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The Clinic is a joint project of UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, Mission Loc@l and UCB’s Graduate School of Journalism. Our goal is to join capacities in science and journalism to translate environmental health research findings into prevention-oriented action to improve the lives of the people who live in the Mission and beyond.

When it comes to good health, what we put on our bodies can be just as important as what we put in them. Consider this: The average American woman uses a dozen personal care products a day, from shampoo and deodorant to makeup, lotion, face cream and soap. For many of us, this means daily exposures to more than 160 chemicals –- before even leaving the house.

So what’s in this stuff that we rub on our skin and slather in our hair every day? The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of health and environmental groups headquartered in San Francisco at the Breast Cancer Fund, has been researching that question for several years. The answers are not pretty.

Carcinogens are commonly found in cosmetics: More than a third of all personal-care products contain at least one chemical linked to cancer, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. Many cosmetics also contain hormone-disrupting chemicals that can act like estrogen in the body, which raises concerns about increased breast cancer risk. Learn more about the links between estrogenic chemicals and breast cancer in this video by Cornell University.

Babies are bathing in toxic tubs: According to recent product tests, many children’s bath products –- including brands like Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and Sesame Street Bubble Bath -– contain formaldehyde and 1,4 dioxane. Both chemicals are known to cause cancer in animals. Formaldehyde is also a potent allergen. The chemicals are not listed on labels, and contaminated products are often marketed as “pure,” “gentle” and “for sensitive skin.”

Fragrance chemicals are not so sexy: Colognes, perfumes and body sprays contain many ingredients of concern, including sensitizing chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing and asthma.  A recent study found 10 sensitizing chemicals, on average, in fragrances, so it’s no wonder that 30 percent of those responding to a national survey reported feeling irritated by fragrance products. Many of the fragrances studied also contained diethyl phthalate, a chemical linked to sperm damage.

We can’t trust labeling claims: The recent hair-straightening scandal is a good reminder that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the package. California’s attorney general just filed suit against Brazilian Blowout for advertising its popular hair-straightening products as “formaldehyde-free,” even though some of them contain up to 10 percent formaldehyde. Canada has already pulled the products off the shelves due to health concerns, but they are still being used in salons across the United States.

What’s a health-conscious consumer to do? The bottom line is that companies are selling toxic products even though safer alternatives are available, and the government is not protecting us, so it’s up to us to do our own research to figure out which products and companies we can trust.

The good news is that there are many safer, non-toxic products on the market, and tools are available to help you find them.

Here are five tips for finding safer products:

  1. Simplify: Choose products with fewer chemicals, use fewer products overall, and avoid fragrance –- an undisclosed mix of chemicals likely to contain phthalates.
  2. Look up your favorite products in the Skin Deep database at Choose products with a score of 0-2.
  3. Avoid the Dirty Dozen: Here’s a short list of cosmetic chemicals to avoid. These aren’t the only problematic chemicals in cosmetics, but if a product contains one or more of these ingredients, it’s a sure sign that the company could be doing better.
  4. Tell your friends! There are many good resources online to help you find the safest products and share the information with your networks. Visit and check out our eight-minute movie, “The Story of Cosmetics.”
  5. Support the Safe Cosmetics Act: We can’t just shop our way out of this problem; it’s also necessary to change the law to require companies to phase out carcinogens and be transparent about what’s in their products. For the first time in more than 70 years, we have a real chance to overhaul federal cosmetic regulations to protect health –- but we need your help!  Take action to support the Safe Cosmetics Act.

Together we can give the beauty industry a makeover.

Stacy Malkan is the cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the award-winning book “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.” Read her blog at

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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