Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Skin Deep: It's in the Details

Little Scotty Meek announced one day, out of the blue, that Vaseline is made of petroleum, just like gasoline. I was seven and he was nine. His information launched a heated conversation in which I reminded him that Vaseline neither smells nor looks like gas, and that if it was at all related to it my father surely wouldn’t put it on my lips when they were chapped.

Then came the quest for the bottle of Vaseline, which he pointed out, is also called: “petroleum jelly.” Since we lived in oil country, I knew petroleum was a fancy name for gas, but the new knowledge didn’t trip me up. Plenty of words, I told him, sound the same, but have different meanings. I couldn’t pull the word homonym from my pocket, but I did have examples: board/bored, write/right/right, and every child’s favorite: but and butt.

He wouldn’t concede, so we took the matter to my grandfather, a mechanic, and of course, I lost the argument. After that I refused to use gasoline jelly. No matter what people said, my child’s brain would not allow for the dual use of petrol in our car and on my lips. Lucky for my dad that Scotty didn’t know pajamas, toothpaste, or baby oil, vitamins, and bubble bath were also petroleum products or I’d have had the excuse I’d always needed to be in actuality the naked, dirty, deficient little varmint with rotting teeth that I’ve always been at heart.

Lucky for BabyG, in the last couple of decades knowledge about not only the petroleum, but a host of other chemicals used in bath and body products has almost become mainstream. The likes of the world’s hippies, old-fashioned-recipe-traditionalists, new agers’, yuppies, and power-yoga-enthusiasts expressed so much distress at using these sorts of products that a number of new, more “natural,” often organic products had been called into being.

Of course, plenty of people working in the beauty industry did not relish being left out of the new order of environmentally-friendly upstarts. They realized many people weren’t even sure what they wanted when they bought 'natural'…that the word itself had become a fad. They hired ad executives who concluded something like: petroleum comes from old dinosaur bones: what’s more natural than that?, and then stuck the word natural on all sorts of dangerous, healthy, and not what I would consider "natural" products.

As a green consumer, I thought one simple way to ensure I get more “natural” products, is to shop at stores that are geared toward environmentalism. So for awhile, after our family decided to go green, we shopped at Whole Foods, and bought the exorbitantly priced lotions and toothpastes and shampoos there. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind that just because it’s at Whole Foods, doesn’t mean it’s natural. That’s like thinking buying a product at Safeway’s or Randall’s means its safe. You would like it to be so, but experience suggests you need to take the quest a few steps further.

I googled around until I found recommendations from environmental-friendly sources. But I was dismayed that while many of them told you what major-consumer-brands to avoid, why to avoid them, and what to use instead, they rarely if ever explained what products were used in the making of the ones they touted.

So I got online and researched the sorts or chemicals I definitely wanted to avoid. You’ll note the length of that list if you click on the link. It was a little much for me to carry every time I went to the grocery store, so I settled on just a few of them.

Enter the Environmental Working Group, “a non-profit research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. focused on safeguarding public health and the environment.” This group spent two years compiling information on almost 15,000 products, and they offer up their findings in an online database called Skin Deep. If you want information on a beauty product not already in the database, you can send the brand in and get it added.

Skin Deep has an incredible database that not only includes information on brands like Crest or Suave, but it covers alternatives like Tom's of Maine, Jason, and Avalon Organics.  It analyzes the numbers of toxins, the number of ingredients that haven't been studied, and the known risks of the toxins that have been studied and comes up with a level of safety: 0 for products that pose no risks, 5 for extraordinarily toxic products.  You can search the database by typing in a brand name you're interested in, or by searching via a general area, like baby shampoos.

Below, I entered "Jason toothpaste," which I switched to when we first went green.

