When you count everything from deodorant to toothpaste to hand soap to lotion, even the lowest-maintenance types among us probably use at least five beauty or personal-care products.

How many do you use a day? That's the question that Stacy Malkan, author of "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry" posed to about 300 people attending a panel discussion at the University of Minnesota recently.

She asked that question because the safety of some ingredients commonly used in these products has become suspect by a number of watchdog groups.

It was widely reported recently that more than half of the lipsticks tested by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics contained lead. Another ingredient setting off alarms is phthalates (pronounced THAY-lates), a common component of fragrances, as reported by the Enviromental Working Group.

Research indicates that phtalates can interfere with hormones and cause birth defects. In a study of 289 people by the Center of Disease Control, all had higher-than-expected levels of phthalates, especially women of childbearing age.

Industry scientist counters claims

But Malkan's reasoning is being questioned by the cosmetic industry. John Bailey, chief scientist for the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade group, said that certain levels of lead occur naturally in nature and that the levels found in lipsticks were relatively low. In general, he says cosmetics are safe.

"Speaking as a scientist, these issues aren't new, they've been known for a while," he said. "Low levels of lead show up in products because it's very much in the environment naturally, not because it's intentionally added. If you look hard enough at foods, water, air, soil air, there's going to always be a small residue of lead. For that reason, federal government authorities as well as some of states have set limits for lead exposure. Lead found in lipstick is well below these limits."

Finding what's safe is confusing, hard work

Panel attendee Asia Schulz of Eden Prairie, who has been reading "Not Just a Pretty Face," has found the quest for healthy beauty products to be confusing and labor-intensive. She said that she has started throwing out beauty products based on ingredients listed on labels, but not without trepidation: Schulz is also a makeup artist for Bobbi Brown (owned by Estee Lauder) and Lancôme (owned by L'Oreal), which she now isn't convinced are safe.

At home, Schulz recently noticed that her husband's Edge Shave Gel contains triethanolamine (TEA). According to Malkan's book, the ingredient "forms carcinogenic nitrosamine compounds if mixed with other ingredients that act as nitrosating agents. It is also a skin sensitizer and possibly toxic to the lungs and brain."

Bailey disputes that. "It's a safe ingredient, normally used to sort of adjust the PH of a product and make it softer and milder," he said.

Label-reading has shown Schulz that you can't rely on brand names alone to determine the ingredients: She found ingredients that Malkan calls harmful on a tube of Kiss My Face lotion, which is marketed as being natural. "But then I pulled out a black nail polish I bought for 99 cents. The bottle said '100 percent phthalate free,'" she said.

Bailey questions how useful a careful examination of products is for consumers. "If you look beyond claims that express particular hazards and how they link those assertions to finished products, I don't think you can draw the conclusions that are being represented," he said.

Horst's new line: Good enough to eat?

On the panel with Malkan was, among others, Horst Rechelbacher, founder of Aveda Corp., which was sold to Estee Lauder in 1997. An audience member pointed out that Aveda's Shampure rated a four (medium hazard) and the Shampure conditioner a five (also medium hazard).

Aveda's not-so-direct response, via e-mail from Gracia Walker, director of global communications: "Consumer safety has always been a top priority at Aveda. We are committed to selling only safe products and work diligently to ensure that our formulations and packaging meet our exceedingly high standards and comply with applicable regulations in every country in which our products are sold."

Rechelbacher has created a new company called Intelligent Nutrients (IN), a joint venture with Regis Corporation. The concept of the new line is that everything you put on your body should be something that you can eat and your body can digest. "It's not just food-based, but organic food-based," Rechelbacher said.

It's an idea that "is going to be normal," he added. "Putting substances on the body and not getting nutritional benefit is just outdated."

To this end, he has united food chemists and aesthetics chemists. "It has to look good and it has to function."

A variety of Intelligent Nutrients' "Neutraceutical Foods" and "Neutraceutical Supplements" are currently available online, at various salons and at the IN corporate headquarters in Minneapolis. A full line of products will launch next spring or summer.

It's an idea that seems to be catching on in the beauty industry. Origins has recently launched a new line of products that are certified organic, including face lotion (95 percent certified organic) and lip balm (97 percent certified organic).

So what can you use?

In the meantime, Malkan recommends keeping things basic, starting with the products you use everyday, like shampoos and deodorants.

"The advice that I follow is that simpler is better," she said. "Fewer synthetic ingredients, fewer ingredients overall and in some cases fewer products." Rechelbacher even suggested washing hair with an egg (it turns out that suds don't actually function beyond adding to the aesthetics of the bathing experience).

Among the products that raise Malkan's brows are bubble bath (especially "children sitting in warm waters with chemicals"), air freshener and any kind of fragrance, to which so many people have allergies or sensitivities.

Also, there is no such thing as safe hair color, said Rechelbacher, although bleaches are safer than dark hues.

Malkan no longer colors her hair. She suggests using the Safe Cosmetics Database (see chart for details, or www.safecosmetics.org) for guidance.

She hasn't been spooked from all beautifiers, though. "There are many products on the market now that are a lot safer," she said. "It's up to consumers at this point to do our own research. In the meantime, while we work to change the laws, we research safer products and buy them for each other for Christmas."

Sara Glassman is a Minneapolis-based fashion writer. See her blog at www.startribune.com/stylepoints.