11 Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients To Avoid


The greener we become, the more we have to scrutinize. I for one have cleaned up my home, my diet, my cleaning products and – of utmost importance – the products I put on my skin. I’m an avid ingredient reader and do the research – after all, my skin is the largest organ of my body! Here’s a list of some common skin and hair care chemicals that are wise to avoid.

Coal Tar: Coal tar is used to treat eczema, psoriasis and other skin disorders and can be found in anti-itch creams and scalp treatments. It’s also a known carcinogen.

Diethanolamine (DEA): A lathering agent in soaps and shampoos, DEA isn’t carcinogenic by itself, but can react with other chemicals in products to create a carcinogen readily absorbed into the skin. Look for DEA in many forms, such as Cocamide DEA, Oleamide DEA and Lauramide DEA.

Formaldehyde: A frighteningly common ingredient in a variety of beauty products. Formaldehyde can irritate your eyes, nose and throat, dry out and irritate your skin and even cause asthma and cancer with repeated exposure.

Parabens: Parabens have had a lot of press lately and I’m finding more and more products specifically labeled “paraben free.” This is because parabens, in their many forms (methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, or butylparaben) have been linked to breast cancer. The FDA claims that parabens aren’t dangerous at very low levels, but when you consider that 25,000 different cosmetics and skincare products contain these chemicals, it’s feasible to build up quite an exposure in a lifetime.

Phenylenediamine (PPD): An ingredient used in hair dyes (including eyelash dye), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has run studies that show a higher incidence of cancer among hairdressers and cosmetologists; they have the highest PPD exposure. Although PPD is not approved for products that come in contact with the skin, hair dye usually gets on your forehead or ears for up to 30 minutes. Why take the risk?

Phthalates: The subject of much controversy because of hormone-disrupting phthalates being found in plastic baby bottles and teethers, let’s not forget that they’re a common ingredient in cosmetics, too.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): A foaming agent in soaps and shampoos, SLS and SLES are skin irritants and can enter the heart, brain and liver through the skin and accumulate in these organs.

Toluene: Found in nail polish and hair dye, this is a nasty one. Toluene is toxic to the nervous system, and breathing it in can cause dizziness and headaches. High exposures can lead to birth defects and miscarriage, so watch out if you work in a nail salon. Use toluene-free brands of nail polish instead.

Fragrance: Because of an FDA loophole, cosmetic companies can hide a whole slew of chemicals, many of which are phthalates, under the label “fragrance.” Read more about the dangers of fragrance, and avoid this ingredient like the plague.

Triethanolamine (TEA): TEA is used to balance PH and is a common ingredient in “gentle” cosmetic products, but unfortunately it’s been known to cause allergic reactions, is an eye irritant and can cause dry hair and skin. With consistent use, TEA is absorbed into the body and accumulates, where it can become toxic.

Hydroquinone: A skin-bleaching ingredient, hydroquinone is banned in Japan, the European Union, and Australia, but it’s still in use in the United States and other countries worldwide. Hydroquinone is found not only in Asian and African skin-lightening products, but in creams to lighten age-spots as well. There’s some evidence that hydroquinone is a carcinogen, and is linked to ochnronosis, a condition in which grayish brown spots and bumps occur on the skin.

When choosing cosmetics, read the ingredients, do your homework and go as simple and natural as possible. You really don’t need all that extra junk to be beautiful.

Source: EWG
Image: ali edwards

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77 thoughts on “11 Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients To Avoid

  1. This is article is very helpful! I have just begun a business with Arbonne which is known for ALL of their products being pure, safe, and beneficial. All of the Arbonne products (skin care, cosmetics, Fit Essentials, etc) are made purely from plant and fruit cells and nothing else. This makes me even happier that I have made the switch to all Arbonne products!

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  3. good 2 know about these carcinogens but the market is so flooded with them they’re virtually impossible to avoid in one form or another – best we can do is limit our use of certain toxins – hope the people on our planet wake up before it’s 2 late and choose a healthy lifestyle and eco-friendly environment over greed and selfish materialism.

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  5. As stated in the article, skin is the largest single organ of the body. Depending on the chemical composition of cosmetics, lotions, and other hygiene products, most of the nastiest compounds listed in the article may be found in the blood stream in as little as 30 minutes after application. One example – DEET, or N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide (aka N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide) is in the toluene family – is an effective mosquito repellant, but also may be toxic to children, and even adults.
    People would never drink or eat the compounds listed above – but few realize that they can also be absorbed by the skin and find their way to internal organs as well.

  6. Dave Today 09:14 AM in reply to Geoff Sherrington

    I think you the one who’s suffering from insanity. True science is whatever nature and your body dictates, limits or demands.
    Your are naively gullible if you think humankind can continue to survive on this planet on their unrealistic, unsustainable and destructive path as they are doing right now.

    Donot forget man donot posess full scientific knowledge in any discipline but rather engages in the pursuits of scientific knowledge and practice. Be humble for a change, acknowledge your shortcomings, ignorance and limitations, Sometimes they get it rigth sometimes they have it dead wrong, but very often they have to continually change their positions.

  7. Just get Dr. Brommers…it has 18 uses and is certified freetrade organic. It will replace all of your cosmetics.

  8. I think you the one who’s suffering from insanity. True science is whatever nature and your body dictates, limits or demands.
    Your are naively gullible if you think humankind can continue to survive on this planet on their unrealistic, unsustainable and destructive path as they are doing right now.

    Donot forget man donot posess full scientific knowledge in any discipline but rather engages in the pursuits of scientific knowledge and practice. Be humble for a change, acknowledge your shortcomings, ignorance and limitations, Sometimes they get it rigth sometimes they have it dead wrong, but very often they have to continually change their positions.

