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Companies are phasing out controversial chemicals — but are the alternatives safer?

Companies are phasing out controversial chemicals — but are the alternatives safer?

If you’re a regular consumer of natural products, pat yourself on the back. Thanks to the collective buying power of health-conscious shoppers like you, corporate giants — like Hershey, McDonald’s, and Johnson & Johnson — are making sweeping changes to their products. Consumers are demanding safer products, and companies are responding by phasing out problematic ingredients.

Even mega-retailers, like Target and Costco, have joined the effort to eliminate controversial chemicals from household products. The latest company to jump on the bandwagon is, oh, just the world’s largest retailer: Walmart.

In July, Walmart announced its pledge to phase out eight high-priority chemicals from its products. The list of chemicals includes triclosan, a hormone disruptor that may play a role in cancer development, and formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

The corporate behemoth will be pushing its suppliers to find better alternatives. If not, manufacturers will have to list any remaining targeted ingredients on packaging by 2018. According to Bloomberg, Walmart’s new policy will impact a whopping 90,000 items made by 700 manufacturers.

The phase-out of controversial chemicals across the retail industry has the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of consumer products. Naturally, the question we want to ask is: what ingredients are being used to replace these hazardous substances, and are the alternatives any better?

Unfortunately, some substitutes may be just as hazardous… if not more.

Unfortunately, some substitutes may be just as hazardous… if not more.

Case in point: since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of baby bottles that contain bisphenol A (BPA) in 2012, many companies have been replacing it with bisphenol S (BPS), which, according to the Scientific American, “may be just as harmful.” Indeed, a 2013 study found that “BPS can disrupt a cell’s normal functioning, which could potentially lead to metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity, asthma, birth defects or even cancer.”

Another example is triclosan, an antimicrobial agent that is found in many consumer products, from toothpaste to body wash, and is used in 93% of “antibacterial” soaps. Major manufacturers have begun phasing out the chemical due to customer concerns about potential health risks, such as bacterial resistance and hormonal effects.

In fact, earlier this month, the FDA banned the use of triclosan in “antibacterial” soaps, citing safety concerns and a lack of evidence that the chemical is any more effective at killing germs than regular soap and water. (Triclosan can still be used in other consumer products, including toothpaste, and in antibacterial sanitizers used in hospital settings.)

So what’s being used instead? According to The Guardian, many companies “are opting to replace triclosan with quaternary ammonia compounds or quats, of which the most commonly used is benzalkonium chloride.” Evidence has shown that quats are a respiratory irritant, and can exacerbate asthma and induce the development of asthma. Even the FDA is unsure about the safety of benzalkonium chloride, and has given manufacturers one year to prove that the ingredient is indeed safe to use.

Another problem with quats: they’re listed on ingredient labels under many different names, so consumers may not be able to identify them.

The unfortunate truth about the regulatory process is that consumers are mostly left in the dark about the many changes that take place in the formulations of household products. Manufacturers are not keen on disclosing which new chemicals they will be using to replace targeted ingredients. And, the law doesn’t require them to do so.

Unlike other Western countries, the U.S. has a lax regulatory system that permits companies to use ingredients that have not been adequately tested for safety. Which explains why thousands of potentially hazardous chemicals are ubiquitous in household products and cosmetics today. It can take years, and sometimes even decades, before enough consumers get sick to drive action from the FDA or EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of consumer products.

The good news is that there are many trusted brands that have pledged to remove harmful ingredients from their products, including the Whole Foods’ 365 store brand, Aubrey Organics, Dr. Bronner’s, and EO Products. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a handy list of “Cosmetics Champions” who’ve pledged to make safer products and are doing the legwork to determine what’s best for consumers. Opting for these brands can make shopping easier in a world where it’s hard to figure out from an ingredients list what’s healthy.

If you’re unfamiliar with a particular chemical or product, consult the EWG’s Skin Deep Database, which can tell you about the health impact of 62,000 different ingredients and products.

Finally, you can always “DIY.” In my home, we use vinegar for just about any cleaning purpose, while coconut oil is a beauty multitasker. Making your own products can save you money and your health.