How to Begin a Low-Tox Personal Care Routine
How to Begin a Low-Tox Personal Care Routine
By Marisa Zeppieri Posted 10-05-2022
Reviewed by Bill Rawls, MD
Medical Director of Vital Plan

Radiant skin. Fewer wrinkles. Smaller pores. In 2021, skin care and beauty brands spent over 7.5 billion dollars in advertising, touting healthier, more youthful, and hydrated skin. And consumers bought a plethora of products — to the tune of $100 billion in the U.S. alone in 2020. In fact, the average woman uses 12 personal care products daily and has exposure to over 168 chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) — a team of scientists, lawyers, and policy experts working to reform chemical safety laws. Men aren’t far behind either, with six personal care products per day and exposure to more than 80 chemicals.

While it’s understandable to strive for healthy, radiant skin, ads and product labels aren’t being entirely truthful about the chemicals going on and in your skin. Shouldn’t consumers be privy to the harmful health ingredients many of today’s standard personal care products contain?

You might assume the products available for purchase have been tested and are safe, but sadly this isn’t the case. As of January 2022, the European Union has banned 1,693 chemicals from being used in skin care and beauty products because of direct links to being mutagenic, carcinogenic, and toxic to reproductive organs. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has labeled only 11 chemicals as unsafe for use. Unless it’s a color additive, the FDA doesn’t preapprove ingredients in personal care items and leaves that job up to the beauty industry itself.

With vague ingredient labels and little help from the FDA, it’s up to consumers to take it upon themselves to pick health-conscious products.

Skin Care Chemicals 101

With this knowledge, it’s easy to understand why many people have begun to transition to a low-tox (AKA low-toxin) personal care routine in hopes of lessening the body’s burden and potential health risks by reducing chemical overload. Of course, chemicals aren’t fundamentally good or bad, but if science shows that a specific percentage of a particular chemical ingested, absorbed, or inhaled has harmful or toxic consequences, it might be in our best interest to limit exposure to those ingredients.

pale woman rubbing lotion onto her wrist

So why are there so many chemicals in our skincare products in the first place? Certain chemicals first entered the personal care product scene as preservatives, possessing antibacterial and antifungal properties. Because many personal care products are water-based, they can act as a breeding ground for mold and specific bacteria, most often E.coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Candida albicans. Besides preventing harmful microbes from forming, these preservatives proved to be multi-beneficial to manufacturers by significantly increasing product shelf-life.

But not all preservatives have the same safety profile, and you may want to avoid some altogether when choosing your next personal care product.

Red-Flag Chemicals to Avoid

You’ve most likely had an experience where you’ve looked at the ingredient label on a product and were left scratching your head. Though you can become a well-versed ingredient detective with time and extensive research, there are a few chemicals to become familiar with right now if you want to prioritize a low-tox skin care routine.

“Most people care about what they put in their body, but they don’t understand that what they put on their body affects hormones, their health, and the environment,” says expert vegan esthetician Amber Rose Johnson, who studied product ingredients at UCLA and is the founder of The Facial Lounge in Corona Del Mar, California. For instance, certain ingredients may mimic estrogen in the body and could be problematic for some people.

Parabens and fragrances are at the forefront of the list of chemical ingredients you might want to minimize your exposure to, suggests Johnson. “The most commonly used ingredient is paraben — a substance that disrupts an organism’s endocrine system that is very easily absorbed by human skin.”

icon of lotion bottle

Parabens

Parabens are a cheap preservative found in many personal care products on the market, most often shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and face cleansers. Health concerns related to parabens include endocrine disorders, skin cancer, and developmental and reproductive toxicity, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), a science-based advocacy organization aimed at making beauty and personal care products safer. Common terms that signal parabens are used in a product include:

  • Ethylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Methylparaben
  • Propylparaben

icon of perfume

Fragrance

The word “fragrance” listed on any product is another red flag. “Fragrances are found in almost all conventional products. Generally, the better something smells, the worse it will be for your skin,” says Johnson.

