Are your skin and personal care products toxic?

Are your skin and personal care products toxic?

The lady that cuts my hair looked at me in dismay and asked, “What did you do!?!” Oh man. I was sure the month long experiment had done something horrible to me.

A few weeks before, I had switched my shampoo and conditioner. The new brand didn’t contain any chemicals that have been found harmful when absorbed through the skin.

She stood there looking dumbfounded, and my anxiety grew. But then she said, “Your hair is perfect!”

My first thought was, “Whew!”, followed quickly by, “What?” I am a man of deep thought.

She didn’t make me ask, but rather grabbed a single hair and pulled it a little. “See how springy that is? They teach us in school that it’s supposed to have that springiness, but I almost never see it. What did you do!?”

Removing the cause of damaged hair was only the first thread.

In this post, I’m going to tell you about some chemicals that are probably in your soaps, shampoos and lotions. Greasy hair is the least of the risks. Common chemical ingredients have been found to mess with hormones and cause cancer.

Are your skin and personal care products toxic? Let’s find out.

We absorb stuff through our skin

It’s no surprise that we are able to absorb compounds through our skin.

There are patches for pain relief, blood pressure, angina, Alzheimers, birth control, bladder control, quitting smoking and hormone replacement.

In Europe, about one-quarter of the medication taken for pain relief is administered via patches, gels or creams. This popularity is due to the fact that absorption through the skin works just as quickly or even faster than pills.

For sudden episodes of angina, nitroglycerin (tablet or spray) must be placed under the tongue. It doesn’t work if swallowed, according to WebMd.

According to Bottom Line Health“The skin is one of the best organs for administering drugs into the bloodstream, where the drug’s active ingredients are then distributed throughout the body.”

So if molecules can be absorbed through the skin for deployment into the blood stream, what about all those chemicals in makeup, shampoos, soaps, perfumes, colognes, deodorants, lotions, toothpastes, mouth washes and sun screens?

Yep. Some can be absorbed. But can they hurt you? Those selling the products say there’s no danger and have persuaded the FDA to take their word for it.

But independant research is sounding an alarm. According to the Environmental Working Group, the typical consumer uses an average of nine personal care products containing 126 separate ingredients every day. At least one-third of these ingredients have been identified as causing cancer or other serious health conditions. (Fitzgerald, 23)

One-third of ingredients in personal care product can cause serious health conditions. Click To Tweet

Personal care products are not regulated

I used to be under the impression that any personal care product on the market must be safe. Turns out, that’s not true. The majority of ingredients are not regulated.

According to the FDA website“The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) does not authorize FDA to approve cosmetic ingredients, with the exception of color additives that are not coal-tar hair dyes. In general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation.”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) makes it very clear: “Cosmetic makers are not required to assess how much gets into your body and what the risks might be. No one assesses the safety of your cumulative exposures to cosmetic ingredients.”

But what if a product harms people? The EWG says, “FDA has no authority to require recalls of harmful cosmetics. Furthermore, manufacturers are not required to report cosmetics-related injuries to the agency. FDA relies on companies to report injuries voluntarily (FDA 2005).”

Some products may may include a few organic ingredients along with several chemical ones – and still claim to be natural or organic on the label. In 2008, the Organic Consumers Association found at least one toxic, cancer-linked chemical in over 40 percent of products that call themselves “natural.”

No one assesses the safety of your cumulative exposures to cosmetic ingredients. ~ EWG Click To Tweet

Not all substances can make it through skin to the blood stream

You can’t place a piece of broccoli on your arm and expect it to be absorbed through your skin. Likewise, some molecules are either too large or not able to fend off obstacles in order to make it all the way to the blood stream.

Lorraine Dallmeier is a Biologist and expert on chemical compounds in cosmetics. She says, “Absorption still depends on molecule size, chemical solubility, the ‘vehicle’ in which it is transported (i.e. your beauty product!) and whether or not the chemical reacts with the enzymes in your skin.”

That said, there are also enzymes in skin that may activate chemicals or make them more toxic. Lorraine Dallmeier again: “In 1775, an English doctor named Percivall Pott noticed an increase in scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps due to skin contact with the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in soot. More recently, scientists have established that the hydrocarbons themselves are harmless, but that specific enzymes in the skin convert them into reactive compounds that can damage cellular DNA and so cause cancer.” 

She says, “And if that all wasn’t complicated enough, all of us have different skin types depending on our age, skin colour and environment. Even the seasons affect the ability of our skin to deal with different chemicals. Even the specific activity we’re doing can affect how chemicals penetrate our skin and how they are then further absorbed.”

Absorption is also somewhat dependent on where the exposure is on the body. For example, skin on the soles of the feet is very thick, but the skin on our eyelids is very thin. A 1994 Hotchkiss study say absorption rates on our face and scalp are 5-10 times higher than on other parts of our body.

The takeaway from a biologist who specializes in cosmetics: “It is always good to question what you put on your skin but your body’s response will be individual.”