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  11. Very simplistic view about the effectiveness of the government control. Imagine if we wake up one day and every government control is gone…it will be hell. You can’t have complete absence of government control (anarchy) or full government control (communism). Government like every organization needs good managers (politicians) and board of directors and stockholders (the people) who care.

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  13. It would be so nice if people like you realized how cruel and stupid you sounded, and then promptly zipped it up. Who needs talk like this?

  14. oh my gosh. I stopped using alot of those high end brands and other companies because of the toxic chemicals.

    I highly recommend checking sephora the natural and organic line. These lines mentioned do not have the toxic chems you mention. Its on the sephora site on the supper right hand corner. It shows a list of brands that are free of harsh and toxic chems.

    about the nail polish, it was so gross when I learned that those big 3 as its called are highly toxic and cancerous. Its gross enough that formaldehyde is an embalming fluid. YUCK is all I can say. Many nail polish brands are taking out those toxic chems as well.

    I am very picky about that. I have these ingredients saved as a bookmark for further reading

  15. Pingback: 11 Toxic Beauty Ingredients To Avoid

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  17. Ammonia is not a cosmetic ingredient and, therefore, need not be added to the list (which, itself, is a waste of time anyway – see all the comments!). Please check your facts before making such statements!

  18. Scott Mitchell,

    A scientist would posit two main hypotheses about your words above.

    1. You are a victim of severe propaganda by promoters of the current, unrealistic, organic trend.
    2. You are gullible if you believe that “certification for being cruely-free” has any meaning outside Fantasy Land.

    For heaven’s sake, man, learn some science before you commit to words – preferably from a psychiatrist first.

    Or maybe you have the sarc button on.

  19. This was a great article! However, I would have also considered adding ammonia to the list. In my opinion, Organic Salon Systems has the safest, most natural, and organic products available. They are certified by PETA for being cruelty-free and organic and also contain certified organic ingredients by the United Kingdom Soil Association. I am a bit biased though.

  20. @ Veronica – I can’t really get my head around the concept of substances being “vetted by evolution”. I don’t understand how this could be a process that works. Take mushrooms as an example. Some are safe to eat, many are not. Where does evolution comes into this? We have not evolved to be able to eat all species of mushrooms. This is not the same as developing an immunity. Evolution is not really part of the equation when it comes to exposure to cosmetic ingredients.

    The bottom line is that, if you want to be as green as possible and as “safe” as possible, don’t use ANY cosmetics. They are unneccesary.

  21. Veronica,

    No matter how you look, you need to study the philosophy of science.

    You state that you prefer prodeucts that have been vetted by evolution. Remember that as far as we can construct, more than 95% of all species that evolved are now extinct.

    You might ask yourself if evolution is a process that ensures safety by killing the weak. I have no trust that a temporary pass in tour private evolutionary contract has any significance whatsoever. Geoff. (Scientist).

  22. With EWG, I was going to edit my last post to state I believe they take into account dosages judging my 2 products with a common ingredient and they gave the same ingredient a different rating for each product because of the amount, the other ingredients it interacts with, or both. I think it’d be interesting to compare the data if the industry had its own database of ingredients and independent 3rd party studies (ie no monetary attachments to the results). I can see how you’d have a problem with the 1-10 rating to some extent, since the rating seems relative to other ingredients/products. Relative numbers are pretty standard in scientific studies, though.

    Regarding specific chemicals, well, I guess every person has to decide for themselves what risks to take. For example with lead and other issues, a water filter and air filter are prudent for a home (the somehow are more concentrated indoors). They take little effort, which is a plus. I do not know the safe level for lead for one to inhale, ingest, or absorb lead. It’d would unfortunately be too time-consuming for me to look for all the studies on all the individual ingredient that make up products, though I probably should. I also don’t know what the definition of “safe” is in this context.

    But again, that goes into the issue of long-term testing which I hope there would be, but it would simply be more profitable to have a new and exciting product with cutting edge technology ingredients out asap rather than engage in long-term testing. And obviously, people are concerned about their looks, want to look their best and probably gobble up new active ingredients/products eagerly. Clearly, appearance and aging is a huge issue for many women, who are expected to look about 20 no matter what their age.

    Since I’ve already stated my concerns regarding accumulation, autoimmune (not enough testing has been done) and evolutionary issues, I won’t rehash them. I I use products that have been mostly vetted by evolution. I think many people are awakening to value of looking for alternatives to products in many industries, which is likely worrisome for the long-established industries. I hope you find time to look at the co-evolution research, though. The content is mainly of basic principles, not too in-depth. Anyway, I also have been busy, so I understand.

  23. Actually, I don’t think it does require such an abnormal amount of water to kill, although it does require relatively unusual conditions – this problem is observed in long-distance athletes.

    Going back to the shortcomings of Skin Deep, this is a very basic flaw (the use of hazard only). It is possible to get a toxic dose of any substance – so it could be argued that ALL substances should be described as “toxic” – all you need is the right dose and route of entry. This is precisely why I wrote the article – you CANNOT usefully assess safety on the basis of hazard alone – not in any way. It has been claimed that there is no safe dose of lead. Stop drinking water; stop breathing. You are being dosed with lead all the time! There is a level of exposure to ALL substances that is safe. We don’t always know what it is – it depends on the availability of scientific studies – but everything can be considered safe within limits. At what point do you describe something as “toxic”, given what I have just stated?

    I agree that a level of caution over the use of new ingredients is wise, but if everyone always totally avoided all new ingredients, there would be none, and there would be little progress in so many areas of our lives. A balanced approach is surely the best.

    I don’t mean to be rude, but I won’t have the time to check your links – I already spend so much time in discussions on subjects I know something about, and I often pick u0p new information on peripheral subjects, but I don’t have the time to try to begin to fully understand any link with evolution as you are suggesting. This is something I may be able to revisit some time in the future, but I appreciate you providing the gateway to the information :-)

  24. I think it’s good that we can disagree and have an actual conversation. The internet can allow for unpleasant dynamics between people who disagree, and I’m glad we’ve stayed respectful.

