There are thousands of ingredients discreetly printed on the labels of cosmetic and toiletry products, but since most of us don’t have a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, we thought this list would be a helpful place to start. For an even more robust list, check out the Hazard List of Chemicals that Made Safe has listed on their site for more details.
•1,4-Dioxane – This is a petroleum-derived contaminant that gets created during the process of making shampoo, body wash, children’s bath products and other sudsing chemicals. Early studies have linked it to cancer in animal testing.
• Benzene – The same stuff in the Yellowstone River from the pipe line spill in Montana that happened in 2015? Yep! Derivatives can end up in cosmetics, hidden under “fragrance” on the label, which means, unfortunately, you can’t even tell it’s in the product by reading the label. Benzene is a known to cause cancer.
• BHT and BHA – These are synthetic, antioxidant preservatives used in thousands of toiletry and makeup products. They are linked to endocrine disruption (causing imbalance in the lungs, liver, kidney and thyroid) and cancer. Check your food labels too…it’s also a preservative in many packaged foods.
• DEA, TEA and MEA – These mysterious acronyms can easily breakdown into nitrates and produce unintended impurities in the product, known as “nitrosamines.” Nitrosamines are toxic ammonia compounds that are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity and developmental toxicity, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. The Campaign also notes that the UK’s Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform says nitrosamines are more toxic in more animal species than any other category of chemical carcinogen. They are not always listed on the label either, because they sometimes occur as a byproduct during the chemical reaction of nitrates and amino acids from other ingredients.
• Formaldehyde – You may not be dead yet but that doesn’t mean cosmetic and toiletry companies can’t help begin preserving you. Aside from embalming you, formaldehyde is a well-known carcinogen. It’s often listed as “formaldehyde resin” in nail polish, and before you get your next Brazilian Blowout, ask your stylist if their formula contains “methylene glycol,” which is the liquid of formaldehyde.
• Fragrance – This catch-all term contains chemicals used to hold color and scents in products. Most fragrance is artificial and can contain unknown and untested chemicals. It is also a great place for companies to hide other chemicals, because the FDA allows fragrance to be protected as “trade secret” ingredients; therefore manufacturers do not have to disclose the ingredients/ formula. Synthetic fragrance (also called “musk” or “aroma”) is linked to organ toxicity, endocrine disruption and immunotoxicity. Going “fragrance free” might not the answer either, because masking agents are used to make things unscented/ fragrance free, which are additional chemicals! Look for essential oil-scented products for the safest bet.
• Lead and Heavy Metals – Remember when you learned about how aristocrats went crazy from having lead in their makeup? We are still consuming lead in our makeup today—crazy, right?! (Pun intended.) Lead and other heavy metals are found in lipstick, toothpaste, nail polish, concealer, blush, eye shadow, sunscreen and even eye drops. The FDA found lead in 400 lipsticks on the market in a 2012 study. Yikes! Check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for details on heavy metals.
• Hydroquinone – This bad lad is used to bleach the skin and lighten dark or age spots (hyperpigmentation). It also has mutagenic properties, speeds up aging and created tumors in mice during lab tests. Sounds like instead of restoring youth, it could turn you a crusty, old Ninja Turtle!
• Nanoparticles – These are super tiny particles that cosmetic companies use by controlling the shape and size of an ingredient, making it minuscule, which can help with absorption, texture and mixing properties. The concern is that it can possiblly damage DNA. For more information about concerns of nanoparticles and DNA, check out this 2014 MIT Study about nanoparticles in sunscreen. For a brainy dive into nanoparticles and how different varieties are being used by almost all major cosmetic companies, read this NIH article.
• Oxides (Ethylene Glycol & Propylene Glycol) – These chemicals are found in many products, including deodorant, cream-based cosmetics and even antifreeze. Keep your engine from overheating and slap some lotion on your body with our friends, the Oxides! They are usually spelled out or also listed as PEG-[a number] or PPG-[a number] on the labels.
