The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” (19) The act of self-care can involve managing contributing factors, such as hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, environment, and self-medication. (19)
One way to promote your health and well-being through self-care is by using high-quality personal care products. In this article, we’ll provide self-care tips and quality considerations to keep in mind when selecting personal care products.
What are personal care products?
Personal care product (PCP) is a broad term that describes a variety of products used for cosmetic or therapeutic purposes. PCPs are generally not ingested but are used externally or for oral health. (8) Examples of PCP types include:
- Aromatherapy (e.g., essential oils)
- Body care (e.g., deodorant, body lotion and balm, body wash, liquid and bar soap)
- Feminine products (e.g., menstrual cups, intimate cleansers and wipes)
- Haircare (e.g., shampoo, conditioner)
- Relaxation (e.g., bath, foot rub, foot soak products)
- Muscle and joint pain relief (e.g., cream, gel, scrub)
- Oral health (e.g., toothpaste, mouthwash, whitening strips)
- Recreational (e.g., bug repellant, neck pillow)
- Sexual health (e.g., intimate cleansers, lubricants)
- Skincare (e.g., cleanser, toner, moisturizer, exfoliator, oil, lip balm, serum, eye cream)
Personal care product regulations
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates PCPs based on the specific product category they fall under. Many PCPs are considered cosmetics, including deodorant, moisturizer, shampoo, and skin cleanser. Products that are also intended to treat a condition are considered to be both cosmetics and drugs, such as anti-dandruff shampoo, antiperspirant deodorant, fluoride-containing toothpaste, and moisturizers with sun-protection claims. (8)
Products that fall under the cosmetic category are not subject to FDA approval before entering the marketplace. In these cases, the manufacturer is responsible for ensuring the safety of ingredients and products before sale. The one exception is color additives, which must be approved by the FDA to be used as a cosmetic ingredient. (8)
Determining the quality of personal care products involves considering ingredient safety, potential allergens, and third-party certifications. In the end, you will likely have a unique understanding of quality based on the factors that are relevant to your health goals and personal preferences.
Ingredient safety: environmental chemicals
PCPs can increase your exposure to environmental chemicals that may impact your health. These chemicals can enter your body by ingestion, inhalation, and dermal absorption (through the skin). (2) Examples of environmental chemicals found in PCPs include:
- Color additives (e.g., FD&C Blue No. 1, D&C Green No. 6, D&C Orange No. 5) (10)
- Parabens (e.g., butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, n-propyl paraben) (2)
- Phthalates (e.g., dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP)) (7)
- Synthetic fragrances and/or perfume (1)
When you are overexposed to environmental toxins, or if these chemicals accumulate in your body, you may be at risk for conditions such as autoimmune disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological dysfunction, and metabolic conditions. (12) Avoiding these ingredients in your PCPs can help to reduce your exposure to environmental chemicals and the associated adverse outcomes.
Several ingredients found in cosmetic products are allergens, substances that can trigger an allergic reaction in certain individuals. To market products that do not include common allergens, manufacturers may use terms such as “fragrance-free” or “hypoallergenic”, although there are no standard definitions for these terms. If you know or suspect you are allergic to an ingredient, your safest choice is to always check the list of ingredients on the product label. (11)
An ingredient may appear on the label as the general allergen class it belongs to, for example, “fragrance” or “perfume”, making it difficult to identify. (11) The following table lists allergens associated with allergic reactions from personal care products.
There are many product claims used on cosmetic labels that the FDA does not strictly approve before the product is sold. The manufacturer is responsible for the accuracy of these label claims. (9) To promote products, manufacturers may freely use certain terms that have no legal definitions, such as:
- Not tested on animals
- Organic (9)
A variety of third-party organizations independently analyze products to verify whether they meet requirements for certification. Products that have been certified will have the certification logo displayed on the label. Examples of third-party certifications include:
- Fairtrade certifications (e.g., Fair for Life) (4)
- Non-GMO (e.g., Non-GMO Project) (15)
- Not tested on animals (e.g., Leaping Bunny) (14)
- Organic certifications (e.g., Ecocert COSMOS Organic, USDA Organic) (4)
- Vegan (e.g., Certified Vegan, Vegan Trademark) (18)(16)
Resources for selecting high-quality personal care products
There are a number of environmental organizations, such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), that provide lists of potentially harmful ingredients to avoid in PCPs, and shopping guides to help you make informed choices. (3)(5)
There are also apps available that allow you to scan the barcode on a product to help identify toxic chemicals when shopping, such as Think Dirty, EWG Healthy Living, and Detox Me. (17)(6)(13)
The bottom line
When engaging in self-care activities, choose quality personal care products that are safe, and support your well-being. Staying informed about personal care product regulations, ingredient safety, allergens, and third-party certifications can help you make the best choices for yourself.