    Regarding the EWG and the general issue of what is toxic and what is not, I think it would be insanely time-consuming to research each ingredient, it’s risk, at what dose this risk is high, if it’s bioaccumulative and how much time it would take through regular use to reach a high risk level. This is why I have looked at EWG as a resource. The example of water being deadly at a high enough dose is true but it would take an abormally large amount in a short amount of time, so it would be noticeable abnormal ingestion, which is not the case for chemicals in products.

    I’m aware of the disclaimer for EWG, meaning that they do not specifically test the products but instead go on literature about the ingredients. I would rather take some information than none, since it’s put together in a very detailed, yet comprehensible way. I understand that stating a hazard (or risk, as you use) is difficult if there is not a specific dose at which it is a risk. I am thinking more about this (letting it bounce around in my head, if you will). Still, they do not automatically give high hazard marks just because an ingredient is a synthetic.

    I think it’s reasonable to be cautious about new ingredients. I try take this same approach when using Rx drugs, because even after approved, it takes years before the drug is given warning labels or banned. Clinical trials are helpful but limited unless done long-term (at least several years). Of course, companies want to get their new ingredients/drugs approved, so I am doubtful they take a long-term approach to testing.

    In regards to autoimmune disorders, I have to again err on the side of caution. I don’t think we’d be in a mess if we had to look more critically at cosmetic ingredients, much as I feel it wouldn’t be a mess if we had to look at our food culture more critically. It would take much effort and require radical change, but all for the better if the change resulted in better health and environmental stewardship. My perspective on cosmetics ingredients closely mirrors that of my perspective on food. Food is probably better understood, though, at least at this point (whole foods, especially plant foods being healthiest).

    Evolution is a factor in determining healthy foods as well as natural (and sort- of-natural Rx drugs) chemicals (including chemicals found in plant foods). The best sources for a basic understanding of this seem to be books, but I’ll include a couple of links (okay a few) that are brief and unfortunately limited in depth. I posted wiki pages because the actual studies are so complicated and difficult to understand (but posted some abstracts anyway) if you’re looking for a fundamental understanding. I included a lot of links but most are brief and should be at least somewhat helpful.

    1) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/faq/cat08.html

    2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cytochrome_P450

    3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed

    4) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100317144630.htm

    5) http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ben/cdm/2002/00000003/00000006/art00001?token=00671ef5619143364628c468263c4a6f644a467c79675d7c4e4a47543c7e386f7e2a46762c6b672176763c447b74796d4210301

  25. @Veronica – it’s all a matter of perception, I accept, but I prefer to view my earlier remarks as being blunt, rather than rude, and they were not all directed at you personally, but at the sort of people who write these articles in general. My bluntness stems from the irritation at these articles that blindly regurgitate internet myths without including a single original thought and, thereby propagating the mistakes and misundertsandings from earlier blogs. Clearly, you can actually think for yourself, hence my comments in my previous post.

    As far as i am aware there is no specific gene that deals with drugs. Drug are chemicals in exactly the same way that everything else is chemical. There is no special response from the body to what we would classify as drugs, and the body responds to each drug in different ways – evolution really doesn’t enter into this.

    I don’t know enough of the specifics about autoimmune disease to discuss in great detail, but there is no proven link between cosmetics and ANY disease – this is all speculation. If we responded to all scares purely on the basis of speculation we would be in a complete mess! Yes, I accept that there are certain chemicals now in the environment that may be causing problems, but this is no reason to extrapolate the problem and accuse ALL synthetics, or ALL cosmetics. The chemicals are much more specific than this and it annoys me that scaremongering groups such as the EWG apply a blanket approach – and damn too many substances.

    Thanks for the very useful links to the autoimmunity pages – I have scanned them quickly, and will read them in more detail later..

    You have not responded to my comments about the EWG Skin Deep, so I don’t know if you checked out the link above, I would be interested in your feedback!

  26. @Dene Thanks. However, your initial remarks to me were bordering on rude, complete with personal jabs. I’m glad we’ve moved forward from that.

    I hope evolution doesn’t play a role, although it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t. There’s been such a synthetics explosion in such a short amount of time. There is a genes that deals with drugs, natural for sure and possibly synthetic. I have a hard time believing humans would not need additional genes due to the short amount of time that many new synthetics have emerged.

    I know we disagree on some things fundamentally. However, I’m not very concerned about the synthetics that pose a very low risk. But I have to reiterate that the possibility that synthetics (or certain classes of them) may be related to autoimmune disease. I’ll see if I can find some links to bombard you with.

    Autoimmune disorders affect women 4/5 times and is especially among 20-40 year old women, about 8-30 million people in the US total (there doesn’t seem to be consensus). People don’t generally view autoimmune as a category as they do for say, cancer, but they are all fundamentally similar and occurring in different parts of the body. I’ve been increasingly aware of it for about 10 years, mostly from knowing people or reading little bits about it here and there.

    Some examples are multiple sclerosis, lupus, autoimmune thyroid disorder, certain types of arthritis, and many others. Many of these can cause disability (I believe the extent of it varies) and death. All the exact causes aren’t known, but it is caused partly by a genetic predisposition (as far many chronic illnesses) and aggravation by environmental factors, including stress, pollution, specific viruses, and chemicals in the air, food, and even cosmetics (it appears synthetics based on the article but it would help to have the full text).

    Basically, the immune system is overactive because of the above factors and gets confused- attacking the person’s own cells and tissues. I haven’t been able to get a full copy of the latest finding regarding ingredients in personal care items/makeup but I posted a summary below.

    linked from an national institutes of health page: http://www.labtestsonline.org/understanding/conditions/autoimmune.html


    I have other, less morbid reasons, a main reason being a yearning of sorts to get back to nature. I live next to a big city and I love it, but I miss nature too. I like the smells of natural products with essential oils because they make me feel like I’m outside in a garden instead of in the SUV-ridden suburbs. I think many other people might like natural ingredients/scents for this reason too.

