Cosmetics and skin care products that Americans use every day really do have a shocking number of chemicals and most are not even regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So, how are we supposed to know which are safe and which cause terrible diseases, like cancer?
We scoured the most up-to-date published research from scientific and medical journals and did some deep digging on 28 of the most commonly used toxic ingredients in health and beauty products you may be using every day. Some are highly toxic, some are not actually toxic even though they have a bad rep, and some are a solid ‘maybe,’ so we laid it all out for you so you can decide for yourself.
Bottomline, you need to know what the research says about those tough-to-pronounce ingredients on your everyday product labels and decide if you want to keep using them.
These ingredients need to be stopped! Quit, just totally quit, using them. They’re definitely bad news!
Parabens, esterified hydroxybenzoic acid compounds, are widely used as preservatives in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products and are classified as a group of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, cardiovascular, metabolic and immune effects in humans.
Parabens have been shown to be easily absorbed into the human body and inhibit normal hormonal levels which exerts an array of harmful consequences in human health. Paraben exposure has been linked with metabolic diseases including obesity and hormone dependent health problems. They have been found in the mammary glands of women with breast cancer suggesting they may cause breast cancer.
Recent studies suggest that parabens increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer in populations with plastic nanoparticles in their bodies because of a synergistic effect. Given the abundance of plastics in the environment and the problems with disposing of it, most, if not all, humans are being exposed to nanoparticles through water, food, and the products we use. Sadly, this nanoplastic problem may only get worse as time goes on.
EDCs, like parabens, are especially dangerous for pregnant women. They have been found in fetal cord blood demonstrating they are definitely consumed by the fetus during pregnancy and have been associated with decreased birth weight, gestational age, body length, and other negative effects.
Diethanolamine is commonly used in soaps, skin care products, and cosmetics. It is sometimes used as a pH adjuster, but mostly as a surfactant, emulsifying agent, viscosity-increasing agent, hair or skin conditioning agent, foam booster, or antistatic agent.
They are not allowed to be used in the European Union or Canada and are on the EU’s list of prohibited substances.
Applying Diethanolamine to skin in certain concentrations has been scientifically proven to cause cancerous liver tumors in males and female and renal tubule tumors in female mice and is an irritant to human skin.
However, theAmerican Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel concluded that diethanolamine and the 16 related salts are safe in the present practices of use and concentration when formulated to be non-irritating. It remains legal for use in consumer products in the United States.
BHT & BHA
BHT, or Butylated Hydroxytoluene, is widely used as an antioxidant in skincare products.
Studies have shown that when BHT is used long-term in cosmetics and skin care products then toxic effects on the lungs, liver, and kidneys have been detected.
BHA, or Butylated Hydroxyanisole, is commonly used as a preservative in food and skin care products.
BHA causes irritation to the eyes, skin, mucous membranes, and upper respiratory tract, causing asthma. Long-term effects may cause liver, lungs, and forestomach toxicity as well as an allergic reaction as severe as angioedema and hives. It has been shown to cause tumors in rats.
Hydroquinone is a skin bleaching agent used for whitening skin and teeth. It is classified as toxic and banned from many countries, including the EU. It’s legal in the United States.
Hydroquinone absorbs into the skin, and therefore into the bloodstream, between 31 and 44%
Arbutin, which is used as a whitening ingredient, can produce hydroquinone, known as causing skin disease and carcinogens. It was evaluated by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) and found to be safe in concentrations up to 2% in face creams and up to 0.5% in body lotions.
A skin bleaching agent that’s also fragrant ingredients and colorant that causes skin irritations, photosensitivity and cytotoxic. It works by inhibiting melanin production which inhibits the enzymatic oxidation of tyrosine to dopa and its subsequent conversion to melanin. It is cytotoxic which means it kills the cells it comes into contact with, either immediately or over time depending on the concentration.
Triclosan & Triclocarban & Microban
Triclosan, triclocarban, and microban are antimicrobial agents used in >2,000 products including anti-bacterial soaps, toothpastes, detergents, clothing, toys, carpets, plastics, and paints. A number of countries, including the United States, have banned triclosan and triclocarban from being used in certain types of soaps.
These anti-microbial agents cause mild irritation and absorb into skin at a rate of 14%. They are endocrine disruptors (EDCs) and are associated with reproductive and developmental impacts.
Triclosan, triclocarban, and microban remain in the environment and become a source of toxic and carcinogenic compounds, including dioxins, chloroform, and chlorinated anilines, and have a detrimental effect on aquatic organisms.
Talcum powder, or Talc, is used in baby powders, cosmetics, and finishing powders.
