Toxic Beauty

WRITTEN BY Nancy Palermo Lietz, MD

Putting on makeup shouldn’t be like playing with matches.

The average woman may place 15–20 beauty products on herself, exposing her body to up to 170 different ingredients daily. Recent studies suggest we may acquire more toxins through skin absorption and inhalation than through the food we eat. This raises new interest in many beauty care products known to contain potential toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.

There is growing interest among consumers to eat organic foods free of processing and pesticides, yet they appear to be ignoring the impact of their personal care products on their health and well-being. The skin is the body’s largest organ, so there is more surface area to absorb synthetic, toxic chemicals. Incidentally, many beauty care products are designed to penetrate the skin’s exterior barrier more readily getting the toxins into the bloodstream within minutes!

Most consumers assume that if a product contains a potentially dangerous chemical, a manufacturer would avoid using it, or at the very least would notify the public of potential concerns.

The truth is the federal government does not require companies to provide full disclosure on what chemicals are used in their products, and manufacturers are allowed self-regulation.

There are more than 80,000 chemicals used in everyday skin products, and U.S. researchers report one in every eight include carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins or hormone disrupters. At least 1,300 of these chemicals have been banned in Europe because of their suspected risks, yet the U.S. has only banned eight of them. These concerns have led researchers to develop “The Dirty Dozen” of beauty care products, isolating the top 12 chemicals found in everyday products that are of real concern. The list can be found on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database.

Consumers are encouraged to buy beauty care products that are deemed holistic and organic by third-party testing. These products should be shown to be free of toxic chemicals, SLS, phthalates, parabens, gluten, artificial colors and fragrances. While this recommendation is not easy and may be more expensive in the short term, the long-term effects may be life changing. While purchasing such products is challenging, consumers should at least aim to use products devoid of the most dangerous chemicals.

Some of the most concerning chemicals found in beauty products are listed below. Use this list as a guide to clean out your drawers and closets and replace dangerous products with safer alternatives.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate

Used in products that foam, like shampoos, shower gels, bubble baths and toothpastes, SLS not only damages the immune system but also causes separation of skin layers causing inflammation and chronic skin irritation.

Tricosolam and Triclocarban

These ingredients are used in antibacterial products. They are pesticides and suspected of causing cancer and disrupting human reproductive systems. These dangerous compounds have been banned from hand soaps but are still present in acne washes and treatments and body washes (and believe it or not, toothpastes).

Parabens (also referred to as methyl paraben, isobutylparaben, propylparaben, and others)

These chemicals are used to prevent bacteria and mold growth. They are known endocrine disruptors and have been shown to alter hormone mechanisms in the body. They are believed to be carcinogenic and have been found in the majority of breast cancer tissue. Usually found in shampoos, face cleansers, body wash, body lotion, deodorants and foundations.

Phthalates (also referred to as synthetic flavor or fragrance)

These chemicals, often listed under “perfume,” are engineered scents and flavors which are known hormone disruptors and allergens. Fragrance formulas are protected by federal laws as “trade secrets,” so it is difficult to know all the potential effects. Found in many different products.

1,4-Dioxane (also referred to as myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, PEG, Polyethylene, Polyethylene glycol and polyoxyethylene)

This chemical is a known carcinogen and has been deemed “carcinogenic” in the state of California. It is also suspected to be toxic to the kidneys, respiratory system and nervous system. This chemical is common in many personal care products listed as “natural” and “organic.”

Formaldehydes and DMDM and Imidazolidinyl (Urea)

These chemicals are used in products as preservatives. They are known carcinogens and are also linked to asthma and allergies, neurotoxicity and depression, and chronic joint pain and inflammation. Commonly found in shampoos, bubble bath and body wash.


These chemical additives are used as synthetic preservatives to extend shelf life. They are believed to be carcinogens, hormone disruptors and may cause liver damage. They are commonly found in lipsticks, moisturizers, diaper creams and other cosmetics.

Ethanolamines (MEA Monoethanolamine/DEA Diethanolamine/TEA Triethanolamine)

These chemicals are hormone disrupting and can form cancer-causing nitrates when combined with other chemicals commonly found in personal care products. They have been banned in Europe because of studies suggesting their link to allergies, skin toxicity and inhibited fetal brain development. They are commonly found in hair dyes, mascara, foundation, fragrances, sunscreens and pharmaceuticals. 

Coal tar dyes and other coal tar ingredients

These chemicals are a byproduct of coal processing. They are derived from petroleum and are known carcinogens and may be contaminated with heavy metals like mercury and aluminum. They are found in hair dyes and anti-dandruff products.

While it is impossible to remove all toxic chemicals from daily use, any reduction will have a significant impact on overall toxic load. Our bodies can detoxify and remove harmful ingredients if not overloaded, so by simply switching to daily use products devoid of these known toxins consumers will be taking positive preventative measures.

Don’t put it on your skin if you wouldn’t put it in your mouth.

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