  27. @Veronica – may I first say that I respect the way you present your arguments – a refreshing change from the usual uninformed chemophobic rants on sites such as this! However, that dosn’t mean that I think you are correct. Your comparison with the BBC report on starch is not relevant, Humans do not have to evolve to deal with all chemicals. In the case of starch, there was a benefit to evolving the mechanism to digest. Other chemicals (and please state “synthetic chemicals”, not just “chemicals” – everything is chemical) are processed by the body in different ways, depending upon the nature of the chemical. This happens totally irrespective of the origin of the chemical. If ANY chemical is ingested or absorbed through the skin, the body either metabolises it in some way (there are various means), or it accumulates. Either way, the chemical may cause health problems, or it may not. Some do; some don’t, but this is TOTALLY unrelated to the origin. You just can’t seem to be able to grasp the fact that many synthetic chemicals do not cause harm to humans at the exposures experienced. You assume that all synthetics are dangerous, and this is simply not true, nor is there any reason to think that natural chemicals are any safer than synthetics en bloc. Safety is in no way related to origin.
    The concept of a “new” chemical is false. Any first time exposure is, in effect, a “new” chemical to the body, again irrespective of the origin. There is no “species memory” to cover exposure by a previous generation.
    You are VERY wrong in your assumption that synthetic chemicals are only tested for skin irritation. This has never been the case. Oral toxicity and dermal toxicity are part of the baseline requirements for ANY chemical placed on the market in the EU (ANY market). and there are many other tests. It is hugely expensive to market a new chemical in the EU in any market, because of the extensive testing requirements.

    “Some individual chemical ingredients might be okay by themselves- it depends on the ingredient”
    Wrong way round – it depends entirely on the dose. All chemicals (ALL!) have a safe dose. ALL chemicals have a dose that will produce some form of adverse effect. Even water (and I don’t mean drowning).

    Please don’t ever quote the EWG ‘sSkin Deep – it is a complete waste of time – if you want to understand why I say this, follow this link:


    Going back to the comments about population – I am not talking about adaptation because, as I explained earlier, this is not relevant. The point I was making was purely in terms of exposure. There are far more people exposed to the “new chemicals” than were ever exposed to the “old” ones and, therefore, it is not a valid argument to claim that exposure to naturals over hundreds of years means that they are better characterised than chemicals introduced more recently (apart from those introduced very recently, of course).

  28. @ Geoff Sherrington I haven’t heard (meaning past tense, I am not currently looking it up in the interest of time) of mercury poisoning from cosmetics. How is one with mercury or a chemical reaction going to know that a product, much less what product and ingredient is causing their issue?

    My general philosophy on chemicals is to play it safe. One reason is to avoid autoimmune diseases, some of which overexposure to irritating environmental pollutants and chemicals can trigger. Considering these diseases occur more commonly in my gender/age group, I choose to be cautious about it. I’m not concerned if anyone thinks this is unnecessary. I Here is one link that corresponds to this http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100125123231.htm

    I personally use products that have very common ingredients in them that I can find in my kitchen (foods and teas). If there are novel ingredients natural products, I should hope that they would be tested just as rigorously as any chemical would.

    @ Dene I do not understand how an increase in population has relevance in terms of adaptation. All the people existing now came from people who had genes from the people who came before them. Humans need time to genetically adapt to marked differences in new foods ingested (ie additional gene for helping to digest starches http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6983330.stm). I assume the same rule applies regarding other substances the body takes in. Do humans have the ability to process all these new chemicals? I do not know, so I play it safe.

    I believe it’s general knowledge that In the last century, chemicals invented ( and that humans come into contact with) are much more numerous. My concern is that it seems they are only tested for SKIN irritation and not for long-term effects, especially if the ingredient is absorbed. I place the burden on evidence on companies/people who claim these new chemicals are safe. People who assume things are safe before they’re exhaustively tested are free to do so, however.

    It’s good to know that companies reformulate to meet EU standards for products sold in the US (I assume this is accurate, did not check), but it’s a shame that Americans have to rely on the EU for this.

    My point on pigmented products being absorbed was oversimplified. It is noticeably true for many lip colors, which “soak in” after a few minutes. Regardless of personal observations, the bottom line is that some chemicals are definitely absorbed.

    Some individual chemical ingredients might be okay by themselves- it depends on the ingredient. Ironically, the petition for safe cosmetics (ewg.org) agrees with you on this, since there are some chemicals for which they give low hazard ratings. I do not have a 100% natural stock of personal care products, and I am sure some of my products have chemicals in them. I am not absolute about avoiding them, but I am also not gung ho about taking a ton of chemicals if familiar and long-used natural ingredients are available. One reason being that it can trigger autoimmune diseases, as I related to Geoff.

    Again, I place the burden on testing to determine that ingredients are safe not only for my skin but my whole body. Other people are free to have a different philosophy.

  29. @ Veronica – some cosmetic ingredients are absorbed, or partially absorbed through the skin. That is fact. But what is also fact is that the majority of the cosmetic materials applied do not get absorbed. Your comment about pigmented products seems strange to me, as I don’t think that you can claim that all pigmented products are absorbed. If so much is absorbed, why do so many women spend money on make-up remover products, and so much time applying them.
    The problem here is that you seem unable to accept that anything synthetic can be good, or at least neutral. The body cannot recognise any chemical as being natural of sythetic – it simply recognises chemical groups and the shapes of molecules. Therefore, there is no black or white distinction between synthetic and natural. If the body has been exposed to any substances once, it usually recognises it again (I believe), but molecules do not arrive with “organically grown” on them! Exposure to ANY substance can be good bad, or neutral – whether the substance be natural or synthetic. There is no distinction at the body’s molecular level of metabolism.

