Are Your Personal Care Products Toxic?

“… 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


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… And sadly, these are often loaded with toxins. According to a survey of more than 2,300 people led and conducted by 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.16


And the chemicals in your personal care products do end up inside your body. Many people believe that the skin is an effective barrier to toxins, but what we put on our skin all too often gets into the bloodstream. (Just think about nicotine and birth control patches). From there they are carried to various organs, including the brain, liver and kidneys, where they may have immediate or long-term effects. And often, chemicals are added to personal care products with the specific purpose of increasing their absorption.


Not to mention the chemicals that we ingest from products applied on or in our mouths such as lipstick, lip gloss, toothpastes and mouthwash, or those that we inhale when perfumes or hairsprays are sprayed. Lung tissue is even less of a protective barrier than the skin – it’s very thin and allows the passage not only of oxygen, but also of many other chemicals directly into the blood. Once in the blood, these inhaled chemicals pass to the heart and are then distributed to other organs without first passing through the detoxification process of the liver. In addition to causing damage throughout the body, chemicals that pass through the lung surface may injure lung tissue and interfere with its vital role of oxygen supply.


Below is a list of some of the most problematic chemicals to watch out for in personal care products. These are commonly found in many commercial personal care products and have been linked to a number of health problems. I know it’s a long list, but I wanted to make sure you are armed with the knowledge so that you can recognize them at a glance and weed out suspicious products.


Some of the Most Toxic Ingredients to Watch Out for in Your Personal Care Products:

*Note: There may be others that you want to avoid, but these are lots of the biggies! For more information on any specific chemical you see on a product label, search the EWG’s Skin Deep Database.


Ceteareths and EDTA: When you see ceteareth on the label it is usually followed by a number like 12, 20 or 30. Ceteareths are used as emulsifiers and thickening agents in deodorants, conditioners, lotions, cleaners, body wash and shampoo. The scary thing about ceteareth is that it is a ‘penetration enhancer’ – this means that it changes the skins structure to allow other chemicals to penetrate deeper into the skin thereby increasing the amount of these chemicals that get into the bloodstream. EDTA is another penetration enhancer found in shampoo and body wash. Like ceteareths, these are dangerous because they allow other chemicals to penetrate deeper into the skin and reach the bloodstream.

DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (monoethanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine): DEA, MEA and TEA are additives used in a range of personal care products. DEA and TEA are known to combine and react with other ingredients to form cancer-causing nitrosamine chemicals. Repeated skin application of DEA was found to cause liver and kidney damage in animals. Researchers have also discovered that when absorbed through the skin, DEA accumulated in organs. TEA, which is also used as a fragrance ingredient, is toxic to the skin, and to the respiratory and immune systems.

Parabens (methyl-, butyl-, ethyl-, propyl- and isobutyl-): Parabens are used as preservatives and germicides in a wide range of personal care products. They are nicknamed ‘gender benders’ because they mimic the female hormone estrogen and are thought to be partly responsible for the decrease in male fertility and rise in testicular cancer since the 1950s. Parabens are also known carcinogens. They are absorbed through the skin and have even been found in biopsied tissue from breast cancer tumors! They are banned in Japan and Sweden and under review in the U.K. (Grape seed extract and rosemary extract are natural alternatives to paraben preservatives).

Phthalates (DBP, DEP, DEHP) (often included under the term “Fragrance” or “Perfume on labels): Phthalates are found in many products from soft plastics and air fresheners to shampoos and nail polish. A 2002 study found phthalates in over 70% of the 72 products they tested, including hair gel/hair spray, body lotion, fragrances, and deodorant.17 Research has shown that phthalates disrupt the hormonal system and interfere with reproduction. Multiple studies have showed that pregnant women exposed to high phthalate levels are more likely to give birth to baby boys with altered genital development.18, 19, 20

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is one of the most often used phthalates. DBP has been banned in Europe, but not the United States. DBP is toxic to the liver and kidneys, mimics the hormone estrogen and has been linked with reproductive and developmental problems (not to mention skin allergies). U.S. women of child-bearing age have been found to have high levels of DBP.21

Another is diethyl phthalate (DEP). A 2002 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that DEP damages the DNA of sperm in adult men at current levels of exposure.22 While the EU has banned DBP and another phthalate DEHP from use in cosmetics, in the US there are no restrictions on any phthalates in cosmetics. In addition, phthalates are difficult to avoid because they are generally not listed as ingredients on labels because they can be included under the ingredient of “fragrance”.

Polyethylene glycol (PEG): The same chemical PEG that is found in many personal care products, such as body washes, liquid soap, baby wipes, sunscreens and shampoo, is also used in caustic spray-on oven cleaners! PEG may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a probable carcinogen, and ethylene dioxide, a known human carcinogen. 1,4-dioxane readily penetrates the skin, and is considered unsafe for injured or damaged skin.

Propylene glycol (PG): Propylene glycol is widely used in many personal care products, including moisturizers, facial cleansers, foundations, shampoos, lotions, deodorants, toothpastes, and baby wipes. Propylene glycol can cause dermatitis and irritation to the skin and eyes. It is recognized as a neurotoxin by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, and it may cause kidney damage. The Material Safety Data Sheet for propylene glycol warns workers handling this chemical to avoid skin contact… and yet it’s in the stuff we rub all over ourselves! Because of its ability to quickly penetrate the skin, the EPA considers propylene glycol so toxic that it requires workers to wear protective gloves, clothing, and goggles when working with it and disposal by burying and warns against skin constant to prevent brain, liver and kidney abnormalities… so why is it allowed in our personal care products??? The concentration of PG in deodorants is often greater than that in most industrial applications!