Additionally, more than 3,000 chemicals are used to make fragrance compounds, as indicated by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). Some fragrances may pose health risks, such as allergies, sensitivities, migraines, and even more severe conditions. The ingredients making up a product’s fragrance are protected as a “trade secret” and therefore do not require the company to list the chemicals on the product label, says the CSC.

With consumers being left in the dark about the actual fragrance chemicals being used, it’s important to recognize fragrance can show up on a product label as: parfum, perfume, aroma, and essential oil blend.

Here are other potentially harmful ingredients to keep in mind:

icon of lipstick and skin cream

Petrolatum

A byproduct of petroleum, petrolatum has no known health concerns if properly refined, however, most petrolatum in the U.S. is not fully refined. This means it’s typically contaminated with PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Fourteen PAHS have potential carcinogenic health risks, suggests the CSC and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Often found in lotions and cosmetics, keep a look out for the following versions of petrolatum on labels: petroleum jelly, mineral oil, paraffin oil, and white petroleum.

icon of sunscreen

PABA

PABA first came on the personal care product scene in the 1970s as it can efficiently filter out UVB radiation. Many of today’s products use PABA derivatives, most often Padimate or OD-PABA in sunscreens. Health concerns regarding PABA include allergic dermatitis, hypersensitivity, and thyroid disruption. Look for terms like Padimate O, OD-PABA, Para-aminobenzoic acid, and Et-PABA on labels.

icon of toothpaste and toothbrush

Triclosan

Normally found in detergents, soaps, toothpaste, deodorants, and even fabrics, concentrations of triclosan have been found in urine, according to a study in Environmental Health Perspectives. The study suggests this antimicrobial agent has been linked to endocrine disruption and may negatively impact thyroid function. Research has also shown that hormone-sensitive breast cancer cells may display increased cell growth and multiplication when introduced to the chemical. On labels, you can find this chemical listed as Triclosan (TSC) or Triclocarban (TCC).

How to Begin a Low-Tox Personal Care Routine

Wondering how to reduce the concentration of chemicals bombarding your body? Enter a low-tox lifestyle – one where you make informed, conscious decisions about what you’re putting in and on your body. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Boost Your Low-Tox Personal Care Routine from the Inside Out.

The above red-flag ingredients and many others are actually “collagen crunchers” – toxic substances that accelerate damage to the skin, says Dr. Bill Rawls, Medical Director of Vital Plan.

In addition to learning chemical terminology and choosing products wisely to reduce the chemical load on the body, supplements that specifically target skin health from the inside out complement a low-tox lifestyle, suggests Dr. Rawls. These include:

2. Check Your Labels.

Knowledge of commonly used, harmful chemicals, learning how to read labels, and discovering transparent brands are a few of the initial yet crucial steps to transitioning to a low-tox personal care routine. Some of the best resources available online for research include The Good Face Project, EWG, Think Dirty, and CSC.

3. Swap Old Products for New Ones as Your Budget Allows.

​​Once you feel more confident about your ingredient knowledge, commit to switching one to two products at a time. Like adopting any new routine, show yourself grace and allow time to make a full transition. It may not be monetarily feasible to throw out all of your existing products immediately, so you might choose to use the products you currently have until they run out, then replace them with a low-tox option.

4. Talk with Others about Your Low-Tox Endeavors.

Consider how or if you’ll need to approach others about your desire to switch to low-tox products in your household, especially if you don’t live alone. If you desire to rally others to join you, try using “us” or “we” statements to convey your goal of minimizing added chemicals in the house rather than singling out one specific person or a product as “bad.” Sharing your research with them about the harmful health implications of certain chemicals may help you gain support. Plus, once people know naturally-derived products can be as effective as synthetic ones, they’ll be more likely to make the switch!