Johnson and Johnson went to court over claims of knowingly allowing asbestos fibers to be in talcum powder from the 1970-2000’s. Asbestos was never found in samples. Since then studies show that no asbestos fibers were detected in any of the samples analyzed.
Presently, it appears talcum powder does not contain asbestos but is linked to cancers and lung disease when inhaled.
Ureas, or carbamide, such as diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea, are widespread antimicrobial fixative agents used in skin care products, hair dye, hair products, and eye makeup.
Studies show that ureas cause dermatitis, skin hypersensitivity, inflammation, and substantial loss of cell viability.
Ureas have been found to be carcinogenic and genotoxic because of the release of formaldehyde. For these reasons, use of ureas is strictly forbidden during pregnancy.
Phthalates & DBP & DEHP
Commonly used in nail polish to prevent it from hardening, fixatives, and fragrances.
Phthalates, Dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, and di(2-Ethylhexyl phthalate or DEHP, have been proven to cause developmental defects, changes in the prostate and testes, reduced sperm counts, and other reproductive changes. They are a known endocrine disruptor. In young children, phthalates may cause liver and kidney failure when products containing phthalates are ingested for extended periods.
Women who are pregnant should take special care to avoid phthalates. Studies show that fetuses who are exposed to it have developmental and behavioral impairment.
Synthetic fragrances are found in tons of products. Some common ones are shampoos and hair care products, perfumes, soaps, lotions, cleaning supplies, laundry products, and air fresheners.
Companies are not required by law to disclose the ingredients of fragrances because they are defined as “trade secrets.”
Fragrance may enter the body through skin, lungs, airways, ingestion and through pathways from the nose directly to the brain and can cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue, irritation to eyes, nose and throat, forgetfulness and other symptoms.
Coumarins, phethleugenol which are usually found in fragrances are suspected carcinogens, while phthalates are suspected hormones disrupters.
Microbeads are tiny plastic particles (<5 mm in diameter) and are used in a lot of personal care products, like exfoliators, and cleaning products with ‘scrubbers.’
Many countries have actually banned these microplastics because they end up in the environment as food and water supply and are ingested.In human beings and animals, plastic when ingested causes internal bleeding, abrasion, ulcers and blockage of the digestive tract.
They may not cause a lot of harm when you use a product that has them but they cause loads of damage once in the environment and end up getting back in your body in terrible other ways.
BPA, or Bisphenol A, is a chemical modifier used commonly in baby bottles, water pipes, canned food linings, food packaging, polycarbonate plastic, PVC, dental sealants, and cosmetics. It was developed in 1890 as a synthetic estrogen.
Siloxanes are silicone-based compounds used in many cosmetics, hair care, and skin care products to make them smooth and soft. Moisturizers, creams, and deodorants often contain siloxanes. Nearly 50% of new skin care products contain at least one type of silicone, but not all siloxanes are considered toxic.
The most common toxic siloxanes used are Cyclopentasiloxane and Cyclotetrasiloxane. Both are water pollutants which pollute aquatic life and therefore enter the food supply.
Cyclotetrasiloxane is a endocrine disruptor (EDC) and has been linked with impairing fertility and causing reproductive toxicity.
Of note, some silicones are required to meet certain standards and are used as medical grade silicones. These are specially designed, produced and purified to meet the highest requirements of the medical industry and are considered safe and non-toxic.
It is not genotoxic and does not display tumorigenic potential, but there are safety concerns.
Benzalkonium chloride is toxic to the eyes, so using it in ophthalmic solutions, like contact lens solution and eye drops, is harmful to humans. Excessive use may cause Dry Eye Disease. More severe eye problems associated with it include itching, irritation, stinging, burning, foreign body sensation (FBS), redness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light and sometimes may cause more severe conditions such as failure of glaucoma surgery, conjunctival hyperemia and blepharitis.
Medications with benzalkonium chloride that are administered through the nose or taken by mouth have caused pulmonary toxicity, which means it’s toxic to the lungs.
Oxybenzone, or benzophenone-3, is a UV filter used in sunscreens.
It may cause contact dermatitis, photocontact allergy reactions, and is a possible endocrine disruptor (EDC), and has been linked to Hirschsprung’s disease, which is a congenital defect of the large intestine.
These ingredients need to be used with extreme caution!
SLS & SLES
SLS, or Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, and SLES, or Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, are used in hair care, soaps, skin care, and many other products as a foaming agent which gives us those luxurious bubbles. It’s the foaming agent in many toothpastes, too.
It’s also a known skin irritant that causes dryness and inflammation. But, serious or long-term health effects have not been demonstrated.
One study demonstrated that 24-hour exposure with a strong enough amount of SLS makes the outer most layer of skin lose water and causes mild inflammation.
