Eco Etiquette: Is My Moisturizer Safe? 5 Petrochemicals to Avoid Now

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I'm a guy who recently started moisturizing my skin (how metrosexual!). I bought a well-known brand -- the men's version of the stuff my wife uses. When I mentioned this to a friend, he cautioned me that this product and others like it contain methylparaben, which apparently has come under scrutiny as a potential carcinogen. Is there anything to this? If so, what would be a better alternative for me and the planet?


I hate to burst your shiny bubble of metrosexual enlightenment, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret: When it comes to your health and the health of the planet, you'd be better off leaving that hope-in-a-jar on the pharmacy shelf where you found it. Although we ladies believe we are "taking care of ourselves" by slathering our bodies with moisturizers, scrubs, night creams, and the like (I'm not even going to start in on makeup and self-tanners), it's all a prettily-packaged, sweet-smelling lie: What we're actually doing is polluting our bodies -- not to mention our waterways -- with a toxic soup of thousands of industrial chemicals.

It always surprises me that my health-conscious friends who scour nutritional labels and ingredient lists for every last trace of high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and preservatives are the same people who don't give a second thought to what's in the cosmetics and personal care products they put on their skin. They should: If Nicoderm and Ortho Evra can be sent directly into your bloodstream via a transdermal patch, it stands to reason that lotion, deodorant, makeup, or whatever you rub into your skin (your body's largest organ) will also make its way into your system.

And whatever encompasses a pretty large pool of offenders: There are currently more than 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States, the majority of which have never been studied and are not regulated. Among them, the methylparaben your friend underscored -- a widely used synthetic preservative that's been linked to breast cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, and developmental defects.

Last month, President Obama's Cancer Panel released a study that sounded the alarm about toxic chemical exposure and cancer; evidently, our failure to regulate yet another industry -- the chemical industry, or more specifically, the petrochemical industry, since most of these chemicals are derived from oil -- has left us vulnerable to an ubiquitous army of unpronounceable carcinogens.

Fortunately, there are safe alternatives out there for the guy who grooms, but I'm not gonna lie: You'll have to become a diligent label reader to find them. Even products that purport to be natural and organic contain ingredients that are potentially hazardous to your health. The second ingredient in Pantene's new Nature Fusion shampoo, for instance, is sodium laureth sulfate, a powerful skin irritant often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a cancer-causing petrochemical that also is used in paint solvents.

Here, five frequent offenders to watch for:

Phthalates. These petrochemical plasticizers once used to soften your child's rubber ducky (and that are linked to sexual development abnormalities) are also used to enhance the fragrance of your favorite personal care products. Companies are not required to list phthalates on labels (except in California), so look for products designated phthalate-free.

Parabens. This group of synthetic, estrogenic preservatives contains the aforementioned methylparaben, along with propylparaben, butylparaben, and pretty much anything with a -paraben in its name. And they're everywhere: A 2006 CDC study found parabens in nearly all of the urine samples collected from over 2,500 American adults.

Fragrance. Since scent is considered a trade secret and is not required by law to be disclosed, the generic term fragrance on a label is actually a catch-all term for nearly 4,000 (mostly man-made) chemicals that can trigger allergies, disrupt hormones, and act as neurotoxins. Unfortunately, even products labeled unscented can contain harmful masking agents, so look for those that specify essential oils in lieu of fragrance.

Sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate. I may have singled out Pantene, above, for its inclusion of what the World Health Organization classifies as a possible carcinogen, but the truth is that SLS, as it's widely known, is an effective detergent found in nearly 90 percent of all commercial shampoos. Even natural hair care lines sold at health food stores can contain the chemical, so read labels carefully.

Oxybenzone. A petrochemical used in sunscreens and other cosmetics because it absorbs UVA rays, oxybenzone, ironically, has also been shown to release compounds that may contribute to skin cancer. Don't want to get burned? Look for mineral sunscreens that list zinc or titanium as their active ingredient.

In doubt? Search for your product among the nearly 60,000 listed on Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetic safety database. Any metrosexual worth his face cream wouldn't moisturize without it.