Jessica Alba Leads Mommy War on Synthetic Chemicals

Hollywood star takes part in an expanding movement.

December 3, 2013, 2:18 PM

Dec. 3, 2013— -- Jessica Alba, famous for her roles in "Dark Angel," "Sin City" and the "Fantastic Four," is taking on her most serious role yet warning mothers about what she said are the dangers of toxic chemicals in many everyday products.

The 32-year-old actress and mother of two became worried about this issue when she was pregnant with her first child and had an allergic reaction to a brand of baby laundry detergent.

"I was like ... I'm an adult, and if I'm having an allergic reaction, like who knows what's going to happen with my baby," Alba said. "So I did some research, and I found that there are a lot of toxic chemicals in everyday products, and I was more horrified to find that there are more toxic chemicals in baby products."

Alba's concerns have propelled her to become the public face of a movement of people trying to avoid synthetic chemicals. It started for Alba when she met Christopher Gavigan, the author of "Healthy Child, Healthy World," a guidebook on living a healthier lifestyle.

"I asked … what products do I buy, and he was like, 'Well, this company does that one thing and this company does that one thing,' and I was like, 'Gosh, why isn't there a company that does everything. This is so stressful,'" Alba said.

The duo teamed up to help create the Honest Company, a mail-order business that started out by selling 17 products made of ingredients they claim are safe and tested, unlike conventional products.

"We don't have a regulatory system in place here in the United States at least that allows for and or monitors and or requires reporting on what's inside," Gavigan said. "So the raw materials and the ingredients ... they don't have to report those. They don't have to prove they are safe before they hit the marketplace."

Alba is not the only worried mom. For the past seven years, Ellen Padnos has made it her mission to avoid synthetic chemicals in her home, and everyone in her household of four lives by her rules.

"Everything that I do is an effort to stay away from chemicals and [move] more toward plant-based ingredients," she said. "I want them to be normal and still be kids and enjoy little things like taking baths and not be too extreme, so I still let them have princess toothbrushes and things like that."

Pandos' husband, Ben, goes along with his wife's rules, with some exceptions.

"For stuff related to body, health, food, I'll never really complain about that," he said. "There are other things, when it comes to excess clothing and things like that, I'm going to argue way more about a pair of shoes than something my kid is going to bathe in."

There are more than 87,000 commercial chemicals on the market in the United States. In Europe, more than 1,110 chemicals are banned in products, but in the U.S., only 11 chemicals are banned.

Nearly two years after the Honest Company launched, it has sold 7.5 million products, and Alba's line has expanded to 50 items, from diapers to lip balm to lead-free candles.

With demand growing, several small businesses have sprung up, selling everything from beauty products to stainless steel baby bottles.

After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Valerie Grandury started Odacite, a line of toxin-free beauty products. Four years later, she marked her 100,000 shipment to more than 20 countries.

"I realized that there was a lot of toxin ingredients in skin care. And it was something I had no clue about," she said.

Aerospace engineer Roger Moore and his wife, Jennifer, created "Pura" stainless steel baby bottles as an alternative to plastic ones.

Amy Ziff, a mother of three living in Palo Alto, Calif., started a company called, a website devoted to toxin-free products.

"They were the canaries in the coal mine, and their reactions to everyday baby products made me realize that there are so many chemicals in our products," Ziff said.

She is also part chemical policeman, part personal coach, going to clients' homes, looking at the products they use around their house, from the kitchen to the nursery, and offering what she said are safer alternatives.

"Just because it's sold in a store, just because you're seen it on TV or in a magazine, doesn't mean that there's been any kind of regulation for that product, for the specific ingredients inside it," she said.

Both Ziff and Gavigan agree about scented lotions.

"Fragrances, they're qualified as trade secret industry of personal care. So a company does not have to disclose what's inside a fragrance," Gavigan said. "The reality is, that can be 150 more ingredients on this label."

But is all this worry an over reaction? U.S. manufacturers say their products are safe. According to the American Chemistry Council, "more than a dozen federal laws govern the manufacture and use of chemicals, and consumers can have confidence that chemistries in everyday products are being used safely."

Many people agree. Merrick White, a mother of two living in Huntington Beach, Calif., said she wasn't worried about the conventional products she uses in her home.

"The things that I use, as far as I know, do not have chemicals that harm my family, and they work for us and so I'm not willing to pay more for products that are just organic," she said.

White, who blogs for the website, trumpeted her embrace of mass brands.

"The products that I use are just conventional products that I get at a big-box store that come in bulk that are cost-effective and they keep my house clean," she said. "I've never looked at the label for this so ... and to be honest, I don't really care. If it works for me, I'll use it."

Dr. Phil Landrigan, an epidemiologist and pediatrician, who is also the director of the Children's Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said there is cause for concern.

"I feel that American families need to be aware that they're being exposed every day to chemicals of unproven toxicity," he said. "We've been looking very carefully at connections between exposures to toxic chemicals in early life and bad developmental outcomes in children."

But Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a medical toxicology consultant for Children's Hospital Los Angeles, said more research is needed on this subject.

"We need a lot more research, and it's not an area where we have conclusions yet," he said.

But Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a medical toxicology consultant for Children's Hospital Los Angeles, said more research is needed on this subject.

"We need a lot more research, and it's not an area where we have conclusions yet," he said.

The Federal Drug Administration also acknowledges that more research is necessary, telling ABC News, "Certain chemicals that are currently in cosmetics have been the subject of widespread concern. The FDA believes that the public health would be served by conducting a scientific evaluation of the safety of these chemicals and removing those that are not shown to be safe."

Angela Logomasini of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based Libertarian think-tank, conducts research and analysis on environmental regulatory issues and said she didn't believe there was a need to worry about conventional products.

"I think it's reasonable for consumers to be confident that the products they buy in the stores are safe. I don't think they should be worried about trace chemicals or low-level risks," she said.

But Jessica Alba isn't waiting for science to come up with definitive answers.

"We have this mission," she said. "What we do and about what we want to do in our lives, and the planet that we want to leave our children, and our children's children, and so we created the solution."

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