Toxic chemicals in skin care and cosmetics

These are commonly used toxic chemicals that even manage to find their way into many “natural” body care products. We recommend that you avoid these chemicals in your personal products as many of them have the ability to bioaccumulate (build-up) in your body.

 This is by no means an exhaustive list, but contains chemicals that you will find in common, everyday, over the counter products. We never use these chemicals in our products and avoid them at all costs in products we must purchase elsewhere. We think you should too.

1.) AHA (alpha hydroxy acid): Popular in the anti-aging market, alpha-hydroxy acids are used extensively in cosmetic dermatology.  Your skin is exfoliated chemically using acids such as glycolic acid (derived from sugar cane) or lactic acid. Citric acid, 2-hydroxyoctanoic acid, or  2-hydroxydecanoic acid may also be used.  These acids may be naturally derived or synthetically produced.

AHA is a known skin irritant. Sensitive skin and rosacea suffers should consider not using any product containing AHA. Considered by dermatologists to be an anti-aging and anti-wrinkle agent, it can found in many skin and hair care products.

AHA’s have historically been used as solvents in cleaning compounds and for tanning leather. Leather workers in the 1920’s discovered that phenol peels not only removed hair from the hides, but smoothed the surfaces as well. A smooth finish is developed by stripping the outer layer of the skin.  AHA works by removing the outermost layer of the skin,  stimulating the cells in lower layers to grow and divide, causing the skin to thicken and able to diminish visible signs of aging. The more you exfoliate the more cell divisions will occur.

Here’s the conundrum about AHA. Normal human cells cannot divide indefinitely. Fibroblasts are a key type of cell in the skin that normally divide about 50 times and then enter a stage of senescence (the state of being old : the process of becoming old). This is a state in which the cell is sluggish, inefficient, unresponsive to various signals from the body and unable to divide. Skin with many senescent cells is usually fragile, blotchy and wrinkles easily .

Some commons side affects are: redness, skin inflammation, burning sensation, secondary infections from broken skin, blistering, and rashes.  Your skin can be more susceptible to the burning effects of UV radiation after treatments containing AHA.  This could increase your risk of skin cancer.  Other side effects can be hyper-pigmentation, persistent redness, or even scarring.  Individuals susceptible to cold sores (herpes virus infections) can experience flare-ups after AHA treatments.


2.) QUARTERNIUM 15: An ammonium salt used as a preservative. Kills bacteria by releasing formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. It is a highly sensitizing chemical and is well-known as a strong allergen. Frequently causes contact dermatitis. Found In: Lots of stuff! Baby shampoos, bubble baths, lotions, eye makeup, etc.


3.) FD&C Dyes or Colors: These are artificial dyes and colorants frequently produced from COAL TAR, many are documented carcinogens. Are usually followed by a number (i.e.: FD&C Red 5)


4.) FLUORIDE: You are probably aware that your children’s toothpaste contains fluoride because that’s what dentists have recommended for years to prevent cavities. However, most toothpaste contains enough fluoride in four ounces to kill a small child! In 1990 a study stated that fluoride has been shown to NOT reduce cavities and now scientists are linking fluoride to dental deformity, arthritis, thyroid disorders, allergic reactions and about 10,000 unnecessary deaths each year from cancer. Fluoride can corrode the tooth enamel and research indicates that it can lead to Crohn’s disease when swallowing toothpaste. Prior to 1945, fluoride was considered a pesticide, and justifiably so. The fluoride/cancer link was positively established in 1989. No one is listening.


5.) PROPYLENE GLYCOL: (Also labeled as Propanediol, PG, Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Ethylene Glycol) – An industrial solvent that is highly toxic! These are petroleum derivatives. They have the ability to easily penetrate the skin and breakdown the protein and cellular structure of your skin. It penetrates so well, that industrial workers are warned of SEVERE health risks if contact occurs, such as brain, liver, and kidney abnormalities. They are required to wear protective clothing, gloves, and goggles during handling. Propylene Glycol is frequently utilized in transdermal patches to carry the “active” ingredients into your bloodstream. It is also a humectant used to keep products from drying out. Found in: “Natural” deodorants, lotions, creams, baby products, shampoos, toothpastes, detergents, floor wax, anti-freeze, hydraulic fluid, pet foods (Yes, it is the main ingredient in anti-freeze! Disturbed? You should be!)


