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It’s hard to narrow this list down to just 10 toxic personal care ingredients since unfortunately there are SO many. Even products that claim to be “paraben-free,” “clean,” or “all-natural” often hide toxins in their ingredients list. Ironically, sometimes these hidden ingredients are toxic chemicals that are some of the worst offenders!
Over a number of years we’ve gradually made the switch to much healthier, more natural cleaning and personal care brands, one product at a time.
And when I couldn’t find them, I made them!
Doesn’t the FDA Have It Covered?
It’s a common misconception that skincare ingredients must be proven safe and effective before they’re allowed on the market. Even worse, the FDA doesn’t have the authority to ban skincare ingredients that show strong evidence of being dangerous or deadly. Talcum powder is the perfect example.
Products that contain talc (aka talcum powder) include makeup and some baby powders. Talcum powder is frequently contaminated with cancer-causing asbestos. Johnson and Johnson paid millions over this issue, and the lawsuits just keep rolling in (so far there are 15,500 lawsuits).
It’s obvious the item should be pulled from shelves, right? Nope. Baby powder is still being sold in stores, still being sprinkled on baby’s genitals, and still causing harm for some. The FDA and government oversight agencies usually don’t pull the plug on toxins in skincare, so we all have to stay on top of what’s in our products.
Many companies have caught on to the fact that consumers want safe, natural products for their families. While this is driving positive change, not everything is as it seems. Since the beauty industry is largely self-regulated, skincare companies can dress up labels with natural-looking colors and terms like “vegan” and “all-natural” — all while still hiding a bunch of toxins in the ingredients list.
Just Because We Can’t Pronounce It…
I always read the ingredients list on skincare products, but just because I can’t pronounce it doesn’t mean an ingredient is necessarily bad.
For example, alpha tocopherol may sound like a toxic chemical, but it’s actually the antioxidant vitamin E. Shea butter is listed as the tongue twister (butyrospermum parkii) on skincare labels.
When in doubt, do some research!
Top 10 Toxins to Avoid in Personal Care Products
This is not an exhaustive list by any means but it helps weed out the top offenders. Typically if a product has one of these ingredients (or more) I can be pretty sure there’s a lot of other toxins in there too.
While they may smell pretty, masculine, or calming, fragrances hide a dirty secret. A lot of dirty little secrets! Companies aren’t required to disclose the chemicals that make up their fragrances (and sometimes they don’t even know themselves).
The chemists who create fragrances have over 3000 chemicals to work with. Many of these fragrance chemicals are derived from petrochemicals that are known allergens and hormone and endocrine disruptors. These toxic ingredients can hide under the terms fragrance or parfum and don’t have to be listed on the label.
Here are products to watch out for that often contain fragrance:
- Air fresheners and scented candles (no, not skincare, but worth mentioning!)
- Perfume, body spray, and cologne
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Haircare products
- Body wash, hand soap, and bar soap
- Bubble bath
- Face wash
- Makeup remover
- Face treatments and cleansers
Petroleum jelly, petrolatum, mineral oil… these are all names for the same ingredient. Often found in lotions and balms labeled “healing” to skin, petroleum jelly is actually a highly refined byproduct of the oil industry. Oil companies didn’t want the sludge at the bottom of the oil rigs to go to waste, so it was refined and sold as a skin protectant.
As an oil industry derivative, petroleum is not eco-friendly or sustainable, and it isn’t so skin friendly either. A 2011 study in the Journal for Women’s Health found petroleum in cosmetics contains toxic hydrocarbons.
The researchers went on to say there’s strong evidence these “mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body.” The toxins accumulated in the women’s body fat and were also found in their breastmilk.
Hydrocarbons and toxins aside, petroleum forms a non-breathable layer on skin. While this layer locks in skin’s natural moisture, it can also prevent it from healing. Petroleum also dries out and blocks pores.
There are over a dozen types of phthalates used in personal care products to improve their fragrance and pliability. Some phthalates have very little or no safety studies to show if they’re harmful, while others are linked with some serious health concerns.
