The cosmetics industry uses thousands of synthetic chemicals in its products, in everything from lipstick and lotion to shampoo and shaving cream. I’ve previously written about toxic chemicals hiding in your beauty products. What are these chemicals hiding in your beauty products?
Chemicals in beauty products to avoid
Many of these substances are also used in industrial manufacturing processes to clean industrial equipment, stabilise pesticides and grease gears. I think common sense can tell us a product that de-greases floors shouldnt be used on our faces!
Here’s some of the worst 10 common chemicals you’ll find in your beauty cabinet and what makes them so bad
Parabens are synthetic preservatives.
Found in: foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and personal care products such as deodorants, moisturizers and shampoos.
Hormone disruptor: Parabens can mimic estrogen and disrupt the body’s hormone system. Cornell University reports that a high lifelong exposure to estrogen can increase breast cancer risk. Estrogen, and synthetic chemicals that act like estrogen, play a role in stimulating the division of breast cells and affect other hormones that stimulate breast cell division. Your body does not easily break down synthetic estrogen, and it can accumulate in fat cells, including breast tissue.
Carcinogenic: In 2004, a study by the University of Reading in the United Kingdom found concentrations of parabens, particularly methylparaben, in human breast tumors. The study examined only the presence of parabens in the tumors but did not determine that they were the cause of the tumors.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs)
Found in: many personal care products, particularly in shampoos, nail polish and liquid baby soaps.
Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by many expert and government bodies, including the United States National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A 2009 review of the literature on occupational exposures and formaldehyde shows a link between formaldehyde and leukemia.
On a side note, I use it at work to preserve dead animals (like what you may have seen in museums) and it’s also used to preserve dead bodies. Yuck!
Commonly used as plasticizers to make plastics more flexible and easier to process, phthalates occur in a wide range of products such as vinyl shower curtains, upholstery, plastic toys, paints, adhesives, and yes, cosmetics too.
Phthalates have been shown to be reproductive and developmental toxins and may contribute to what is known as “testicular dysgenesis syndrome”: increasing incidence of birth defects of the male reproductive tract such as undescended testis, and lower sperm count. (Phthalates are believed to inhibit testosterone synthesis during the critical period of fetal development when masculine traits are beginning to form.)
While a lot of attention has been focused on the “demasculation” of boys by phthalates, women are not immune to their effects. Phthalates are implicated in premature puberty in girls, and in animal studies, they appear to suppress estradiol production, prolong estrous cycles, and cause anovulation (no egg released in the cycle), a common cause of infertility.
Recent studies suggest that prenatal phthalate exposure may be linked to lower birth weight in newborns and disruptive behavior in offspring.
4. Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), monoethanolamine (MEA)
Found in: Soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and dyes, lotions, shaving creams, paraffin and waxes, household cleaning products, pharmaceutical ointments, eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, blush, make-up bases, foundations, fragrances, sunscreens
Linked to liver tumors. The European Commission prohibits diethanolamine (DEA) in cosmetics, to reduce contamination from carcinogenic nitrosamines.
Nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA) is listed as a carcinogen in the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens. Experimental studies show that NDEA causes liver cancer and kidney tumors in rats and cancer of nasal cavity in hamsters. TEA and DEA have found to be hepatocarcinogenic (producing or tending to produce cancer in the liver) in female mice.
Studies have found that DEA affects human male reproductive health. DEA alters sperm structure, causing abnormalities that affect the sperm’s ability to swim and fertilize the egg. DEA accumulates in the liver and kidney, causing organ toxicity and also possible neurotoxic effects such as tremors. Another study suggests that memory function and brain development in offspring could be permanently affected by mothers’ exposure to DEA.
What to look for on the label: Triethanolamine, diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.
5. Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate, and Ammonium laureth sulphate
Found in: all things foamy, think shampoo, body wash, dishwashing detergent.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, SLS is a “moderate hazard” that has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, skin irritation and endocrine disruption.
6. Propylene Glycol and PEG’s
These are petroleum-based compounds.
Found in: widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers. PEGs are commonly used as cosmetic cream bases.
While carcinogenic contaminants are the primary concern, PEG compounds themselves show some evidence of genotoxicity and if used on broken skin can cause irritation and systemic toxicity.
