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The Dirty on Getting Clean

Seeing as the United States is a country that knows how to regulate everything, we were pretty shocked—actually, floored—to learn that the federal government has not passed a law to regulate the personal care industry since 1938. In 1976, Congress passed broad federal regulation on how chemicals enter the marketplace (including those used in cleaning products)—it hasn’t been updated since. This seems ironic in a country where it’s difficult to get a new drug to market, but products we use in our homes, and on our bodies, every single day can skip right onto supermarket shelves. Something about this didn’t sit right with Gregg Renfrew, who found that the more she learned, the more she realized what she didn’t know—and the more scared, and angry, she became. “

80% of the chemicals in personal care products have never been tested for safety,” she explains. “It’s an unconscionable fact, and we all deserve better.”

And so Renfrew decided to do something about it: She launched a gorgeous skincare and cosmetics company called Beautycounter, almost exactly a year ago, where they’re “setting a new health and safety standard, because if our government won’t protect us from toxic chemicals in the products we use everyday, then we will.” While the E.U. has banned or regulated more than 1,300 ingredients in personal care products, the U.S. has only banned 11, a fact that left our jaws on the floor. In response, Beautycounter has identified more than 1,500 chemicals and counting that they won’t use, either because the chemical is known to be harmful, or in their eyes, what might be even worse: The chemical and its long-term effects on health are completely unknown.

“You’d be shocked at the amount of chemicals that are used in the products we use everyday—in our homes and on our bodies—where no safety data exists…essentially, companies are experimenting on us.”

WHAT’S AN ENDOCRINE DISRUPTOR?

We know they’re bad, but we’re not sure exactly what they do. Here, Renfrew breaks it down.

“The endocrine system is incredibly complex and important: It’s responsible for regulating everything from our mood, to our reproductive processes, to our growth and development, to our sexual function and metabolism. Exposure to endocrine (or hormone disruptors) is particularly scary because they’re so potent in small doses, as they mimic the hormones that our bodies produce in small amounts every day. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can lead to reproductive problems, metabolic issues, cancer, birth defects, and other devastating disorders.”

While the FDA theoretically governs personal care products, and the EPA oversees chemicals in general (including those used in household cleaners), according to Renfrew, “neither agency is resourced or empowered to demand safety data or require studies around long-term health impacts—ultimately, it’s completely legal for companies to use known carcinogens.”

Effects on Long-Term Health

According to Renfrew, the incidence of cancer, ADHD, allergies, and autism is on the rise. “One in two men, and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer,” Renfrew explains, “while one in three kids will be diagnosed with ADHD, asthma, autism, or allergies.” She goes on to add: “What’s happening in our genes, physical environment, food supply chain, and cosmetics is a complicated dance. But our skin is our largest organ—it’s silly to assume that toxic chemicals we already know are linked to health problems, or chemicals that are understudied, aren’t having profound effect on our health, especially when so many illnesses are on the rise.” In a recent study, common cosmetic preservatives called parabens were found in biopsies of breast cancer tumors at levels that are similar to their concentrations use in personal care products. “We can’t control everything,” Renfrew adds, “but the products that we bring into our homes and put on our bodies every single day is a good place to start.”

The Short List Of Chemicals To Avoid

We asked Renfrew for the most common—and most toxic chemicals—to avoid. (For a full rundown, check out Beautycounter’s printable Never List.

  • 1

    Fragrance. “It’s a trade secret, which means that companies are not required to disclose what’s in it—usually, there are dozens, if not hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals, including phthalates, which cause the fragrance to stick to your skin.” (While we won’t be chucking our perfumes any time soon, seems like we can easily abstain from fragranced cleaning products.)

  • 2

    Parabens. “The presence of this toxic preservative—an endocrine disruptor—is indicated by any word that ends in paraben, like methylparaben, propylparaben, etc. Many big companies have vowed to take parabens out of their products, though it will be important to ensure that they don’t replace them with something just as toxic. By law, preservatives are required in any product that contains water, so if a product promises to be preservative-free, and it doesn’t require refrigeration or immediate use, something is fishy. When this is the case, there’s a good chance that the product includes a raw ingredient—like aloe, grapeseed extract, or Japanese honeysuckle—that came to the formulator pre-preserved. Preservatives that are hiding with other raw ingredients do not need to be listed on the label.”