6.) COCAMIDOPROPYL BETAINE: Ever see the words “coconut-based cleanser” on your ingredients labels?  Sounds so natural and innocuous, doesn’t it?  It’s actually Cocamidopropyl Betaine (CAPB).  It is used as a surfactant, thickener, and/or foaming agent in shampoos, bubble baths and the like.  It’s also used in conditioners because it creates anti-static properties.  You’ll find this chemical in a lot of “SLS-free” products or “tear-free” baby products.  CAPB is not supposed to irritate mucous membranes or cause skin irritation like a stronger detergent would.  The unfortunate truth is, it still does.

CAPB is frequently found to be contaminated with dimethylaminopropylamine, amidoamine, or sodium monochloroacetate. The -amine  group of chemicals can react with other substances in your products to form another dangerous class of chemicals called nitrosamines, most of which are carcinogenic.

CAPB is a common trigger for eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and contact dermatitis.  If you suffer from “allergy eyes” and don’t have any underlying sinus symptoms, CAPB may be your culprit.  We became acutely aware of the possible side effects of CAPB when a family member of one of our staff began to experience severe eye irritations.  Their eyes were chronically dry, irritated, and tended to “crust” during sleep.  They also developed very dry, painful cracks at the outer corners of their eyes, despite near constant application of moisturizer to the area.  They were diagnosed with blepharitis and told to wash their eyes with baby shampoo.  Guess what baby shampoo contains?  That’s right, cocamidopropyl betaine.  It wasn’t until they eliminated ALL products containing CAPB that they began to experience some relief.

Another disheartening discovery we made was that nearly every one of the eyelid cleansers or scrubs recommended for patients with eye problems also contained CAPB.  Most contained CAPB along with Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and plenty of parabens.  For people experiencing painful dryness, cracking, and irritation of their ocular area, these chemicals are only compounding the problem.  No wonder they aren’t receiving any relief.  This is why we developed a gentle, non-toxic foaming eyelid wash.  It removes the sticky build-up of dust and oily debris without stripping the protective layer of the skin and without contributing to further irritation.

This chemical can also be found in cleansing lotions, contact lens cleaning solutions, creams, deodorants, hair coloring kits, shampoo and conditioners, eye make-up removers, baby wipes, shaving gels, hair styling products and toothpastes.  It can be tricky to get rid of everything with CAPB in it, but it is well worth the effort to get relief from eye or skin allergies and irritation. You may also find this chemical listed as: Tegobetaine L7, Cocoyl amide propyldimethyl glycine, coconut oil amidopropyl betaine, N-cocamidopropyl-N, N-dimethlglycine hydroxide inner salt.


7.) SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE: (Also listed as – Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Myreth Sulfate, etc.) Detergents and industrial surfactants. Originally designed to as floor cleaners and engine degreasers. Can now be found in nearly every shampoo, baby wash, or bubble bath on the market. Even many “natural” brands have included this inappropriate and nasty chemical in their products. Scientific studies have proven that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) found in most shampoos damages protein formation in the eyes. After damage has been done, SLS even retards the healing process. Kenneth Gree, PH.D., D.Sc. of the Medical College of Georgia warns that eyes affected by SLS take five times as long to heal. SLS can lead to cataract formation and eventually blindness. Not only from direct eye contact but through skin absorption over the long-term.


8.) DIMETHICONE: A silicone-derived emollient, which coats the skin not allowing toxins out. May promote tumors and accumulate in the liver and lymph nodes. Found in lotions and creams.


9.) DIOXIN: Found in Disinfectant sprays like Lysol. It is a potent carcinogen reported to be 500,000 times deadlier than DDT Ethyl Alcohol.


10.) DEA, MEA, TEA: are “amines” (ammonia compounds) and can form harmful nitrosamines when they come in contact with nitrates. Used as foaming agents, synthetic stabilizers, and to adjust the pH of cosmetics, they can cause allergic reactions, eye irritation, and dryness of the hair and skin. Nitrosamines are extremely powerful, cancer-causing chemicals formed at high temperatures when the preservative nitrite combines with compounds called secondary amines (such as DEA, MEA, or TEA).


