In today’s world, there are a ton of unnatural things lurking inside seemingly benign products. I’m talking everything from hand soap, to air fresheners, to perfume, to toothpaste. Every single day we are using a lot of products. The reality is that anything you apply to your skin will be absorbed by your body. Additionally, anything that is scented will be absorbed through the tissues in your nose and in your lungs. There are many chemicals commonly found in personal items that are downright nasty.
Why care? Well there are a lot of chemicals that are added to our personal care products that are actually really toxic. Some of these are regarded as “relatively safe” by the US government. However, there is a lot of scientific literature supporting quite the opposite. And once you start combining a multitude of “relatively safe” chemicals together, they start to have a synergistic effect. Day after day, you are loading your body with these chemicals. Constant environmental exposure to these chemicals leads to diseases, hormone problems, and even cancer.
Household cleansers, toiletry items, and makeup, are products that we encounter every day. Things you are putting all over your face, on your eyes, in your mouth, and on your little baby. You may wonder if a little dollop of lotion or a spritz of air freshener every day is enough to have an effect. Perhaps it seems like a small volume, but the reality is that it is enough. Daily exposure adds up! The CDC has shown that a high percentage of people have significantly increased levels of some of these chemicals in their urine or even in breast milk – chemicals that have some seriously harmful effects!
There are a ton of bad chemicals out there, but I’m going to list some of the worst and most commonly used. I read through lots of articles, government safety sheets and research studies to give you real evidence on these chemicals. You can also check out the EWG.org for tons of additional information on this and many other topics. Look up specific products to see safety ratings from the EWG’s Skin Deep Database where they rate products and ingredients based upon scientific data for safety.
1. Petroleum Derived Products (petrolatum, mineral oil, paraffin)
This includes petrolatum or petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and paraffin. Products like Vaseline, Chapstick, and basically every major lotion brand, contain petroleum products. They may feel like they are making your skin more moisturized, but the reality is that these chemicals are derived from crude oil. They are produced in oil refineries where gasoline, heating oils, and similar caustic products are made. The production is not well controlled and regulated, so these products have been found to be contaminated with polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). PAHs have been linked to cancer.
Non-cosmetic grade mineral oils and lubricating oils have been linked to cancer because of their PAH content. However, cosmetic grade mineral oil is considered relatively safe because it is highly refined. This makes mineral oil is the safest of the petroleum based products and for cosmetic use, it is much more pure. The safety rating for mineral oil from the EWG is 1-3, meaning low-moderate hazard.
Conclusion: Mineral oil is generally safe, but petrolatum may be more likely to be contaminated with PAHs, which are carcinogenic. Additionally, these products are derived from crude oil as by-products of the oil manufacturing process. There are other safe, alternative moisturizers, like shea butter or coconut oil, that are also very effective and are not at risk of contamination.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals called plasticizers that are added to plastics make them more flexible. Plastics like vinyl, food wrappers, certain children’s toys, tubing, and countless others are made in this way. Phthalates are also used in personal care products like soaps, shampoos, hairsprays, fragrances, lotions, and nail polish. They are used to prevent nail polish from cracking, as a solvent for fragrances, and to give hairspray flexibility.
Here’s the problem – phthalates are endocrine disruptors. This means that exposure to phthalates interferes with your normal hormone signaling, which ultimately results in bad things such as developmental issues, tumors, and birth defects. Studies have found exposure to phthalates related to reproductive abnormalities in baby boys, decreased sperm quality and testosterone in men, and early puberty in girls.
How much phthalate are you exposed to? Well, data from NHANES revealed that there is widespread, general exposure to phthalates and that females had higher levels of the phthalates found in cosmetics than men. So ladies, we need to work on that!
Conclusion: Any product that does not explicitly state that it is phthalate free likely contains phthalates. If there is “fragrance” as an ingredient in a soap, shampoo, lotion, personal care item, candle, air freshener, perfume, body spray, etc – then it has phthalates. If you are using regular nail polish or hair spray, it will have phthalates. Look for products that state they are “phthalate-free” on the label or use items that are scented with essential oils.
Parabens are preservatives that are used in cosmetics (and in some foods!). Parabens are added to personal care items and foods to prevent them from getting moldy so that they have a long shelf life. You can find parabens in all types of soaps, shampoos, lotions, sunblocks, toothpaste, deodorants – any product that contains a lot of water. They are very commonly used and there are 6 commonly used parabens.
According to a study by Berger 2018, adolescent girls that wear makeup every day had 20 times higher propylparaben in their urine that girls who rarely or never wear makeup.
A side note: Although the European Union has banned paraben use in foods, it still can be found in the US, one example is Entemann’s Coconut Crunch Donuts (see ingredient list here) YIKES!
