Just like the throngs of food companies now jumping on the “natural” bandwagon, grooming product brands want to woo you with this vapid, unregulated marketing term. Don’t be fooled: A splash of coconut water won’t magically make a toxin-laden drugstore shampoo any safer. In fact, according to market research firm Kline & Company, some 75 percent of products claiming to be natural are actually mostly synthetic.
Now, not all lab-created chemicals used in grooming products are harmful, insists Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at the Environmental Working Group. Some are even safer than certain plant-derived natural compounds, she says. However, many synthetic chemicals found in the products you use every day do carry real-deal health risks. Some hijack hormones; some hinder sperm production; some may even cause cancer.
To find grooming products that truly are natural — and safe — you must meticulously read through ingredients lists. Unless you’re a chemistry expert, this can be confusing, so here’s a cheat sheet of the synthetic ingredients you absolutely should avoid.
“Fragrance is a catchall term that can include up to 3,000 ingredients, including phthalates, which are especially concerning for men,” Leiba says. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been linked to low sperm count and poor sperm motility. And since fragrances are considered trade secrets, companies are not required to divulge the chemical cocktails within them. “As a consumer, you have no way of knowing what you’re getting,” Leiba says.
Sometimes you’ll see an asterisk following “fragrance” on an ingredients list with a note saying “derived from natural sources” or something similar. The problem again, says Leiba, is that “natural” is unregulated, so each company gets to make up its own definition for “natural source.” Your best bet is to avoid fragrance altogether whenever possible.
Many grooming companies have begun shunning parabens in response to consumer backlash. Yet these synthetic preservatives are still pervasive in shampoos, conditioners, body washes, shaving gels, and sunscreens. According to Leiba, the longer-chain parabens — namely especially propyl-, butyl-, isopopyl-, and isobutylparaben — are the real problem. They’ve been linked to hormone disruption and breast cancer risk, while shorter-chain parabens such as methyl- and ethylparaben are much safer.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to avoid all parabens,” Leiba says. “Products without preservatives can be just as dangerous because they may harbor harmful bacteria that can get into your skin and eyes.” When scanning ingredients lists, keep your eyes peeled for the big four long-chain parabens and skip any products that contain them.
You’ll never see formaldehyde listed on labels, but this respiratory toxin, skin irritant, and carcinogen lingers within many men’s grooming products, says Leiba. It’s slowly released by certain preservatives, namely DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, and imidzaolidinyl urea. If you spot any of those ingredients, steer clear.
PEGs and -eth Compounds
Avoid products containing PEGs and ingredients that have -eth in their name, such as ceteareth or sodium laureth sulfate. These commonly used chemicals have been ethoxylated, a process intended to make them less harsh. But during ethoxylation, they often become contaminated with a substance called 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen. “Sometimes large companies are able to scrub these ingredients of 1,4-dioxane,” Leiba says. “But you never know whether that’s happened.”
Triclosan and Triclocarban
Many companies are moving away from these synthetic antibacterial agents now that the FDA has deemed them no better at battling harmful bacteria than washing with plain soap and water. Plus, Leiba says both triclosan and its cousin triclocarban mess with thyroid function, contribute to antibiotic resistance, and pollute aquatic ecosystems after they’re flushed down drains. Still, you’ll find triclosan in liquid hand soaps, toothpastes, and antiperspirants, as well as in communal hand-sanitizer pumps in hospitals and clinics. You’ll see triclocarban in antibacterial bar soaps and other solid products.
Vitamin A Compounds
Retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, and retinol are popping up in more and more men’s products, Leiba says. These vitamin A derivatives are safe in night creams, but when exposed to the sun, they get broken down into hazardous free radicals that can cause skin lesions and possibly spur tumor growth. “Avoid face lotion, sunscreen, lip balm, and any day-use products that contain vitamin A compounds,” Leiba says.
This neurotoxin is found in dark-colored hair dyes. “This one’s a huge problem or men because it’s been shown to reduce sperm quantity and quality even at low doses,” Leiba says. If you’re looking for an at-home product to conceal your grays, check any potential purchase for lead acetate.