More than 10,000 ingredients are used in personal care products. The United States cosmetic industry is valued at more than $50 billion and remains virtually unregulated. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and its partnering organization, the Environmental Working Group:
One in five personal care products contain chemicals linked to cancer, 80 percent contain ingredients that commonly contain hazardous impurities, and 56 percent contain penetration enhancers that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skin.
To find out what's in the products you use, take a tour of the EWG's Skin Deep Database.
Even the products sold in health food stores aren't necessarily pure and natural. Examples of brands with strict integrity include Aubrey Organics, Waleda, Autumn Harp, and Organic Essence.
Ingredients to Avoid
The EWG is dedicated to helping consumers choose healthier ingredients in shampoos, lotions, toothpastes, and other products. In their article titled Top Tips for Safer Products, they offer the following list of ingredients to avoid when selecting personal care products.
Benzalkonium chloride: Biocide, preservative and surfactant associated with severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation and allergies, benzalkonium chloride is a sensitizer especially dangerous for people with asthma or skin conditions like eczema. It is found in many household disinfectants and cleaning supplies. Regular use of products containing antimicrobials such as benzalkonium chloride could lead to development of resistant bacteria.
BHA: The National Toxicology Program classifies butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” It can cause skin depigmentation. In animal studies, BHA produces liver damage and causes stomach cancers such as papillomas and carcinomas and interferes with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels. The European Union considers it unsafe in fragrance. It is found in food, food packaging, and personal care products sold in the U.S.
Coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (including Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine): Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, is a known human carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Hair stylists and other professionals are exposed to these chemicals in hair dye almost daily. While FDA sanctions coal tar in specialty products such as dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, the long-term safety of these products has not been demonstrated.
DMDM hydantoin & bronopol (2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol): Cosmetics preservatives that decompose and release formaldehyde, which the International Agency on Research on Cancer lists as a known human carcinogen. The preservatives and their decomposition products, including formaldehyde, can trigger allergic reactions. About one-fifth of U.S. cosmetics and personal care products contain a chemical that releases formaldehyde. Not surprisingly, more Americans develop contact allergies to these ingredients than Europeans do.
Formaldehyde: A potent preservative considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde, also an asthmagen, neurotoxicant and developmental toxicant, was once mixed into many personal care products as an antiseptic. This use has declined. But some hair straighteners are based on formaldehyde’s hair-stiffening action and release substantial amounts of the chemical. Many common preservatives also release formaldehyde into products (like DMDM hydantoin, quaternium, and urea compounds).
Fragrance: It may help sell products from face cream to laundry detergent, but do you know what’s in it? Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant to lotion. Federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. Recent research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products, none of them listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top 5 allergens in the world. Our advice? Buy fragrance-free.
Hydroquinone: A skin-bleaching chemical that can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, with blue-black lesions that in the worst cases become permanent black caviar-size bumps. In animal studies, hydroquinone has caused tumor development. The National Toxicology Program is conducting reproductive toxicity and dermal carcinogenicity studies of this chemical.
Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone: Preservatives, commonly used together in personal care products, among the most common irritants, sensitizers and causes of contact allergy. Lab studies on mammalian brain cells suggest that methylisothiazolinone may be neurotoxic.
Oxybenzone: Sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber, found in nearly all Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In human epidemiological studies, oxybenzone has been linked to irritation, sensitization and allergies. A study of 404 New York City women in the third trimester of pregnancy associated higher maternal concentration of oxybenzone with a decreased birth weight among newborn baby girls but with greater birth weight in newborn boys. Studies on cells and laboratory animals indicate that oxybenzone and its metabolites may disrupt the hormone system.
Parabens (Propyl, Isopropyl, Butyl, and Isobutylparabens): Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives, found in breast cancer tumors of 19 of 20 women studied. The CDC has detected parabens in virtually all Americans surveyed. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl paraben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutylparabens, may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders.
PEG/Ceteareth/Polyethylene compounds: These synthetic chemicals are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. government considers a probable human carcinogen and which readily penetrates the skin. Cosmetics makers could easily remove 1,4-dioxane from ingredients, but tests documenting its common presence in products show that they often don’t.
Petroleum distillates: Petroleum-extracted cosmetics ingredients, commonly found in mascara. They may cause contact dermatitis and are often contaminated with cancer-causing impurities. They are produced in oil refineries at the same time as automobile fuel, heating oil and chemical feedstocks.
Phthalates: A growing number of studies link this chemical to male reproductive system disorders. Pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phathalate. Everyone should avoid products with “fragrance” indicating a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates.
Resorcinol: Common ingredient in hair color and bleaching products; skin irritant, toxic to the immune system and frequent cause of hair dye allergy. In animal studies, resorcinol can disrupt normal thyroid function. The federal government regulates exposures to resorcinol in the workplace, but its use is not restricted in personal care products.
Retinyl palmitate and retinol (Vitamin A): Vitamin A is an essential nutrient, but excessive amounts can cause severe birth defects if women are exposed during pregnancy. New evidence shows that when applied to sun-exposed skin, for instance, in sunscreens, lip products and daytime moisturizers, these compounds can break down and produce toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and cause skin cancer. Recent data from the federal Food and Drug Administration indicate that when retinyl palmitate is applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, it speeds the development of skin tumors and lesions.
Toluene: Volatile petrochemical solvent and paint thinner and potent neurotoxicant that acts as an irritant, impairs breathing and causes nausea. A pregnant woman’s exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may impair fetal development. In human epidemiological and animal studies, toluene has been associated with toxicity to the immune system. Some evidence suggests a link to malignant lymphoma.
Triclosan & Triclocarban: Antimicrobial pesticides in liquid soap (triclosan) or soap bars (triclocarban), very toxic to the aquatic environment. Often found as contaminants in people due to widespread use of antimicrobial cleaning products. Triclosan disrupts thyroid function and reproductive hormones. American Medical Association and the American Academy of Microbiology say that soap and water serves just as well to prevent spread of infections and reduce bacteria on the skin. Overuse may promote the development of bacterial resistance.