How many personal care products do you use? Start off by washing your face with face wash–that’s one. Next, toner–that’s two. After that, moisturizer cream or lotion–three. Brush your teeth with toothpaste–four. Mouthwash? Five. Then, lip balm your dry lips–that’s six. Finally, slap on a layer of sunscreen before you head out the door–that’s seven. In just the first thirty minutes of the day, you have used seven personal care products. But wait, for many of us, there’s more: primer, foundation, lipstick, eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara! But just how toxic are these products?
Since we use so many personal care products routinely, we want them to be good for our bodies. This is especially true for autoimmune patients. Many of us have chemical sensitivities or suffer flares triggered by chemicals that others might tolerate. Unfortunately, confusing and inconsistent regulation makes this hard. Toxins may be in many over-the-counter products we use daily. Except those containing color additives, cosmetics and body care products need no FDA approval before entering the market. The FDA and USDA only loosely regulate the toxicity of many ingredients (1). To compare, the EU has banned more than 1300 chemicals in cosmetics products over health and safety concerns, while the US has banned a mere 11(3).
Concerns about “toxins” in cosmetic and personal care products has grown amongst the public. Sometimes this prompts the removal of ingredients like BPA from most products on the market. Woke consumers try to avoid “toxic” chemicals like parabens, phthalates, and SLS. While consumer alertness is a step in the right direction, harmful ingredients still lurk in our products. To help you detoxify your environment, here’s a list of possible poisons to keep out of your personal hygiene routines.
Dioxane is listed as a Group 2B possible carcinogen in humans, based on studies in animals. It may be particularly risky for pregnant women, infants, and teenagers. Dioxane is most likely in sudsy products such as shampoos and soaps. The kicker, however, is that it doesn’t appear on product labels. That’s because it’s not an ingredient, it’s a contaminant. Dioxane is the product of a chemical reaction between other ingredients. Many manufacturers still do not monitor their products for dioxane. Others, particularly in the organic community, are beginning to do so. Those concerned about dioxane might avoid products containing SLS, PEG compounds, or ingredients ending in -xynol, -ceteareth, and -oleth. These are chemicals most likely to contain trace dioxane contaminants (2).
Butylated Compounds (BHA/BHT)
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are antioxidant preservatives. BHA and BHT extend shelf-life by slowing oxidation. They are used in cosmetics, such as lip and hair products, sunscreen, deodorant, fragrance–even preserved food. Both chemicals have raised concerns about cancer, organ system toxicity, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity. Unsurprisingly, the EU bans BHA and BHT (2). If you are concerned about BHA and BHT, read the labels so you can decide whether to avoid them or not.
Carbon black is a black pigment used since ancient times in cosmetics. Basically, it’s soot. You can make your own carbon black by holding a paraffin candle flame under a ceramic plate. Today, it’s mostly a byproduct of incomplete combustion reactions of heavy carbon compounds in petroleum. It has been used for millennia in makeup such as mascara, eyeliner, even blushes and lipsticks. Breathing it has been implicated in lung cancer (Group 2B-possibly carcinogenic in humans) and organ toxicity. You may see it in ingredients lists as D & C Black No. 2, acetylene black, channel black, furnace black, lamp black, or thermal black (2).
Ethanolamine Compounds (MEA, TEA, DEA)
The ethanolamines are monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and triethanolamine (TEA). Manufacturers use these emulsifying agents in food and cosmetics to keep other ingredients from separating. Therefore, you can find them in products such as makeup, cleaning products, creams and lotions, soaps and shampoos. This class of chemicals has been linked to liver tumors and implicated in organ system toxicity and bioaccumulation (2).
Hydroquinone decreases melanin in the skin and can lighten freckles and age spots. Thus, you will find it in lightening creams and lotions, face washes, and even nail care products. Hydroquinone may also be a contaminant in tocopheryl acetate, or synthetic vitamin E. In many users, hydroquinone triggers skin reactions, especially with sun exposure. It has been associated with skin cancers, organ system toxicity, and respiratory tract infections.