Enzymes in skin can activate chemicals or make them more toxic. Click To Tweet

I’m not a chemist. How do I keep thousands of chemicals straight?

Fortunately, you don’t have to. I use a database called “Skin Deep” created and maintained by the EWG. They rank tens of thousands of products with safety scores.

You can search on a product by name or even use an app-version to scan product bar codes. I never buy a personal care product these days unless it has a very low score.  The higher the score, the greater the risk.

Some of the most common harmful chemicals to watch out for

While there are many chemicals to be concerned about, I have researched several of the most prevalent to watch out for.

DEA (Diethanolamine)

DEA is commonly found in shampoos, soaps, bubble baths and facial cleansers. It gives that foam lather. There are numerous synonyms and related chemicals, so look for anything with “ethanolamine” as part of the name.

DEA has an EWG score of 10, primarily for moderate cancer risk.

DEA may be harmless by itself, but reacts with nitrite preservatives and contaminants to create nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA). The World Health Organization rated NDEA as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in a 2008 report.

The FDA approves DEA, based on approval from the National Toxicology Program (NTP). The NTP is a tax funded, interagency program within the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. According to“NTP has attracted controversy because of its policy of allowing some industries to self regulate their own products…” They also note, “Various industries benefit from NTP’s test results, particularly when they are allowed to conduct their own research on the products in question.”

DEA in shampoos and soaps reacts with contaminants to produce a carcinogen. Click To Tweet

Imidazolidinyl Urea, DMDM Hydantoin and Diazolidinyl Urea

You find these chemicals in skin, body and hair products, antiperspirants and nail polish.

They have EWG ratings of 6 or 7.

According to Dr. Frank Lipman’s 2009 book, REVIVE: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again“These are formaldehyde donors, which means that they are derivatives of formaldehyde, which is what scientists and morticians use to preserve corpses and body parts. Remember dissecting frogs in school? These chemicals are linked to allergies, chest pain, chronic fatigue, depression, dizziness, ear infections, headaches, joint pain, loss of sleep, and can trigger asthma. They can weaken the immune system, and, surprise surprise, cause cancer.”

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen that is toxic to the immune system and respiratory track.

Formaldehyde donors in skin care products are carcinogens and toxic to the immune system. Click To Tweet


1,4-dioxane is commonly found in shampoo (including baby shampoo) and other personal care products that create suds.

EWG’s Skin Deep database gave this chemical a rating of 8, primarily for the risk of cancer.

Dioxane a byproduct of ethylene oxide, but look for ingredients like PEG, polysorbates, laureth, ethoxylated alcohols, sodium laureate sulfate, octinoxate or oxybenzone. It also has numerous synonyms, most of which contain “1,4”.

1,4 dioxane is tricky because it is created when other cosmetic ingredients are mixed together. Even though it may exist in around 22% of personal care products, according the the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, it doesn’t have to be listed on the ingredients list.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) describes 1,4-dioxane as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The CDC web site warns of skin contact with these words that I copy/pasted: “MAY BE ABSORBED!”

The Huffington Post ran an article on how Proctor and Gamble uses this chemical in Tide laundry soap. The article stated, Women’s Voices for the Earth commissioned lab tests on 20 cleaning products and found that “problematic” levels of 1,4-dioxane were detected in original formula Tide detergent (63 parts per million) as well as fragrance-free Tide Free & Clear (89 ppm). Significantly smaller amounts of the chemical were found in Bounce Free & Clear dryer sheets (less than 1 ppm).”

1,4-dioxane, common in shampoo, gets this CDC warning - Probably carcinogenic to humans. Click To Tweet

“Fragrance” and “flavor”

“Fragrance” and “flavor” are some of the biggest offenders because they are euphemisms for nearly 4,000 different chemical ingredients. Companies can easily mask chemicals of concern by declaring them trade secrets.

From the FDA webs site:

FDA requires the list of ingredients under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). This law is not allowed to be used to force a company to tell “trade secrets.” Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be “trade secrets.” 

“Even some products labeled “unscented” may contain fragrance ingredients. This is because the manufacturer may add just enough fragrance to mask the unpleasant smell of other ingredients, without giving the product a noticeable scent.”

According to Dr. Lipman, “Most “fragrances” are synthetic and are either cancer-causing or otherwise toxic. Exposure to fragrances has been shown to affect the central nervous system.” 

I look for products scented with essential oils and treat the words “fragrance” and “flavor” as red flags.

Companies mask chemicals by declaring them trade secrets and listing them as - Fragrance. Click To Tweet

Heavy Metals (lead, aluminum, arsenic, nickel, beryllium, mercury, cadmium & nickel)

Lead is not allowed in gasoline or paint, but is routinely found in lipstick.

The EWG rating for lead is 10; mostly for cancer and developmental and reproductive toxicity.

According to the FDA website, “FDA has not set limits for lead in cosmetics. FDA has set specifications for lead in color additives used in cosmetics.” The page goes on to explain, “FDA limits lead in color additives to maximum specified levels, typically no more than 20 parts per million (ppm) for color additives approved for use in cosmetics.”

