Sixteen Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients To Avoid

Consumer choice is a powerful thing.

Say "jump or I'll spend my cash somewhere else" and you'll set executives scrambling to use one another as makeshift human trampolines. It's for this reason and this reason alone—at least for the major corporations—that we're seeing such a proliferation of products cheerily proclaiming that they're BPA-free. Well, parabens are the bisphenol-A of the beauty industry, from the scary headlines to the happy proclamations that beam at you when a product has kicked them to the curb.

But parabens aren't the only nasty no-no to avoid. Here are seven other toxic ingredients that regularly hitch a ride on cosmetics and skincare products. Pay heed to these red flags the next time you're out shopping.

Examine the fine print of most personal-care product labels and you're bound to find "fragrance" (or, if you want to get fancy, "parfum").
Because they're considered trade secrets, fragrances fall into a colossal loophole in federal law that doesn't require companies to disclose the potentially hundreds of chemicals in a single product's olfactory-tickling formula.
This simple term can obscure hinky substances tied to myriad health problems, from allergies to endocrine disruption. In 2002, three-quarters of the 72 products tested by the Environmental Working Group contained phthalates, plasticizer chemicals linked to birth defects, feminization of infant boys, liver and kidney damage, and infertility.

Polyethelene Glycol (PEG)
Polyethylene glycol, better known by its acronym, PEG, isn't a single ingredient but a class of ethylene glycol polymers that moisturize, keep products stable, and enhance the penetration of other ingredients, both good and bad.
PEGs are typically followed by a number correlating to how many units of ethylene glycol they comprise, in the form of say PEG-4 or PEG-100; the lower the number, the more easily the compound is absorbed into the skin.

While PEGs can be mild irritants, they're less than desirable primarily because they help traffic funky chemicals across your epidermis, including a slug of impurities they're often contaminated with. According to a report in the International Journal of Toxicology by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, pollutants found in various PEG compounds include ethylene oxide (used to manufacture mustard gas), 1,4-dioxane, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and heavy metals (lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, cadmium, arsenic).

Largely untested, these extremely minuscule particles are usually undeclared on product labels, even though they can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. In addition to bronzers, eye shadows, and lotions, you can also find them lurking in a large number of sunscreens that use micronized particles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which form physical barriers against UV rays. It's on this battlefield that the "nano wars" are at their most feverish.

Although the EWG, after poring over 400 peer-reviewed studies, concluded that the benefits of small-scale zinc and titanium sunscreen ingredients outweighed the potential risks, a recent report by Friends of the Earth, Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports), and International Center for Technology Assessment had a different take. "Consumers must be aware that nanomaterials are being put into sunscreens with very little evidence about their safety and relative efficacy," notes Ian Illuminato, one of the report's co-authors, citing a 2007 Consumer Reports test that the EWG found at odds with its own investigation—at least for liquid sunscreens.
Powdered sunscreens or sprays, which can be inhaled, are a whole different story, however. The high surface area—and high reactivity—of tiny particles of zinc and titanium can provoke inflammatory responses, oxidative stress, and cell damage.

A ubiquitous preservative, even in products touted as "all-natural" or "organic," phenoxyethanol is classified as an irritant by the European Union and a restricted substance in Japanese cosmetics. According to its Material Safety Data Sheet, which refers to 100 percent concentration, phenoxyethanol is not only harmful if inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin, but it can also cause reproductive defects and nervous system damage. In cosmetics, concentrations are typically less than 1 percent, but your exposure to the ingredient could be compounded depending on how often it rears its head in the products you use.

Let's put it this way, if phenoxyethanol is awful enough for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has a spotty record at best when it comes to championing public interest, to put out a consumer alert warning that it can "depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea" in infants, it's probably wise to steer clear of this bad boy.

Oh, where to begin? This gelatinous substance, also known as petroleum jelly, is derived from crude oil. Its popularity as an emollient largely stems from its extremely low cost. (Vaseline, for instance, is pure petrolatum.) There are cosmetic reasons to eschew the goop: The oily film that sits on the surface of your skin can aggravate acne and slow down cell turnover (read: cause you to prematurely age). But beyond that, petrolatum is also particularly susceptible to contamination by baddie chemicals like 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen, no thanks to unregulated manufacturing procedures.

In any case, Canada isn't a fan: Beyond the border, Environment Canada classifies the substance as a possible carcinogen, a possible mutagen, and a suspected environmental toxin.

A skin-bleaching ingredient, hydroquinone is banned in Japan, the European Union, and Australia, but it’s still in use in the United States and other countries worldwide.
Hydroquinone is found not only in Asian and African skin-lightening products, but in creams to lighten age-spots as well. There’s some evidence that hydroquinone is a carcinogen, and is linked to ochnronosis, a condition in which grayish brown spots and bumps occur on the skin.

