Popular toothpastes, even many marketed as "natural," contain harmful ingredients including endocrine disruptors, inflammatory agents and carcinogens, according to a new report from The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog.
Popular toothpastes, even many marketed as "natural," contain harmful ingredients including endocrine disruptors, inflammatory agents and carcinogens.Shutterstock
Behind the Dazzling Smile: Toxic Ingredients in Your Toothpaste, describes how the quality of "natural" toothpastes varies significantly between brands and how these personal oral care products commonly include nonessential ingredients that may be harmful. Cornucopia blames regulatory loopholes for allowing the use of endocrine disruptors, inflammatory agents and suspected carcinogens in toothpastes.
"The cosmetics industry is no different and may be worse, than leading food companies when it comes to gimmicky ingredients and misleading health claims," asserted lead report author Jerome Rigot, PhD, a policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. "However, we have created a useful web-based scorecard to help discriminating consumers see through marketing hype and make the best decision for their family when buying toothpaste."
Cornucopia spotlights the most problematic ingredients to be avoided, which are common in some of the most popular "natural" and premium brands as well as familiar mass-market brands like Colgate and Crest. These include synthetic preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, surfactants like sodium laureth sulfate, which may contain a toxic, cancer-causing contaminant and artificial flavors and colors tied to behavioral problems in children.
The report emphasizes that the mouth's oral mucosa "is one of the most absorbent areas of the body" and raises questions about putting in your mouth potentially toxic contaminants that may pass directly into the bloodstream.
The watchdog shared its study with Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). The Senators have introduced The Personal Care Products Safety Act that would require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to evaluate the safety of ingredients in everyday personal care items, like deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste.
Currently all cosmetics and personal care products like toothpaste remain essentially unregulated, something the FDA readily admits:
"Firms and individuals who market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to make sure their products and ingredients … are safe under labeled and customary conditions for use and that they are properly labeled. Under U.S. law, cosmetics products and ingredients do not need FDA approval before they go on the market. The one exception is color additives, … which must be approved for their intended use."
Rigot unpacks the impact of this gaping loophole. "It means," he said "that the FDA does not require impurities, including several potential contaminants such as the carcinogens 1,4-dioxane or ethylene oxide, to be listed as ingredients on the labels of personal care products because these toxic chemicals are produced during manufacturing. Even though technology exists to remove these contaminants (such as vacuum striping) many companies don't use it because regulators do not force them to do so."
The FDA restricts or prohibits just 11 synthetic ingredients in cosmetics. In contrast, the European Union (EU) prohibits more than 1,300 ingredients and restricts an additional 250 ingredients for use in personal care products. As a result, the U.S. lags significantly behind other countries on cosmetics safety, allowing many hazardous chemicals that are banned in Canada, Japan and Europe.
Passage of the Chemical Safety Bill Is a Murky Milestone for Children’s Health https://t.co/iuGpiPSCsn @Healthy_Child @ewg— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1466807104.0
In fact, many toothpastes sold in Europe and other countries by American corporations are created with different, safer formulations for international markets than the same products sold in the U.S., to accommodate stricter cosmetics laws.
"If a company truly cared about the health of its customers, it would formulate its products not according to a given country's regulations, but rather to ensure the safest possible product with the highest quality ingredients regardless of where the products are sold," stated Mark Kastel, senior policy analyst at Cornucopia.
Slick packaging and misleading health claims are among a variety of marketing ploys used to induce customers to purchase oral care products that, in reality, may be detrimental to their health. Furthermore, a majority of "natural" brands—a term used by many companies to portray their products as healthier and safer—don't' include any certified organic ingredients in their formulations.
"How 'natural' is a flavor when it is obtained by concentrating ingredients obtained from pesticide-intensive agriculture?" asked Terry Shistar, PhD, member of Beyond Pesticides' board of directors.
Cornucopia found that a majority of well-known "natural" toothpaste brands, such as Tom's of Maine, Jason, Desert Essence and Kiss My Face, contain carrageenan, a non-nutritive thickening and emulsifying agent extracted from seaweed. "Peer-reviewed published research has established that food-grade carrageenan has the potential to cause intestinal inflammation, diabetes and even cancer," said Linley Dixon, PhD, scientist with Cornucopia.
Cornucopia's scorecard rated Dr. Bronner's line of toothpaste at the top of the "five-brush" category (on a scale of 1-5), finding it to be among the best and safest products available in the market. "In addition to Dr. Bronner's, whose formulation is based on certified organic coconut oil, there are a number of other excellent products that depend primarily on organic ingredients and/or natural clay, that would contribute to oral health without posing unnecessary risks," concluded Rigot.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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