    Fine – if it makes you and others feel better only using “wholesome” cosmetics, why should I worry? Answer: I worry because people like you and the author of this blog spread misinformation and cause unneccesary concerns in others by doing this. Make a choice by all mean, but make it for the right reasons and not because of untruths about synthetic substances.

  30. @ Veronica – a lot to respond to here! Firstly, your argument concerning human exposure to naturals does not stack up. Many companies have been engaged in a frantic search for ” new” naturals to use over the past 20 – 25 years. Many of these come from remote areas, and are products that have never been used in cosmetics before, so there is very little human exposure. Also, you cannot compare exposure to the world population from even 100 years ago, never mind hundreds of years ago, simply because there are now 6.8 billion people to share the exposure. In 1900, the population was only 1.6 billion, and in 1804, 1 billion. Any synthetic ingredient used in cosmetics for the past 50 years will have had more human exposure than any natural used for centuries – even those in fairly common use. Like I say, your argument does not stack up.

    An interesting link to the fragrance opinion – thanks. Yes, it would seem that I was wrong (I WAS quoting another source, but I should have checked it for myself), but the fact remains that the vast majority of substances on the banned list would never be considered for use in cosmetics of any type. There is still no too much difference between what is allowed in the EU and the USA. Many companies sell in both markets, so this is not a major issue.

  31. Veronica,

    Hexachlorophene has been used in billions of tubes of tooth paste over the decades. Are you aware on anyone reporting harm? Likewise mercury, any complaints since the Minimata studies decades ago?

    You should read this French scientist:

    “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison….” Paracelsus (1493-1541)

    Note that he makes no distinction between natural chemicals and man-made chemicals. Indeed, it is poorly known if a new-made chemical is already present in Nature.

    If you all want to live your lives in fear of rumours, that’s your choice.

    Personally, I trust trained professionals.

  32. Also of interest: The EU bans 33 fragrance ingredients that had been in use in products. Dermatologists suggested 2% of the population have delayed allergic reactions to many fragrance ingredients of ingredients that were in use in cosmetic products.

    It’s a PDF but you can find it here http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/cosmetics/cosing/index.cfm?fuseaction=search.details&id=28771

    To quote, “Industry disputes these figures claiming that marketplace surveillance findings indicate the true figures to be far lower. In addition, a great deal of proprietary testing of fragrance materials carried out in industry suggests that the materials do not pose such a hazard.”

    “On the basis of the assessment of the cutaneous toxicities of the substances tabulated, it is the recommendation of the Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products intended for Consumers (SCCNFP) that these substances should not be used as fragrance ingredients in cosmetic products.”

  33. @Dene Also, the EU bans 33 ingredients used for “fragrance” alone. We don’t know the chemicals used in fragrance in the US because it is simply listed as “fragrance.” Also, the chemical names used on labeling are given, which is contrary to your assertion that ingredients on the EU list were never used in products in the first place.

    This thread has been fun :)

  34. @ Dene My point regarding ingredients that are chemicals, especially newly developed ones, is that they have not been in human use for hundreds+ years as many natural ingredients have been. If you believe in all in evolution or adaptation, this should hold some significance.

    Significantly modifying foods/diets holds risk because human genetics have evolved to specific diets. I follow the same logic to apply to chemicals used in cosmetics since many are absorbed into the body.

    I don’t need to worry about my health because I choose food and personal care products that are made from wholesome ingredients.

    I also took the liberty to track down the 1,367 ingredients that are banned (not just limited but fully banned) by the EU is cosmetic products as opposed to the 8 or so in the US.



    My concern is testing is that some ingredients are known as toxic, readily absorbed into the body, are allowed, and do biacculumate, such Mercury. To quote the FDA page, “Mercury compounds are readily absorbed through the skin on topical application and tend to accumulate in the body.” Mercury is only allowed in limited quantities, but I’d rather not indulge. Luckily, I’ve never been much of a fan of fish and rarely eat it, even though they have some benefits.

    Another ingredient they list as restricted use is Hexachlorophene, which they note has a “toxic effect and ability to penetrate human skin.”

    I’m guessing the EU has also determined that products do indeed become absorbed through the skin. Anyone who uses pigmented products can tell this just by observation. Also, nano particles are being used in the last few years, which are only a fraction of the size of normal particles. If the regular ingredient doesn’t get absorbed, the nano version will.

    You seem to have a penchant for hyperbole in stating that I think cosmetic companies are out to kill me. Rather, I do not rely on them to self-police. After all, there is money to be made and greed is often hugely rewarded.

    I judge for myself if fruit extracts or novel chemical concoctions are best for myself and my skin. However, I’m sure the cosmetic companies you advocate are thankful for your services.

  35. @ Veronica – you avoid answering my question when I ask if an ingredient is not safe simply because YOU have never heard of it! I suspect that you have seen the slight flaw in your logic there!

    Your comparison of the number of ingredients banned in the EU and the USA is a false one, although many people make this same mistake. Of the >1100 materials on the EU list, only 9 have ever actually been used in cosmetics – the vast majority of the remainder on the list would never be even remotely considered for use in cosmetics. This list is totally misleading amnd, in effect, the EU has banned the same number of substances as the USA. You underestimate the regulatory power of the FDA, but that is too detailed an argument to go into here, but I will say that the FDA DOES have the power to order a product recall/withdrawal. Most cosmetics manufacturers do not test the ingredients themselves – this is usually done by the producer of the ingredient. You seem to assume that cosmetics manufacturers don’t care whether or not they kill or harm their customers. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the larger companies, especially, spend millions on checking the safety of their finished products. You also seem to assume that everything (or a great deal) accumulates in the body – this is wrong. Not everything in cosmetics is even absorbed, even less accumulates. There is no evidence of accumulation of any cosmetic ingredient in the body. Even then, a presence, even accumulative, does not automatically mean it is unsafe (it may be, but it is not a given). Your cynicism is depressing and unneccesary because it borders on paranoia – hang on – maybe P&G and L’Oreal ARE out to get you!