Parabens are chemical preservatives added to personal care products for extending shelf life, and widely used in tens of thousand types of cosmetic products today. Four main parabens are in use: methyl, ethyl, propyl and butylparabens; many products will have 2 or more of these chemicals as part of a preservative system. Even the definition of parabens is scary, as it states, “…May alter hormone levels, possibly increasing risks for certain types of cancer, impaired fertility, or alteration of the development of a fetus or young child. Parabens are Endocrine disruptors: They are suspected of presenting risks to the reproductive system that could include reduced chances for a healthy, full-term pregnancy, or for becoming pregnant, based on laboratory studies or studies of human populations…”

Sodium laurel/laureth sulfate
One of the first ingredients to make nono news, this chemical is used in the auto industry as an engine degreaser. Derived from petroleum (more on that below), and frequently disguised in pseudo-natural cosmetics with the phrase “comes from/derived from Coconuts”, it can cause eye and skin irritation, skin flaking similar to dandruff and other allergic reactions. In cosmetics, it’s used to make big bubbles: shampoo, soaps, toothpaste, bubble bath, hand soaps and body washes are the typical forms. And it can combine with other ingredients in packaging to form nitrosamines, which is released into the product (translation: formaldehyde!).

Used to soften plastics and create fragrances. These difficult to pronounce chemicals are toxic and regulated under environmental law. They interfere with the male reproductive organs by blocking androgens – male hormones – and are known to damage sperm, reduce fertility, and are especially dangerous to developing fetuses. Pregnant women should avoid dibutyl phthalate in nail polish. Phthalates are frequently components of fragrance, which often contain dozens of chemicals – the entire mixture simply appears as “fragrance” on the ingredient list. So reading labels cannot assure there are no phthalates in a product.Often listed as: Fra
grance, Dibutyl Phthalate(s), Diethyl Phthalate, 1,2-Benzenedicaroxylic Acid, Dibutyl Ester, Dibutyl 1,2-Benzenedicarboxylate, Dibutyl Ester1,2- Benzenedicaroxylic Acid, DBP, and DI-N-Butylphthalate. Pthalates have been banned across Europe, and some large American manufacturers have recently removed the chemical from their nailpolishes.

1,4-Dioxane is a known animal carcinogen and a possible human carcinogen that can appear as a contaminant in products containing sodium laureth sulfate and ingredients that include the terms "PEG," "-xynol," "ceteareth," "oleth" and most other ethoxylated "eth" ingredients. The FDA monitors products for the contaminant but has not yet recommended an exposure limit. Manufacturers can remove dioxane through a process called vacuum stripping, but a small amount usually remains. A 2007 survey by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that most children's bath products contain 10 parts per million or less, but an earlier 2001 survey by the FDA found levels in excess of 85 parts per million.

Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea
These are the most commonly used preservatives after the parabens. They are well established as a primary cause of contact dermatitis (American Academy of Dermatology). Two trade names for these chemicals are Germall II and Germall 115. Neither of the Germall chemicals have a good antifungal, and must be combined with other preservatives. Germall 115 releases formaldehyde at just over 10°. These chemicals are toxic.

Propylene glycol (PG) & butylene glycol
Found in antifreeze. Acts as a “surfactant” (wetting agent and solvent). Penetrates skin and weakens protein and cellular structure. Strong enough to remove barnacles from boats. The EPA considers PG so toxic that workers are required to wear protective clothing and to dispose of PG by burying it in the ground. PG penetrates the skin so quickly, the EPA warns against contact to prevent brain, liver, and kidney abnormalities. But there isn’t even a warning label on products such as stick deodorants, where the concentration is greater than in most industrial applications.

Synthetic “anti-bacterial” with a chemical structure similar to Agent Orange. The EPA registers it as a pesticide, giving it highest scores as a risk to human health and the environment. It may produce dioxin, a hormone disrupting chemical with toxic effects measured in the parts per trillion; that is only one drop in 300 Olympic-size swimming pools! Hormone disruptors pose enormous long term chronic health risks. It can change genetic material, decrease fertility and sexual function, and foster birth defects. Stored in body fat, it can accumulate to toxic levels, damaging the liver, kidneys, and lungs. It can also cause paralysis, brain hemorrhages and heart problems. Tufts University School of Medicine says triclosan can force the emergence of “super bugs” that we cannot kill. Its widespread use in antibacterial cleansers, toothpastes and household products may have nightmarish implications on future generations.
Alcohol, isopropyl (SD-40)
Drying, irritating solvent that strips skin’s moisture and immune barrier, making you vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. Made from a petroleum derivative found in shellac and antifreeze as well as personal care products. Promotes brown spots and premature aging. A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients says it may cause headaches, flushing, dizziness, mental depression, nausea, vomiting, and coma. Fatal ingested dose is one ounce or less.

Imidazolidinyl urea & DMDM hydantoin
Often used as preservatives, both these chemicals release formaldehyde, which can be toxic.
They can be found in shampoos, conditioners, bubble baths, baby wipes and other skin care products. They may be listed as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, Diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium 15, etc.
Exposure to formaldehyde may cause allergic reactions, hormonal disruption, affect the reproductive health, nervous system damage and suppressed immune system among others.

DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (monoethanolamine), TEA (triethanolamine)
These are used as foaming and emulsifying agents in lotions, shampoos, facial cleaners, conditioners, gels, moisturizer and soaps.
They are used for the consistency and texture they give to these products even though they can be highly toxic.They can cause allergic reactions, eye irritation, dryness of the hair and skin. But most importantly, there are numerous studies that associate DEA and TEA with various types of cancer in lab animals.
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.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), “There is sufficient evidence of a carcinogenic effect of N-nitrosodiethanolamine — .” IARC recommends that NEA should be treated as if it were a carcinogen in humans. The National Toxicology Program similarly concluded: “There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of N-nitrosodiethanolamine in experimental animals."

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