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- Bridges, B. (2002). Fragrance: Emerging health and environmental concerns. Flavour and Fragrance Journal, 17(5), 361–371.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). National report on human exposure to environmental chemicals. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/index.html
- David Suzuki Foundation. (2020, February 13). “The dirty dozen” cosmetic chemicals to avoid. Retrieved from https://davidsuzuki.org/queen-of-green/dirty-dozen-cosmetic-chemicals-avoid/
- Ecocert. (n.d.). Our certifications. Retrieved from https://www.ecocert.com/en-CA/certifications-list
- Environmental Working Group. (n.d.-a). EWG skin deep® cosmetics database. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
- Environmental Working Group. (n.d.-b). EWG’s healthy living app. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/apps/
- Food and Drug Administration. (2013, December 5). Phthalates. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/phthalates
- Food and Drug Administration. (2016, February 1). Are all “personal care products” regulated as cosmetics? Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/industry/fda-basics-industry/are-all-personal-care-products-regulated-cosmetics
- Food and Drug Administration. (2017a, November 5). Cosmetics labeling claims. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-labeling/cosmetics-labeling-claims
- Food and Drug Administration. (2017b, November 15). Summary of color additives for use in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/industry/color-additive-inventories/summary-color-additives-use-united-states-foods-drugs-cosmetics-and-medical-devices
- Food and Drug Administration. (2019, December 12). Allergens in cosmetics. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/allergens-cosmetics
- Sears, M. E., & Genuis, S. J. (2012). Environmental determinants of chronic disease and medical approaches: Recognition, avoidance, supportive therapy, and detoxification. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 1–15.
- Silent Spring Institute. (n.d.). Detox Me app: Tips for healthier living. Retrieved from https://silentspring.org/detox-me-app-tips-healthier-living
- The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics. (2015, November 2). The corporate standard of compassion for animals (“The Standard”). Retrieved from https://www.leapingbunny.org/about/the-standard
- The Non-GMO Project. (n.d.). Product Verification. Retrieved from https://www.nongmoproject.org/product-verification/
- The Vegan Society. (n.d.). About the Vegan Trademark. Retrieved from https://www.vegansociety.com/your-business/about-vegan-trademark
- Think Dirty. (n.d.). Think Dirty methodology. Retrieved from https://www.thinkdirtyapp.com/methodology/
- Vegan Action. (2020, July 13). Certification. Retrieved from https://vegan.org/certification/
- World Health Organization. (2019, May 15). What do we mean by self-care? Retrieved from https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/self-care-interventions/definitions/en/
It would be really helpful instead of telling us what we can’t use give us some options. Like work with the cosmetic company who is green and clean and give us some recommendations. Trying to search all the things that you told us we shouldn’t be using in cosmetics and then trying to understand it was very overwhelming
Hi LeVeta, thank you for that helpful feedback. We appreciate it! We’ve passed it along to our Medical team. Our article on environmental toxins is a great resource to answer some of your questions, particularly the section on ‘How to decrease exposure to environmental toxins’! The ‘Resources for selecting high-quality personal care products’ and ‘third-party certifications’ sections, in this article, both provide practical information on how to select personal care products that people can apply when shopping. Wishing you a great day ahead, LeVeta!
Beautycounter is a leading non toxic line that supports this movement!
I agreed with everything Laveta said.
I subscribed to a monthly shopping club that has all of the things we are looking for in safe products. From my toothpaste to my shampoo.. to my laundry detergent. The company is called Melalueca… its pretty great stuff. Check it out!
I agree- this information was very interesting, but to put it to use is challenging. I would have been happy to see some vetted suggestions of options we could choose to purchase ( especially shampoo and conditioner as we all use these) . Thanks for the informative article.
LaVeta – A great personal care product company that bans all chemicals and allergens mentioned in this article, and also tests extensively for safety, is Beautycounter. If you’d like more information, I’m happy to answer questions as I’m a consultant. 🙂
I agree. We need a specific list of companies that ARE safe.
Whats really nice is I researched DoTerra products and they are all clean. They don’t carry feminine products though. I liked the article and thanks for listing all the toxic chemicals. I have shared it with many friends. It’s crazy how the government allows toxic chemicals for us to put in or on our bodies when they regulate so many things. As a female its shocking how many chemicals we can actually come in contact on an average day.
Is it possible for you to recommend specific personal care products by brand name so we can know which ones to use? Would really make life easier when trying to figure all this out. Thank-you.
I agree with LaVeta. Sorting through all of this information is overwhelming for the average consumer. A list of safe/healthy products and where to purchase them would be very helpful. I have used the EWG Healthy Living App and most of the products I scan are not in there database, which obviously doesn’t help.
If you have Contact Dermatitis Allergies then GO TO SAFESKIN.COM and they will give you a list of what’s safe for you (personalized) and they can also give you an option to choose products without specific ingredients
I felt the same way a few years ago when I read a similar article about the unregulated beauty / personal care industry in the US. I was overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start to clean up my products. Two suggestions:
1) The EWG which is mentioned in the article has created something called the Skin Deep Database. You can search for the products you use and it will rate them according to the safety of the ingredients.
2) Have you heard of Beautycounter? The company sells skincare, sunscreen and makeup, all without harmful ingredients. Over 1,800 ingredients are never used in their formulations (Beautycounter’s Never List) and the company tests every ingredient against high standards in pursuit of clean beauty. For me, it’s a peace of mind to know that whatever I use from this company is safe. They have products for men and children as well.
Thanks for reaching out! You may find the ‘Resources for selecting high-quality personal care products’ and ‘third-party certifications’ sections, in this article, provide helpful resources and offer information on how to select personal care products that people can apply when shopping. Thanks again for your feedback, World Traveler!
Hi Corrintha! The ‘Resources for selecting high-quality personal care products’ and ‘third-party certifications’ sections of this article go over helpful resources that provide information on how to select personal care products and suggest specific brands.