• Parabens – A carcinogenic preservative often found in human breast cancer tissue. Look for Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Ethylparaben, Butylparaben and Isobutylparaben. It is also linked to human hormone or endocrine disruption. For a great breakdown on Parabens, check out this detailed breakdown from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
• Petroleum/Petrolatum – This is found in many cosmetic products and toiletries, especially lotions and creams. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics details on petroleum, “when properly refined, [it] has no known health concerns. However, with an incomplete refining history, petrolatum could potentially be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.” PAHs are linked to cancer with some PAHs being probable carcinogens and one form of PAHs even being a known carcinogen. The campaign recommends avoiding anything with petroleum in it unless the manufacturer lists that the petroleum is fully refined as white petrolatum.
• Placental Extract – This is a popular ingredient in hair treatments marketed to women of color as a nourishing treatment and one that helps grow and repair hair. Placental extract, usually from other mammals, can be dangerous because it contains high levels of progesterone, which can adversely effect the hormone levels of the user and has a possible link to breast cancer. One report in Clinical Pediatrics from 1998, noted that four young African-American girls began experiencing early breast development while using shampoos with estrogen and placental extract. As soon as they stopped using the product, the puberty not only stopped, but it was reversed!
• Phthalates (DBP, DEP, etc.) – These little terrors are linked to birth defects and organ damage, which is why six types of them have been banned in baby and children’s toys. These chemicals are found in nail polish, shampoo, deodorant, lotion, face wash and even some baby care products. There are about 25 different types of common phthalates, and many scientists say there is no safe level of exposure to them, because the body responds to extremely tiny doses of hormone and people vary widely in individual susceptibility.
• Polytetraflouroethyelne (PTFE) – Does this chemical look familiar? That’s because it’s Teflon! Why is it in our products? We wish we knew, but it’s found in cosmetics and hair products. The EWG’s Skin Deep database found Teflon in 66 different products from 15 brands. And they said that other PFAs (polyfluoroakyl substances) were found in products, totaling 200, including shampoo, sunscreen, cosmetics and shaving cream. These chemicals are associated with a number of serious health risks, including cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, and harm to children’s development.
• Quaternium-15 – This is a formaldehyde-releasing chemical found in conditioners, hair styling products, creams, lotions, cleansers, shaving products, eye drops contact solutions, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Hair stylists are especially vulnerable to exposure to this product due to using so many products and the prolonged exposure of them.
• Retinyl Palmitate – Wait a minute! Isn’t that Vitamin A, and isn’t that good for your skin? Yes, it is BUT not when on the skin, which comes in contact with the sun. In fact, studies have shown that Vitamin A can actually cause precancerous lesions on the skin when exposed to sun. The irony of the ingredient…many sunscreen products contain retinyl palmitate, so be sure to double check your labels or research online before you buy. Make sure any moisturizers you may decide to use containing retinyl palmitate are applied only at night and are washed off in the morning before you go outside.
• Sulfates (SLS) – These chemicals are used as sudsing agents (who doesn’t love a good hair lather?!) but the concern is they go from the skin into the heart and lungs and are linked to allergies.
• Talc – Baby powder that we rub on our infants bums and use to keep ourselves dry on hot summer days? Sadly, yes. Ladies and moms of baby girls, keep this stuff away from the lower reproductive organ. While a link to cancer using talc is not proven, there is strong evidence that usage on the genitals is associated with increased incidences of ovarian cancer. The link is strong enough to cause a jury to award $72 million in damages to the surviving son of a woman who died from ovarian cancer caused by using talc-based products from Johnson & Johnson.
• Toluene – This has widely been removed from most nail polishes but is sometimes still used, so be sure to read your labels. It is linked to reproductive abnormalities in babies.
• Triclosan and Triclocarbon – This chemical is used in hand soaps and sanitizers because it kills bacteria. It may also kill you. One study linked it to heart disease and heart failure. When mice were exposed to it, their heart muscle function was reduced by 25% and grip strength by 18%. It decreases thyroid performance and is found in the urine of 75% of the U.S. population, which probably means it’s floating around in your body too. Triclosan has increased in our bodies in the US by 50% from 2006-2008. Some scientists argue it could also be the cause of super bugs that are antibiotic-resistant.
• Ureas – This chemical is known to cause skin inflammation and can release or be contaminated with formaldehyde. This ingredient is found in “natural” products, as well as general cosmetic brands. Also look for “DMDM Hydantoin” and “Imidazolidinyl Urea” on the label; those are synonymous names.
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