If you click on the product name, you get a long page detailing the particular products analysis, as well as a side bar glance that sums it up.  To the right, is the sidebar that came with the Jason Sea Fresh Spearmint Toothpaste my family has been using awhile.  It took awhile to get used to Jason -- it's a clear gel with a tingly taste totally unlike any toothpaste I'd tried before -- and I wasn't looking forward to switching brands.  I was relieved that although the Sea Fresh Spearmint we were using rated as moderately unsafe, the Sea Fresh Plus Coq-10 rated a whole point lower (go Coq-10!).  The lowest rated toothpaste, Fresh, is made of Umbrian Clay and costs $20 for 4 oz. -- I can get a 4 pack of my Jason Sea Fresh Coq-10 for that.  Its safty rating ties with Burt's Bees, but and lags only behind Fresh, Dr. Bronners, PeelU, Accelerade and Garden of Life. One day I might get sick of shelling out money for toothpaste and revert to using Baking Soda like my dad (but what about fresh breath!?)...but until then, I'll enjoy the days dappling in the oddities of health food toothpastes.

For those of you dying to see a general topic search, the first one I looked up was baby shampoo.  Because while GreenDaddy and I have gone no-poo, Lila is an Aubrey Organics girl.  Here's what I found:

Clearly, I was pleased to see BabyG's was the least toxic on the list...of 18 shampoos, it was only one of two with a low concern rating.  But one thing I like about this list is the surprises: Johnson and Johnson was in the lower 2/3...but still ranked about the same as the "green" brand, Desert Essence.  However, Desert Essence signed a cruelty-free compact, and Johnson & Johnson didn't.  The worst rated shampoos are Gerber, Mustela, and Modern...they got actual red, high risk dots.  

Admittedly, obsessing over these sorts of things can be loony-bin-making material.  I'm still not sure how bad moderate is, really, or how good low is.  When I look up one of my favorite products and get a long list of the toxins it contains, the ingredients nobody knows anything about since they haven’t been studied, and the final analysis of its safety, I am slightly flummoxed. I am no scientist. I don’t really understand the analysis, but the spirit of the site: which is free, which sometimes recommends big-named-brands over the health-food store brands, I trust. And in this era in which the numberless amount of labels claiming to be natural finally suggests the word "natural" itself has crossed into homonymuous terrain, this might be the closest I’m going to get to understanding what I put in or on my family’s bodies.


mama k said...

Great post! I love the Skin Deep database... it makes it sooo much easier to make decisions on that stuff.

GreenDaddy said...

BabyG and I are pso glad you're loony this way.

cake said...

i have a lot of trouble with the word "safe."


thanks for the info on the skin deep database. it is really an amazing project.

Bookgirl said...

Nice post.c

Baby E is an Aubrey Organics boy, thanks to EWG's hard work. I might be a little obsessive about this stuff, too, but hey -- this is my kid we're talking about.

Mrs. Harridan said...

I am similarly loony, so you're not alone. I love that database, and my only complaint about it is that often, I have to enter all the ingredients of a particular item I want to know about. Still, it's a great resource for choosing a "safe" personal care product - and I'm thrilled to hear something about a natural toothpaste besides Tom's, now that they've been swallowed by Colgate-Palmolive.

iwanagain said...

Thanks for the link the database. Great blog. It's gives a lot of us who started "going green" because of children, not in spite of them, a place to feel a little less loony.

Henitsirk said...

You're not loony, you're just trying to be conscious about what you consume. Thanks for the link to Skin Deep, it's eye-opening.

MaGreen said...

glad the link could be of service to anybody.

p.z said...

I actually work for Mustela and I have to question the validity of this website. It is true Mustela products do contain some of the ingredients listed on the "not safe list", however how these ingredients are manufactured plays an important role on whether or not it is safe to use. Mustela products are created in its own pharmaceutical laboratory and meet strict manufacturing processes. These ingredients are refined so well that that they do not pose a threat to babies. In addition, all products are clinically tested in pediatrician and dermatologists offices. Doctors have recommended them to their patients for over 55years and have been used in French maternity wards for that long as well. Mustela is the skin care specialist for babies and mothers-to-be for a reason - they have over 40 patents registered in the last 7 years alone. I use Mustela products myself and when my child is born Mustela products will be the only products I trust.

Mary said...

that's interesting. i have noticed inconsistancies with the database. like they don't question the use of aluminum in deodorant, whereas many other places do.

if i worked for mustela and had such faith in the brand, i would send an email to the people making up the database. they've responded to questions i sent. maybe they would allow you all to put a paragraph up defending the product?

i still think the database is good, though. it may not account for 'refined ingredients' but it does allow me to find products that don't have dangerous ingredients, and that's a difficult important task.