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Your personal-care products contain toxic chemicals

“May I have that?” A hand pointed to a hand sanitizer placed next to a bilingual sign that read: PLEASE AVOID THIS HAND SANITIZER, MAY CONTAIN TOXINS.

“May I have that?” A recurring request at our local community center. The sign that spelled out the actual dangers of the product and warned of its use stood at eye level with the inquiring souls, yet the sign was merely white noise in the way of people’s needs.

Do you remember at the start of COVID-19, think March 2020, manufacturers started to produce hand sanitizers to meet the growing public health recommendations for all of us to stay healthy through continual hand washing. And products were scarce. Yet, with so much access to information, our response was still: Available products, even with toxins, are better than none.

The average American uses roughly 12 personal care products a day, resulting in exposure to roughly 168 unique chemicals. Most of us give little thought to those esoteric words that line the back of packaging. It’s on the grocery store shelf. How bad could they be? Bad. And regulation is needed. Left on our own, we reach for anything.

The $84 billion personal care product industry can and does use toxic chemicals linked to serious health harm. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires manufacturers to provide information every four years on the chemicals they produce domestically or import into the U.S. According to the EPA’s Chemical Data Reporting, it was found that 8,707 chemicals are used.

Our low-income neighbors are at higher risk of being exposed to harmful chemicals. According to Jose T. Bravo, national coordinator for the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, people who are on a tight budget are confined to shopping at variety discount stores. Indeed, it’s estimated that 40% of variety discount store customers depend on government assistance. Cheaper products, of course, doesn’t mean better. A coalition of 100 organizations in the U.S. called The Campaign for Healthier Solutions tested variety discount store products for toxic chemicals. They found over 81% contained at least one hazardous chemical, including phthalates, linked to birth defects, reduced fertility and cancer.

I’ve witnessed this “I’ll use any product” mentality first hand. At our local community center where I work with neighbors eligible for government assistance, I bought a hand sanitizer from a variety discount store that was recently recalled by the FDA — the product was manufactured in Mexico and contained methanol, which can be toxic when absorbed through the skin. The intention was to sound the alarm; to encourage people to avoid such products. But “may I have that” was the request.

Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced a landmark bill at the end of 2019 — the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act, H.R. 4296 — the only federal cosmetic safety legislation that would immediately ban more than a dozen of the worst toxic chemicals from products and address the over-exposure of disenfranchised communities to toxic chemicals. The bill has been referred to the Subcommittee on Health chaired by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. This is an important step toward updating Title VI of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

Most recently, Congress passed the Food and Drug Omnibus Reform Act of 2022, which includes the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act (MoCRA). The reform increases the safety of beauty products for consumers.

Just as prominent as hand sanitizer has been over the last year, so too was lack of media literacy, i.e., the fake news streaming throughout our feeds. Sure, knowing the source of what you’re putting in your brain is important. But knowing what we put in our bodies should be our first line of defense.

It’s the lack of product literacy that has us hanging on to that proverbial ledge and then taking the clinched fingers off that ledge of our low-income neighbors. Let’s become knowledgeable consumers of what we put in our bodies. We can’t let what we think we need from our products outweigh what we know to be true: Our products, including hand sanitizers, are laced with toxins.

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