Discover the most dangerous ingredients in skincare products—and how to avoid slathering these toxic products on your body.
Runners know that to get the best out of your body, you have to put the best into your system. Sure, your kitchen is stocked with healthy fruits and veggies—but what about your bathroom cabinet?
It’s easy to forget this—we’re guilty too—but what you put on your skin is just as important as what you put in your mouth. While skin is our body’s barrier, it also acts like a sponge, soaking up whatever is applied to its surface, including chemicals in shampoos, lotions and cosmetics.
“Ninety percent of the 10,500 cosmetics and skincare ingredients have not been evaluated for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review or the FDA,” states dermatologist Marnie Nussbaum. “The European Union banned more than 1,110 personal-product ingredients due to concerns of cancer, birth defects or reproductive problems, but only 10 are banned in the United States.”
Faced with such scary information, many shoppers are steering toward the natural section. But don’t be so quick to pick a product just for its green label, says Rob Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and consultant for Aviva Hair Revitalizer. “Natural, organic, green—these claims can mean anything, because there is no specific definition for these terms. For safe shopping, educate yourself on ingredients and read the labels of any skin or haircare product.”
Nussbaum agrees, saying, “Marketing claims can often be ambiguous or even false. The consumer has to be her own detective.” Just like you would with a box of cereal or can of soup, it’s best to read the ingredient list of skin and hair care items. While searching for safe, nontoxic products, steer your shopping cart far away from these harmful intruders.
A common preservative, parabens are added to prevent bacterial growth in products. That preservation comes with a price, warns Robinson: Parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen, which plays a role in the development of breast cancer urogenital abnormalities.
Scour your ingredient list. If methylparaben, propylparaben, isoparaben or butylparaben appear, place the bottle back on the shelf. There are plenty of companies that have found ways to keep products fresh without the use of this additive.
Found in scented items, phthalates are a no-go for those with respiratory disorders, as they may trigger asthma and allergy attacks. Phthalates are also known to be endocrine disruptors, affecting reproductive health and development. In a 2010 study, researchers discovered women who used skincare products containing phthalates were at increased risk of breast cancer.
Ingredient labels may not tell the whole story about phthalates, says Nussbaum. “A loophole in federal law allows phthalates to be included in fragrances without ever appearing on the product’s label, meaning that phthalates are more ubiquitous than we realize.” To be certain, Nussbaum suggests looking for items that explicitly state “phthalate-free” on the label.
Although 1,4-dioxane is classified as a known animal carcinogen and likely human carcinogen, the FDA currently still allows it to be added to products, such as shampoo, face wash and toothpaste.
Nussbaum cites 1,4-dioxane as a perfect example of how an “organic” label doesn’t guarantee safety: In a 2008 study by the United States Organic Consumers Association, almost half of organic personal care products contained 1,4-dioxane. More than 56 ingredients are associated with the toxic chemical, including sodium laureth sulfate, sodium myreth sulfate, polyethylene glycol and ingredients ending in “xynol,” “ceteareth” and “oleth.”
It’s hard to shake DEA, an emulsifier used in shampoos and soaps. Studies have shown up to two-thirds of DEA in beauty products linger on the skin after rinsing, which can cause skin and eye irritation. Robinson points out the possibility of worse long-term consequences: “In laboratory experiments, exposure to high doses of these chemicals has been shown to cause liver cancers and precancerous changes in skin and thyroid.”
Whether spelled out as diethanolamine or condensed with three letters, DEA, avoid this additive, along with its compounds: cocamide DEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate and oleamide DEA.
Labeled as a human carcinogen by the United States Toxicology program, formaldehyde is utilized in hair-smoothing products, shampoo and body soaps. In addition to its link to cancer, Nussbaum says, formaldehyde may cause nausea, coughing and asthma symptoms.
What’s tricky is that most products don’t add the actual formaldehyde itself, and therefore goes unlisted. Instead, certain ingredients, known as Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives (or FRPs) degrade while sitting on your shelf, releasing the toxic chemical over time. Avoid FRPs, which may be cited as quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea or sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.
The Environmental Working Group evaluates the ingredient labels of thousands of hair, skin and cosmetic products, compiling the findings in its Skin Deep Database. See how your lotions and potions measure up at ewg.org/skindeep.