Toxic ingredients to avoid in cosmetics
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), 80% of all beauty products may be contaminated with one or more of the two dozen recognised cosmetic impurities that are linked to cancer and other health concerns. With the average woman exposing herself to 168 different chemicals through her 12 personal care products each day⁽¹⁾, we’ve compiled a list of the top toxic ingredients to look out for.
Note: All listed chemicals and statistics in this blog post are referencing ingredients that are legally accepted for cosmetic use within Europe. The U.S Food & Drug Administration (FDA) who are responsible for regulating cosmetics in the USA are even less restricted, with only 11 chemicals banned for use in cosmetics, as apposed to Europe having banned more than 1,300. I recommend extra caution with (I personally completely avoid) cosmetics manufactured in the US.
In no particular order:
1. ‘FRAGRANCE’ / ‘PARFUM’
Background - According to EU cosmetic labelling regulations, “materials used as solvents or carriers for perfume and aromatic compositions” do not need to be identified on the ingredients list. This means companies are able to hide multiple chemicals under the listing ‘parfum’ or ‘aroma’ (in the EU) or ‘fragrance’ (in the USA), all because they’re deemed trade secrets.
The risk - The International Fragrance Association has published a list of more than 3000 chemicals currently used under the term ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’. 1 in 20 of these earned a ‘high’ hazard score according to the EWG, with risks such as organ system toxicity, ecotoxicology, endocrine disruption and irritation to skin, eyes, or lungs⁽²⁾.
Typical products - Fragrance ingredients are common in virtually all types of beauty products.
Avoid - all products with ‘fragrance’, ‘parfum’ or ‘aroma’ as an ingredient, and opt for transparency with your products. Manufacturers can and should choose to disclose ALL ingredients that are in their products.
2. PETROLEUM-BASED INGREDIENTS
Petroleum-based ingredients come in many forms and are extremely common in mass-produced skincare products. They contain penetration enhancing qualities that provide instant relief from dry skin, as the product is able to reach the skins deeper layers. However, they weaken the skin’s barrier and thin the skin, damaging your skins natural ability to create its own sebum and regenerate new skin cells effectively. One study⁽³⁾ demonstrates how aqueous cream BP, the most widely prescribed product for eczema treatment, actually reduces the thickness of healthy skin by more than 10% over just 4 weeks use. This would lead to severe dryness and skin that is vulnerable to environmental damage - shocking considering they are often medically prescribed and intended to moisturise the skin.
Another major concern is that petroleum-based ingredients are often contaminated with the toxic compound 1,4 dioxane, which is a human carcinogen ⁽⁴⁾⁽⁵⁾⁽⁶⁾⁽⁷⁾⁽⁸⁾. An alarming study by the EWG found that 22 percent of all conventional cosmetic products contain unsafe levels of 1,4 dioxane. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we should limit our exposure to 0.28 ppm (parts per million)⁽⁷⁾, and the Scientific Committee on consumer safety (SCCS) is of the opinion that more than 10ppm in cosmetic products is unsafe⁽⁹⁾, but a study found 1,4 dioxane in cosmetic products in concentrations up to 279ppm, and in excess of 85ppm in children’s shampoos⁽¹⁰⁾. Studies also show that 1,4 dioxane readily penetrates the skin, impairing our skin’s barrier, and increasing the likelihood that the product, including the toxicity of the ingredients, will end up in your bloodstream⁽¹¹⁾.
