What to Avoid in Personal Care Products

The Dangers of Personal Care Products

Personal care products, ranging from shampoos to cosmetics, often have toxic ingredients that can cause problems ranging from eczema to birth defects.  Unfortunately, personal care products are not regulated at the same level as foods and drugs.  This means that companies that make cosmetics are not required to test for safety prior to manufacturing.  According to the Environmental Working Group, more than 99 percent of personal care products contain at least one ingredient that has never been tested for safety, and more than one-third of all personal care products contain at least one ingredient linked to cancer.  Furthermore, manufacturers aren’t required to list every chemical in personal care products.  For example, when “fragrance” is listed as an ingredient, it often includes dangerous phthalates and VOCs.

baby in bath non-toxic BPA-free duck green natural organic personal care products

According to a report by Samuel Epstein, M.D., Chairman Cancer Prevention Coalition, more than 60% of applied cosmetics are absorbed into our bloodstream and therefore have a significant impact on our systems.  Thus, when we apply personal care products to our skin, small amounts of toxic ingredients can be absorbed into our bloodstream.  To make matters worse, we don’t know what the effects will be of combining individual chemicals together or the cumulative effect on our health of all of the chemicals from all of the products we use.

There is no point in our lives when we are as vulnerable as when we are babies.  Which is why it is so essential to expose our children to only the most natural ingredients possible.  The chemicals found in typical everyday products such as soaps and diapers are much more harmful to a baby’s sensitive skin and developing body.  These chemicals can potentially lead to problems ranging from asthma to birth defects.  When pregnant women use these products, certain ingredients may also pass to the fetus.

Playing it Safe

The best way to make sure you are choosing the safest products is to always check the labels.  Look for ingredients that are safe and natural.  Get products with certified organic herbs and pure essential oils for fragrance.  Essential oils also make very effective cleaners, anti-bacterial agents and sanitizers.

Sun care and bug repellents are some of the most likely candidates for carrying dangerous toxins.  Fortunately, safer and more natural alternatives are becoming more widely available.

Be cautious about personal care products that claim to be organic, natural, cruelty-free or biodegradable:

  • “Natural” – There is no set standard for the use of “natural” in personal care products so it doesn’t mean the product is safe or all-natural.
  • “Cruelty-free” – There is no set standard for the use of the phrase “cruelty-free.”  However, the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics will allow the use of its “leaping bunny” seal for manufacturers who sign a pledge not to use ingredients tested on animals.
  • “Biodegradable” – The use of the term “biodegradable” is also subject to misuse because there is no set definition and no regulation of it.
  • “Organic” – The use of the term “organic” is subject to some regulation.  In 2005, the USDA began allowing manufacturers of personal care products to put their Organic Seal on the packages if the products are made with at least 95% organic ingredients.
  • “Made with Organic Ingredients” – Products made with at least 70% organic ingredients cannot use the Organic Seal but can claim to be “Made with Organic Ingredients.”

A good rule of thumb is to avoid ingredients that you can’t pronounce.  However, it is also important not to judge an ingredient by its name.  Some scary-sounding ingredients are actually good for you, such as butyrospermum parkii (shea butter).  Keep in mind though that some natural ingredients should be avoided by pregnant women – see What to Avoid While Pregnant for more information.


For more information about the safety of specific personal care products, you can look them up on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database at www.cosmeticdatabase.com.  This website offers a user-friendly search tool that enables you to enter a personal care product, company or ingredient to find out how safe it is.

You can also check out which companies have signed EWG’s “Compact for Safe Cosmetics” (www.safecosmetics.org) – a pledge to refrain from using ingredients that are known or suspected to cause harmful effects.

Also check out www.goodguide.com for help in finding safe personal care products (they also have an iPhone app).  And www.pollutioninpeople.org, which details the results of a study done on ten Washington residents to find out what toxic chemicals were present in their systems.

Ingredients to Avoid

Below is a short list of ingredients to avoid:

  • Alkanes (Heptane, Butylene, Pentane) – linked to birth and developmental effects.
  • Alkylphenols (nonoxynol-12, nonylphenol, 4-tert-octylphenol) – linked to disruptions in the endocrine, reproductive and nervous systems.
  • Butylene Glycol – a petroleum-based moisturizer
  • 1,4-Dioxane (look for “myreth,” “oleth,” “laureth,” “ceteareth,” any other “eth,” “PEG,” “polyethylene,” “polyethylene glycol,” “polyoxyethylene,” or “oxynol”) – a by-product of Ethylene Oxide used for a process called ethoxylation, which is a way to make harsh chemicals milder.  1,4-Dioxane has been linked to cancer and is suspected to be a kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant.  It can be found in shampoos, soaps and lotions, including those claiming to be natural or organic.
  • Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate (DLS) – a chemical salt that works to help products spread out and penetrate more easily.  It can lead to harmful byproducts that have been linked to cancer.
  • DMDM Hydantoin (or 1,3-Dimethylol-5, 5-Dimethyl Hydantoin) – a chemical preservative that releases formaldehyde as it works.  Try milk and honey instead.
  • FD&C and D&C Color Pigments – linked to cancer.  Often contain tar and lead.
  • Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde irritates the breathing system.  It has also been linked to cancer, chronic fatigue, and disruption of the immune system.
  • Fragrance (Synthetic) – Like other ingredients in personal care products, fragrances are not regulated or tested for safety.  What makes synthetic fragrances worse than these other ingredients is that the chemicals in them don’t have to be listed on the label.  Instead, the word “fragrance” can be used as a catch-all term for more than 3,000 chemicals used in their manufacture.  The chemicals in synthetic fragrances have been shown to cause a number of health problems, the most common being skin allergies such as contact dermatitis.  Breathing certain chemicals in synthetic fragrances can exacerbate asthma and lead to disruption of the immune, reproductive and nervous systems.  Furthermore, many products that claim to be “fragrance-free” or “unscented” actually have fragrance listed on their label so it is always best to check the label.  Essential oils are generally a safer alternative to synthetic fragrances but keep in mind that, although they are natural, they have not been tested for safety either and pregnant women especially should check with their doctors before using them.
  • Glycolic Acid – chemical exfoliant
  • Hydroquinone – used as a bleaching agent for freckles and age spots.  Allergenic.
  • Imidazolidinyl Urea – a common synthetic preservative used to prolong the shelf life of cosmetics.  It may cause contact dermatitis, stress your immune system and release formaldehyde when used with water.
  • Isopropyl Alcohol – a solvent derived from petroleum.  If you inhale this, it could cause dizziness, headache and vomiting.  Has been linked to cancer.
  • Inorganic Salts (Potassium Bromide, Manganese Sulfate, Potassium Nitrate) – linked to cancer and disruptions of the endocrine, developmental, reproductive, and nervous systems.
  • Mineral Oil – a petrochemical derived from non-renewable crude oil.  It can be found in bay oil, lip balms, lotions and creams.  Interferes with skin’s ability to moisturize itself and promotes sun damage.
  • Musks (Nitro- and Polycyclic-Musks) – found in “fragrances” in personal care products.  Musks have been linked to health problems such as cancer and disruption in endocrine, reproductive and immune systems.
  • Oxybenzone – chemical used in sunscreens.  It is very allergenic and has been linked to cancer.
  • Parabens – the most common group of synthetic preservatives (such as butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben) used to prolong the shelf life of cosmetics.  Although the FDA has found that parabens in cosmetics are no reason for concern, studies suggest that parabens have weak estrogen-like effects on the body, which can potentially lead to breast cancer and hormone disruptions.  Parabens have also been detected in breast tumors.  Try buttermilk instead.
  • Paraffin – a petrochemical derived from non-renewable crude oil.
  • Petrolatum – also known as petroleum jelly which is used to help soften skin and help skin retain moisture.  As its name suggests, it is derived from petroleum which is a non-renewable material.  It creates a film on the skin which may trap in toxins, clogs pores, promotes sun damage, and interferes with the skin’s excretory function and cell development.  An alternative is beeswax.
  • Petroleum Distillates (Paraffin) – linked to cancer, disruption of the nervous system and organ system toxicity.
  • Phenols (Triclosan) – Triclosan is a toxic pesticide and antibacterial agent that is used in soaps, deodorants and other household products.  It breaks down into toxic chemicals, including methyl triclosan and chloroform.  It is very allergenic and has been linked to cancer as well as effects on the skin, endocrine, reproductive and immune systems.
  • Phenoxyethanol – a preservative used in fragrances which is made from phenol, a coal tar derivative, Studies have linked phenoxyethanol to certain cancers and endocrine disruption as well as skin and eye irritation.
  • Phthalates (such as Diethyl Phthalate and Benzylbutyl phthalate; also known as “plasticizers”) – common in everything from shampoos and soaps to lotions and deodorants.  When you see the word “fragrance” on a product label, it often means that the product contains phthalates.  Studies link phthalates to a number of health issues, including asthma, abdominal obesity, organ system toxicity, birth defects in male reproductive systems, and disruption of the endocrine system, brain, nervous system and immune system.  Phthalates have been found in the urine of infants who had been recently exposed to personal care products such as shampoos, lotions and powders.  In 2008, Congress passed a bill banning six different phthalates from children’s toys and personal care products.
  • Polyethylene Glycol or Polyethylene (PEGs) – chemicals derived from petroleum that are used to prevent products from separating or as gelling or thickening agents.  They have been linked to hives, eczema and kidney toxicity.  During manufacturing, PEGs can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen.
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – a plastic material that releases mercury, dioxins and phthalates throughout its life cycle.
  • Propylene Glycol – an alcohol that thins out liquids  and enhances the skin’s absorption of moisture and other ingredients.  Studies have shown that propylene glycol may negatively impact reproductive health and may act to enhance the absorption of other toxins in the product.
  • Substituted Benzenes (such as Benzoyl Peroxide, Butylparaben, Benzyl Benzoate) – used as a preservative in personal care products.  Substituted benzenes have been linked to a number of health problems including cancer and effects on the endocrine, reproductive, immune, nervous and respiratory systems.
  • Sulfates/Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) – synthetic detergents and foaming agents.  Contain formaldehyde and nitrosamine.  SLS can cause eye damage, eczema, hair loss, dandruff, and allergic reactions.  Try plant oils such as coconut oil instead.
  • TEA, DEA, MEA (Triethanolamin, Diethanolamin, Monoethanolamin) – a chemical compound derived from ammonia that works as a cleansing and foaming agent in bath and shower products.  It has been linked to certain cancers and is sometimes contaminated with a suspected carcinogen called nitrosamines.
  • VOCs and SVOCs (Volatile and Semivolatile Organic Compounds) – found in fragrances in personal care products.  These compounds have been linked to a number of health problems including birth defects, cancer, and disruption of the nervous, reproductive and immune systems.