Like phthalates, parabens are endocrine disruptors and have estrogenic activity. Many studies, including a one from Harvard, have found that parabens result in diminished male and female fertility, reproductive, and neonatal developmental issues (sources 1, 2, 3). The CDC has reported that 92.7% of Americans have propyl paraben in their urine (4).
Conclusion: Parabens are extremely common preservatives used in just about every personal care item, soap, and some foods. They are well documented as endocrine disruptors that can even affect the development of an unborn baby. It is best to avoid all products with “fragrance” as an ingredient as this means it will have parabens.
2. Smith KW, Souter I, Dimitriadis I, et al. Urinary paraben concentrations and ovarian aging among women from a fertility center. Environ Health Perspect. 2013;121(11-12):1299–1305. doi:10.1289/ehp.1205350
3. Geer LA, Pycke BFG, Waxenbaum J, Sherer DM, Abulafia O, Halden RU. Association of birth outcomes with fetal exposure to parabens, triclosan and triclocarban in an immigrant population in Brooklyn, New York. J Hazard Mater. 2016;323(Pt A):177–183. doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2016.03.028
4. Calafat AM, Ye X, Wong LY, Bishop AM, Needham LL. 2010. Urinary concentrations of four parabens in the U.S. population: NHANES 2005-2006. Environ Health Perspect. 118(5):679-85.Urinary Paraben Concentrations and Ovarian Aging among Women from a Fertility Center
Oxybenzone is a sunscreen chemical and is commonly found as an active ingredient in your big-name sunscreens.
While it blocks your skin from getting UV damage, it probably is doing more harm that good. That’s because it is an endocrine disruptor, causes cell damage, organ toxicity, is a common allergen, and it is toxic to aquatic life and coral reefs. The CDC has found that oxybenzone is present in the bodies of nearly all Americans. It has been linked to decreased birth weight in baby girls.
Conclusion: Choose a sunscreen made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide (non-nanoparticle) instead of oxybenzone (like this brand). Children under 6 months should not wear sunscreen and should be kept out of harsh sunlight. Instead of wearing sunscreen, wear a wide brimmed hat and lightweight long-sleeved clothing, like white linen. These practices will keep you safely protected from the sun and will also protect our aquatic life and coral reefs.
5. Triclosan and Triclocarban
Triclosan and triclocarban are bactericidal agents added to soaps, antibiotic creams, and even toothpaste. There is sometimes a bit of an obsession with killing bacteria, especially in America. However there are some serious downsides to being this “clean.”
These agents have been found to be endocrine disruptors and have been linked to reproductive issues. They also have been linked to decreased thyroid function and are toxic to aquatic life. Overuse of triclosan and triclocarban are promoting bacterial resistance, which has become a big issue in the medical world. Ever heard of MRSA? That’s when staph bacteria have become resistant to every possible antibiotic. Did you know that you normally have staph on your skin and you need this bacteria to survive? But by applying antimicrobials such as these to your skin every day, you may be promoting the development of resistant bacteria (1).
Triclosan has been found in urine, plasma, and breast milk of humans. From the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (Fourth Report), it was found that 75% of people in the NHANES study had triclosan in their urine.
Additionally, triclosan and triclocarban end up in our water supplies. These chemicals leach out and get into our groundwater and go on to cause toxic problems for aquatic life and disrupt their ecosystem. Triclosan and triclocarban are also not entirely removed from our city water supplies at the water treatment plant, so if you have city water, you are getting it back when you turn on the faucet (2)
Conclusion: Avoid all products with triclosan for daily use because it is unnecessary to be that “clean,” as it is doing more harm than good. You literally need good bacteria to survive and by using triclosan and triclocarban laced products, you are killing off the good guys and leaving behind the bad. Additionally, these agents end up in our water supply and we are inadvertently drinking them (unless you filter your water at home).
2. Dhillon GS, Kaur S, Pulicharla R, et al. Triclosan: current status, occurrence, environmental risks and bioaccumulation potential. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015;12(5):5657–5684. Published 2015 May 22. doi:10.3390/ijerph120505657
3. Adolfsson-Erici M., Patterson M., Parkkonen J., Sturve J. Triclosan, A Commonly Used Bactericide Found in Human Milk and in the Aquatic Environment; Proceedings of the Abstracts of Dioxin,2000: 20th International Symposium on Halogenated Environmental Organic Pollutants and POP’s; Monterey, CA, USA. 13–17 August 2000;
6. Vitamin A Compounds (Retinol, Retinyls)
Vitamin A (retinol) is essential for life, but when it’s derivatives are added to cosmetics, the results are not so good. Retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate are two derivates that are most commonly added to anti-aging and anti-acne creams.