As well as often being contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, these different petroleum based ingredients carry further risks:
* PEGs (Polyethylene glycols) - INCI: Paraffinum Liquidum. AKA - mineral oil, liquid paraffin, paraffin wax. Widely used as moisturisers and thickeners, and functions as a ‘penetration enhancer’⁽¹²⁾, permeating the skin’s layers and allowing greater absorption of the ingredients. Unfortunately our bodies cannot metabolise these PEGs, meaning once it’s in our system, it’s there for good and accumulates with continued use⁽¹³⁾. “There is strong evidence that mineral oil hydrocarbons are the greatest contaminant of the human body, amounting to approximately 1g per person” (14). One study found a correlation between use of hand creams and lipsticks in daily life and mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons being found in fat and milk samples of females⁽¹⁴⁾. It’s also been documented that Paraffin Liquidum is a toxicant to our DNA⁽¹⁵⁾⁽¹⁶⁾, our immune system, respiratory system⁽¹⁷⁾, and can increase the risk of developing Rheumatoid Arthritis by 30%⁽¹⁸⁾. Unfortunately PEGs have also been shown to be toxic to aqualife, with a study on amphibians reporting neurotoxicity and oxidative stress from water polluted with PEG polymers⁽¹⁹⁾.
* Ethoxylated ingredients - As well as PEGs being an ethoxylated ingredient, other examples include SLS, SLES, phenoxyethanol and ceteareth-20. Not only are these ingredients contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, but they are also processed with Ethylene Oxide, which remain in the ingredient after processing. Ethylene Oxide is classed as a known human carcinogen⁽²⁰⁾ and studies report nervous system and developmental toxicity⁽²¹⁾.
Avoid - As 1,4 dioxane is a contaminant produced during the manufacture of other ingredients, it’s not something you’ll see on the list of ingredients. Instead, look out for these ingredients:
Any ingredient containing ‘eth’ or ‘xynol’ in the name (eg. Ceteareth, oleth)
Chemicals with PEG or PPG in their name (or written in full as polyethylene glycol, or polypropylene glycol)
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate
3. TOPICAL STEROIDS
Steroid based creams are widely prescribed to treat inflammatory dermatoses, such as eczema and psoriasis. Since the first topical steroids in the 1950s, concentrations have become up to 1000 times more potent⁽²²⁾. The anti inflammatory benefits are grossly negated by the skin thinning effects of the steroids, known as skin atrophy. A single application of a topical steroid can cause an ultrasonographically detectable decrease in skin thickness that lasts up to 3 days⁽²³⁾, and with continued use, more obvious changes in skin texture are considered permanent and resistant to treatment⁽²²⁾. You would notice thinner, ‘cigarette paper’ like skin that is much drier and wrinkled, due to the reduction in collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid⁽²⁴⁾. Ironically, this only worsens skin dermatitis and your skin’s ability to moisturise itself. Other symptoms include acne, rosacea, delayed wound healing and hypopigmentation.
Avoid: Hydrocortisone, clobetasone, fluticasone are a few examples. Steroids are always listed with a percentage to indicate concentration. If you see a percentage next to the active ingredient then it’s worth checking it’s not a steroid.
Retinol, an over the counter type of retinoid, is used to promote clear, wrinkle-reduced skin. However, with a toxicity rating of 9 out of 10 on EWG’s Skin Deep database, we believe it’s worth avoiding. The most common side effects are skin irritation, erythema (reddening of the skin and inflamed blood capillaries) and peeling⁽²⁵⁾⁽²⁶⁾. Retinoids affect the mucocutaneous membrane, decreasing the skin’s natural sebum production and reducing epidermal thickness, which can lead to dermatitis⁽²⁵⁾. The thinning of the skin and the increased cell turnover makes it highly phototoxic, which means it increases sensitivity to UV damage, causing increased production of free radicals in the skin in the presence of UV radiation and potentially leading to sun damage, such as hyperpigmentation and premature ageing⁽²⁷⁾.
As if that’s not enough, it’s also been linked to cancerous tumour formation, as well as developmental and reproductive toxicity⁽²⁸⁾⁽²⁹⁾.
Typical products - Suncreams, moisturising creams, serums, lip products and makeup.
