Silent Killers in Your Personal Care Products

Written by: Bonnie Feldman DDS, MBA, Ishita Dubey, Ellen M. Martin

Think about your day-to-day schedule; how many personal care products do you use? You start off by washing your face with face wash–that’s one. Then toner, if you use it, that’s two. You moisturize with lotion afterwards–that’s three. You brush your teeth with toothpaste–that’s four. You moisten your dry lips with lip balm afterwards–that’s five. And you slap on a layer of sunscreen before you head out the door–that’s six. Many of us use even more: tinted moisturizer or primers, foundation, and that’s before you add lipstick, eyeliner or mascara!  In just the first thirty minutes of the day, you have already used six products, and are likely to come into contact with and use numerous more throughout the day. 

Seeing as personal care products are so heavily integrated into our routines, it should be of utmost importance to make sure that these products are good for our bodies. Unfortunately, a lack of proper regulation makes this generally untrue. Innumerable toxins may be found in many, of the common, over the counter products that we use daily. Other than those containing color additives, cosmetics and body care products do not require FDA approval before entering the market, and the toxicity and ingredients of these products are only loosely monitored by FDA or USDA regulation (1). For example, the EU has banned the use of over 1300 chemicals in manufactured cosmetics products over health and safety concerns, while the US has banned a mere 11 (3)

Consciousness of this lack of regulation of public health in cosmetic and personal care products has grown amongst the public, leading to the removal of ingredients like BPA from most products on the market, and a general awareness to avoid toxic chemicals like parabens, phthalates, and SLS. And while this augmenting alertness is certainly a step in the right direction, there are still a plethora of harmful ingredients in our products that most people are unfortunately still unaware of. To help get you on your journey of detoxifying your environment, we have put together a list of dangerous yet unaddressed chemicals to keep out of your personal hygiene routines.


1,4-Dioxane is a powerful carcinogen that can strongly impact pregnant women, infants, and teenagers. It is found in lathered, sudsy products such as shampoos and soaps. The kicker, however, is that it doesn’t appear on product labels. 1,4-Dioxane is a product formed as a result of a reaction between other ingredients so it remains unlabeled. To avoid contact with this toxin, stay away from products containing SLS, PEG compounds, or any ingredients ending in -xynol, -ceteareth, and -oleth, as these are the reactants that can form 1,4-dioxane (2)

Butylated Compounds (BHA/BHT)

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are preservatives commonly used in cosmetics, such as lip and hair products, sunscreen, deodorant, fragrance–and even food. Both chemicals have raised strong concerns regarding cancer, organ system toxicity, endocrine disruption, and reproductive toxicity. Unsurprisingly, BHA and BHT are banned from use in the EU (2)

Carbon Black

Carbon black is a dark pigment that is the byproduct of incomplete combustion reactions of carbon compounds such as tar, and is commonly used in makeup products such as eyeliner, mascara, and even blushes and lipsticks. It has been implicated in cancer and organ system toxicity. It may also be listed in the ingredients as D & C Black No. 2, acetylene black, channel black, furnace black, lamp black, or thermal black (2)

Ethanolamine Compounds (MEA, TEA, DEA)

Ethanolamines–monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and triethanolamine (TEA)–are emulsifying agents commonly used in food and cosmetics, and can be found in products such as makeup, cleaning products, creams and lotions, soaps, and shampoos. This class of chemicals has been directly linked to liver tumors and implicated in organ system toxicity and bioaccumulation (2)


Hydroquinone is a commercially used skin lightener, commonly found in creams and lotions, face washes, skin lightening products, and even nail care products. It has been strongly associated with skin cancers, organ system toxicity, and respiratory tract infections. Hydroquinone is also likely found as an impurity in the pervasively-used tocopheryl acetate, or synthetic vitamin E.  While the EU has banned it from use, hydroquinone is still utilized in the US, and is even sometimes prescribed by dermatologists for scarring and pigmentation. The deleterious effects of this chemical are so prominent, however, that you must sign a liability waiver against any future cancers or health complications if given a prescription of hydroquinone. Further adding to the dangerousness of the chemical, it is targeted differentially towards people, and specifically women, of color, leading to unequal demographic effects (2)


Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), more commonly known as Teflon, is nonstick ingredient used in makeup and cookware. It has been associated with reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption in women, with health effects ranging from delayed menstruation, offset breast development, mammary cancer, reproductive bioaccumulation, and disrupted or delayed natal development (2)


Talc is a mineral commonly found in baby products such as baby powders and lotions, makeup products such as foundation and eyeshadow, feminine hygiene products, and lubricated contraceptives. It is used as a moisture-absorbing agent, and is very frequently contaminated with the carcinogen asbestos. Talc use has been shown to cause respiratory irritation in infants after inhalation, and has been correlated with endometrial and ovarian cancer in women. Talc use has also been shown to strongly correlate with the development of reproductive complications and cancers after direct contact with the genitals (2)


Retinol (Vitamin A) and its compound derivatives such as retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate are frequently found anti-aging ingredients in lotions, eye creams, and foundations. Retinol and associated compounds are also one of the major components of frequently prescribed  acne medications such as Tretinoin or Accutane. However, this molecule is in fact incredibly detrimental to health and has been shown to directly cause cancer and developmental and reproductive complications and toxicity. Retinol is also a known teratogen, meaning that it can cause severe birth defects in fetuses (2)


Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCIT) are preservatives found in liquid cosmetic and personal care products such as bath products (such as shampoo, conditioner, and body wash), and cream products such as lotion and sunscreen. Animal studies of MIT and CMIT have demonstrated a correlation between the chemicals and organ system toxicity, and proven it to be a prominent allergen. Some studies have also implicated these compounds as potential neurotoxins (2)


Petrolatum–better known as petroleum jelly–is derived from petroleum and is a common moisturizing agent used in cosmetics and lotions. While this compound does not have any known deleterious effects if refined properly, it is often refined poorly, leading to contamination with 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 have any regulation on this process (2).   

We hope that you find this information useful and can utilize this list to detoxify your life and keep your environment clean. Follow us on our social media to stay up to date on more health and wellness tips and tricks! If you have any other compounds you would like us to cover, please leave a comment down below so we can make sure to include it in our next post!

Works Cited: 

  1. 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,
  2. “Chemicals of Concern.” Safe Cosmetics,
  3. Milman, Oliver. “US Cosmetics Are Full of Chemicals Banned by Europe – Why?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 May 2019,

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