11.) DMDM HYDANTOIN, UREAS: Contains formaldehyde , an ingredient linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity. Allergenic, can be an irritant to eyes skin and lungs. Common in manicure/pedicure products and hair treatment packages.


12.) FRAGRANCE (Fragrance Oils): Unlike real essential oils, these are synthetic fragrances primarily made from petrochemicals and they attempt to duplicate the smell of a specific plant. By dismantling the unique chemical compound of an essential oil, chemists re-assemble a “fake” fragrance. A 1986 report by the National Academy of Sciences reports that 95 percent of the chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum and include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, parabens, toluene and many other known toxins and synthesizers capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. Due to lax cosmetics laws, companies can hide all sorts of ingredients they don’t want you to see under the label of “fragrance”. They get away with it by listing it as a “proprietary blend” which is covered under patent laws. If you see a listing for unspecified “fragrance” on your cosmetic label, put it back and walk away!


13.) PARABENS: (often listed as Methylparaben, Propylparaben, ETHYLPARABEN) Parabens are very effective and highly toxic preservatives used in all kinds of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Parabens are estrogen mimickers, and endocrine disruptors. There is credible concern for impaired fertility or development of fetus, and increased risk for certain cancers such as breast cancer or other estrogen sensitive diseases. Itching, burning and blistering of skin may also occur. A close cousin of benzoic acid.


14.) METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE: MIT is a powerful biocide (chemical agent capable of killing living things) and preservative, used in dish liquids, body washes, shampoos, conditioners, and other water-based body care products. Though long considered safe for use in cosmetics, two recent in vitro studies have shown that MIT is neurotoxic. MIT is chemically similar to Agent Orange and has a similar function and purpose. It places a thin film of nerve agent toxin on whatever is coated with it.


15.) PHTHALATES: Used as solvents and plasticizers. These are known endocrine disruptors, found in synthetic fragrances, lotions, perfumes, and other cosmetics. They are also used as enteric coatings on many pharmaceuticals. There is growing concern regarding the level of phthalates that unborn babies are exposed to in utero. Even relatively low exposures have been linked to adverse long-term developmental effects on the fetus.


16.)  1,4-DIOXANE: A chemical carcinogen created when ingredients are processed with petroleum-derived ethylene oxide. Common ethoxylated compounds include sodium laureth sulfate and polyethylene glycol (often listed as PEG). To avoid it, skip any product with the following ingredients: myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth (or any other -eth), PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, or oxynol. Found in children’s bath products and adult personal care products.


17.) PETROCHEMICALS: are derived from crude oil. Petroleum-based ingredients such as petrolatum, mineral oil, and paraffin (derived from nonrenewable sources) form a barrier when applied to the skin that does not allow it to breathe and can clog pores.


18.) TETRASODIUM EDTA: EDTA is in such widespread use that it has emerged as a persistent organic pollutant. It breaks down into ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, which then produces diketopiperizide, a cumulative, persistent, organic environmental pollutant. EDTA  has been found to be both cytotoxic and weakly genotoxic in laboratory animals. Oral exposures have been noted to cause reproductive and developmental effects.


19.) TRICLOSAN: does not break down in the environment and may contribute to bacterial resistance. Triclosan can react with chlorine in the tap water to create chloroform. Chloroform is a known carcinogen. When you wash your hands with antibacterial soap that contains Triclosan, you are getting the fumes emitted from this chemical reaction.


20.) TRIETHANOLAMINE: (TEA) Causes severe facial dermatitis, irritation and sensitivity. Used as ph adjuster. Reacts with stearic acid to form oil in water emulsions (typically lotions). May contain nitrosamines, known carcinogens. These chemicals are already restricted in Europe due to known carcinogenic effects (although still in use in the U.S.). Repeated skin applications of DEA-based detergents resulted in a major increase in the incidence of liver and kidney cancer. Found in shampoos, skin cream, bubble bath, shaving gel, conditioner, lotions.


21.) CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS: such as oxybenzone and octylmethoxycinnamate, have been shown to disrupt endocrine activity. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are safer alternatives.