  36. @Veronica – it might interest you to know that the pharmaceutical industry is largely self-regulated too. FDA sets regulations, but it is almost entirely up to the industry to ensure that they conform. We (the industry) are required to have independent Quality Assurance auditors. Occasionally (every two years or so) FDA auditors come and inspect us and our own audit departments.

    HOW could it work any other way? The only way FDA could be entirely responsible for regulating us would be for them to actually run the entire industry.

    The government can’t even manage GM (Government Motors). If you think government can be trusted to do the discovery/efficacy/safety testing, you’re a fool.

    You’re a victim, like so many millions of people, of scare-marketing. Whenever a scare-story gets printed in the media, it is being printed to sell something – either a newspaper, or the advertising on a web page, or these so-called natural alternatives.

    Look at the advertisers on this site, and even some of the commenters who are advertising their salons and products.

    Not being FDA approved means it hasn’t been tested for either safety or efficacy.

    Natural does NOT mean safe. Did you know that the reason mustard tastes like mustard is that it has the chemical used in World War I mustard gas in it? It’s a carcinogen, as well as a poison.

    Did you know that eating one grilled steak exposes you to about 1,000,000 times more carcinogen than FDA will permit in a drug product?

    Seriously, find something more productive to worry about than you tender skin. Get out and do some charity work. Or if you voted for Obama, run out and step in front of a bus.

  37. @ Dene Cosmetics are scarcely regulated for safety in the US. The FDA does not test ingredients- they leave that up to the companies that manufacture and profit off of these products to test and self-regulate themselves.

    The FDA only bans a fraction of the ingredients that EU does and does not issue recalls- again, those are up to the manufacturer.

    Also, there’s no guarantee that any product- natural or not- will not cause irritation on a person’s skin, because everyone has different sensitivities.

    And my main concern is not skin irritation, but systemic accumulation from years of use of sketchy ingredients.

    Here’s the FDA’s facts since mine are not worth your consideration.


  38. @ Veronica – hmmm, so, if you have never heard of something, it must be unsafe. That makes sense! There is a popular misconception that if you can eat something it must be safe to put on the skin. Perhaps you didn’t know that out of the 26 fragrance allergens that must be listed on cosmetics in the EU, 19 are from your favourite foods. Lemons are particularly good for skin irritation (or, at least, some of the components are).

    How do you know that these chemicals have never been “regulated for safety”, if you’ve never heard of them? Sounds like pure speculation to me – give me proper facts, please! You are perfectly entitled to your opinion, but you are not entitled to make up your own “facts”.

  39. @Dene I know that even of natural things can be poisonous, but I’ll take my chances buying products with ingredients extracted from plants that I normally eat and drink (fruit, tea)- rather than chemicals I’ve never even heard of and that for the most part are not even regulated for safety.

  40. @Veronica – you may think you switched to “all natural” for health reasons but, in fact, you’ve switched only because you believe the chemophobic propaganda propagated by sites such as this. It is totally naive to believe that if it is natural it is safe, and equally naive to believe that if it is synthetic it is “toxic”. EVERYTHING is toxic – all you need is the right dose. EVERYTHING is safe – all you need is the right dose. What does it take to get people to stop the sheep-like following of this ridiculous proposition? Think! How many different types of mushrooms would you be prepared to eat? There are far more natural things (plants) that are dangerous than are safe – so how on earth do you make the leap in logic to think that natural cosmetics must always be safe. The natural ingredients used in cosmetics have far less toxicity data available that most synthetics. The only good thing about the EWG Skin Deep database (and I mean the ONLY good thing) is that it exposes the data gaps for most natural ingredients – apart from that, it is useless.

    May I suggest that anyone offering a comment actually reads the other comments first – there ARE some people talking sense on here, but there’s none in the headline article!

  41. Health is the main reason why I started switching from regular store personal care to all natural or as close it as I can find for a reasonable price. However, some of my mostly natural drug store finds contain some items on this list. Looks like I’m in the market for a new conditioner….

    I know a husband and wife duo who own their a natural personal care and makeup company called Obvita. They formulate their products to be natural to the point that you could basically eat their products if you wanted to.

  42. There are so many comments here that are just not true, but life is too short (especially if you use cosmetics, apparently!).

    Dubya Bee – most of your comments are well-observed and humorously stated, but you have got it totally wrong about SLS and SLES – they are very different chemically and toxicologically. The “ether” part of the name isn’t there just for fun, it denotes a different chemical structure for SLES compared with SLS.

    Bebe – I have no idea where you get the information that 1,4-dioxane is a foaming agent – it is an impurity present at very low concentrations in some cosmetic ingredients. That may be why you will never see this listed on a label – it is not intentionally added to cosmetics, and the risks involved in exposure to it are massively overstated by those who would ban many of the synthetic chemicals.

    The original article may appear to be helpful, but it is purely misleading. Most of the warnings mentioned for the chemicals to avoid come straight from the Material Safety Data Sheets for the substances, and refer to the risks of handling the neat material, NOT the much lower concentrations found in cosmetics. This inability to relate hazard to exposure (and thereby assess the risk) causes needless concerns, and it is the single most important reason why the Skin Deep database is totally useless at telling you the safety of cosmetics – it only gives you the hazard. A hazard at 100% is not usually a hazard at 1%, for example.

    Articles like this only serve to needlessly scare non-scientific consumers.

  43. I hope that we would all agree that there is definitely NO need to use some potentially harmful chemicals in baby products though.