  • 3

    Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES). “The surfactant Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) can cause skin irritation and allergies. The much bigger problem is that in the process of making it less harsh for the skin (ethoxylation), a carcinogenic byproduct emerges: 1,4-dioxane, which shows up on the label as SLES. It’s never listed on an ingredient label because it is a “contaminant,” but it’s often present where SLES appears. Avoid SLES whenever you can.”

  • 4

    Formaldehyde. “This is another preservative that you’ll never actually see listed on the label: It’s also a carcinogen, and it is linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. It’s likely present where quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol) are listed on ingredient labels.”

  • 5

    Phthalates. “Abbreviated to DBP, DEHP, and DEP, these plasticizers make products more pliable—and make fragrances stick to skin. They are endocrine/hormone disruptors commonly used in nail products, and they hide in ‘fragrance.'”

As Renfrew has learned more over the years, she’s kicked an ever-growing list of unhealthy products out of her own house, from her non-stick pans, to her fragranced laundry detergent, to her kids’ mattresses, which (like the vast majority) contained chemical flame retardants. And while she counts herself on the extreme end of the spectrum (“My kids want to kill me because I don’t let them eat blue M&Ms anymore, though keep in mind that this is about progress and not perfection”), we thought she’d be the perfect steward to lead us on an audit of our own kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms. “The most essential step is to flip that bottle around and check the ingredient label.” And perhaps more importantly, Renfrew advises to look behind the marketing: “Terms like natural, pure, hypoallergenic, botanical, and green are unregulated and sadly don’t mean anything,” she explains, “and even if a product includes some organic ingredients, there’s certainly no guarantee that they’re not packaged with a toxic preservative or surfactant.” She also pointed us to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database for skincare and beauty products (they just launched a handy, barcode-scanning app, and rank products on a numerical scale with 1s and 2s being the cleanest), and the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning for everything else, which uses a standard alphabetical grading system. “These are the best working tools out there right now for general home detox,” she adds, “and you’ll see that many companies score all over map, so it’s really important to take a product-by-product view.” And it’s not all bad news, either: “If enough of us vote with our wallets, there will soon be a day when our kids won’t have to check the labels on the products they use everyday—we can absolutely change the market.”


Our Room-By-Room Detox

We took Renfrew’s marching orders and looked through our own cabinets, cross-checking with the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning as we went. It was time-intensive and laborious, and pretty disappointing: While we thought we were making good-to-decent choices, most of the products in our homes missed the mark, at least according to the EWG.


Illustration-Kitchen

Illustration by: Alessandra Olanow

Kitchen

“One of the biggest concerns in the kitchen is anything antimicrobial,” explains Renfrew. “While it makes sense that people want to destroy germs, it also makes sense that things that kill mold and bacteria are potentially harmful to larger life forms as well—antibacterials and preservatives should be used with caution.”

“Most antibacterial soaps and hand-sanitizers contain nasty triclosan, a petrochemical that’s devastating to the environment, along with sodium laureth sulfate (likely contaminated with 1,4- dioxane, a known carcinogen), the preservative methylisothiazolinone (this can cause allergies), and fragrances and dyes,” according to Renfrew. These two final ingredients are trade secrets, and accordingly, companies are not required to reveal their contents. “Ironic that the chemical and ingredient manufacturers’ are protected, isn’t it?” adds Renfrew. “The good news: There are great, safe hand soaps and cleaners that do not contain triclosan on the market, though, that actually work.”

Plastic Containers

PLASTIC CONTAINERS

Components of plastic, like BPA (bisphenol A), the building block of polycarbonate plastics, can leach out of containers and into the food, water or product inside. “Always check the resin code on the bottom of the plastic storage containers and bowls in your kitchen,” advises Renfrew. “Avoid plastic numbers 3, 6 and 7 (when 7 is polycarbonate).” In general, try to store food and beverages in glass and 100% stainless steel containers. Also, skip the canned food when you can, as many cans are lined in a resin that contains BPA.

