How to Go Green: Women's Personal Care

Photo credit: sunshinecity/Creative Commons

Personal care is a big subject, but we'll focus on caring for our general appearance: Cleansing and cosmetics, hair care, skin care, makeup, hair removal and, of course, that time of the month most women deal with. We are bombarded daily with the coaxing of the worldwide cosmetics industry as it tries to sell us products which guarantee to make us look younger, thinner, and more gorgeous.

Are personal care products safe?
Sadly, these products are not regulated to a level that would make most people feel very safe. Many of these products contain ingredients with dubious implications (many of which are petroleum derived), as well as potentially toxic agents that are not even included on the label. There are, however, easy and affordable alternatives available to every consumer.

Greening your personal care
This guide aims to give you some general information, to point you in the right direction and inspire you to make a few small changes in your own routine. If we are going to invest so much time and money in our personal care and appearance, doesn't it makes sense to do so in a productive way that doesn't harm ourselves or our environment? Read on for more tips.

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Top Green Women's Personal Care Tips

  1. Make your own beauty treatments at home
    If you are keen to escape the marketing hype and save yourself some money you can always go into your kitchen and concoct some of your own delicious beauty treatments. That way you'll know exactly what's in the mix without having worry about identifying harmful chemicals on the back of the bottle and you can choose whatever ingredients you want. Although homemade means more time, it also means more satisfaction. Have a look at the links to the From the Archives section where you'll find some great homemade recipes.

  2. Look at the label
    The biggest and most complicated issue regarding the cosmetics we use are the unregulated chemicals that are used to make them. From the consumer's point of view there are certain common substances to look out for (more on that in the Personal Care Product Ingredient section). The best advice is to learn the main ones to avoid and then check the product ingredient label. Or rather than scouring every label, you can also choose a cosmetics company that has signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics compact and uses certified organic and natural ingredients.

  3. Look for certified organic products
    The above information might seem scary and cast all sorts of doubts over the products you are currently using, but, in the Personal Care Product Ingredient section, we explain clearly the key ingredients to watch out for. On the positive side there are plenty of products that are not only cruelty free, but certified organic as well. A word of warning though, don't be taken in by words such as Natural, Organic, or Hypoallergenic on the packaging; you need to make sure that the product has a certified label. You can look for the Eco-Cert label as well as the USDA Organic seal which is used in 80 countries around the world. Using organically produced ingredients ensures that not only are your cosmetics healthy for the environment, but it also means you don't have to worry about your skin absorbing chemical residues either.

  4. Use aluminum-free deodorant
    Aluminum, which is commonly used in antiperspirants, has been found to not only cause skin irritation, but the inflammation caused may spread beyond the areas where the antiperspirant is being applied, leading to more general inflammation. Antiperspirants also have another downside: by blocking pores, they prevent the body from eliminating toxins through perspiration, which reduces the body's ability to regulate its temperature. Instead of using antiperspirant, try using natural deodorant brands that don't contain aluminum, or try the crystal stick which uses natural mineral salts. Get more details in this BBC report.

  5. Brush with natural toothpaste
    Unfortunately, while we like a bright smile, many major brands of toothpaste contain chemicals like parabens, titanium dioxide for whitening, and high levels of fluoride. There has been concern for some time about the level of fluoride that we ingest on a daily basis both through drinking water and toothpaste. While we are told that fluoride helps fight tooth decay, high doses can also be poisonous. Since mid-1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated all toothpastes containing fluoride to carry a poison warning. Luckily, as with deodorants, there are natural toothpastes on the market. Many people also find that just using a bit of baking soda will do the trick as well.

  6. Tame your mane with healthy hair care
    The number of products we women put in our hair must easily outnumber the amount we put on our skin. Shampoo, conditioner, serum, wax, gel, hair spray, color...the list goes on. Hair, like the skin, is extremely absorbent and all those products can contain potentially harmful chemicals. Watch out for: shampoos and conditioners containing petroleum products; hair dyes with carcinogenic coal tar (N.B. coal tar can also be present in strong dandruff and psoriasis shampoos); hairsprays and hair gels containing petroleum derivatives, formaldehyde, phthalates, and synthetic fragrance. Read the Personal Care Product Ingredient section for more information on all these chemicals, and check out our Personal Care Products section to find brands that make safe alternatives for all these products.