    For example, formaldehyde (a known carcinogen used as a preservative) or 1,4-dioxane (a foaming agent that is a suspected carcinogen); the EU has banned 1,4-dioxane from cosmetic products, and formaldehyde is not allowed in cosmetics sold in Japan and Sweden”¦ not the case in the US. Why?… well there are probably multi-billion reasons as to why!). In some cases, even China has stricter laws than the US about chemicals. For example, formaldehyde is banned from kitchen cabinets sold in China, but legal to put into cabinets sold in the U.S. In that case there are actually two manufacturing streams in China — the formaldehyde products come to the US, the formaldehyde-free products go to China and Europe.

  44. Mallory,

    It will be great to see the vanity females of the world wandering the streets looking like green frogs. “We are going cosmetically green starting today” you write. Have you any idea whatsoever what you are talking about? Don’t you think you are in the grip of a monster advertising campaign that links “green” to “guilt” and tosses science out the door?

    If you really want a green world with a lower carbon footprint, you should be crying out very loud to ban all cosmetics. Their production produces a big amount of greenhouses gases, for nothing in return. It’s industries like cosmetics and sports that should be closed down as serial offenders before you start closing down industries that we need, like electricity production.

    Don’t waste that precious electricity on making mud into face powders. It’s an indulgence of the worst kind.

  45. We are going cosmetically green starting today. We pay very close attention to our food, and have for a while. We just didn’t realize how bad some of the things in our products are. Thanks so much for this article! It’s very helpful.

  46. Pingback: “Natural” Beauty Care Product Labels « Primeware's Blog

  47. It is a good idea to check the labels for ingredients…
    many times these ingredients are printed so small that you need a magnifying glass to read!! SO! read it anyway… and sometimes the ingredients are inside the box.., careful many cosmetic are full of things that will cause aging and damage to your skin … just ask Dr Ernst Henrich with Dr Baumann Cosmetics.
    He will give you an earful about the cosmetic industry.

  48. @adhd

    Yes, and it seems you’ve replace 47% of your brain.

  49. wow parabins, omg why arent we using hemp, we can replace around 47% of all things with this plant

  50. We have had great success with a hair care company called Simply Organic at our salon. Their founder Gene Martignetti, created the line after his five year old son had leukemia. He was looking at all the toxic chemicals used in our everyday lives, and hair care products were top on the list. Their shampoo are low-lathering – due to the lack of sulfates, but work wonderfully well, as do their styling products. We carry their full line at our site http://www.haircareusa.com/simply_organic.htm and provide a detailed ingredients list for every product.

  51. Carolyn, Thank you for agreeing with me. I cry at our children and grandchildren being bombarded with false adult propaganda. Please leave them some enjoyment in their childhoods.

    Toluene, for example, is listed above. This is methly benzene, a widely used component of petrol used in motor cars woldwide every day. To list it as a hazardous substance in cosmetics beggars belief.

  52. Alarmist articles like this serve no purpose. There’s no content in this article that references any factual study that has shown direct link between what the author is trying to convey. The content of this article looks like it’s been rehashed from a multitude of women’s magazines and it’s a bunch of cliche’s. Are we all supposed to grow plants and mix potions for our hygiene needs? Boo to the website for allowing such nonsense to go to online. It’s lazy reporting.

  53. Sure it’s a nice post about cosmetic products. But how many lovely ladies know that so many face pastes are made from mud? And that many products retail from 10 to 100 times their manufacturing cost? It’s a nice little cosmetic industry, one that has some of the biggest rip-offs you’d meet in any industry. All in the name of female vanity.

    It’s one of the nice, self-confidence-boosting industries that makes ladies feel great when they go to a rally to protest global warming from fossil fuels. Give thought that the closure of the whole concept of cosmetics and their manufacture would release many people to more productive work and reduce greenhouse gas emissions quite a lot.

    In other words, we should cut luxury industries before we cut essential ones. Not much point having the comfort of your lippie on when the hospital loses electricity supply and you die.

    But that’s a comment for brainers, not for bimbos.

  54. geosbride.

    Sorry, we classical scientists talk in numbers, not by arm waving. If you have figures for an increase in cancers in humans since Edith wrote her book (and you should read it before commenting further) then I’m happy to see them. Remember, she was writing about cancers caused by man-made chemicals, with tobacco a proven and not discussed very much.

    She also presents extensive lab data on the lack of connection between animal testing as proxies for human reactions to chemicals. Indeed, a core finding of her book, since shown correct, is that you cannot extrapolate rodent testing to human reaction with any confidence. Therefore, the list of “dangerous” chemicals given above, some of which are quite common and ordinary, needs revision if the only evidence of harm was detected in rodents or chimps or other animals commonly used.

  55. So y’all figured out that the dread shampoo additive (dihydrogen oxide) is simply water. Good on ya.

    But what about that horrible “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)????” (note that these are two different names for the same compound)

    Folks, let me translate that chemical name for you:
    SLS = SOAP

    It’s not a “foaming agent,” it is SOAP.

    For Pete’s sake, your saying, “watch out for that soap in your soap!”

    If your level of ignorance is such that you can’t even define the terms you’re using, you should really stay out of the discussion.

    Go home and make some tie-dye tshirts and WASH YOUR HAIR YOU SMELLY HIPPIES.

  56. Excellent article and interesting responses (@Dubya Bee); especially appreciate the further info from @Amanda Foxon-Hill.

    Would like to see more on PHENOXYETHANOL, which has been shown to cause degenerative mutations in the brain & nervous system, DNA inhibition and other lovely health affects, the least of which is skin irritation. It’s banned in Japan for use in cosmetics & Europe limits contact, yet the good ‘ol USA still doesn’t limit it at all.

    Just try to find products without this… near impossible, including ‘organics’ and ‘all naturals’ (shampoo, conditioner, body lotions, etc.).

    @Geoff Sherrington: um, there IS a huge “wave a cancer” occuring–how could you NOT notice??? Just b/c the various forms haven’t been linked to singular notes doesn’t mean they didn’t contribute….