Sodium lauryl sulfate/sodium laureth sulfate/sodium dodecyl sulfate: These chemicals are used in car washes, garage floor cleaners, and engine degreasers, and also 90% of personal care products as a foaming agent. In clinical testing they are used to purposely irritate the skin and have been banned in Europe and Canada. In addition to skin rashes, they are known to cause allergies and are known to affect the brain, heart, liver and other organs; and they also break down the skin’s protective barrier making it easier for other chemicals to get deeper into the body. Sodium lauryl sulfate also enhances the allergic response to other toxins and can react with other ingredients to form cancer-causing agents called nitrosamines.

Synthetic Fragrances: In addition to perfumes and colognes, synthetic fragrances are found in lotions, shampoos, soaps, etc. The terms, "fragrance", “perfume” or "parfum" on a label can indicate the presence of a multitude of toxic ingredients, many of which are known, proven or suspected carcinogens including phthalates, toluene (which can cause liver, kidney and brain damage as well as damage to a developing fetus) and neurotoxins.23 Fragrance is also a known trigger of asthma and symptoms reported to the FDA have included headaches, dizziness, rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing and vomiting, and allergic skin irritation.

Artificial colorings (FD&C, D&C): Artificial colorings are made from coal tar and petroleum and are identified with the letters FD&C or D&C. We want to avoid them because they often contain heavy metals such as lead and mercury that deposit on the skin. Many people experience allergic reactions like skin irritation and contact dermatitis and there is evidence suggesting that certain coal tar colors cause cancer -- D&C Blue 1, D&C Green 3, D&C Red 4, and D&C Yellow 5.

Toxic Preservatives like BHT and BHA: BHA and BHT are used as a preservative in a variety of personal care products, and like parabens they have been nicknamed ‘gender benders’ because they mimic the female hormone estrogen. They are thought to be partly responsible for the decrease in male fertility and for the rise in testicular cancer since the 1950s.24 BHA can also trigger allergic skin reactions and is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" by the U.S. National Toxicology Program. It is also used in fragrances, although this use is not allowed in the European Union because it can cause skin depigmentation.

Toluene: Toluene is a solvent found in nail polish and nail hardeners, dyes, perfumes and other cosmetics. But it will rarely be found on the ingredient label even though it may constitute over half of the volume of the product!! It is also listed on labels as methylbenzene or toluol. Toluene can cause of liver, kidney and brain damage and is a known reproductive toxin that can damage a developing fetus. Exposure to toluene has also been linked to irritation of the eyes, throat and lungs, loss of muscle control, brain damage, headaches, dizziness, memory loss and speech and vision problems.

Formaldehyde and Ureas (DMDM Hydantoin; Diazolidinyl and Imidazolidinyl urea): DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea are commonly used preservatives that slowly release formaldehyde -- a known carcinogen. Ureas are found in lotion, shampoo, conditioner and body wash and are toxic to the liver and kidneys and can trigger an immune response that includes itching, burning, scaling, hives and blistering skin.

Triclosan and tricarban: Triclosan is a derivative of the herbicide 2,4-D and is found in almost every antibacterial soap or cleanser and hand sanitizer as well as many toothpastes, mouthwashes and deodorants. Even with tiny amounts it is a known hormone disruptor and has been restricted in cosmetics in Canada and Japan. It has also been shown to cause allergic skin responses. It also reacts with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform and dioxin, both suspected carcinogens. Triclosan has even been detected in human breast milk, and in 75% of human tissue samples taken, demonstrating widespread exposure.25

Skin lighteners containing Hydroquinone: Hydroquinone is a skin-bleaching chemical found in many skin lightening products, and is considered to be one of the most toxic ingredients allowed in cosmetics. Hydroquinone can cause a skin condition called ochronosis with irreversible blue-black lesions on the skin. It has also been linked to developmental and reproductive problems and is not permitted for use in cosmetics in some countries. (It can also be labeled as: 1,4–benzenediol; 1,4– dihydorxybenzene; P-dioxybenzene; 4-hydroxyphenol; P-hydroxyphenol or 1,4benzenediol – these names indicate it’s chemical structure).

Antiperspirants that contain aluminum, parabens, propylene glycol, phthalates and/or triclosan: These chemicals are way too close to the breast tissue when in the armpits! A 2005 British study, published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, found that aluminum-based compounds in deodorants may be absorbed by the skin and cause estrogen-like effects.26 Because estrogen has the ability to promote breast cancer cells, some scientists have suggested that the aluminum-based compounds in antiperspirants may contribute to the development of breast cancer. A 2003 study in the European Journal of Cancer found that women with breast cancer who shaved their armpits and applied deodorant regularly were diagnosed with breast cancer 19 years earlier than those who did neither.27 (Not saying you have to go all au natural, but just choose a safer brand of deodorant/antiperspirant!).

Chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone, avobenzone, benzphenone, ethoxycinnnamate, PABA, and a host of other dangerous chemicals: There is scientific evidence suggesting that oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor, may be toxic to the nervous system and may damage DNA and growing cells. Two companion studies in 2008 conducted by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control found that oxybenzone exposure to pregnant women was associated with low birth weight baby girls and that is detected in 97% of people tested in the U.S.28


But don’t worry! You don’t have to memorize all of these! The goal of Naturopathic Ways is to provide you with brands and products that meet our clean criteria!! Check out the Skincare Page for Naturopathic Ways approved products!

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