants in Your Beauty Products


By now we've already covered a little of how products can affect our health, but it bears reminding that what's good for us is also generally good for the planet—and vice versa. Because Whole Foods is a pioneer in natural personal-care, even issuing new organic labeling guidelines to their suppliers, we asked them to tell us the top five most environmentally noxious ingredients used in personal-care products, and why we should avoid them.


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1. Antibacterial Compounds
Triclosan and chlorphenesin are often the active ingredients in antibacterial soaps. They do not break down in the environment and may contribute to bacterial resistance. These ingredients are also known to cause aquatic toxicity. A recent FDA advisory panel report even stated that antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps. Triclosan and chlorphenesin are not allowed in any products sold in Whole Foods Market stores.

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2. Synthetic Chelators
Chelators, such as the commonly used trisodium EDTA, are used in personal-care products to remove impurities from low-quality raw materials. They are problematic for two reasons. First, there is environmental research data showing that chelators do not readily biodegrade in the environment. Second, since the function of synthetic chelators is to remove impurities from low-quality raw materials, there is no real need for these ingredients in high-quality natural products to begin with. So shop wisely and you won't run into this one.

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3. Petroleum-derived Ingredients
One-hundred-percent petroleum derived ingredients, such as mineral oil and petrolatum, come with some unpleasant environmental realities. For one thing, they are derived from non-renewable resources. These ingredients are also bad for functional reasons, since they form a barrier when applied to skin that does not allow it to breathe. Finally, they often contain impurities as a result of the manufacturing processes—which is something consumers have almost no way of knowing about, but should guard against. Other ingredients to avoid in this category are parrafin, lily white gel, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, alkyl benzoate, and ammonium polacrylate.

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4. Chemical Sunscreens
Chemical sunscreens, such as oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate, have some human-safety concerns, since many have been shown to disrupt endocrine activity. Every year, gallons of chemical sunscreens wash of people’s skin and into the oceans, which can be toxic to marine life. Physical sunscreens, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, are safer alternatives for humans and the environment.

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5. Aerosol Sprays
Aerosol sprays like those used in hairspray are the gases that propel the product out of the can. Fortunately, since the late 1970s, consumer aerosol products made in the United States have not contained ozone-depleting CFCs. All consumer—and most other—aerosol products made or sold in the United States now use propellants such as hydrocarbons and compressed gases like nitrous oxide that do not deplete the ozone layer. While aerosol spray cans produced in some other countries might still use CFCs, they cannot legally be sold in the States.


Illustrations by Brianna Harden

This is the seventh installment in a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a forthcoming book by GOOD's features editor Siobhan O'Connor and her co-author Alexandra Spunt. It will run every Tuesday and Thursday.



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