By Barbara Kessler

My tweener daughter has often patiently explained to me that there are “girly girls” and “Tom Boys” and variations in between. I guess she figures that in the century when I grew up that wasn’t the case, or possibly that my girlhood is so far gone, it can’t even be imagined! I need to be brought up to speed.

As her tutorial goes, “girly girls” need to dress girlishly and primp with lip gloss, cologne and smell-nice body lotions. Tom Boys, not so much.

As her mom, I want her to be a Shiny Happy Female, but my green side ends up questioning all this girlish goop-la.

Scientists have been sounding alarms about suspicious ingredients in shampoo, lotions and cosmetics for many years and being an obsessive label reader, I’ve tended to agree that it might be worthwhile to deconstruct these labels with their gazillion unpronounceable preservatives, sudsing agents, flavorings and fragrances.

Can a product containing PPG-2 hydroxyethlcoco/isostearmide be completely safe? Not being a chemist, I really don’t know, and I imagine that’s where a lot of us land: wary of this onslaught of chemicals, but without sufficient knowledge to sort it out.

The Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based watchdog organization concerned with toxins in our everyday lives, can help. You can gather info on the products you use by consulting the EWG database Skin Deep. The online tool – which includes some 25,000 products — can show you whether your body lotion, mascara or hair conditioner is rated as low, medium or high toxicity. It identifies the chemicals that are noxious; tells how they are potentially dangerous (carcinogen vs. skin irritant, say) and shows the level of research that’s been done.

Recently, the EWG took another stab at raising public awareness about toxins in personal products, conducting a unique study of teen girls in which researchers found 16 harmful chemicals, many traceable to beauty products, in the urine and blood samples of 20 volunteers, ages 14-20.

Chemist and EWG researcher Rebecca Sutton, who crafted the study, obligingly identified some of the key questionable ingredients to watch for:

Triclosan – This anti-microbial has been melded into a vast array of consumer goods. It’s common in “anti-bacterial” hand soaps, but also turns up in deodorants, acne washes, toothpaste, and in hard goods like shower curtains and pillows marketed as “anti-microbial.”

According to Sutton, manufacturers are doing us no great favors with this chemical, which has been associated with a higher risk of thyroid problems in humans, is a suspected hormone disrupter (especially of concern to growing kids) and is not environmentally friendly, persisting in groundwater. Triclosan also has been accused of fostering antibiotic-resistance in germs. In any event, studies with hand soaps show that Triclosan works no better than regular soap and water to fight germs, says Dr. Sutton (among others).

Phthalates – These chemicals, which are used as plasticizers (to make items more flexible) and as preservatives, are ominously present in many beauty products, concealed by the term “fragrance,” and not required to be disclosed on labels, Sutton says. They are used to make the fragrance in the product last longer, or absorb better, on the skin.

“Because these products are hidden by the term ‘fragrance’ (on the label), you don’t even know what you’re getting…And they are dangerous,” Dr. Sutton said.

One analysis of fragrances and scented body care products found that phthalates were present, but not listed, in 75 percent of the items tested.

Phthalates also are found in nail polishes containing dibutyl phthalate, used as an anti-chipping additive and in bendable plastic baby toys, prompting California to ban their use in plastic products starting in 2009.

Studies have found that phthalates interfere with the reproductive and endocrine systems and they’ve been implicated in diabetes and infertility. For more info see the EWG posting Cosmetic Chemicals of Concern.

The American Chemistry Council, the trade group representing manufacturers, disputes claims that phthalates pose any danger, even in baby toys, noting in a recent release that they are “among the most thoroughly studied products in the world, and have been reviewed by multiple regulatory bodies in the U.S. and overseas.

Musks – These synthetic scents added to personal care products – and household items like laundry detergent, also may act as endocrine disruptors. Like phthalates, they are not listed separately on items, but fall under the umbrella term “fragrance.”

Musks can build up in the body and may impair one’s defenses to toxins. Some studies have linked these synthetic fragrance additives to cancer development. “Nitromusks” have been banned by the European Union because of health concerns. Experts advise choosing fragrance-free products and avoid using air fresheners to minimize the risk, which is still under study.

Parabens – You’ve probably heard of parabens, preservatives that turn up in an array of body care products – moisturizers, lotions, shampoos and sunscreens. They can be a skin irritant, but of more concern is their tendency to mimic estrogen, causing researchers to look into their possible role in breast cancer and reproductive problems. Parabens are regulated as food additives, but not in cosmetics, by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration.

Fortunately, the problems posed by these chemicals, have some ready solutions.

Dr. Sutton, who found that the teen girls in her study used an average of 17 beauty products compared with the 12 used by adult women, advises young girls is to simply cut down on the number of beauty items in their feminine arsenal.

Girls (and guys for that matter) also can switch to alternative products that avoid the use of phthalates, parabens and Triclosan. Store shelves are becoming stocked with an array of natural, plant-based products that eschew these synthetic additives. Many proclaim on their labels that they are free of parabens and phthalates. Some eschew the use of sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate, cleansing/sudsing agent used in industrial cleaning products but which can irritate the skin, according to some research.

What’s more, this niche market is growing. Many of these natural products are coming down in price and are more widely distributed than ever. We found several botanically scented, chemical-free (or nearly chemical free) choices at our local health food market, but also at Target, Ulta and Drugstore.com. For our next blog we’ll present a grab bag of natural products (can you say Yes to Carrots?) that we put to the home test, showing you a sampling of those we found to be sweet-smelling, affordable and effective.