Friday, December 19, 2008

What's that carcinogen doing in my shampoo?

Seventh Generation, a company that makes natural cleansers, recently launched an interactive label-reading guide that's available both online, and on web-enabled cell phones.

The guide lists ingredients found in common cleansers, and provides information about how these ingredients are used, and any potential side effects.

The company hopes that consumers will utilize the guide while standing in supermarket aisles. The goal is to have the consumer check a product's ingredient list, notice a suspicious ingredient, then look the ingredient up on their web-enabled cell phone, before purchasing the product.

For those without web-enabled cell phones, the guide is also available through a downloadable widget, for desktops.

In order to create this guide, Seventh Generation's "science guy," Martin Wolfe, led the research and development team as they canvassed supermarket shelves, and took inventory of the hundreds of ingredients and commonly used terms.

"Knowledge is power," company "media maven" Meghan Butler explains. "Seventh Generation has a complete ingredient disclosure policy for all of its products. Consumers have the right to know what is in their cleaners. We want the label reading to guide to be an educational platform for consumers."

Check out the Label Reading Guide here.

source: Seventh Generation Helps Consumers Decode Product Labels, Sustainable Life Media, 12/17/08

This is a smart move for Seventh Generation, a company that lost credibility with consumers earlier this year when the Organic Consumers Association released the results of a study that showed that the chemical byproduct 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen, was included in some Seventh Generation products.

This report was scary because it also included personal care products made by well-known and trusted brands Kiss My Face, Alba, and Nature’s Gate.

Of the 100 products tested, 47 had detectable levels of 1,4-dioxane, which the Environmental Protection Agency has declared a probable human carcinogen because it causes cancer in lab animals.

Most traditional soaps and shampoos contain 1,4-dioxane. But the discovery that the chemical is present in many housecleaning and personal care products, including some for babies, that are advertised as being natural, organic or “green” comes as somewhat of a surprise.

Yes, we need standards! This is a huge priority for me.

But before you abandon Alba shampoo, entirely, check this out:

The carcinogen isn't intentionally added to the products - it's a byproduct of a process used to soften harsh detergents. The 1,4-dioxane is formed when foaming agents, or surfactants, are processed with ethylene oxide or similar petrochemicals.

Natural product companies are trying to avoid it - coconut or other plant oils can be used as surfactants. Companies have also reformulated products and added a process called vacuum-stripping. Yet even with this, traces of the carcinogen still remain, in the parts-per-million range.

Regarding Seventh Generation, the company uses coconut oil in its dish soaps, which although it is processed with a petrochemical and vacuum-stripped, still contains almost 2 parts per million of 1,4-dioxane. In order to remove all traces of the 1.4-dioxane, Seventh Generation would have to use another surfactant that irritates skin, which the company considers unacceptable.

Seventh Generation is “working with several surfactant manufacturers to look for alternatives to this process to modify coconut oil,” Wolf said. “We’re not there yet. We have more work to do.”

For more information about this topic, see this March 14, 2008 LA Times article, Popular ‘green’ products test positive for toxicant.

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