Look closely in certain supermarket aisles and you might be baffled by what's touted on the packaging. "Free of 1,4-dioxane," reads the label on one eco-friendly toilet-bowl cleaner. A leading hair-care brand offers "sulfate free" shampoo. It's only after you breathe a sigh of relief that ingredient anxiety kicks in: Wait, what's wrong with sulfate? And how many products is it in?
As grocery-store shoppers become more label conscious, many companies are highlighting--often in big type--what their products don't contain. Some of these noningredients, like BPA, have made headlines in recent years, while others are so obscure that few consumers know much about them. (DMDM hydantoin?)
"People are saying, I don't want products with fill-in-the-blank," says Cara Welch, chief scientist for the nonprofit Natural Products Association. Such complaints have led to a marketing mishmash, with some labels reflecting products that have been reformulated for the better and others doing little more than greenwashing. For instance, one liquid laundry detergent boasts on its label that it "contains no phosphate," an ingredient the U.S. banned in laundry suds in 1993.
"These product claims can be tricky," says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, an industry watchdog. "It's hard for the average consumer to know if the ingredient they are advertising they don't have is actually the one you would be most concerned about." Welch's advice: the shorter the ingredient list, the better.
Baby shampoos, liquid cleansers
A known animal carcinogen, this by-product results when certain chemicals are treated to make them less harsh on your skin. A new boycott aims to speed Johnson & Johnson's phasing out of dioxane (and quaternium-15) from all of its baby products
Dioxane doesn't have to be listed as an ingredient, since it is not added intentionally
Makeup, moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, shaving products
These potential endocrine disrupters are widely used as preservatives
Banned in Denmark in products aimed at kids under 3
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Hard-plastic bottles, food- and beverage-can linings
Exposure in utero to this synthetic estrogen may lead to developmental and behavioral problems
In 2009 the top six baby-bottle manufacturers stopped using BPA; in October, California became the 11th state to prohibit its use in baby bottles
Dishwashing detergents made as recently as last year
They pollute waterways and contribute to algae blooms that deprive fish and other aquatic life of oxygen
Seventeen states have passed laws limiting the use of these ingredients in dishwasher detergents; the U.S. banned phosphates in laundry suds in 1993