  7. Choose petroleum-free products
    Most of us aren't too keen on the overuse of fossil fuels anymore. There are a surprising number of petroleum derivatives to be found in not only our cosmetics but also in other personal care products such as the plastics used in sanitary pads. Mineral oil, paraffin, and propylene glycol can be found as basic ingredients in the majority of cosmetic products. Once again, is it essential to read the ingredients and look for certified labels. One of the most obvious products using petroleum is lip balm and lip gloss--we'd go for the beeswax instead!

  8. Get a healthy, chemical-free tan
    There is much debate about the actual efficacy of SPF factors as well as studies into the potentially harmful ingredients used in sunscreens. According to The Ecologist, "Because sun creams encourage a false sense of security, we stay out in the sun far longer than is smart or safe. Few of us apply sun creams as regularly or as thickly as manufacturers recommend. Chemicals that provide sun protection are also potentially irritating to the skin, and irritated skin is more prone to sun damage. Emerging research also suggests that some of these chemicals are oestrogen mimics that persist in the environment and in the body." We still think it's important to protect our skin, so look for natural sun creams and/or cover up in the sun and stay out of the midday heat.

  9. Avoid animal testing
    We're sure that even those of us who aren't vegetarian or vegan would agree that testing cosmetics on animals is unnecessary and unethical. Look for the Humane Cosmetics Standard (HCS)label on products to check they are cruelty-free. It is the world's only international standard for cosmetic or toiletry products that are not animal tested. The HCS was launched in 1998 by an international coalition of animal protection groups from across the European Union and North America, including the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments.

  10. Stay healthy with organic tampons and sanitary pads
    It is well known that tampons come emblazoned with warnings about toxic shock syndrome (TSS). While rare, it still does occur in women who use super-absorbent and synthetic tampons. However TSS is not the only health danger in using these products. The chlorine bleaching that is used to make tampons and sanitary pads look "clean" produces dioxin, a known carcinogen and pollutant. Dioxin settles in the fat cells of our bodies and stays there for the rest of our lives, building up cumulatively over time. Therefore, increased exposure means increased risk. We recommend looking for 100 percent cotton tampons and sanitary pads, organic if possible.

  11. Avoid the landfill altogether with menstrual cups
    Another way of avoiding the toxins related to tampons and sanitary pads is to use a menstrual cup. This has several benefits. Not only is it reusable, but you will be saving money every month by not buying all those disposable products. Furthermore, if you are not buying them then you won't be needing to dispose of them, therefore sending less to landfill. A menstrual cup is convenient, cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment too. There are cups made from rubber and silicone, however it is thought that the silicone cups are better for those who might have sensitive skin or are allergy prone.

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More Info on Women's Cosmetics and Skincare

Numbers, stats, and figures that put your personal care decisions in a greener context. Compute, learn, enjoy, repeat.

  • $35 billion: The size of the booming cosmetics industry. Major loopholes in U.S. federal law allow this industry to put virtually unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing, no monitoring of health effects, and inadequate labeling requirements.

  • 33 percent: Personal care products that contain at least one chemical linked to cancer, according to the Skin Deep report by the Environmental Working Group, a partner of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

  • 2 billion: Number of disposable razors end up in U.S. landfills each year.

  • 38,000: Number of animals that die needlessly in the EU every year in tests for new cosmetic products, according to animal welfare groups.

  • 77 percent: Percentage of rinse-off cosmetics that contain parabens; the figure rises to 99 percent for leave-on cosmetics such as sunscreens.

  • £182 million: Annual revenue from the U.K. sun-care market. Government advice for us all to cover up has boosted the sales of higher protection factor creams. SPF 15 and SPF 25 are now the U.K.'s most popular choices. Unfortunately the higher the SPF, the more chemicals the cream will contain.

  • 7: SPF rating of the average T-Shirt; 85 percent of fabrics tested in an Australian study had an SPF of 20 or more.

  • $3 billion: Revenue from the skincare market, the leading segment of the personal care industry; hair care has showed the strongest growth in the past 5 years.

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Details on Women's Personal Care Product Ingredients


"Parabens are a group of chemicals widely used as preservatives in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. They can be found in shampoos, commercial moisturizers, shaving gels, cleansing gels and personal lubricants. Parabens have been found to cause skin irritation, contact dermatitis, or allergic skin reactions," according to Wikipedia. There was also a study showing parabens present in breast cancer tissue samples, this was linked to use of underarm deodorants, but many say there needs to be more research carried out before a causal link between parabens in cosmetics and breast cancer can be proven. You might not see the word parabens, but that does not mean they are not there, as these chemicals might be listed as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben or butylparaben.


