How Safe Are Your Personal Care Products? Part One

Are you aware that your bath products, fragrances, lipstick, lotions, men’s personal care products, nail products, etc., contain chemicals that you don’t want or need? When you buy these products do you read the list of ingredients to make sure they don’t contain chemicals that are dangerous?

If you are aware and look for natural and organic products – you need to know that there are no legal standards for organic or natural personal care products sold in the United States.

This means that companies can, and often do use these terms as marketing gimmicks. For example, the top selling shampoo in the United States is Clairol Herbal Essences, which until recently claimed to offer users an “organic experience.” However, there isn’t much about this product that is either herbal or organic. It contains more than a dozen synthetic petrochemicals and has been given a moderate toxicity rating by

Even top-selling brands in the natural products sector have been found to contain 1,4-dioxane, a synthetic carcinogenic chemical is listed below with other chemicals you need to avoid:


Use: Facial Creams
Danger: Linked to mammary tumors


Use: Hidden in ingredients, such as, PEG, poly-sorbate, laureth, ethoxylated alcohols.
Dangers: These chemicals are often contaminated with high concentrations of 1,4-dioxane that is easily absorbed through the skin. Its carcinogenicity was first noted in 1965, and later confirmed in studies, including one from the National Cancer Institute in 1978.

Mineral Oil, Paraffin & Petrolatum:

Use: Lubricant in thousands of personal care products.
Danger: These petroleum products coat the skin, clog the pores and can wind up in the bloodstream being carried to the liver and clogging it, too. Inorganic minerals in petroleum products are not easily broken down and can lead to earlier signs of aging.; as they disrupt hormonal activity. Avoid any product with any ingredient in it with the pre-fix petrol-.


Use: Heavily used preservatives in cosmetics industry. Used in an estimated 13,000 skin care products.
Dangers: Studies implicate their connection to cancer, because their hormone-disrupting qualities mimic estrogen and could disrupt the body’s Endrocrine System.

Phenol Carbolic Acid:

Use: Lotions and Skin Creams
Dangers: Can cause circulatory collapse, paralysis, convulsions, coma, even death from respiratory failure.

Propylene Glycol:

Use: Common cosmetic moisturizer and carrier for fragrance oils.
Dangers: May cause dermatitis and skin irritations. May inhibit skin cell growth. It is also linked to kidney and liver problems.

Sodium Laurel or Laurel Sulfate (SLS). Also known as, Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES):

Use: Found in 90% of personal care products.
Dangers: Breakdown skin’s moisture barrier, leading to dry skin/premature aging. And because they easily penetrate your skin, they can allow other chemicals easy access. SLS combined with other chemicals may become a “nitrosamine”, a potent carcinogen.


Use: Found in synthetic fragrances. Made from petroleum and tars.
Dangers: Chronic exposure linked to anemia, lowered blood cell count. Liver or kidney damage. May affect developing fetus in pregnancy.

Let’s look at Bath Products:

Does baby shampoo or Your Shampoo need to contain cancer-causing chemicals?
No – but it often does. Product tests released by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in March 2009 found two known carcinogens, 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde in dozens of bath products for babies and kids, including Sesame Street character brands and even the iconic “pure and gentle’ Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo.

This report followed up on test results released in February 2007, which found the chemical 1,4-dioxane in 18 popular baby soaps, bubble baths and shampoos. None of the products tested in either round listed 1,4-dioxane or formaldehyde on the label.

Why do products contain these chemicals? 1.4-dioxane is a byproduct of a petrochemical process called ethyoxylation, which involves using ethylene oxide (a known breast carcinogen) to process other chemicals in order to make them less harsh. For example, sodium laurel sulfate – notoriously harsh on the skin – is often converted to the gentler chemical sodium laureth sulfate by processing it with ethylene oxide (the “eth” denotes ethoxylation) which can result in 1,4-dioxane contamination. Sodium laureth sulfate is just one example. More than 50 cosmetic ingredients are associated with the contaminant 1,4-dioxane.