But, on the bright side, despite popular belief, there is no scientific evidence that SLS, SLES, or their by-products, cause cancer.
There was a claim stating SLS and SLES did cause cancer was published by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Final Report which said that SLS absorbs into the bloodstream, builds up in the heart, liver, lungs and brain, and causes damage. But if you keep reading the report, the conclusion says that most SLS stays on the surface of the skin without absorbing into the bloodstream and any that is absorbed is quickly processed by the liver and eliminated from the body.
Toulene is often used as a paint thinner, like in nail polish. It’s used in dyes, gasoline, and industrial uses, too.
Most of us will be exposed to it in nail polish, especially at nail salons, and the most exposure would be for nail technicians. In this setting, it can lead to headache, nausea, allergy, skin irritation, itching and burning.
Chronic toluene exposure disturbs cardiac autonomy, particularly by suppressing sympathetic activity, and parasympathetic suppression also occurs with increased exposure duration in toxic amounts. Breathing in enough toluene over a long period of time can lead to a slow heart rate, dizziness, fainting, and other heart problems.
Unless you’re a nail technician who is constantly exposed to toluene fumes, the harmful effects of short-term exposure are minimal and the risk of developing the very harmful long-term effects is slim.
Mineral oil is used in lip and skin care and are chosen by manufacturers for their protecting and cleansing performance and broad viscosity options. They are non-allergenic and have a long shelf life.
One study suggests there is no evidence that mineral oils or waxes, as used in cosmetic applications, are percutaneously absorbed (beyond skin’s top layers) and therefore do not present a risk to consumers due to lack of systemic exposure. They don’t reach the bloodstream. But, there is a risk for areas of the body where it’s used.
Areas of the body where the mineral oil is mostly applied, including buttocks (38–72%), breasts (12–16%), lower extremities (18–22%), and face (6–10%), demonstrated local and systemic manifestations of Autoimmune/inflammatory Syndrome Induced by Adjuvant (ASIA). These autoimmune syndromes included SLE, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic sclerosis, among others.
Commonly used as a fragrance or fragrance mask in cosmetics and perfumes.
Amyl-cinnamaldehyde and cinnamaldehyde, or Alpha-amyl cinnamaldehyde, are known skin sensitizers identified as responsible for delayed type allergic contact dermatitis to fragrances. Contact dermatitis usually comes in the form of rashes, red irritated areas, hives, and even anaphylaxis.
Users of these products can also have delayed sensitivity, meaning the rash doesn’t show up for a couple days.
On the bright side, it is associated with a low risk of cancer or reproductive problems.
PG & PEG & PPG
PG (Propylene glycol) PEG (Polyethylene glycols) and PPG (Polypropylene Glycol) are used in foods, pharmaceuticals, and skin care products, as thickeners in creams and lotions, and baby products.
PEGs are also known as macrogol, oxyethylene polymer, and laureth-9, are non-ionic polymers of ethylene oxide.They may cause allergic reactions on otherwise healthy skin.
If contaminated during production with amounts of 1, 4-dioxane and used on broken skin, PEGs may cause cancer and genotoxicity. As consumers, we would not know if the product has been contaminated or not.
Resorcinol, chemical names 1,3-benzenediol and 1,3-dihydroxybenzene, is found in hair care, hair dye and bleaching, eyelash dyes, cosmetics, skin care products, tanning products, and as a food additive in shrimp and other crustaceans.
It is a phenolic compound which causes environmental pollution, including water pollution. But when used on your body, the adverse effects are limited.
Resorcinol is being evaluated as a possible endocrine disruptor (EDC) by the EU, but as it stands now, they have stated that it is safe for hair dye and eye lash coloring in doses of 1.25% or less.
Polyacrylamide is used in cosmetics, food processing, oil extraction, control of soil rain erosion, drug delivery systems, and other industrial uses.
The EWG ranks it as a potentially toxic substance.
Acrylamide is a naturally occurring substance that occurs during cooking processed foods, particularly plant-based foods that are rich in carbohydrates and low in protein, and forms naturally during processing or cooking at high temperatures. The main offenders are potato chips and french fries. Acrylamide is linked to cancer.
Quaternium & Polyquaternium
Quaternium and polyquaternium are used in body washes and cleansers, lotions, hair care products, cosmetics, and baby products.
Most types of polyquaternium and Quaternium are rated with a Low Risk by EWG showing they do not cause toxicity or adverse effects.
But, Quaternium-15 seems to be the most toxic of this group.
According to the EWG it is a formaldehyde releasing preservative with links to cancer. However, this link has not been scientifically proven and research has even concluded that it may not be a significant formaldehyde-releaser.