This group of industrial chemicals is linked to birth defects and is used in many cosmetic products from nail polish to deodorant. Phthalates are not listed as ingredients on product labels; they can only be detected through laboratory analysis. In April 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC)--a coalition of environmental, social justice, and consumer groups--learned that the FDA has completed a study on the safety of phthalates in cosmetics but is refusing to release its findings. According to preliminary information uncovered by the CSC, two-thirds of health and beauty products analyzed by the FDA late last year contained phthalates.

Two of the most toxic phthalates, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), have been banned from cosmetics products sold in the European Union but remain unregulated in the U.S. In response to the FDA's refusal to publicly release this information, Friends of the Earth, a founding member of the CSC, has filed a a href="">Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the study. OPI Products, the world's largest nail polish manufacturer, has removed dibutyl phthalate from its European product lines, but OPI refuses to remove the toxic phthalate from nail products it sells in the U.S.


"Thousands of different chemicals are permitted to be used in perfume and they do not have to be listed on the product label. Fragrances have been linked to breathing difficulties and allergies. A typical cosmetic can contain 50-100 chemicals in the perfume. About 2,600 chemicals are commonly used in perfume; 95% of chemicals used in perfumes and as fragrances in cosmetics are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. Because perfumes are of low molecular weight they can easily penetrate the skin," according to the Guardian.


"Mineral oil and petroleum are the basic ingredients in many cosmetic products today. Both mineral oil and petroleum have the same origins in fossils fuels. Cosmetics such as foundations, cleansers, and moisturizers often contain mineral oil. By locking moisture against the skin, mineral oil sits on the skin's surface and can potentially block pores. This may cause the appearance of pimples because the skin cannot properly 'breathe'. Fragrances in lotions, shampoos, and many other cosmetic products are composed of aromatic hydrocarbons. Perfumes and products containing fragrance can contain many hundreds of chemicals to produce a distinct scent. A significant number of these aromas are derived from petroleum. One popular chemical additive that carries moisture in cosmetics is propylene glycol. It is also a derivative of petroleum. Past research links propylene glycol to serious health problems as liver and kidney damage as well as respiratory irritation or nausea if swallowed." Thanks to The Organic Makeup Company for the info.

Plastics in sanitary pads

"Since 1985, the trend has been towards thinner sanitary pads using less wood-based pulp and increased use of synthetic super absorbents made from petroleum. Apertured plastic film is mostly used as a cover on sanitary pads and liners today, and is often called the 'Dri-weave top sheet'. In reality, it is simply just loaded polyethylene film - or plastic with holes in to you and me... Disposal of used sanitary products is either by flushing out to sea, incineration, or depositing in landfill sites. Various pollutants, including dioxins, are continually deposited in the sea through sewage waste and air pollution from incinerators. This not only irreversibly damages and contaminates fish and other sea life; it inevitably results in human exposure to these toxins when we consume these plants and animals," according to NatraCare.

Carcinogenic coloring

"The Environmental Working Group found that seventy one hair dye products contain ingredients derived from carcinogenic coal tar. Coal tar hair dyes are one of the few products for which FDA has issued consumer advice on the benefits of reducing use, in this case as a way to potentially 'reduce the risk of cancer' (FDA 1993)."

Details on the E.U. Cosmetics Directive

In September 2005, an amendment to the E.U.'s Cosmetics Directive took hold, which requires companies doing business in Europe to eliminate chemicals in their cosmetics that are known or strongly suspected of being carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins. Of the thousands of questionable chemicals in these products, the directive targets about 450. (Compare that to the nine chemicals the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned or restricted in personal care products.) However, California has followed the EU's lead. Hoping to emulate the EU's efforts, California state senator Carole Migden has introduced the California Safe Cosmetic Act of 2005. This bill would require manufacturers selling cosmetic products in California to provide the state Department of Health Services with a list of their products and to identify products that contain chemicals identified as carcinogens or reproductive toxins. And another recent bill (AB 908), introduced by Assemblywoman Judy Chu would ban phthalates DBP and DEHP from cosmetics sold in the state.

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Where to Get Organic Women's Personal Care Products

Here are some of our favorites. Most sites can either sell directly or direct you to online stores that carry their products.
Beauty & Cosmetic Products

Menstrual Products

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Women's Personal Care: From the Archives

Dig deeper into these articles on women's personal care from the TreeHugger and Planet Green archives.