The industry panel that reviews the safety of cosmetics ingredients concluded that some PEG compounds are not safe for use on damaged skin (although the assessment generally approved of the use of these chemicals in cosmetics).
Also, PEG functions as a “penetration enhancer,” increasing the permeability of the skin to allow greater absorption of the product — including harmful ingredients.
Found in: antibacterial soaps, deodorants and toothpastes to limit the growth of bacteria and mold.
The chemical, which is classified as a pesticide, can affect the body’s hormone systems—especially thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism—and may disrupt normal breast development. Widespread use of triclosan may also contribute to bacterial resistance to antimicrobial agents.
Petrolatum is mineral oil jelly (i.e. petroleum jelly). It is used as a barrier to lock moisture in the skin in a variety of moisturizers and also in hair care products to make your hair shine.
Found in: almost everything. From shampoos to baby oil and body lotions.
A petroleum product, petrolatum can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Studies suggest that exposure to PAHs — including skin contact over extended periods of time — is associated with cancer. On this basis, the European Union classifies petrolatum a carcinogen ii and restricts its use in cosmetics. PAHs in petrolatum can also cause skin irritation and allergies.
1,4-dioxane is not listed on ingredient labels. It is a petroleum-derived contaminant formed in the manufacture of shampoos, body wash, children’s bath products and other sudsing cosmetics. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has ranked it as a possible carcinogen, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) has identified it as a reasonably anticipated carcinogen.
It doesn’t easily degrade and can remain in the environment long after it is rinsed down the shower drain. 1,4-dioxane can be removed from cosmetics during the manufacturing process by vacuum stripping, but there is no easy way for consumers to know whether they have undergone this process. In a study of personal care products marketed as “natural” or “organic” (uncertified), U.S. researchers found 1,4-dioxane as a contaminant in 46 of 100 products analyzed.
Depending on manufacturing processes, PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane.
Synthetic fragrances are allergens that may contain the aforementioned class of chemicals known as phthalates. These fragrances can interfere with the immune system and can, as an allergen, instigate an asthma attack. They are potential neurotoxins and can be found in the blood as synthetic musks when frequently used.
Found in: everything that smells pleasant.
The presence of phthalates and other toxic chemicals in “fragrance” could be hidden. Manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients of fragrances because of their proprietary nature; hence, the consumer would only see “fragrance” on the ingredients list.
I’m not suggesting you give up your cleansing regime, in fact I insist you continue! But please consider safer alternatives, there’s plenty of them available to you.
Now that I’ve overwhelmed you with information, I’ve got some tips to help make the process easier.
I buy my beauty products from retailers I trust. This cuts down time and effort searching through all those ingredients, knowing that someone else has already done the hard work for me. My two favourites are Nourished Life and Shop Naturally.
- Nourished Life is a one-stop shop for toxin-free, all-natural beauty & healthy living products. I love this shop for their brilliant reviews of each product and the knowledge that everything I order complies with my own standard for natural care. Their blog is also brilliant and very informative. Nourished Life is the next best thing to a Mecca Cosmetics store for me. I use Nourished Life for all my beauty and cosmetic needs.
- Shop Naturally is an online health, wellbeing & eco store. I use this website for almost everything. From personal products to kitchenware, they have it. I order from here the health foods I can’t find at my local shop, food storage containers, stainless steel water bottles and personal products. They also have great sales all the time so you can generally pick up a bargain. Just a side: some of their stocked brands are a little questionable (e.g. Sukin), but generally everything is natural and synthetic chemical free.
Unless you have an encyclopedic memory of all the names of allergens, hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and teratogens, you might as well be navigating the beauty aisle with your eyes closed. But there is help, available in the palm of your hand!
There’s a great free App for Apple and Android users called, Skin Deep. It’s linked to the EWG database. It rates by potential links to cancer, developmental or reproductive toxicity, and allergens. Each product gets an overall rating of how much of a health threat it’s considered to be (zero being harmless and 10 being a serious concern), and a low, medium, or high label for each of the three categories of cancer, allergens, and developmental or reproductive toxicity. It’ll also pull up a quick-hit list of the worst ingredients in question, or let you sort them by low, moderate, or high concern level.