Butylphenyl Methlypropional, or Lilial, is a common ingredient in fragrance, and is sometimes combined with alpha-tocopherol. It can be found in skin care products, cosmetics, laundry detergents, household cleaners, and perfumes.
Like all fragrances, Butylphenyl Methlypropional may cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, or contact dermatitis.
There is a study linking it with breast cancer when applied to tissue around the breast, which would make it an endocrine disruptor however the study calls for more research to determine if it is absorbed into skin. We haven’t been able to find any additional studies.
In low concentrations, Butylphenyl Methlypropional is considered safe by the European Commission as long as it is not in spray-form and would be inhaled. It hasn’t been evaluated for inhalation by the European Commission. It is currently not listed on the toxic Canadian Substances List.
These ingredients seem OK to us, carry on!
Petroleum jelly, aka petrolatum or Vaseline, is found in lipsticks, lotions, baby oil, diaper rash cream, some pharmaceuticals, and is used as a scalp protectant when relaxing or dying hair.
Petroleum jelly is a by-product of crude oil and contains paraffins which are a purified semi-solid mixture of hydrocarbons from a mineral source. Paraffins may cause allergic contact dermatitis but for most people they are well tolerated.
It does not enter into the bloodstream through skin and so should not cause systemic problems.
The Canadian’s approve and the EU allows highly refined petroleum jelly in skin care products and cosmetics. So, why does the EWG mark it with a “moderate hazard” rating and the David Suzuki Foundation puts it on the Dirty Dozen list?
The EWG believes improper refining may cause petroleum jelly to be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are linked to cancer. We couldn’t find any studies linking petroleum jelly to cancer. So, as long as it’s refined properly, and in some countries it needs to be highly refined, then it should be safe to use.
MEA & TEA
MEA, or Monoethanolamine and TEA, or Triethanolamine, are amino alcohols used in cosmetic formulations as emulsifiers, thickeners,
wetting agents, detergents, and alkalizing agents. They also work as pH adjusters, buffering agents, preservatives, and surfactants.
No changes in DNA or carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects were noted in mice over a period of 18-months. In certain concentrations, human skin may have some irritation. MEA and TEA were not stored in the liver or kidneys after being applied to the skin, which means they were excreted from the body through urine, stool, or breath.
However, in a study with pregnant rodents, high doses of ingested MEA and TEA caused birth defects.
The CIR Expert Panel concluded that MEA and TEA are safe but cautioned they should not be used in cosmetic products in which N-nitroso compounds may be formed.
N-nitroso ,Nitroso-di-n-propylamine (NDPA), compounds are carcinogenic substances that can be found in cosmetics, skin care products, and rubber baby bottle nipples, as well as industrial uses, in our food supply, the air we breathe, and they were even used to make rocket fuel until the environment around the rocket fuel plants became too polluted with it. Long-term exposure to N-nitroso may result in organ damage, cancer, and death.
Benzoyl peroxide is a common over the counter substance found in products mainly for acne.
It is most effective against acne vulgaris, and is bactericidal with activity against Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) on the skin and within the hair follicles. It has mild sebostatic and keratolytic effects and is most effective when used in combination with other acne vulgaris therapies.
Polybutene & Polyisobutene
Polybutene and Polyisobutene provide viscosity or emulsifiability to more than 80 cosmetic products in concentrations up to 50%. It is used in lip care and skin care products, especially moisturizers, and cold creams.
Hydrogenated polyisobutene is used in topically applied cosmetic and personal care formulations as an emollient that leaves a pleasing skin feel when applied, and rubbed in after application. It has been proven to retain moisture and improve skin texture.
Polybutene and polyisobutene have been shown to be relatively harmless and the EWG rates them a Low Risk.
EDTA & Tetrasodium EDTA & Disodium EDTA
EDTA, or Ethylenediaminetetraacetic, is a commonly used preservative which acts as a chelating agent in skin care products, hair care products, and cosmetics. It reacts with metal ions in the microbial cell wall, which enhances the preservatives’ ability to penetrate and destroy the microorganism. It is not necessarily listed as a preservative but it acts as one by destroying microorganisms.
The European Commission evaluated EDTA and found no risk to human health or the environment.
To Sum It Up
After finding the most up-to-date scientific and medical research on these 28 potentially toxic ingredients in common products, we have decided that some are OK, some might be OK, and some are definitely not OK.
Consumers, especially in America, need to be informed and aware of what’s in their products. The US government doesn’t seem to be as stringent as the European and Canadian governments about what chemicals are going into our products, so it’s up to us to do the research and seek out the best possible products to stay healthy.