TreeHugger's Fashion + Beauty and Food + Health archive sections are a gold mine of information about female personal care. There are numerous posts on beauty products, eco-friendly brands, and personal hygiene issues. You can browse this section for inspiration at your leisure, but in the meantime the links below are posts related to the key points made in this guide. Many posts have generated reader comments that are also useful and thought provoking threads to follow.

Ready to dig deeper into skin care? Our guide for How to Go Green: Natural Skin Care will show you how to make beauty more than just skin deep.

Do it yourself

Here's a recipe for homemade lemon hand treatment that gently sloughs away rough patches, moisturizes, and brightens skin with sugar, coconut oil, and lemon juice.

A how-to guide on making soap at home--not quite as simple as the lemon hand treatment above but still it's worth a go!

A few suggestions on how to make the most of tea tree oil and its very useful natural antibacterial properties.

Planet Green has a wealth of DIY personal care info, including shaving cream, eco-friendly cosmetics, rose-scented lotion, bath bombs, and three ways to make your own shampoo, just to name a few.

Green women's personal care products

You can get paraben-free products from Bon Santé.
The Organic Pharmacy is a one-stop shop for organic lotions and potions, selling their own brand and others such as Dr. Hauscka and Living Nature.
Avalon Organics insures their Baby Avalon line does not contain synthetic fragrances, artificial colors, parabens, mineral oil, petrolatum, propylene glycol or sulfates.
The Razor Saver resharpens disposable razors and pays for itself in no time.

Lunapads makes all sorts of female protection products such as menstrual pads, panties, cups and sponges, all washable and reusable.
The Mooncup is a menstrual cup to be used as an alternative to using tampons and sanitary towels, therefore reducing the amount going into landfill and saving yourself money in the process.
The Keeper is a rubber alternative to the Mooncup.
Yes, even lubes have petrochemcicals and parabens in them. Sylk Personal Lubricant is a 100 percent natural lubricant to keeps things slippery when wet!

TreeHugger investigates...

Check out TreeHugger's top five picks in the personal care aisle.
TreeHugger interviewed Anita Boen, manager and resident herbal expert at Rancho Tres Estrellas, a small organic farm that provides herbs, fruits and vegetables for the world-renown destination spa, Rancho La Puerta.

We look at the Ethical Consumer's investigation of the concern that the chemicals in the suntan lotion itself may be something to be wary of.

Take a closer look at the trend of transexualizing fish and the sunscreen connection.
Dig deeper into the growth of the natural skincare industry over the last few years. It also has information abut the U.S. government's ruling on organic labeling of beauty products.
As Europe reformulates the world's makeup, see how the U.S.'s beauty product market could be overhauled.

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Further Reading on Women's Personal Care

The following are links to many more articles and websites where you can carry on with your own research into the impact of the beauty products we use on the environment and our own bodies.
Caring Consumer is PETA's website dedicated to cruelty-free products.
Chemical Safe Skincare is the U.K.'s source for safe, non-toxic skincare.

The Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association has current legislation for personal care in U.K.
The Ecologist looks behind the label at suncream.

Skin Deep: A personal care product safety guide with in-depth information on 14,841 products from the Environmental Working Group, and The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has tons of information on ongoing efforts to make cosmetics cleaner and greener.

The Scotsman reports on Beauty's Beasts.
Read Shirley's Wellness Café to learn more about what you should know about toxic cosmetics.
The Organic Make-Up Company has the scoop with "Petroleum and Cosmetics: What are the Potential Health Risks?"
The Organic Pharmacy investigates carcinogens in cosmetics.

The American Cancer Society page on antiperspirants and breast cancer
Other products, certifications, and resources
The Fluoride Action Network is working hard to find a safe way for us to clean our teeth.
What's the secret for white teeth? Not Toothpaste!!!! according to this green fertility blog.

Is Fluoride: Making Toothpaste a Toxic Drug? This report concludes as much.
Whiter than white? The ethical dilemmas behind our sparkling smiles from Ethiscore.

Toxins in your home
Check out Greenpeace's The Chemical Home for analysis of where toxins are lurking in your home.
The Guardian takes you on a toxic tour of your bathroom.

Eco-Cert is the global inspection and certification body working in more than 80 countries to regulate organic products.
Environmental Health News is a go-to source for the connection between personal care and health.
There are lots of Homemade Beauty Recipes from The All-Natural Beauty Mall.
Natracare investigates the connection between your health and the environment.

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