Avoid - Retinol / retinyl palmitate / retinyl acetate / retinoic acid
Parabens are the most widely used preservative, found in an estimated 75 - 90% of cosmetics⁽³⁰⁾ and detected in virtually all Americans by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)⁽³¹⁾. The EU restricts the concentration of parabens in cosmetics, but knowing that the toxicity of parabens is accumulative, we think it’s important to avoid using them entirely. Parabens actually occur naturally in some foods, but are easily metabolised when eaten. The parabens found in cosmetics are a synthetic preparation derived from petrochemicals and are absorbed through the skin, bypassing the metabolic processes and entering the bloodstream and organs intact⁽³⁰⁾.
Studies have shown parabens to act like estrogen in the body, disrupting our hormone functions and reproductive systems with affects such as decreasing sperm count⁽³²⁾, decreasing menstrual cycle length and fertility⁽³³⁾, and increased odds of pre-term birth and decreased birth weight⁽³⁴⁾. Increased risk of cancer, especially breast cancer in women, is another concern of paraben exposure. Propylparaben can alter the expression of genes and accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells, Methylparaben can lead to UV-induced damage of skin cells, and Butylparaben can combine with other molecules in the body to promote the development of cancerous cells.
The environment also suffers with our use of parabens, as low levels of butylparaben parabens can kill coral⁽³⁵⁾.
Avoid - Check the INCI ingredients list (the full ingredients under the Latin names) and avoid any ingredient containing the word ‘paraben’. Eg. Ethylparaben or Isobutylparaben.
6. CHEMICAL SUN PROTECTION
There are two types of UV filters used in sun protection products - chemical and physical. The chemical filters absorb the UV rays, then convert it into heat and release it from the body, whereas the physical filters block and reflect the sun’s rays. The FDA has recently removed all of the 14 chemical sun protective ingredients from its ‘generally recognised as safe and effective’ (GRASE) category, with the 2 only physical filters, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, remaining GRASE. Though this is a positive step, the use of these chemical suncreams are still permitted so we recommend actively avoiding use. These are the most common:
Oxybenzone* - One of the most commonly used and the most worrisome according to current scientific research. It is readily absorbed through the skin⁽³⁶⁾⁽³⁷⁾, and has been found by the CDC in nearly all Americans, including in our breast milk⁽³⁸⁾. It’s categorised by the EU commission as an endocrine disrupter⁽³⁹⁾, affecting several bodily functions, including development and immune function, and increasing the risk of breast cancer⁽⁴⁰⁾. Researchers have found higher oxybenzone levels to cause a significant reduction in testosterone levels in adolescent boys⁽⁴¹⁾, and statistically significant associations between oxybenzone levels during pregnancy and birth outcomes, such as shorter pregnancies and affected birth weights⁽⁴²⁾.
It’s affect on reproduction is not limited to humans. Several countries have banned sun protection products with oxybenzone as it causes irreversible affects to aquatic life - it impairs the reproductivity of organisms, including coral and fish, and can ultimately cause sterilisation and extinction⁽⁴³⁾.
Octocrylene* - A study by the CNRS (France’s National scientific research centre), demonstrated that octocrylene degrades over time and then generates benzophenone, an endocrine disrupter and mutagenic that can cause cancer, dermatitis and affect fertility rates. Research has shown male partners with higher concentrations of benzophenone in their system have a 30% lower chance of conceiving⁽⁴⁴⁾. It is being urged to be banned and recalled within the European Parliament⁽⁴⁵⁾ but is still in question. It also appears to be a strong allergen that can cause contact dermatitis⁽⁴⁶⁾.
Avobenzone and Homosalate* - Other widely-used chemical filters that studies show are systematically absorbed into the body after one use and can disrupt our endocrine system. Avobenzone has been found to block the effects of testosterone⁽⁴⁷⁾, and homoslate has been found to produce toxic breakdown byproducts over time⁽⁴⁸⁾.
*All chemical filters, including these most commonly used, have the potential to hurt coral reefs⁽⁴⁹⁾. As the term ‘reef safe’ is in no way regulated we suggest ignoring this term and checking the INCI list.