A 2010 article in the journal Alternative Medicine Review pointed out some major problems with these chemicals. The scientists at Made Safe also weigh in on the issue.
Here are some of the top health issues linked with phthalates:
- Neurological disorders
- Cancers and breast cancer
- Developmental and reproductive toxicity
- Sperm damage
- Altered genital development in boys
- Testicular dysgenesis
- Asthma and allergies
- Fibroids (these can occur in the uterus)
- Reproductive system disruption
- Endocrine system disruption
Phthalates are often found in:
- Fragrances and perfumes (see the above list for products containing fragrances)
- Hairspray and hair care products
- Nail polish
This common preservative has been detected in virtually all Americans. As more research is done, scientists are finding more and more problems with this common preservative.
Parabens can mimic estrogen and cause hormone disruption. Certain parabens can also cause breast cancer and issues with reproduction and development according to 2012 research in the Journal of Applied Toxicology.
Researchers published a 2019 study in Environmental Science and Pollution Research International finding that over 23% of the women with cancer had parabens in the diseased endometrial tissue, compared to only 2% in the control group.
Also, a 2019 study from the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health examined the effect of parabens on birth outcomes. Baby girls born to pregnant women with paraben exposure had significantly lower birth weights.
Parabens are commonly found in:
Scientists don’t understand how aluminum is absorbed through the skin. Not a statement that gives me a lot of confidence in aluminum as a skincare ingredient! Aluminum is found in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains and is thought to contribute to brain dysfunction, Parkinson’s disease, and neurological disease, according to a 2014 report by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety.
Although research has not proven a link between aluminum and specific brain disorders it IS known to be toxic to the brain. Aluminum is also suspected to play a role in breast cancer.
Products that commonly have aluminum include:
- Anti-perspirant deodorants
- Nail polish
6. PFOAS, PFC’s and Teflon Chemicals
There are thousands of fluorinated chemicals in our food, water, and cosmetics. Known as PFCs or PFASs they were originally intended to replace PFOAs (which are confirmed toxins). The CDC found that these perfluorinated chemicals have already contaminated nearly everyone in the US and they’re now a global problem.
Teflon and PFC manufacturer’s replaced the chemical with a new one they dubbed “GenX.” However, safety studies show it probably isn’t any better.
Rats exposed to GenX Teflon had more preterm births, low birth weights, and delayed puberty. When rats were exposed to high doses of the chemical they gasped in pain, had seizures, and dropped dead within hours.
Both animal and human studies have linked fluorinated compounds (like PFCs, PFASs and the phased out PFOAs) with a laundry list of health issues. Here are some of the big ones:
- Cancerous tumors
- Kidney disease
- Liver degeneration
- Uterine polyps
- Liver damage
- Immune system damage
- Reproductive system damage
It’s thought that these chemicals aren’t well absorbed through skin, but when applied around the eye and lip area they’re much more likely to enter the body. Unfortunately PFASs are most often used in eye products and are even found in lip products.
There are well over a dozen PFASs found in cosmetics so it’s impossible to list them all. However, if a product has the letters “fluoro” in the ingredients list, then it’s a perfluorinated chemical.
Here are some cosmetic products that may contain perfluorinated chemicals:
- Eye shadow
- Brow liner
- Eye liner
- Lipstick and lip liner
- Face moisturizers
- Eye cream
- Shaving cream
7. Vitamin A (Retinyl Palmitate or Retinoic Acid)
Although vitamin A is essential to a healthy body, the synthetic version, retinyl palmitate… not so much. When retinyl palmitate is applied to skin that’s then exposed to sunlight it may cause skin damage. Some studies have also shown strong skin irritation and sensitivity.
In animal studies, mice rubbed with retinyl palmitate lotion and exposed to UV rays had faster tumor formation. According to a 2012 report from the National Toxicology Program, tumors and cell mutation formed at very low doses. The same report warned that high amounts of synthetic vitamin A in cosmetics and food can contribute to birth defects.
The Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food and Environment (VKM) has cautioned that skincare products with vitamin A can increase birth defects when used before or during pregnancy.
Women who had more than 4.5 grams a day of vitamin A from all sources (food, supplements, and cosmetics) had a 3.5 times higher risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects than mothers who had only 1500 mg synthetic vitamin A.
Too Much Vitamin A Can Equal Bone Problems
Not only does synthetic vitamin A contribute to skeletal birth defects, but it can contribute to osteoporosis as well. VKM recommends older women and those at increased risk of fracture and osteoporosis should reduce their use of synthetic vitamin A.
According to VKM, it’s estimated about 10% of older women exceed the max safe amount of synthetic vitamin A just from food and supplements. Since vitamin A is often found in anti-aging creams, these are more likely to be used by the same group of women they’re most likely to harm. A good alternative to retinol is bakuchiol or babchi oil.
Here are cosmetic and skincare products that may contain retinyl palmitate or retinoic acid:
- Anti-aging creams and lotions
- Facial moisturizer
- Liquid and powder foundation
- Brow liner
- Makeup remover
8. Polyethylene Glycols and Polysorbate (PEGs)
PEG, the same active ingredient in a popular laxative, is widely used in cosmetics. There are hundreds of versions of PEG chemicals in skincare products and most are backed by very little to no safety data. However, the biggest concern with PEGs is the toxins they may carry with them.
PEGs are frequently contaminated with 1,4 dioxane. Several health agencies have reported 1,4 dioxane probably causes cancer and it’s been linked with breast cancer and tumors in the liver, gallbladder, nose, lungs, and skin.
Not only do PEGs likely bring along a cancer-causing chemical, but they also enhance the penetration of other potentially harmful chemicals. PEGs are used by skincare formulators to soften and open up the skin’s pores to the other ingredients in a product. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, any toxins in the product get a free ride through our skin’s barrier thanks to the PEGs.
Here are products that may contain PEGs:
- Facial moisturizer and serums
- Hand cream and lotions
- Brow liner
- Hair serum and gel
- Shaving cream
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Body and face scrubs
- Face masks
- Makeup bronzer or highlighter
The FDA spoke out against the antibacterial ingredient triclosan and in 2017 banned its use in certain products, including hand sanitizer and certain soaps.
However, triclosan is still found in everything from body wash and toothpaste, to clothing and toys. The chemical is thought to contribute to deadly antibiotic resistance and negatively affect thyroid health. Triclosan can damage the endocrine system and reproductive hormone function even at very low doses.
In his 2018 article, “Triclosan and Cancer Risk: Is There a Link?,” Dr. Kistler references the potential dangers of triclosan. There’s evidence triclosan may play a role in several different types of cancer and the FDA is currently conducting further studies on the subject. Not only is triclosan bad for us, but it’s known to be toxic to water-life.
Special Concern for Pregnant Mamas
A 2014 report presented at the American Chemical Society found some disturbing evidence in the pregnant women studied. The researchers found triclosan in all of the pregnant women’s urine samples and in half of the babies’ umbilical cord blood.
It was clear triclosan passes from mom to unborn baby. This can lead to serious problems since there’s growing evidence triclosan can lead to development and reproductive issues.
Many manufacturers have phased triclosan out of their products (thankfully!), but it’s still around. Here are products that may contain triclosan:
- Hand and body soap
- Foundation, mascara, and other types of makeup
10. Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
This preservative was named “allergen of the year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society. Not an award I’d want to win!
Government agencies in Europe, Germany, Japan, and Canada have limited its use because of safety concerns. However, the US doesn’t seem fazed and it’s still widely used here with fewer restrictions than our international neighbors.
Safety reports done by the US research group, Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), determined MIT wasn’t harmful when used under certain amounts. However, CIR research is funded by the Personal Care Products (PCP) Council, a group of over 600 major cosmetic and chemical companies.
