Toxic Talk and Labels

10 Toxic Chemicals Still Found in Common Personal Care Products

+ Britta Aragon

Looking back to when this blog was first started in 2009, I’m pleased to see that we have made some progress in safe skin care.

Today, we have more options than ever for non-toxic, nourishing products that are actually good for us. Consumers have become more aware of the potentially dangerous chemicals that can exist in the products they buy off the shelf (or online), and many are choosing to put their hard-earned dollars behind those companies that are much more careful and conscientious about their ingredients.

CV Skinlabs is one of those companies. We’ve been sticklers about our ingredients from the beginning, because we know how harsh chemicals can affect the skin and the body. We’ve toxicologically screened all ingredients in our products for any links to irritation, cancer, or hormone disruption, and adhere to strict formula safety guidelines and standards.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of companies out there passing off their dangerous formulas as “natural” because they’ve thrown in an extract or a bit of aloe. We want to be sure our readers are well informed, so we’ve put together a list of the 10 most common toxic ingredients still found in cosmetic products today. We encourage you to do your best to avoid them!

  1. Phthalates: These are chemicals produced from oils that are used to make plastics. Certain ones are also used as solvents in cosmetic products, and are often found in fragrances, nail polishes, hair sprays, lotions, and deodorants. They are known hormone-disruptors, and have been linked with fertility problems, developmental problems, respiratory issues like asthma, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and behavioral issues. Watch out for ingredients like dibutyl phthalate (DBP), butylbenzylphthalate (BBP), and di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP).
  2. Parabens: Parabens are preservatives used to extend the shelf life of cosmetic products. They are commonly found in deodorants, body washes, shampoos, facial cleansers, makeup products, and more. They are also hormone disruptors, and are easily absorbed by the skin. They have been linked with breast cancer, contact dermatitis, allergies, early puberty, and male infertility. Watch out for methyl-, butyl-, ethyl-, and propyl-paraben.
  3. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: Several commonly used preservatives are known to release slowly release formaldehyde into the air, where it can be inhaled. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. Watch out for DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methanamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.
  4. PEG compounds: Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are petroleum-based compounds commonly used to enhance the penetration of cosmetic products, as well as to help thicken and mix ingredients in a solution. You’ll find them in cleansers and conditioners for skin and hair. The problem is that they can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a possible cancer-causing by-product. If there are other toxic ingredients in the product, PEG compounds will help them penetrate the skin. Better to avoid them. Watch for propylene glycol, polyethylene glycols, and polyoxyethylene, or anything with an “-eth” or “-oxynol” in it.
  5. Synthetic Fragrances: The term “fragrance” on any product is a catch-all word for any chemicals used by the manufacturer to provide a fragrance to the product. The solution may actually include tens to hundreds to thousands of fragrance chemicals mixed together to create just the right scent. The problem is for those with sensitive skin (or sensitive noses): fragrance chemicals are some of the most common allergy-causing chemicals out there, and have been linked to dermatitis, hives, and other types of allergic reactions, in addition to asthma and migraines. On top of that, many of these fragrance chemicals have not been adequately tested for toxicity either alone or in combination with other fragrance chemicals. Avoid “fragrance” and look for products with natural fragrance ingredients like essential oils.
  6. DEA, TEA, MEA: These are ammonia-based compounds used as emulsifiers or foaming agents in cosmetics. They make your products sudsy or creamy, and can also help adjust pH balance. They’re found in moisturizers and sunscreens, as well as in cleansers, bubble baths, body washes, soaps, and shampoos. They are irritating chemicals, however—also used in some pesticides and industrial applications—and can cause skin and eye irritation, including dermatitis. Over time, they can actually make your skin and hair dryer. Most of the time they are rinsed off, but if they are absorbed in the body, they can be toxic, and have been linked with precancerous changes in the skin and thyroid. If they come into contact with nitrites, which can contaminate some cosmetic products, they can form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. Avoid diethanolamine (DEA), monoethanolamine (MEA), and triethanolamine (TEA).
  7. Dioxins: These are chemical pollutants that appear in cosmetics as unintentional by-products. They make their way into personal care products during the manufacturing process, and they are highly toxic and carcinogenic. They are also known hormone disruptors, and are most likely in products with triclosan, PEGs, and ethoxylated cleansers like sulfate-based products. It’s nearly impossible to avoid them completely, as they are in the environment, too, but you can cut down your exposure by choosing products made from conscientious companies that don’t use any of the other ingredients on this list.
  8. Petrolatum: Though petrolatum (mineral oil jelly or petroleum jelly) was used for years as a moisturizer, we have much better options today. Petroleum products can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can cause skin irritation and allergies, and have been linked in some studies to cancer. Because petrolatum doesn’t add moisture to the skin—only forms a barrier over it—it doesn’t really provide the deep moisture that so many other ingredients like butters and oils will do. It’s a poor choice.
  9. Sulfates: These are cheap, harsh detergents used in cleansing products like shampoos, facial cleansers, body washes, and other foam-building products including dish soap. To get an idea of how harsh they are, it helps to remember that they’re also used in garage floor cleaners and engine degreasers. They can cause skin and eye irritation and allergies, and also penetrate the skin where they tend to build up in body organs and cell membranes. Manufacturing process may also result in sulfates contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a possible human carcinogen. We have much better options to help protect and preserve the skin rather than stripping it down. Avoid sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).
  10. Toluene: This harsh chemical comes from crude oil and is found in nail polishes, nail treatments, and hair dyes, as well as in paint, metal cleaners, and adhesives. It helps to form a smooth surface when the paint dries, but is known to irritate the skin and eyes, and depending on exposure, can also cause dizziness, headaches, anxiety, muscle fatigue, and dermatitis. Nail salon workers and pregnant women are most at risk, but anyone can inhale this stuff while applying nail polish or hair dye. We have safer nail polish options now that don’t contain toluene.

For help finding safer products that are made without these toxic ingredients, see our post on “Where to Find Safer Products.”

How do you avoid toxic ingredients in personal care products?

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