If the idea of trading in your skin care routine for a new one seems overwhelming, never fear. In time, implementing low-tox products will become easier for you and your household. As you make small changes, you’ll feel more confident knowing you’re reducing chemical overload and toxin exposure, lowering potential chemical-related health problems, and improving your skin’s overall quality and health through smarter ingredient choices.

The Cellular Wellness Solution

Discover more in Dr. Bill Rawls’ new #1 Bestselling book: The Cellular Wellness Solution: Tap Into Your Full Health Potential with the Science-Backed Power of Herbs.

An eye-opening and empowering book that the world needs right now: The Cellular Wellness Solution will fundamentally change how you think about herbs and the powerful role they play in cultivating wellness at the cellular level.”

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Mark Hyman, MD
Fourteen-time #1 New York Times Bestselling Author

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References
1. Calafat AM, Ye X, Wong LY, Reidy JA, Needham LL. Urinary concentrations of triclosan in the U.S. population: 2003-2004. Environ Health Perspect. 2008 Mar;116(3):303-7. doi: 10.1289/ehp.10768
2. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Prohibited & restricted ingredients in cosmetics. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-laws-regulations/prohibited-restricted-ingredients-cosmetics. Accessed September 14, 2022.
3. Guttmann A. Beauty ad spend worldwide 2022. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1235602/beauty-ad-spend-world/. Published May 14, 2021. Accessed September 14, 2022.
4. Guttmann A. Topic: Beauty and cosmetics advertising in the U.S. Statista. https://www.statista.com/topics/8105/beauty-and-cosmetics-advertising-in-the-us/#topicHeader__wrapper. Accessed September 14, 2022.
5. 5 things you need to know about preservatives in cosmetic. Innovation for the Next Generation of Beauty. https://thegoodfaceproject.com/articles/preservatives. Accessed September 14, 2022.
6. Halla N, Fernandes IP, Heleno SA, et al. Cosmetics preservation: A review on present strategies. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6099538/. Published June 28, 2018. Accessed September 14, 2022.
7. Huang H, Du G, Zhang W, Hu J, Wu D, Song L, Xia Y, Wang X. The in vitro estrogenic activities of triclosan and triclocarban. J Appl Toxicol. 2014 Sep;34(9):1060-7. doi: 10.1002/jat.3012
8. Fragrance. Safe Cosmetics. https://www.safecosmetics.org/chemicals/fragrance/. Published July 15, 2022. Accessed September 14, 2022.
9. Laws & Regulations on chemicals in Cosmetics. Safe Cosmetics. https://www.safecosmetics.org/resources/regulations/. Published June 9, 2022. Accessed September 14, 2022.
10. PABA. Safe Cosmetics. https://www.safecosmetics.org/chemicals/paba/. Published April 26, 2022. Accessed September 14, 2022.
11. Parabens. Safe Cosmetics. https://www.safecosmetics.org/chemicals/parabens/. Published July 7, 2022. Accessed September 14, 2022.
12. Personal Care Products Safety Act would improve cosmetics safety. Environmental Working Group. https://www.ewg.org/personal-care-products-safety-act-would-improve-cosmetics-safety#:~:text=On%20average%2C%20women%20use%2012,themselves%20to%2085%20unique%20chemicals. Accessed September 14, 2022.
13. Triclosan. Safe Cosmetics. https://www.safecosmetics.org/chemicals/triclosan/. Published April 22, 2022. Accessed September 14, 2022.

About the Medical Director
Dr. Bill Rawls
Dr. Rawls is a licensed medical doctor in North Carolina and a leading expert in integrative health. He has extensive training in alternative therapies, and is the Medical Director of Vital Plan, a holistic health and herbal supplement company in Raleigh, NC.
  • Dr. Bill Rawls

    ABOUT BILL RAWLS, M.D.

    Dr. Rawls’ groundbreaking approach to wellness comes from decades of practicing medicine, extensive research in alternative therapies, and firsthand experience helping thousands find their path to wellness. Dr. Rawls is a best-selling author, Medical Director and Co-Founder of Vital Plan, a holistic health company and Certified B Corporation.

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