However, when skin with these compounds is exposed to sunlight, the compound breaks down into free radicals. Free radicals damage DNA, and actually speed up the formation of lesions and tumors and cause skin damage (1). In a study by the US National Toxicology Program, it was found that application of lotion with retinoic acid to mice that were exposed to UV light for 4 hours, 5 days a week, for 40 weeks, had significantly more tumor development than the mice that had plain lotion (2) Believe it or not, a lot of sunscreens have vitamin A or its derivatives in them. The reality is that this may be increasing your chance of skin cancer from UV exposure.
Conclusion: Avoid all products, especially suncreen, that contains retinyl palmitate, retinoic acid, retinyl acetate, and tretinoin. Also avoid high doses of Vitamin A (retinol) (above 10,000 IU).
Aluminum powder is added to antiperspirants. Aluminum is also commonly used as an adjuvant in vaccines and in anti-acids, like Tums.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about aluminum and its potential to cause breast cancer. A retrospective study by McGrath et al found that there was a greater frequency and earlier onset of breast cancer and a dose-response effect associate with aluminum containing antiperspirants. However, after reading numerous research papers and this systematic review (1), it seems there is no consistent data supporting this claim. Aluminum has been found in higher quantities in breast cancer tumor tissues, but it may not be the cause of the cancer. Tumors store more minerals in general, so it is not known at this time if the aluminum is contributing to the cancer.
However, aluminum has been found to be neurotoxic and high exposure to aluminum can result in a dementia-like syndrome (2)
Conclusion: the evidence on the breast cancer – aluminum relationship is foggy, but it’s not to say it can’t be true. There is evidence that high amounts of aluminum are neurotoxic. For these reasons, it seems safer to avoid aluminum containing cosmetics until more evidence is found.
1. Willhite CC, Karyakina NA, Yokel RA, et al. Systematic review of potential health risks posed by pharmaceutical, occupational and consumer exposures to metallic and nanoscale aluminum, aluminum oxides, aluminum hydroxide and its soluble salts. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2014;44 Suppl 4(Suppl 4):1–80. doi:10.3109/10408444.2014.934439
2. Krewski D, Yokel RA, Nieboer E, et al. Human health risk assessment for aluminium, aluminium oxide, and aluminium hydroxide [published correction appears in J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2008 Feb;11(2):147]. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2007;10 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):1–269. doi:10.1080/10937400701597766
1,4-dioxane is a byproduct when other chemicals are created, so when reading labels, you aren’t going to see these words. Instead, look for:
- sodium laureate sulfate (SLS)
- polyethylene glycol
- chemicals that start with PEG-
- chemicals that end with -xynol, -ceteareth, and -oleth.
These chemicals are always contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. Such chemicals are found in products that create suds or foam and are what most people associate with that “clean feeling.” I know personally that a lot of my patients complain that SLS-free toothpastes don’t have that sudsing action so they don’t like it. Luckily suds doesn’t equate to clean, its more a mental perception of clean. Sadly, suds means it’s likely contaminated with a carcinogen associated with tumors of the liver, gallbladder, nasal cavity, lungs, skin and breast (1)
The United States Human Services National Toxicology Program (NTP 2005) reports:
“1,4 dioxane is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals”
The issue is the 1,4-dioxane is easily absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes. The government has recognized that this contaminant is an issue and the FDA recommends that manufacturers of these products use a process called vacuum stripping after creating the chemical to remove the 1,4-dioxane. However, this is completely voluntary and an extra step that most companies are going to take (2).
Conclusion: if you have a personal care product that has one of the ingredients listed above, then it is likely contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is carcinogenic. Avoid all products with these chemicals. Do not be fooled by products advertised as “natural” or “organic” as they could use one of the other chemical sudsing agents listed. Even brands like Alba and JASON that advertise as being “natural” have been found to be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane (3)
Unfortunately many cosmetics, personal care items, household cleaners, candles, and perfumes have some really bad chemicals in them. If you haven’t been checking labels and reading ingredients, it’s time to start. There is a lot of evidence that these chemicals are not safe and with the list of things we are exposed to every day, it is good practice to avoid as many as possible to decrease the potential hormonal effects and cancer causing properties.
There are many companies that are tapping into the “natural” beauty care line, but many are not completely truthful in their advertising, using words like “organic” or “natural” on their packaging. Because of this, it is essential to be diligent and read all labels. I personally recommend looking up products via the EWG Skin Deep database. There are some common commercially available products that are pretty good, like Burt’s Bees and Physicians Formula. There are also awesome shops that are committed to selling only products that do not contain bad ingredients, such as Follian or Credo Beauty.
I hope this information is helpful and guides you toward a healthier personal care routine. Soon I will be sharing some of my personal favorite clean beauty products.