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Diet & Lifestyle

Choosing High-Quality Personal and Self-Care Products

Fact Checked
Written by
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Alex Keller, ND

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)
  • Deodorant
  • Feminine products
  • Haircare (e.g., shampoo, conditioner)
  • Relaxation (e.g. bath, foot rub, and foot soak products)
  • Muscle and joint pain relief (e.g., cream, gel, scrub)
  • Oral health (e.g., toothpaste, mouthwash, oil pulling products)
  • Recreational (e.g., bug repellant, neck pillow)
  • Sexual health
  • Skincare (e.g., cleanser, toner, moisturizer, exfoliator, lotion, lip balm)

Chemicals found in personal care products can contribute to your overall toxic load.

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)

Quality considerations

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:

  • Bisphenols (e.g., bisphenol A, bisphenol F, bisphenol S) (2)
  • Color additives (e.g., FD&C Blue No. 1, D&C Green No. 6, D&C Orange No. 5) (10)
  • Fragrances and/or perfume (1)
  • Parabens (e.g., butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, n-propyl paraben) (2)
  • Phthalates (e.g., dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP) (7)

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.

Shop quality personal care products by reading ingredient labels and looking for third-party certifications that are important to you.

Allergens

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.

The FDA has identified several of the top allergens present in cosmetics. (11)

Third-party certifications

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:

  • Cruelty-free
  • Hypoallergenic
  • 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)

Follow these simple steps to find non-toxic personal care products.

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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  1. Bridges, B. (2002). Fragrance: Emerging health and environmental concerns. Flavour and Fragrance Journal, 17(5), 361–371.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). National report on human exposure to environmental chemicals. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/index.html
  3. 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/
  4. Ecocert. (n.d.). Our certifications. Retrieved from https://www.ecocert.com/en-CA/certifications-list
  5. Environmental Working Group. (n.d.-a). EWG skin deep® cosmetics database. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
  6. Environmental Working Group. (n.d.-b). EWG’s healthy living app. Retrieved from https://www.ewg.org/apps/
  7. Food and Drug Administration. (2013, December 5). Phthalates. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/phthalates
  8. 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
  9. Food and Drug Administration. (2017a, November 5). Cosmetics labeling claims. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-labeling/cosmetics-labeling-claims
  10. 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
  11. Food and Drug Administration. (2019, December 12). Allergens in cosmetics. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/allergens-cosmetics
  12. 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.
  13. Silent Spring Institute. (n.d.). Detox Me app: Tips for healthier living. Retrieved from https://silentspring.org/detox-me-app-tips-healthier-living
  14. 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
  15. The Non-GMO Project. (n.d.). Product Verification. Retrieved from https://www.nongmoproject.org/product-verification/
  16. The Vegan Society. (n.d.). About the Vegan Trademark. Retrieved from https://www.vegansociety.com/your-business/about-vegan-trademark
  17. Think Dirty. (n.d.). Think Dirty methodology. Retrieved from https://www.thinkdirtyapp.com/methodology/
  18. Vegan Action. (2020, July 13). Certification. Retrieved from https://vegan.org/certification/
  19. 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/

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