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The beauty industry is highly unregulated, enabling the brands to do almost anything they want – using known carcinogens and other toxic chemicals in beauty products, incomplete ingredients lists, misleading labels, false claims and so much more.
The only way to safeguard our health and environment is learning what goes into our products and avoiding the bad stuff. I have listed the most commonly used toxic chemicals in personal care products below to help you make a decision and take a step towards clean beauty.
Toxic Chemicals In Beauty Products To Avoid
The most commonly used foaming agents in shampoos, cleansers, soaps, exfoliators, detergents, and toothpaste are sulfates. Sulfate ar used as industrial cleaners to remove grease and clean floors, cars etc.
The squeaky clean feeling you get after using some products, and that rich lather is actually the sulfates stripping off natural oils from your hair and body. Sulfates are even considered to be skin irritants.
I have personally experienced this while using certain soaps which make my skin itchy and give rashes post-shower. SLES can also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane- a human carcinogen.
How to spot?-look for Sodium Lauryl Sulfate(SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate(SLES), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate(ALS), Ammonium Laureth Sulfate(ALES), Olefin Sulfonate.
Alternatives– Lauryl Glucoside, Decyl Glucoside, Coco Glucoside, Capryl Glucoside, Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate(also a sulfate but mild), Saponified oils.
Parabens are used as preservatives in a variety of food and beauty products to avoid bacterial growth or products growing molds. Although there is no proven link to cancer, paraben mimics estrogen (linked to breast cancer) in the body and is an endocrine disruptor.
How to spot? Words ending in paraben- Ethylparaben, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Butylparaben.
Alternatives- Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate, Salinatural, Phenoxyethanol (Less than 1% concentration), TCLS, OLG, citric acid
ost hair conditioners, hair masques, moisturizers, shampoos and almost all drugstore hair serums contain silicone. They form a layer over the hair strand preventing moisture loss, frizziness and give that slippery feel when touched.
How is it harmful then? Silicones cause buildup in hair and prevent moisture from entering your strand. All that shine and softness is fake while your hair may still be dry underneath.
How to spot? Silicones generally end with ‘cone’,’conol’ or ‘ane’ like Dimethicone, Amodimethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane, Dimethiconol
Alternatives– Fatty alcohols (cetyl, Cetearyl, stearyl, lauryl, myristyl), shea butter, natural oils, honey, glycerin, aloe vera.
- Chemical sunscreens
Oxybenzone or benzophenone are key ingredients as chemical sunscreens widely used in moisturizers, lip balms, nail paints and makeup with SPF. They absorb UVA and UVB rays so that our skin does not absorb them
However, they are linked to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity and skin allergies. Further, chemical sunscreens commonly include ingredients that act as skin penetrators and help the product adhere to the skin.
As a result, many sunscreen chemicals get absorbed into the body. Oxybenzone is also found to increase the formation of harmful free radicals in the skin and contributing to skin cancer. (Read more about chemical sunscreens here)
How to spot? Oxybenzone, benzophenone, benzophenone-3, avobenzone, Octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate
Alternatives– physical sunscreens like zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
Ethanolamine compounds like DEA, TEA and MEA are used in cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, moisturizers, makeup and sunscreens as emulsifiers and pH balancers.
Ethanolamine compounds may cause irritation in eyes and skin and are also linked with liver cancer. DEA compounds may also react with nitrites in cosmetics to form nitrosamine, which is a human carcinogen.
How to spot? Avoid Cocamide DEA, triethanolamine, diethanolamine, monoethanolamine, lauramide DEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.
- Petrolatum/Mineral oil
Petrolatum(or petroleum jelly as we commonly call it) is a by-product formed while extracting petroleum from crude oil. It is a commonly used ingredient in moisturizers, lotions, lipsticks, hair dyes, diaper creams, hair care products etc. as an emollient or skin conditioning agent.
Petrolatum has occlusive properties, i.e it forms a barrier on skin or hair, preventing any moisture loss. However, this may also suffocate the skin and clog pores leading to acne and other issues.
Also if your skin is already dry, petrolatum may actually prevent the skin from absorbing any moisture from the atmosphere.
Petrolatum when poorly refined may be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a strong human carcinogen linked to various cancers. Also, due to crude oil being non-renewable energy, it is best to avoid its usage.
How to spot? Petrolatum, Petroleum jelly, mineral oil, liquid paraffin, paraffin wax.
Alternatives: Use cold-pressed oils, shea butter or cocoa butter for dry skin or hair and organic beeswax to seal moisture in lip balms.
Talcum powder is widely used in pressed powders, foundation, powder-based makeup, lipsticks, and baby powders. It has oil absorption properties, provides a smooth texture and is an anti-caking agent.
Talc is often contaminated with asbestos, a human carcinogen. Inhaling talc may cause respiratory distress in babies and adults.
How to spot? Talcum powder, cosmetic talc, French chalk
Alternatives- talcum powder certified asbestos-free by the manufacturer, cornstarch, rice starch, tapioca starch, arrowroot powder.
- Formaldehyde releasers
Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are found in various nail polishes, hair dyes, moisturizers, lotions, hair treatments, sunscreens, body washes, shampoos and cosmetics. These preservatives release formaldehyde slowly over time preventing bacterial growth.
Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen proven by various studies. Low exposure to formaldehyde may also cause skin and eye irritation. Formaldehyde itself is used in nail paints as an ingredient to harden nail polishes.
How to spot? Formaldehyde, Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl Urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol) and glyoxal.
Alternatives: nail paints certified ‘3 free’(free of formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate), natural preservatives.
Polyethylene glycol (PEG) can be found in various moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, cosmetics etc. It is used for its humectant and solvent properties.
PEGs can be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane, both strong human carcinogens. PEG is also used as penetration enhancer which may lead to harmful chemicals in the product being absorbed by the skin.
How to spot? ingredients starting with PEG, like PEG-7, PEG-100 etc, ingredients ending in ‘eth’ like Ceteareth-20.
Phthalates are found in nail paints, lotions, skincare, haircare and makeup products. This ingredient is usually disguised under the term “fragrance” in most products.
Phthalats are used to make scents last longer and to prevent nail paints from becoming brittle. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and can cause reproductive and developmental toxicity.
How to spot? The term ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient, DBP, DEBP, DEP, phthalate.
Alternatives: Products without any added fragrance, essential oils.
There are various other chemicals added as a synthetic fragrance or scents in personal care products apart from phthalates and formaldehyde. Since fragrance recipes are considered ‘trade secrets’, ingredients lists don’t mention it.
And certain loopholes in the law allow it to remain undisclosed. The term fragrance on the list could hide a dozen chemicals behind it.
How to spot? Terms like fragrance or parfum
Alternatives: Avoid products with fragrance as an ingredient, use unscented products or products that use essential oils for fragrance.
Cleaning products like face washes, toothpaste, soaps, anti-acne products, wet-wipes, colour cosmetics and detergents contain Triclosan as an anti-bacterial agent. It kills bacteria and fungus and even prevents bad odours.
Triclosan can irritate eyes, skin and lungs is associated with endocrine disruption. There are also contamination concerns with chloroform and dioxins. Hence it is best to avoid them
How to spot? Terms triclosan(TSC) and triclocarban(TCC)
Alternatives: Use plain water and soap to clean. For pimples and acne, use neem as an antibacterial treatment.
These are some of the most commonly found toxic chemicals in beauty products. There are many more chemicals that need to be avoided, and I will do a separate post on resources you could refer for information(because listing out all of them here is impossible), so stay tuned.
How many of these chemicals did you find in your personal care products? Let me know in the comments below.