Personal Care Products – Ingredients to Avoid Quick Guide


“… the harmful chemicals that you apply to your skin are much more toxic and pose greater cancer and other risks than if you eat them.”
–Dr. Samuel Epstein, Toxic Beauty, Former Chair of Cancer Prevention Coalition

Do you know what ingredients are getting into your body?

When you get up in the morning just think about how many personal care products you use… shampoo, conditioner, soap, body wash, toothpaste, shaving cream, lotions, hair styling products, perfumes, makeup, deodorant… These are often loaded with toxins. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average woman uses 12 personal care products per day and the average man uses 6 – exposing their bodies to about 126 different chemical ingredients every day from personal care products alone.  And these figures don’t even take into account re-applications of products throughout the day.  We brush our teeth several times a day, we wash our hands 6-12 times a day, we re-apply sunscreen every few hours that we are in the sun, and we may shower more than once per day… the amount of chemicals that we apply to our bodies every day is huge!

However, the number of products used isn’t necessarily the issue; rather, it’s the ingredients in those products that is the real cause for concern. What we put on our skin gets into our bodies (just think of nicotine and birth control patches), and many of the chemicals in most standard personal care products have never been tested for safety or have been shown to have negative health effects. 

Many of the chemicals in personal care products are known carcinogens, neurotoxins or reproductive toxins. Others are endocrine disrupters that upset the body’s hormonal balance (leading to weight gain and other hormone-related health problems and increasing the risk of breast and prostate cancer).

And often, chemicals are added to personal care products with the specific purpose of increasing their absorption into the skin. Not to mention the chemicals that we may ingest with products like lipstick, lip gloss, toothpastes and mouthwash or those that we inhale when perfumes or hairsprays are sprayed into the air — they too end up in the bloodstream.  And, once the chemicals are in the bloodstream, they are carried to various organs, including the brain, liver, kidneys and others, where they may have immediate or long-term effects.

Shockingly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t investigate or test the safety of personal care products before they are put on the market. Instead, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an industry-appointed and funded panel, reviews the safety of cosmetic ingredients. According to EWG, there are approximately 10,500 ingredients used in cosmetics in our country, and in its thirty-year history, the CIR has screened only eleven percent of those ingredients. This means that nearly ninety percent of cosmetics ingredients are left un-reviewed and un-tested for safety!

The cosmetic industry argues that it’s ok to put toxic ingredients into products because only tiny amounts are used in each product and therefore they are not harmful. However, as you already know, each of us is using an average of 10 or more products a day. If you add to that several applications a day and multiply that over a lifetime, then these toxic chemicals do add up and wreak havoc on our bodies and our heath!

And because the FDA doesn’t regulate the health claims or labeling for personal-care items, the words “organic,” “herbal,” “natural,” “hypoallergenic” and “nontoxic” used on these products have no legal meaning.  So you need some resources!

Of course everyone will have a different comfort zone in terms of the amount of chemicals they feel comfortable having in their beauty products. It’s just like food. Some people eat only organic, some a combination of conventional and organic and some only conventional. As long as consumers are informed, there is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing body products. In order to make choices that fit within your personal criteria of safety, you need to be educated. Otherwise, you risk allowing chemicals and toxins into your bloodstream and affecting your health without your consent or knowledge. To this end I want everyone to know what ingredients to watch out for!!! 

Know the Key Ingredients to Avoid

Since these chemicals are out there, we need to be armed with the knowledge about which toxic ingredients to watch out for in personal care products in order to protect ourselves and our families. For that reason, I’ve created an Ingredients to Avoid Quick Guide that lists some of the most commonly found toxic chemicals in personal care products that have been linked to a number of health problems. (There are certainly others out there, but these are the most common to watch out for). And, since cosmetics manufacturers are not required to use the FDA’s ingredient name convention guidelines, one ingredient can be spelled and labeled many different ways in different products. Therefore, for each ingredient I’ve also listed the multiple possible names you might see.  If you see any of these chemicals on a product label, it would be best to avoid it. 

To download a copy of the Ingredients to Avoid Quick Guide, just right-click HERE or on the image of the Quick Guide below and select Save As or Download Linked File As.  

Then just print, cut, and fold it up and stick in your wallet or purse for easy reference so that you know what to watch out for the next time you are shopping for personal care products! (I also like to keep a copy next to my computer for on-line shopping; and if you use Pinterest you can pin it to one of your Pinterest boards – it’s nice to have a board just for “cheat sheets” like this one so that you can access them quickly from your phone whenever you need to).

And please feel free to share this page and give away extra copies of the Quick Guide to anyone else you know who might be interested in demystifying their product labels!

Screen Shot of Personal Care Products Quick Guide

Once you find a product you like I suggest confirming its safety by visiting the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database at The EWG is a non-profit organization that specializes in providing useful resources to consumers while simultaneously pushing for national policy change. Their searchable database rates over 40,00 personal care products (shampoos, conditioners, lotions, soaps, makeup etc.) on a scale of 0 (safe) to 10 (harmful). It lists all of the ingredients and gives a toxicity score for each ingredient as well as an overall toxicity score for the product.  In addition to looking up an individual product, you can also look up an ingredient to see if it’s safe, search a company to see how it stacks up to others in terms of safety and find safer alternatives.  Warning: goods in some categories, like hair relaxers, have uniformly high hazard scores.

Personally I try to stick with those products that have an overall score of 3 or lower (of course, 0 and 1 are preferable!). If you find any of yours are rated 5 or higher, consider replacing them with safer products.

**And, remember, even if it says “natural” or “organic” it is still important to read the ingredients list or check the EWG SkinDeep database.  I have been fooled by the “all natural” label more than a few times.

I hope you find this guide helpful!