Formaldehyde contaminates personal care products when common preservatives release formaldehyde over time in the container. Common ingredients likely to contaminate products with formaldehyde include quaternion-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea. in May 2009 delivered a letter to Johnson & Johnson asking for safe products, which was signed by 40 groups representing more than a million nurses, physicians, moms and environmental advocates. An August 2008 lawsuit had been filed by the California Attorney General’s office against several companies for making products with toxic levels of 1,4-dioxane.

The good news. Many companies in the natural products industry are quitting the ethoxylation habit. New standards such as Whole Foods Premium Body Care Seal do not allow ethoxylation, and many companies have been quietly reformulating to replace chemicals such as sodium laureth sulfate that are associated with 1,4-dioxane.

What can you do? Avoid using products that may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, including sodium myreth sulfate, PEG compounds and chemicals that include the clauses “xynol,” “ceteareth” and “oleth.” Similarly, avoid products that contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, including quaternion-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea.

Next Up, let’s check out Fragrances:

What’s that smell? Unfortunately there’s no way to know. Fragrance is considered a trade secret, so companies don’t need to tell us what is in it.

What’s really in the bottle? How about:

Allergens and sensitizers: One in every 50 people may suffer immune system damage from fragrance and become sensitized, according to the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products. Once sensitized to an ingredient, a person can remain so for a lifetime, enduring allergic reactions with every subsequent exposure, Fragrances are considered among the top five known allergens and are known to both cause and trigger asthma attacks.

Phthalates: This class of chemicals has been linked to hormone disruption, which can affect fetus development and fertility. Although some phthalates are being phased out of cosmetics under consumer pressure, diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still being used in many products, including fragrances. In 2010, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found DEP in 12 out of 17 fragrance products. Product tests by Consumer’s Reports Shop Smart magazine in January 2007 found the phthalates DEP and DEHP (which is banned in Europe) in each of eight popular perfumes tested. DEP is a ubiquitous pollutant of the human body, found in 97 percent of Americans tested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent epidemiological studies have associated DEP with a range of health problems, including sperm damage. Most fragrances don’t list phthalates on the label, but hide them under the term “fragrance.

Neurotoxins: As far back as 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins (chemicals that are toxic to the brain) that should be thoroughly investigated for impacts on human health. However, this research has not been funded. The FDA has taken no action on a petition submitted to the agency in 1999 requesting fragrance components to be listed on the labels.

Synthetic musks: A 2009 study of Austrian college students found that those who used the most perfume and scented lotion also had the highest levels of synthetic musks, including Galaxolide and Tonalide, in their blood. Research by the Environmental Working Group has even found synthetic musks in the umbilical cord blood of newborn U.S. infants. Preliminary research suggests that musks may disrupt hormones. Both Galaxolide and Tonalide can bind to and stimulate human estrogen receptors and have been shown to affect androgen and progesterone receptors. Tonalide has also been reported to increase the proliferation of estrogen-responsive human breast cancer cells. These musks have an environmental impact – they have been found to be toxic to aquatic life in numerous studies and can accumulate in the food chain.

What You Can Do:

* Choose products with no added fragrance. Check out Skin Deep advanced search to find products that do not include fragrance.

Read labels, because even products advertised as “fragrance-free” may contain a masking fragrance>

* Less is better. If you are very attached to your fragrance, consider eliminating other fragranced products from your routine – and using your fragrance less often. Also, know that the stronger the fragrance the more likely it is to contain phthalates.

* Remember Synthetic fragrances can contain as many as 200 ingredients that manufacturers are not required to disclose. Look for products that explicitly say “no synthetic fragrances” or “natural essential oil fragrance only,” or try to buy from companies that have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.

Help pass smarter, health-protective laws. Contact your Representative and your senators to let them know you are concerned about these dangerous chemicals in your personal care products.

This is such a big subject that I needed to break it up into two parts. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please email me:

Have a happy, healthy and productive week.

Healthfully Yours,

Barbara Charis


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