  57. As a graduate chemist of many yearsexperience, I regret that you use hearsay to deride the efforts of trained professionals. If you have a true interest in the yopic, read the book by Edith Efron “The Apocalyptics”, from the early 1980s, when many people engaged in a huge scare about a wave of cancers expected from man-made chemicals. Well, the cancers did not eventuate, the whole thing was shown to be anti-science and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth to see the continuation of chemophobia even today, as if some people never learn.

    The problem is that selected people became quite prominent and wealthy by promoting the scare and using various schemes and selling “organic” products that were seldom required to be scrutinised for harm.

    It is happening, still, today, with the global warming scare.

    Do believe the experts, not the gossip-mongers, not those with their hand in your pockets.

  58. Thanks for the information. I’ve read it and re-read it in other places but think we need to keep focussing on it so that each of us can steadily eliminate these substances from our lives and become more aware. It would be great to pair this with the “practice makes perfect” blog. I think mindfulness and practice can help us in so many different areas of our lives – – cello playing or elimination of potentially harmful chemicals from our personal care products. By being more mindful, I find I check the ingredient listings on more and more products each time I go to the grocery store and slowly but surely make better choices. All this mindfulness has led me to develop my own line of personal care products that are designed to make sure that you’re not exposed to potentially harmful chemicals when you’re putting on your skin cream, diapering your baby or getting your “monthly bill”. If we each make changes, day by day, the product landscape and our chemical exposure will slowly change for the better. Articles like this really help. Thanks.

  59. TOXIC is a very emotive word to start this piece off with and makes people think that the cosmetics industry is out to kill everyone which isn’t true! However, there are some ingredients that are better than others both with regards to your health and the health of the environment:

    Hydroquinone is quite an agressive skin-whitening agent and has been banned from many countries as it stops melanin synthesis. There are many natural alternatives out there that work by switching off the melaning producing cells rather than damaging them. Once you stop using the product, the cells can switch back on again.

    Parabens were ‘linked’ to breast cancer in one highly flawed scientific paper. Further to that parabens quickly break down into easy-to-flush through the system metabolites. This means that the vast majority of paraben that enters our bodies through the skin is excreted within a day or so. Parabens are also available in many fruit and veggies incluing pears!

    SLS is really good at degreasing the skin. In fact it is so good, it can be quite irritant which is why people like the eczema foundation don’t like it. I have eczema and I don’t like it either. However, environmentally it is probably the least worrying of all surfactants as it is economic to make and is shipped in bulk. It also biodegrades quickly and does not accumulate in any body tissues as far as I know.

    Triethanolamine – This chemical isn’t good and useage in cosmetic products is strictly regulated to ensure that risk is minimised. It is used to neutralise and activate some thickeners and hair fixatives. If it is in your product, it will be in in small quantities and will have been used in such a way as to minimise or eliminate harm. However, you don’t really ‘need’ it so avoiding it is fine.

    The story is similar for the other ingredients. The cosmetics industry, like every other industry has a way to go to provide us with greener and cleaner chemistry but it is coming. In the meantime making people scared of chemicals is a bit silly and over simplistic!

    Have fun.
    PS: I’m a freelance writer and and independent cosmetic chemist.

  60. Pingback: Going Green and Loving It! | Red Headed Frog

  61. I just came across this post and just laughed out loud at the comment poste by Dubya Bee.

    While factually correct, Dubya Bee talks about dihydrogen oxide – which is actually just water! ha ha – good one.

    I doubt anyone will ever see this, but still, that was quite clever.

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  63. Yes, indeed. Chemicals are scary things.

    I think you should add to the list that we must absolutely avoid dihydrogen oxide. It’s responsible for many deaths every year. And the FDA doesn’t even require that it be labeled by its proper name.

    A shame, I tell ya.

  64. Pingback: World’s Strangest | The Unsinkable Pygmy Gecko

  65. That is a lot of information, and big words! But yet very informative :D

    And thanks Mr. Blobby you are very nice. It’s true that our natural us is already beautiful.

  66. Thanks Mr Blobby, that’s a nice sentiment. Sadly that is all it is. The truth is we are beings who are attracted to other beings in ways we are not in charge of. Beauty is power, the power to be noticed, influential, respected, whether that seems fair, or shallow or not. It just is how we function.

    If it wasn’t you wouldn’t need to brush your hair or get dressed in order to be a full functioning member of society, but I hope you agree, we do!

  67. Carcinogenic or not, irritating or not – most of the products with this stuff in are just plain unnecessary. You are already beautiful – you don’t need to dye your hair, paint your face or use some specially-formulated skin wash.

  68. Not sure this is very balanced, especially as many refer to allergenic attributes, which more a factor in the person than the product, there are after all rare people who are allergic to water on there skin.

    All of these other ‘toxicities’ are HIGHLY dose related too. In the doses used the evidence that it is bad for you is probably very shaky if any at all (feel free to post it).

    Dose is a fundamental. to use the water example again, too much of that is also toxic, and can causes brain swelling and death.

  69. Pingback: Naya Organics, Where Less Is More | FollowGreen.com

  70. it’s so hard to find products without fragrance or sodium laureth sulfate!! essentially, i’ve either got to make my own stuff, shop at a health store, or … remain stinky and gross.

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  72. Thanks Caitmin for this resources. Truly there’s no excuse to keep using toxic and irritating ingredients. There are many quality, luscious skin and hair products out there these days that are healthy and nourishing to your skin and body.

  73. Good article.

    Another point is that whether safe or not, many of these ingredients are just plain irritating especially to sensitive skin.

    The National Eczema Association highlight a list of ingredients that should be avoided as potential irritants on their site http://www.easeeczema.org although they do not weigh in on the safety or otherwise of the ingredients.

    Another site that compares the ingredient lists of well known so called ‘sensitive’ brands is called http://www.exederm.com


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