The physical filters, minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, are the only recognised safe ingredients for sun care products, though powder and spray formulations are not recommended, as they pose a carcinogenic risk if inhalation occurs⁽⁵⁰⁾. We recommend always opting for creams, lotions or oils for your mineral sun care products!
Avoid - All products containing - Oxybenzone, Octocrylene, Avobenzone or Homosalate.
Background - Primarily used in the rubber industry, this toxicant is also a common ingredient in har dyes, peels and acne treatments. Though concentrations in the EU are restricted to 1.25% in cosmetic products, we still believe the multitude of potential side effects mean it’s worth avoiding entirely.
The risks - Numerous case studies, animal studies and in vitro studies demonstrate that resorcinol disrupts thyroid function which can result in an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) and enlargement of the thyroid gland known as a goiter⁽⁵¹⁾⁽⁵²⁾⁽⁵³⁾⁽⁵⁴⁾⁽⁵⁵⁾. The symptoms of an overactive thyroid include anxiety, fatigue, irregular heart rate, itchiness, hair loss and sever headaches. Resorcinol does this by inhibiting enzymes that are key in thyroid hormone synthesis and simultaneously activating thyroid hormone receptors.
It’s also a skin irritant and sensitiser, especially if it comes into contact with the eyes⁽⁵⁶⁾⁽⁵⁷⁾.
Typical products - Most common in hair colour and bleaching products. Also in peels and treatments for acne, eczema and other dermatological conditions.
Avoid - Read product labels to avoid products that contain ‘Resorcinol’, ‘1,3 - Benzenediol’ or ‘1,3 Dihydroxybenzene’ (‘m-hydroxybenze’, ‘m-dihydroxyphenol’).
These silicone-based compounds are used in cosmetics to give a smooth skin feel, cover small wrinkles and speed the drying of hair products. They’re mostly restricted in the EU for concentrations exceeding 0.1%, but we still think they’re worth avoiding completely as they have the ability to accumulate both in our bodies and the environment⁽⁵⁸⁾. In the environment, the liquid plastic polymers cause problems for sea life, and do not ever biodegrade. In the body, siloxanes are classified by the EU as endocrine disrupters and a possible toxicant to our reproductive and immune systems, that have been shown to impair fertility⁽⁵⁹⁾.
Typical products - Hair products, moisturisers, facial treatments, deodorants creams.
Avoid - Any ingredient ending in ‘cone’, ‘conol’, ‘col’ or ‘cane’, such as Dimethicone.
Background - We’ve all heard of the dangers of asbestos, but many cosmetics and baby products are contaminated with asbestos through the use of talc. According to a study from November 2020, 14% of makeup products containing talc were shown to also contain asbestos. Unfortunately, due to a lack of regulations, even certified asbestos-free talc is often contaminated⁽⁶⁰⁾.
Being the softest mineral on earth, talc is added to makeup and baby products to impart a silky texture and offer absorbency. 3 out of 4 children’s makeup products tested from Claire’s were found to have high levels of asbestos⁽⁶¹⁾, as well as the all too popular Johnson’s baby powder.
From Nov 2022, the EU have banned the use of talc in products intended for children under the age of 3. Though this is a positive step, we still have to be careful with makeup and skincare products intended for those above 3 years old. There’s no restriction of this ingredient in the U.S.
The risks - Asbestos poses high risks for respiratory toxicity and cancer, particularly mesothelioma and cancers of the lung, larynx and ovaries⁽⁶²⁾. In fact, it is thought that most mesotheliomas are due to asbestos exposure⁽⁶³⁾.
Typical products - Powdered makeup, deodorants, feminine hygiene products.
Avoid - As talc is a natural substance, looking for ‘all natural’ or ‘organic’ products isn’t sufficient. Avoid any products that contain talc as an ingredient and opt to support brands that refuse to use talc in any of their products.
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