Toxic Chemicals found in Products

Toxic Chemicals found in Products

Your skin is not an impenetrable shield. The skin is the largest human organ and the products you put on your skin also penetrate into your skin, and can have a profound impact on other human organs. When it comes to the sale of personal care products, it is not illegal for companies to include ingredients that are known or suspected to be carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins. These toxins are absorbed into our bloodstream through our skin.

Carcinogens: A substance or agent that can cause cells to become cancerous by altering their genetic structure so that they multiply continuously and become malignant. Asbestos, DDT, and tobacco smoke are examples of carcinogens.

Mutagens: Something that causes mutations in living things. Mutagens include chemicals, such as drugs or toxins, and radiation.

Reproductive Toxins: Reproductive toxins are chemicals that can damage the reproductive systems of both men and women. Exposure to these agents before conception can produce a wide range of adverse effects including reduced fertility, an abnormal fetus, reduced libido, or menstrual dysfunction. Maternal exposure after conception may cause prenatal death, low birth weight, birth defects, developmental and/or behavioral disabilities, and cancer.

A recent surge of media attention reveals new concerns about detrimental ingredients that are affecting our physical health. An article in USA Weekend says: “The EPA is increasing research on dozens of synthetic chemicals (pesticides, plastics, and industrial pollutants) that may be juggling your hormone signals. After reviewing nearly 300 studies, the EPA concluded that ingredients in shampoos, dyes, and other everyday products may be playing havoc with hormones that control reproduction…”

Of the hundreds of toxic chemicals used, the following is a list of the common chemicals to look out for in personal and skin care products.

FD&C Color Pigments

According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, “….many [pigments] cause skin sensitivity and irritation….and absorption [of certain colors] can cause depletion of oxygen in the body, and death.” In Home Safe Home, author Debra Lynn Dadd says that “….colors that can be used in foods, drugs, and cosmetics….are made from coal tar. There is a great deal of controversy about their use, because animal studies have shown almost all of them to be carcinogenic.”


Most deodorants, shampoos, sunscreens, skin care, body care, and baby products contain fragrance. Many of the compounds in fragrances are carcinogenic or otherwise toxic. “Fragrance on a label can indicate the presence of up to 4,000 separate ingredients. Most, or all, of them are synthetic. Symptoms reported to the FDA have included headaches, dizziness, rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing and vomiting, and allergic skin irritation. Clinical observation by medical doctors has shown that hyperactivity, irritability, inability to cope, and other behavioral changes.”


A recent report is questioning the safety of the most common group of cosmetic preservatives called “parabens”. Researchers from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry of Brunel University in the United Kingdom have conducted a study and found that the parabens, alkyl hydroxy parabens and alpha hydroxy benzoate (methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butyl-paraben) are weakly estrogenic. In other words, these preservatives have the ability to mimic estrogen in the body with butyl-paraben being the most potent. “It is estimated that 99 percent of all cosmetic and body care products contain some form of the paraben preservatives. If this is the case, other safe alternatives need to be developed for widespread use in the cosmetics industry. Be a smart shopper and look for paraben-free products.”

Alcohol (Isopropyl)

As a solvent and denaturant (a poisonous substance that changes another substance’s natural qualities), alcohol is found in hair color rinses, body rubs, hand lotions, after-shave lotions, fragrances, and many other cosmetics and personal care products. A petroleum-derived substance, it is also used in antifreeze and as a solvent in shellac and diluted essential oils. According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, ingestion or inhalation of the vapor may cause headaches, flushing dizziness, mental depressions, nausea, vomiting, narcosis, anesthesia, and coma. The fatal ingested dose is one ounce.

DEA (Diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine), & TEA (triethanolamine)

Often used in cosmetics to adjust the pH, and used with many fatty acids to convert acid to salt (stearate), which then becomes the base for a cleanser. TEA causes allergic reactions including eye problems, dryness of hair and skin, and could be toxic if absorbed into the body over a long period of time. These chemicals are already restricted in Europe due to known carcinogenic effects. Dr. Samuel Epstein (Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Illinois) says that repeated skin applications . . . of DEA-based detergents resulted in a major increase in the incidence of liver and kidney cancer. According to Dr. Epstein, “In studies by the National Toxicology Program, to induce cancer of the liver and kidney when applied to the skin of mice, it was shown to be readily absorbed through the skin and to accumulate in organs. After this clear-cut study which was released by the National Toxicology Program, you would expect that the mainstream industry to have acted on this and to replace DEA. Unfortunately that has not happened yet. There’s been a denial and an attempt to trivialize the risk.


Also known as mineral oil jelly, liquid vaseline, paraffinum, liquidum and baby oil. Can cause photosensitivity and strips the natural oils from the skin causing chapping and dryness, also premature ageing. Prevents elimination of toxins, can cause acne and other disorders.

Propylene Glycol

A petroleum derivative, it penetrates the skin quickly and can weaken protein and cellular structure. It is a strong skin irritant. A cosmetic form of mineral oil found in automatic brake and hydraulic fluid, and industrial antifreeze. Strong enough to remove barnacles from boats. In skin and hair care products, propylene glycol works as a humectant, which is a substance that retains the moisture content of skin or cosmetic products by preventing the escape of moisture or water. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) warn users to avoid skin contact with propylene glycol as this strong skin irritant can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage. Found in body lotions, deodorant, hair conditioner, hair gel, creams, and many more products. Molecular weight is 60. (Ingredients with molecular weight of 75 or lower enters our blood stream)

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS)

A skin irritants. Used in car washes, garage floor cleaners and engine degreasers – and in 90% of products that foam. It is rapidly absorbed and retained in the eyes, brain, heart, and liver, which may result in harmful long-term effects. SLS could retard healing, cause cataracts in adults, and keep children’s eyes from developing properly because proteins are dissolved. In fact, studies have shown that washing your hair one time with a shampoo containing Sodium Lauryl Sulfate could put as many nitrates into your bloodstream as eating a whole pound of bacon. Animals exposed to SLS and ALS experience eye damage, central nervous system depression, laboured breathing, diarrhea, severe skin irritation, and even death. SLS and ALS may also damage the skin’s immune system by causing layers to separate and inflame. Molecular weight of SLS is 40. (Ingredients with a molecular weight of 75 or lower enters our blood stream)

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

This synthetic substance is found in most shampoos, manufacturers use it for it’s detergent and foam producing properties also because it is cheap. Sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium acetyl sulfate are synthetics used in shampoos for their detergent and foam-building properties. “Contaminated with a very potent carcinogen, dioxane and very easily absorbed through the skin,” states Dr. Epstein. SLES is the alcohol form (ethoxylated) of SLS. It is slightly less irritating than SLS, but may cause more drying. Large amounts of nitrates may enter the blood system from just one shampooing.

The largest organism in our body is the skin and most of what is consumed into the body is through the skin.

The majority of skincare products today have one or more chemicals that can be harmful to the body. The products you put on your skin penetrate into your skin, and can have a profound impact on other human organs.

When shopping, here is a simple rule. Read Labels and be a smart shopper. Buy products from companies that disclose all ingredients. Since most companies aren’t required to make their ingredients public and many choose to not. Natural Products are likely to be as equally effective — your hair will be just as smooth, your cheeks just as bright — but without the hazardous side affects.

Kshamica Nimalasuriya MD, MPH
Preventive Medicine & Public Health

This research information is for informational and educational purposes only. Please consult a health care professional regarding the applicability of any opinion or recommendations with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.

These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and no statement should be construed as a claim for cure, treatment or prevention of any disease.

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