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Does Your Skin Care Routine Pose A Major Risk For Water Safety?

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Impact of Personal Care Products on Water and the Environment

We've known for several years that prescription drugs like antibiotics, antidepressants, and birth control hormones can pollute our waterways, impact wildlife, and even end up in our drinking water. There is growing evidence that chemicals in personal care products (PCPs), like soaps, lotions, and cosmetics, can also pollute our environment. Like prescription drugs, chemicals in PCPs can either partially or fully evade conventional wastewater treatment. We're now finding them wherever we look: rivers, lakes, oceans, and drinking water. The average American uses nine personal care products per day and some may use up to 15 or more.1 Over time, this can add up in serious ways - for our own health, and our environment.

How do chemicals in PCPs get into the environment?

PCPs enter the environment by several pathways. Most of the PCPs are washed down the drain when we shower, lather, slather, and spritz and inevitably repeat. Furthermore, any chemicals absorbed by our skin are excreted and flushed down the toilet to wastewater treatment plants or septic systems.reated effluent is either released into groundwater, where environmental microbes will treat it further, or it's released directly into surface water. Conventional wastewater treatment plants and septic systems are not able to completely remove prescription medications or chemicals from PCPs, so chemicals remaining after treatment are released with the effluent. Many are surprised to hear that landfills contribute to this pollution as well. The product container you throw away ends up in a landfill where it will break down over time, releasing any remaining product into the earth. Chemicals can then leach into soil and move on to groundwater and then surface water.

What are these chemicals of concern?

Many PCPs contain chemicals that can be toxic not only to people, but also to fish and other wildlife.

Triclosan: This is an antimicrobial chemical commonly found in antibacterial soaps, cosmetics, and toothpastes. It is toxic to many different aquatic organisms and may cause endocrine disruption; the chemical can interfere with hormonal systems, leading to chronic health effects such as reproductive toxicity or cancer. In the presence of sunlight, triclosan can be converted into methyl triclosan, which can be toxic to marine life at lower concentrations than triclosan.2 Furthermore, triclosan can lead to the emergence of drug-resistant microbes which can ultimately impact human health.3

Oxybenzone: This is a common UV filter found in sunscreens and is a suspected endocrine disruptor in humans.4 A recent study also concluded that oxybenzone is extremely toxic to marine coral reefs. The study found that oxybenzone can kill sensitive coral at a concentration of 62 parts per trillion, or one drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool! 5 6

Triclosan and oxybenzone are only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of chemicals used in personal care products. Most are so new that very little is known about their toxicity, and it may be years before enough data is gathered to know if they pose a threat.

So now what?

Trying to navigate the complex world of chemical safety in an attempt to avoid potentially harmful chemicals in PCPs may make you feel like you need an advanced degree in biochemistry, or like you should ditch all your products. So, short of going back to grad school or leading a monastic life free of soap and deodorant, what are some things you can do reduce your exposure and help the environment?

Here are a few tips:

  • Look for products with reputable third party certifications, such as EPA's Safer Choice label, that are rated as being safer for human and environmental health.
  • Refer to product rating guides, like GoodGuide or Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database, to see what problem chemicals to avoid and what products contain them.
  • Go natural: avoid harsh chemicals when buying personal care products. Try to use products that have simple ingredients lists with natural ingredients. They can work just as well as conventional products and may be better for you in the long run!

In addition to the changes you can make at home, recent developments in wastewater treatment technologies and septic systems will reduce or eliminate pharmaceuticals and chemicals from PCPs in wastewater. Additionally, many companies are looking to chemical alternatives to replace toxic chemicals and turning to "green chemistry" to develop safer chemicals to use in their products.

Additional Resources

For more information on avoiding toxic chemicals in personal care products and other consumer products, check out the following sites:

Environmental Working Group

Silent Spring Institute

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Beyond Pesticides


1. Environmental Working Group. Skin Deep Cosmetics Database: Exposures add up - Survey. Accessed: 4/11/2016.
2. Farre M, Asperger D, Kantiani L, Gonzalez S, Petrociv M, Barcelo D. Assessment of the acute toxicity of triclosan and methyl triclosan in wastewater based on the bioluminescence inhibition of Vibrio fischeri. Annal Bioanal Chem. 2008 Apr;390(8):1999-2007.
3. Science News. Triclosan may spoil wastewater treatment. June 19, 2014. Accessed: 4/11/16.
4. Environmental Working Group. Sunscreen Ingredient is Toxic to Coral Reefs. 2015. October 22. Accessed 4/12/2016.
5. Downs CA, Kramarsky-Winter E, Segal R, Fauth J, Knutson S, Bronstein O, Ciner FR, Jeger R, Lichtenfeld Y, Woodely CM, Pennington P, Cadenas K, Kushmar A, Loya Y. Toxicopathological effects of the sunscreen UV filter, oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) , on coral planulae and cultured primary cells and its environmental contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. 2016. February, 70(2); 265-288
6. Marine Safe. Marine-toxic ingredients in personal care products. Accessed 4/11/2016.

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