6 Toxic Ingredients in Everyday Skin Care Products

Walk down the aisles of your drugstore or department cosmetics section, and you’re seeing toxic skin care heaven. Most of the beauty products available contain chemicals, which may be carcinogenic, cause rashes, hair loss, mouth sores, mimic hormones, or cause allergic reactions.

What to avoid and what are the alternatives?!

Here’s a list of some of the most common culprits in toxic skin care, and their potential hazards. None of this information has been reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration, but they’re also the ones who insist there’s no problem with drinking milk from cows injected with growth hormones and antibiotics.

  • Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate
  • Mineral Oil and other petroleum products
  • Parabens
  • Formaldehyde
  • Phthalates
  • Selenium Sulfide
  • Paraphenylene-Diamine (PPD)
  • Kathon
  • Lanolin (non-organic)
  • Persulfate salts
  • PABAs

Got it? Read below for more details, or skip straight to the products you can buy that don’t have these bad ingredients!

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate. This is one of the most common ingredients you’ll find, in any sudsing product (shampoo, face wash, hand soap, even toothpaste)! It’s a detergent, rather than a soap, and may cause hair loss, dandruff, mouth sores and eye damage.

I have found that SLS-containing shampoos tend to make my hair shinier than shampoos without them, probably because the detergent is a better degreaser. However, try a few of the shiny hair rinse recipes for something that’ll work for you.

Mineral Oil. I never liked the texture of mineral oil, the main ingredient in most baby oils, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that it’s bad for you! None of the petrochemical-based ingredients (mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffin or ingredients beginning with a propyl-, methyl- or ethe-) are absorbed by skin, and instead just sit on the surface. Does this qualify it as toxic skin care? Well, it prevents skin respiration and detoxification by your skin, so in that way, yes. (See more about your skin and it’s role in detoxifying your body.)

Parabens. These are an extremely common preservative. I’ve found them in skin care products from companies I consider to be on the natural edge of things. They help keep your product from going bad (which is good!) but are irritants which mimic estrogens and have been linked to breast cancer (which is bad!). In natural skin care products, you may find them replaced by any number of essential oils or extracts with antibacterial properties.

See what the FDA says about parabens in cosmetics at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-para.html (opens a new window)

Formaldehyde. Most folks realize by now that this is a bad one. Remember science class in high school when you had to dissect some dead creature? It was preserved in formaldehyde. My high school bio teacher had completely lost his sense of smell due to exposure. But even worse, it has been classified by the EPA as a probably human carcinogen! The tricky part is, while the label on your skin care product may not list “formaldehyde”, the following ingredients break down and release formaldehyde:

  • diazolidinyl urea (or 3-diol diazolidinyl urea)
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1 (or bronopol)
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • imidazolidinyl urea
  • quaternium-15

Phthalates. A truly toxic skin care ingredient. Dibutylphthalate and diethylphthalate (DBP, DEP, also butyl ester) create the thin film in your mascara and nail polish, helps lotions absorb into skin, and also cause birth defects in rats. DBP is known to cause birth defects in male fetuses, so this is definitely one to avoid if you’re pregnant or planning on getting pregnant. L’Oreal France has completely discontinued the use of DBP in their nail polish due to severe allergic reactions, although L’Oreal USA continues to use it.

See what the FDA says about phthalates at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-phth.html (opens a new window)

Selenium sulfide. A topical anti-fungal ingredient found in many anti-dandruff shampoos, it works by splitting into selenium and sulfide ions in skin cells, and lowering the turnover rate of skin cells (opposite effect of an exfoliant). Side effects include hair loss or discoloration (turning green!), oily scalp and skin and eye irritation. Very bad symptoms include vomiting, abdominal pain and nausea, and the loss of fingernails. Selenium sulfide has also been linked to damage of internal organs.

I’m planning to add PPD (paraphenylene-diamine), kathon, lanolin (non-organic), persulfate salts, and PABAs to this page. If you have a favorite toxic skin care ingredient I haven’t listed here, or want me to include more in-depth science-y information, For a searchable list of toxins in skin care products, see the Environmental Working Groups report at http://www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep/ (opens new window).

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