MIT is strongly linked with skin sensitization and irritation, the main reason why it is restricted in other countries. A 2002 study in the Journal of Neuroscience also found MIT is highly toxic to brain neurons and recommended further safety research.
Here are products which may contain the preservative methylisothiazolinone:
- Face moisturizers
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Hair gel, mousse, and other hair products
- Bronzer and highlighter
- Foundation and primer
- Body wash
What to Do About Toxic Ingredients
It can be overwhelming and scary to look at lists like this, but it doesn’t have to be. Companies have come a long way in providing safer options. Plus, I know where you can find plenty of natural and safe DIY skincare, soap, lotion, and makeup recipes! 🙂
Confession though: As my kids get older, I don’t always have time to make DIY recipes! This is why I started a personal care product line of my own! My hope is it helps every family make the switch to non-toxic (and even healthy!) products they can trust. Learn more in my interview with Emily Blain on What’s Wrong With Your Personal Care Products and Creating Sustainable and Ethical Ones.
As moms, we can reverse the trend and educate ourselves to avoid potentially toxic ingredients and make natural, safer products the norm!
Check your bottles… do you recognize any of these ingredients? What are your favorite natural products to make or use instead?
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Discussion (8 Comments)
I’m so excited to try out some of your products through wellnesse. I’m wondering if you have recommendations for male personal hygiene products? I’m assuming your brand of shampoo and conditioner would be appropriate for males also, but just want your thoughts. Also, what about safe body wash, shaving cream, and deodorant more specifically? I would love any feedback! Thanks!
Thanks for this information. I have a question regarding vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or retinoic acid). Does this concern for vitamin A include naturally occurring vitamin A like in Sea Buckthorn Berry, Blueberry Extract, or Raspberry Seed Extract? Thank you!
I’ve avoided chemicals in products and entire product categories (nail polish, makeup, hair products, cleaning and household products, etc) for many years now. No hair products or face makeup, since my sensitivity issues prevented that anyway.
What irks me is that a lot of consumers don’t read labels, and if they see something advertised as clean or “natural” they’ll assume it’s okay. I’m actually trying to create my own non-toxic scented candles now. If I ever sold them, I’d offer a complete dissertation on what I chose to put in them and why.
I love what you compiled as a reference here. The only thing I am struggling with is the use of synthetics in the form of fragrance oils that you burn in a candle. There’s a lot of debate about how harmful this actually is. Some plant oils are actually more toxic than some synthetics. I’ve been working with fragrances that are both high in essential oil blends with some synthetics – but no pthalates, which is the main offender known in manmade chemicals. I’ve also tried working solely with EO oils to produce a candle without any synthetics whatsoever and that’s challenging.
I would conclude that if a consumer works to avoid these chemicals that are applied directly to skin or hair, you are probably doing okay. In the meanwhile I will continue to look for all natural solutions to making products that will not pose a risk to anyone’s health. It has been suggested that you’d need to burn a lot of them to produce a negative affect, and that for everyday use in a properly ventilated environment, these probably do not pose a threat.
I’ve not seen any published scientific research on the potential health risks of using pthalate free scents in candles thus far…but Katie if you have can you share this info? thanks!
What stores carry the wellness product line. I’m in BritishColumbia Canada
Wellnesse products are only available to purchase online right now. We’ll eventually ship to Canada, but probably not for a least a month or so…
I have a question regarding Retinyl Palmitate or Retinoic Acid. Are these the same as Retinol? Does Retinol pose the same health concerns? The reason I’m asking is because I have been looking for a clean retinol product for my skin but is has been so hard to find.
Katie, this is all great information! Thanks for sharing! A question I have that is not addressed in your articles is: If the products and ingredients are not regulated by any agency then how can we be sure what is actually in them? Even with an ingredient label, couldn’t the companies leave harmful ingredients off the label? Or if there isn’t that much of the ingredient they don’t have to list it on the label?
The ingredients themselves aren’t regulated for safety, but manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order of how much is used so they can’t leave ingredients off.