06/21/2012 05:36 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT

"Organic" Products? Check the Label For Toxins

I never used to read labels on beauty products. In fact, I would more often smell the fragrance of the lotion or potion to decide on my purchase rather than find out what it was made from. Surely the sweet smell of jasmine and vanilla indicates the ingredients have been plucked straight from Mother Nature and beautifully packaged in a pretty bottle to make my hair shiny or my skin smooth?

Not so apparently.

Despite clever packaging, branding and commercials featuring more jungle than the Planet Earth series, the true origin of our products is a lot more industrial than we'd like to think. We can forgive a stretching of the truth in the coconut and palm tree commercials but what about when products say "organic" or "natural" on the packaging? This is where we enter a grey area. There may well be something natural in the product but there could also be a cocktail of chemicals you'd be better off using to clean your cooker or degrease your car engine.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I learned about the great deception of labeling and discovered that cosmetics are among the least-regulated products on the market. Until then I was a sucker for the ones that foamed the most, smelt the best and performed miracles.

A good friend of mine who had cancer carried out a complete detox of her life and discovered that her cupboards and cabinets were full of products loaded with toxins. The next time I was massaging my shampoo into my scalp, enjoying the cascading mass of bubbles, I decided to look at the label and see if could find some of the questionable chemicals. Oh dear. Nearly every product I owned had preservatives, foaming agents or cleansers that are suspected or known to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm or birth defects.

The debate over the safety of such chemicals is very much in full swing with the manufacturers claiming the volume in each product is too small to cause harm. The truth is, no one knows exactly what the chemicals are doing to our bodies when combined with other products and over the long term because not enough research or testing has been carried out to determine one way or the other. The legal system in North America requires unequivocal scientific proof of harm before a company would be required to change a product.

Now whether people want to take that risk is their choice and I am not writing this to tell people to throw out all their products and bathe in milk and honey. What I would like is for people to be able to make an informed decision about what they put in and on their bodies.

While filming my health consumer series Buy.o.logic for OWN Canada, this toxic conundrum became very real for one young woman hoping to start a family. She underwent blood, hair and urine analysis and discovered she had extremely high levels of parabens in her system as well as other nasties. Parabens are a preservative for cosmetics but are also known hormone disruptors that mimic estrogen, so not ideal for a woman wanting to get pregnant.

We detoxed her home just like my friend and I did years before and like us she was horrified to find almost all of her product contained parabens. But unlike us she now knew these chemicals were in high levels in her body. They rest of us can only guess what chemicals are inside us and what effect, if any, they are having on our bodies.

Perhaps Canada and the U.S. could learn from their European neighbours. In 2003, the EU banned more than 1,300 chemicals for cosmetics while the U.S. FDA banned or restricted only 11. So there are cosmetics made in North America that are made safer to ship to Europe while their domestic products still contain toxic ingredients.

Unfortunately unless laws change and tighter regulations are introduced, it's hard to even educate consumers about what they are exposing themselves to everyday. And considering the average woman has contact with more than 125 chemicals before she's even left the house in the morning, that's a lot of unknown.