I am not writing this to scare anybody, but I think it’s important to be aware of what is in the products you are considering buying so that you can make an informed decision about whether you are willing to expose yourself and your family to these toxins or not. We are all under attack by so many pollutants and toxins every single day, some you have no control over, but at least you can try to cut them out of your personal products (and foods).
Dr Samuel Epstein, chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, has stated that “carcinogens in cosmetics and personal care products pose greater cancer risks than does food contaminated with carcinogenic pesticides and other industrial carcinogens as they are not detoxified by the liver but reach the general blood circulation directly.”
Another interesting thing to note is that many of these substances are banned or severely restricted in Europe. Why not here? One can argue that the government shouldn’t babysit its citizens and it is up to each and every one to make healthy choices, but let’s face it, who reads every single ingredient on a tube of toothpaste when you’re rushing through the store trying to get home to make dinner? And even if you do, do you know what all those ingredients are and what they do? I do now, but before I started on my quest for a non-toxic (or reduced toxic) life, I didn’t either.
Here are 10 of the worst ones:
Methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben can be found in tons of body care products. They are preservatives (I personally think synthetic preservatives in both food and other products are responsible for many health issues, including allergies), that are suspected to increase the risk of certain cancers and disrupt sex hormones. Interestingly, they have been banned in Europe since 2003, but here in the US, they’re everywhere.
Also banned in Europe, Phthalates are chemicals used to increase flexibility and strength of plastics (think vinyl) and can be found in items such as pill coatings, shower curtains, paint, food, medical devices (blood bags, etc.), plastic toys, hair spray, perfume – the list goes on and on. The different kinds are known by different names, but unfortunately, they are often not listed among the ingredients on products. And they can have been added to your food, for example, anywhere in the process of getting it to you – in the bucket used to pick berries, in the containers used to store them, etc.
DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate) is used in vinyl products; DINP (di-isononyl phthalate) can be found in children’s toys; DBP (dibutyl phthalate) and DEP (diethyl phthalate) are used in cosmetics. As you can see, it is very difficult to avoid being exposed to Phthalates in your daily life. Lab tests have shown that they are carcinogens that can also affect the liver, kidneys, lungs, reproductive system, and increase the risk of stillbirths.
Coal Tar Dyes/Food Coloring
(a.k.a. artificial color, synthetic dye). Found in foods, drugs, tattoo inks, lots of personal products (hair color, shampoos, in particular those to treat head lice, soap, ointments). When my brother was little, he was very allergic to red candy, and it’s interesting to learn that the common food colorant Allura red AC (a.k.a E129 or FD&C Red #40) is now banned in Sweden, as well as in several other European countries. Coal tar dyes have been found to cause cancer in lab animals, as well as allergic reactions in people. Some claim it may also be contributing to ADD, increasing the risk for Hodgkin’s disease, and liver disease.
A solvent found in nail polish, paint, synthetic fragrance, adhesives, inks, gasoline. It may be listed as methylbenzene or phenylmethane. It is an endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen, inhaling it can damage your kidneys and liver and cause birth defects. Both acute and long-term exposure affects the central nervous system. If you can’t live without nail polish, try Acquarella, a water-based product that got a 1-rating (0 is best 10 worst) from the Environmental Working Group and great reviews from users.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate/Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS/SLES)
A detergent that makes you toothpaste foam, your soap and shampoo lather and your bubble bath bubble. It’s used in thousands cosmetic products and while the jury is still out on the level of toxicity, some claim that it can cause eczema, skin inflammation, contains endocrine disruptors and may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane (a potential carcinogen). And while it may not be toxic on its own, in combination with other ingredients, it can can form carcinogenic nitrosamines. And according to studies done in Japan, it can damage DNA in cells.
A solvent, used among other things as the killing agent in pitfall traps, it is also found in paint, floor wax, stick deodorants, shampoo, toothpaste, mouthwash, lotions, baby wipes, foods, and many other products. It is used in personal care products as a humectant (preventing things from drying out) in spite of the fact that it is recognized as a neurotoxin by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, and the EPA requires workers to wear protective gloves, clothing and goggles when working with it. The Material Safety Data Sheet states “may be toxic to the central nervous system”, “may cause reproductive and fetal effects” and “prolonged exposure can produce target organs damage”. Different studies have concluded that it causes skin dehydration and thickening of the skin (Derm. Beruf Umwelt, Jul/Aug, 1988), contact dermatitis (American Academy of Dermatologists, January, 1991), and alters cell membranes (Human Reproduction, Feb 1990). In Europe, it’s limited to very restricted non-food uses.
Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA)
These are solvents, emulsifiers and wetting agents, and are found in many personal products and cosmetics such as facial cleaners, soaps, skin lotions, bubble baths, shampoos, conditioners, eye gels, moisturizers, shaving foam, laundry detergent, etc. The MSDS for DEA states that it causes skin and eye irritation, may cause blood, liver and kidney damage, and may also form cancer causing nitrosamines. Studies in baby mice show that DEA inhibits the absorption of choline, which is required for brain development. DEA and TEA in combination with preservatives can form nitrosamines, which numerous studies have linked to cancer.
TEA is classified as a Schedule 3 substance by the Chemical Weapons Convention since it can be used to manufacture nitrogen mustard (cytotoxic chemotherapy agents similar to mustard gas).
Look out for Cocamide DEA, Cocamide Diethanolamine, DEA Lauryl Sulfate, Diethanolamine Lauryl Sulfate, Lauramide DEA, Lauramide Diethanolamine, Linoleamide DEA, Linoleamide Diethanolamine, Oleamide DEA, Oleamide Diethanolamine, TEA or Triethanolamine on product labels.
DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea and Imidazolidinyl Urea
Preservatives found in many personal products that have been found to release formaldehyde. You can find it in cosmetics, shampoos and conditioners, bubble baths, baby wipes, skin care products and detergents. Exposure to formaldehyde may cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections, chronic fatigue, dizziness and loss of sleep. They may be listed as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, Diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium 15.
Synthetic (and artificial) anything is bad news in my opinion, and synthetic fragrances are found everywhere, not only in tons of cosmetics and personal products, but also in many household products (candles, room fresheners, scented trash bags). Synthetic fragrances consists of hundreds to thousands different ingredients, not listed separately on the label, so you can never be sure what it is you are exposed to, but phthalates are commonly found. In 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins. Watch out for “synthetic fragrance”, or just “fragrance” on the label. Organically (or even better, biodynamically) produced essential oils are the safe alternative.
A synthetic antibacterial agent found in tons of personal and household products such as soap, mouthwash, shaving cream, toothpaste, deodorants, plastic cutting boards, shoe insoles, cleaning supplies, bedding, trash bags, socks, etc. By now, we’re all aware that using antibacterials on a regular basis can lead to an increase in antibiotics-resistant bacteria, but triclosan is bad on so many levels. Research has shown it is an endocrine disruptor, liver and inhalation toxicant, may disrupt thyroid function, and can degrade into a form of dioxin, a class of chemicals linked to a broad range of toxicities including cancer (Lores 2005). Triclosan was also found in 58% of 85 streams across the U.S (Kolpin 2002), and studies show that triclosan in tap water can react with residual chlorine from standard water disinfecting procedures to form a variety of chlorinated byproducts at low levels, including chloroform, a suspected human carcinogen (Fiss 2007).
This is unfortunately not the be all and end all list of bad ingredients, but these are among the worst. Keep an eye out and make sure you study labels closely so you can avoid these toxic substances as much as possible.
For a list of toxic ingredients in household and cleaning products, check out my “10 Toxic Cleaning Product Ingredients And How They May Harm You” post.