In 2006, the FDA revoked its approval and proposed a ban on all over-the-counter preparations. Furthermore, the EU has banned it in concentrations above 1%. However hydroquinone is still used in the US, particularly as prescribed by dermatologists for scarring and hyperpigmentation. There are no alternative chemicals that work as well for depigmentation. Concerns about bad effects means that dermatologists may ask you to sign a liability waiver against future health complications to write a prescription. An additional woke concern about hydroquinone is that lightening products are disproportionately used by women of color, leading to unequal demographic effects (2).
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is a nonstick ingredient most famous as Teflon in cookware. But PTFE can make fabric stain resistant and cosmetics smoother and more elegant. PTFE is a member of a class of fluorinated chemicals called PFASs or PFCs. Some studies link PTFEs to reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption in women. Symptoms may range from delayed menstruation, offset breast development, mammary cancer, reproductive bioaccumulation, and disrupted or delayed natal development (2). If you are concerned, avoid ingredients with “fluoro” in their names.
Talc is a soft, white mineral. People have used talcum powder for thousands of years in cosmetics. A moisture-absorbing agent, it is commonly found in baby powders and lotions. Powdered talc is also used in foundation and eyeshadow, feminine hygiene products and on lubricated contraceptives. Talc may be contaminated with the carcinogen asbestos. Inhalation causes respiratory irritation, especially in infants. Long-term exposure may increase lung cancer risk through asbestos contamination. Talc use has been controversially correlated with endometrial and ovarian cancer in women. Some animal studies have connected the development of reproductive complications and cancers to talc contact with the genitals (2).
Retinol (Vitamin A) is the parent of a family of compounds that also include retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate. Because retinol has anti-wrinkle effects, it is a frequent ingredient in anti-aging lotions, eye creams and foundations. Retinol and associated compounds are the active ingredients in prescribed acne medications such as Tretinoin or Accutane. As a known teratogen it can cause birth defects in fetuses. Therefore, dermatologists warn young women treated for acne with these drugs not to get pregnant. Retinol also causes skin sensitivity, especially in sunlight and may trigger irritation. However, retinols may speed tumor growth on the skin and cause developmental and reproductive damage (2). The EU bans tretinoin altogether and puts limits on concentrations for related compounds. As always, if you are concerned, read the labels before you buy.
Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCIT) are preservatives that inhibit microbial growth. They are used in cosmetic and personal care products such as shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. MIT or MCIT are also added to cream products such as lotion and sunscreen. Animal studies of MIT and CMIT showed a correlation between with immune system toxicity. Many people are allergic to these compounds. Some studies have also implicated them as potential neurotoxins (2). They will be shown on product labels.
Petrolatum–AKA petroleum jelly–derived from petroleum, is a common moisturizing agent in cosmetics and lotions. Pure petrolatum is generally recognized as safe, but poor refining processes may leave in trace carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). To prevent such contamination, the EU mandates that all petrolatum used in cosmetics have published history of the refinement process. The US, however, does not regulate this process to that level of detail (2).
In conclusion, we hope that you find this information useful and can use this list to detoxify your life. For a head start, check out what we had to say about Dr. Ginger’s, RiseWell, and Oralta for some clean dental care products. Follow us on our social media to stay up to date on more health and wellness tips and tricks! Are there other compounds you would like us to cover? Please leave a comment below so we can include it in our next post!
Written by: Bonnie Feldman DDS, MBA, Ishita Dubey, Ellen M. Martin
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “FDA Authority Over Cosmetics: How Cosmetics Are Not FDA-Approved.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 24 July 2018, www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-laws-regulations/fda-authority-over-cosmetics-how-cosmetics-are-not-fda-approved-are-fda-regulated.
- “Chemicals of Concern.” Safe Cosmetics, www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chem-of-concern/.
- Milman, Oliver. “US Cosmetics Are Full of Chemicals Banned by Europe – Why?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/22/chemicals-in-cosmetics-us-restricted-eu.