SaferSAFER:

(avoid microwaving)

Safe

AvoidAVOID:

(especially around food)

Avoid

 
Cookware

COOKWARE

“Non-stick cookware may be coated with Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical that may cause cancer,” Renfrew explains. “Replace your pans as they scratch, peel, and wear out—and avoid cooking in them over high heat.” As you slowly swap out your non-stick cookware, look for stainless steel, cast-iron, and enamel pots instead.

Dish Soap

What we WERE using at goop:
Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Lemon Verbena Liquid Dish Soap

Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Lemon
Verbena Liquid Dish Soap
EWG GRADE: C

Method Dish Soap in Cucumber

Method Dish Soap
in Cucumber
EWG GRADE: F

Green Works Naturally Derived Dishwashing Liquid

Green Works Naturally
Derived Dishwashing Liquid
EWG GRADE: F

What we ARE using now:
Planet Ultra Dishwashing Liquid

Planet Ultra
Dishwashing Liquid
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

Better Life Dish It Out Dish Liquid in Clary Sage and Citrus

Better Life Dish It Out Dish Liquid
in Clary Sage & Citrus
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

 

 

Dishwasher Detergent

What we WERE using at goop:
Finish Dishwasher Detergent Gel in Lemon

Finish Dishwasher Detergent
Gel in Lemon
EWG GRADE: D

Palmolive Eco+ Gel Dishwasher Detergent

Palmolive Eco+ Gel
Dishwasher Detergent
EWG GRADE: F

Method Smarty Dish Dishwasher Detergent Tabs in Pink Grapefruit

Method Smarty Dish
Dishwasher Detergent
Tabs in Pink Grapefruit
EWG GRADE: C

What we ARE using now:
Seventh Generation Automatic Dishwasher Powder, Free and Clear

Seventh Generation
Automatic Dishwasher
Powder, Free & Clear
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value Automatic Dishwasher Detergent

Whole Foods 365 Everyday
Value Automatic
Dishwasher Detergent
EWG GRADE: B

Where To Buy

 

 

All-Purpose Cleaner

What we WERE using at goop:
Method All-Purpose Surface Cleaner in French Lavender

Method All-Purpose Surface
Cleaner in French Lavender
EWG GRADE: C

Green Works Naturally Derived All-Purpose Cleaner in Lemon

Green Works Naturally Derived
All-Purpose Cleaner in Lemon
EWG GRADE: F

The Honest Company All-Purpose Cleaner

The Honest Company
All-Purpose Cleaner
EWG GRADE: C

What we ARE using now:
Whole Foods Market All Purpose Cleaner in Citrus

Whole Foods Market All-
Purpose Cleaner in Citrus
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

Bon Ami Powder Cleaner

Bon Ami
Powder Cleaner
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

Planet All Purpose Spray Cleaner

Planet All Purpose
Spray Cleaner
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

 

Illustration-Bathroom

Illustration by: Alessandra Olanow

Bathroom

“Fragrance runs rampant in hand soap,” Renfrew explains, “along with any number of toxic surfactants and preservatives.” And skip the chlorine: “There are many great non-chlorine bleaches out there that are just as effective, and much less toxic! Also, basic vinegar and lemon makes an excellent cleaner, and it’s easy on the wallet and the environment.”

Curtain

USE A FABRIC SHOWER CURTAIN LINER

“That noxious odor coming off your PVC (otherwise known as vinyl or plastic #3) shower curtain? Off-gassing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs),” explains Renfrew. “Some VOCs can cause developmental and reproductive system damage, irritate skin and eyes, and harm the liver and respiratory tract. And some are linked to cancer. In addition to toxic VOCs, shower curtains can contain phthalates, lead and other problematic chemicals that can enter our air, or breakdown into house dust,” Renfrew explains. “Opt for fabric shower curtains instead.”

