Choosing safer products

The Process for Choosing Safer Products


There is a sliding scale of how careful you can choose to be about avoiding toxins. At one end of the scale, you may decide to go entirely all-natural and organic. This will no doubt have advantages, but it can be difficult and expensive to find good products. There is a more moderate approach, focusing on avoiding the specific chemicals that are most likely to compromise fertility, namely:

  • phthalates
  • synthetic fragrance
  • parabens
  • certain chemical sunscreens

As discussed in the book, these chemicals appear to disrupt hormone activity and compromise egg quality and fertility.

The process for choosing products that are free of these chemicals differs depending on the nature of the product. Some types of products are by their very nature high risk and should be assumed to almost always contain phthalates, such as nail polish and anything containing synthetic fragrance, while many other products can be assumed to be phthalate free if they are labeled as “fragrance-free.”

It is helpful to understand the high-risk and low-risk products for phthalates, so you can prioritize what to replace.

The Worst Offenders for Phthalates

The most important step is to stop using conventional perfume, nail polish, hair-styling products, air-fresheners, and fabric softener. These products typically contain large amounts of phthalates, without declaring so on the label. If you avoid only these products and then keep using all your other existing skin care and cleaning products, you will still be making a huge step in the right direction.

Some nail polish will claim to be free of certain phthalates, but that does not mean much. The manufacturer may have simply switched to a different phthalate, and studies have shown that the labeling claims on nail polish are usually inaccurate. If you really must use nail polish, some alternatives are given in the ratings table, but I generally recommend avoiding nail polish entirely.

When it comes to perfume, hair styling products, air-freshener, and fabric softener, you should assume the product contains phthalates unless specifically labeled as phthalate-free. That is because manufacturers typically use phthalates to make these products work better (providing softness, flexibility, or making scent last longer). In 2007, the National Resources Defense Council tested 14 popular air fresheners. None listed phthalates as an ingredient, but almost all contained phthalates.

Remember that manufacturers do not have to list phthalates on ingredients lists —they can simply include the overall term “fragrance.”

Everything Else

For all other cleaning and personal-care products, such as moisturizers, detergents, and cleaning sprays, most products that are labeled as fragrance-free will have little to no phthalates. That is because the main reason to add phthalates to these products would be to enhance the fragrance.


In addition to checking that products are labelled as either fragrance-free or phthalate-free, the next thing to check for is parabens. These are preservatives often used in lotions, deodorants, toothpaste, and other skin care products. If a product contains one or more parabens, they are supposed to be identified in ingredients lists, so it is sufficient to check product labels for any of these words:

methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or isobutylparaben

Avoiding parabens is a higher priority for body lotion, because it is applied over a greater surface area. If your favorite facial moisturizer or makeup is fragrance-free but contains parabens, it is likely fine to continue using it until you run out.


Phenoxyethanol and Other Preservatives

With a growing awareness of the fact that parabens can potentially disrupt hormones, many companies are now using alternative preservaties. Among safer beauty brands, the most popular preservative is is phenoxyethanol. This is generally considered to be one of the least-toxic chemical preservatives, and it is used by brands such as BeautyCounter, Honest Beauty, and Puracy. It is very useful to manufacturers because it prevents microbial growth in products, even when used in a very small amount.

There is still some controvery over its safety, however, with the Environmental Working Group scoring it a 4 (moderate hazard). There is also some isolated data indicating that in the body, phenoxyethanol is broken down into compounds that reduce fertility. Yet this is still an uncertain risk, with very limited research on the issue. The FDA has also issued a warning that ingestion of phenoxyethanol is harmful to babies, so it is better not to use it on your skin when you have a newborn.

As of early 2019, I am still undecided about the importance of avoiding phenoxyethanol while trying to conceive. It may be the case that we should avoid applying it large surface areas (such as in body lotion), but using it in products for the face is acceptable, particularly when phenoxyethanol is listed towards the end of the ingredients list (indicating a low concentration). In my list of recommended products, I have chosen body lotions that do not have phenoxyethanol, and the majority of the other products do not have this ingredient either, or list it towards the end of ingredients list. If you would like to avoid phenoxyethanol entirely, check ingredients lists for individual products.

See my product recommendations for each category:

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