22.) SYNTHETIC POLYMERS: such as sodium polyacrylate and carbomer, come from petroleum and give viscosity to skincare products. They are highly processed and their manufacture creates toxic by-products.


23.) CARMINE: A red-orange coloring that is extracted from the carmine beetle in South America. Has been linked to heart problems. (Aside from the heart issues, the thought of beetle guts in my lipstick is just plain nasty!) Found in: lipstick, glosses, blushes, eye makeup, nail polish.


24.) NANOPARTICLES: are a new technology with inconclusive but potentially hazardous study results. Research suggests that when tiny nano particles penetrate the skin, they may cause cell damage.


25.) VODKA, GRAIN SPIRITS: Alcohol, or ethanol as it is known clinically, is a widely used ingredient in many skin care preparations. It is used as an anti-septic, a preservative, solvent, delivery agent, and a penetration enhancer, just to name a few. It goes by many different names on labels: Alcohol, SD-Alcohol, Grain spirits, Ethanol, Vodka. There are innumerable variations on these depending on what has been added to the alcohol, but they are all basically the same. For the purposes of simplicity, I will refer to the collective group as “alcohol”. I will break down a few of the most commonly used variations and their health safety implications as I go.

The most commonly used type of alcohol in cosmetics is ethanol. That’s right, just plain ol’ drinking alcohol. The government requires that a bitter additive (usually denatonium benzoate) be mixed into the alcohol to prevent its consumption. This allows cosmetic companies to skirt the licensing requirements in place for alcohol intended for consumption. You’ll see this listed on the label as SD-Alcohol or SD-Alcohol 40. “SD” stands for “specially denatured”. Denatonium Benzoate is the bitterest compound known. It is not, however, the only additive that may be used. Some of the other additives that may be used to prevent consumption can be quite toxic all on their own.

Labels listing Neutral/NaturalGrain Spirits, Corn-/Vegetable-Derived Alcohol, Denatured Alcohol and Vodka are also widely used in the cosmetics industry, more so in the natural/organic companies. They carry with them label appeal because grain spirits can be called “natural” or “organic”. While these alcohols may not have additional chemicals added to them, that doesn’t necessarily render them safer for cosmetic use.

The problems come into play when you really look at how the body breaks down that alcohol. Remember, your skin is not just a barrier, but a highly functional organ in its own right. It moves substances both in and out of the body and is capable of breaking down, or metabolizing, different types of chemicals.

Ethanol itself is not classified as a carcinogen, however, the first metabolic product (the first thing your body breaks alcohol down into) is acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is more toxic than the ethanol itself, is mutagenic (causes genetic mutation), and carcinogenic (possible contributor to cancer).

Acetaldehyde attacks the collagen and elastin that holds skin together, reducing the elasticity and firmness. It robs the body of vitamin C, a crucial nutrient for healthy skin, and dilates blood vessels, leading to broken veins (telangiectasia).

One study showed measurable blood concentrations of ethanol, and its metabolite acetaldehyde, after regular application of ethanol on the skin. Think about how many products you use regularly that contain high levels of alcohol. Do you use alcohol-based hand sanitizer? What about your favorite body lotion, you know, the one that soaks in so fast? Turn it over and read the ingredients, I’d be willing to bet one of the first 5 ingredients (and more than likely one of the first 3) is some type of alcohol. Take a look in your bathroom cabinet and your make-up bag. Is it showing up in your foundation, your blemish-remedy, your shampoo?

Suddenly your “natural” deodorant spray doesn’t look so natural anymore. Especially not when you consider you are directly applying that alcohol based deodorant spray over the highly receptive lymphatic glands in your underarms. This has been linked to birth defects, cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and organ system toxicity as well as other issues.

We need to be especially vigilant when applying these products to our children, whose bodies are unable to fully process toxins until they are between 7-9 years of age. I have never really understood the point behind putting such a harsh ingredient in products designed specifically for babies and children. If it is as bad as we have seen for a fully grown adult, how much more toxic is it for them?

Most alcohol-based research focuses on oral consumption of alcohol, and justifiably so considering the enormous health impact it poses. Without a large quantity of definitive research on the long-term effects of ethanol absorption through the skin, there will not be any reason for large companies to remove this ingredient from their products. The best we can do until then is take preventative measures.

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