Hand Soap

What we WERE using at goop:
Molton Brown Thai Vert Fine Liquid Hand Wash

Molton Brown Thai Vert
Fine Liquid Hand Wash
EWG SCORE: 7

Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap in Basil

Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day
Liquid Hand Soap in Basil
EWG SCORE: 4

Method Foaming Hand Wash in Sweet Water

Method Foaming
Hand Wash in Sweet Water
EWG SCORE: 5

What we ARE using now:
Seventh Generation Natural Hand Wash in Fresh Citrus

Seventh Generation Natural
Hand Wash in Fresh Citrus
EWG SCORE: 2

Where To Buy

Dr. Bronner's Organic Fair Trade Shikakai Hand Soap in Spearment Peppermint

Dr. Bronner’s Organic
Fair Trade Shikakai
Hand Soap in Spearment Peppermint
EWG SCORE: 1

Where To Buy

 

Illustration-LaundryRoom

Illustration by: Alessandra Olanow

Laundry Room

When it comes to laundry, we’re all pretty familiar with the allure of a great scent, but just as with other products, fragrance in laundry detergent can harbor many toxins. “The phthalate load can be intense,” Renfrew explains, “since the fragrance in laundry detergent is engineered to cling to clothes. In addition, steer clear of optical brighteners, which are terrible for the environment and can irritate skin.” (If you want to be extra-kind to the environment, wash your clothes on the cold cycle.) And sadly, for the dryer sheet loving amongst us, these are particularly toxic: “According to a recent study in Science Daily, analysis revealed 25 VOCs in dryer sheets, including two known carcinogens, acetaldehyde and benzene.”

Laundry Detergent

What we WERE using at goop:
Tide Free and Gentle Laundry Detergent HE

Tide Free & Gentle
Laundry Detergent HE
EWG GRADE: D

Method Laundry Detergent, Free + Clear

Method Laundry Detergent,
Free + Clear
EWG GRADE: C

Mrs. Meyer's Laundry Detergent in Geranium

Mrs. Meyer’s Laundry
Detergent in Geranium
EWG GRADE: F

What we ARE using now:
Planet Ultra Laundry Detergent

Planet Ultra
Laundry Detergent
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

Seventh Generation Natural Laundry Detergent, Free and Clear

Seventh Generation Natural Laundry
Detergent, Free & Clear
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

Whole Foods 365 Everday Value 2X Concentrated Laundry Detergent

Whole Foods 365 Everday Value 2X
Concentrated Laundry Detergent
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy

 

Fabric Softener & Dryer Sheets

What we WERE using at goop:
Downy Ultra Liquid Fabric Softener in Clean Breeze

Downy Ultra Liquid Fabric
Softener in Clean Breeze
EWG GRADE: D

Bounce Fabric Softener Sheets

Bounce Fabric Softener Sheets
EWG GRADE: D

What we ARE using now:
Green Shield Organic Fabric Softener in Lavender Mint

Green Shield Organic Fabric
Softener in Lavender Mint
EWG GRADE: A

Where To Buy


Ready to learn more?

“These excellent books will give anyone a next-level education in the toxins that surround us—and more importantly, what we can do about them!,” says Renfrew.

Healthy Child, Healthy World, Christopher Gavigan

Healthy Child, Healthy World,

Christopher Gavigan

Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, Stacy Malkan

Not Just a Pretty Face:
The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,

Stacy Malkan

Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in the Age of Environmental Crisis, Sandra Steingraber

Raising Elijah: Protecting Our
Children in the Age of Environmental Crisis,

Sandra Steingraber

No More Dirty Looks, Siobhan O'Connor & Alexandra Spunt

No More Dirty Looks,

Siobhan O’Connor & Alexandra Spunt

Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival? Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peter Meyers

Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening
Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?

Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski,
and John Peter Meyers


The Goop Clean Cleaner Shopping List

Since it’s hard to keep everything straight, we made an easy-to-use shopping checklist with all the products we’re using now.

Cleaning Checklist

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