In 2007, the FDA set up a study to determine lead levels in lipstick. They reported, “FDA scientists found lead in all of the 20 lipsticks tested, ranging from 0.09 ppm to 3.06 ppm, with an average value of 1.07 ppm.” Their conclusion: “FDA concluded that the lead levels found are within the range that would be expected from lipsticks formulated with permitted color additives and other ingredients that had been prepared under good manufacturing practice conditions.”

According to functional medicine practitioner, Chris Kresser, “…although inorganic lead is not readily absorbed by the skin, you’ll probably swallow small amounts of it.”

The problem, even with tiny doses, is that lead accumulates. According to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), “Within our bodies, lead is absorbed and stored in our bones, blood, and tissues. It does not stay there permanently, rather it is stored there as a source of continual internal exposure.”

Other toxic metals to watch out for are: aluminum in most conventional deodorants (a neurotoxin), arsenic in eyeliner (EWG’s highest risk rating for cancer) and cadmium and mercury in mascara.

Fun fact: According to an article on deodorant in the Huffington Post, experts believe it’s aluminum in deodorant that causes yellow stains on shirt underarms.

Lead is not allowed in gasoline or paint, but is routinely found in lipstick. Click To Tweet


Parabens are used as preservatives and are commonly used in moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, and many types of makeup.

You may find them listed on a label as methyl paraben, ethyl paraben, propyl paraben, butyl paraben, isobutyl paraben or E216.

EWG ratings for the many different kinds of paragons are as high as 7.

The risks, according to Dr. Joseph Mercola: “Studies have shown that parabens can affect your body much like estrogens, which can lead to diminished muscle mass, extra fat storage, and male gynecomastia (breast growth). Other studies have also linked parabens to breast cancer, as researchers found traces of parabens in every sample of tissue taken from 20 different breast tumors.The EPA has linked methyl parabens in particular to metabolic, developmental, hormonal, and neurological disorders, as well as various cancers.”

Just because the label says “paraben free”, doesn’t necessarily mean the product is safe. Parabens work like BPA where the replacement chemical can be as harmful as the original.

The FDA says parabens are okay, citing a December 2005 study done by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR). The CIR is funded by the cosmetic industry.

Parabens can act much like estrogens, leading to extra fat storage and male breast growth. Click To Tweet


According to the FDA, “Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products, such as toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing, and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes and other fragrance preparations.”

EWG scores some phthalates a 10 for cancer and developmental and reproductive toxicity.

Phthalate were banned by the European Union in 2003 under the Cosmetics Directive. They listed it as a “CMR- substance“, meaning is has been classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction.

Diethylphthalate (DEP mentioned above) is the most prevalent Phthalate still in use, according to the FDA.

Phthalates can be an ingredient that is listed as “fragrance”.

Be especially cautious of products used in solons as the requirement for an ingredient declaration, per the FDA, does not apply to products “used exclusively by professionals“.

In 2014, The Guardian and Time Magazine reported on a US study that connected phthalates to lower IQ in children. According to the report, “Children whose mothers had the highest levels of phthalates had IQs on average seven points below those whose mothers had the lowest. The 328 women from inner-city New York who took part in the study had levels of phthalates in urine measured in the last weeks of pregnancy.”

Phthalates in vinyl flooring and detergents may lower IQ in children. Click To Tweet


Talc is found in makeup, baby and adult powders and foundation. According to the FDA, “Talc has many uses in cosmetics and other personal care products; in food, such as rice and chewing gum; and in the manufacture of tablets. For example, it may be used to absorb moisture, to prevent caking, to make facial makeup opaque, or to improve the feel of a product.”

It’s also a naturally occurring mineral made up of magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen. So what’s the problem?

First, it may be a carcinogen. According to the FDA: “Published scientific literature going back to the 1960s has suggested a possible association between the use of powders containing talc and the incidence of ovarian cancer.”

Another potential problem is that asbestos is commonly present where talc is mined.

The FDA does not permit talc to be contaminated with asbestos. To find out if there was any danger to the pubic, they hired a lab to test some talc for the presence of asbestos. According to Dr. Lipman, “The results were limited, however, by the fact that only four talc suppliers submitted samples and by the number of products tested.”

Talc may be a carcinogen by itself, but can also be contaminated with asbestos. Click To Tweet


Triclosan is widely used in antibacterial soap, toothpaste, and household products. It may also be found in products such as clothing, kitchenware, furniture, and toys.

EWG gives it a rating of 7, which is considered a “high hazard”.

The Environmental Protection Agency registers Triclosan as a pesticide and states, “There is some evidence that triclosan disrupts thyroid hormone homeostasis and interacts with the androgen and estrogen receptors.”

Dr. Lipman“Triclosan disrupts hormones, can affect sexual function and fertility and may foster birth defects. Triclosan has been linked to paralysis, suppression of the immune system, brain hemorrhages, and heart problems.”

Dr. Robert H. Tukey is a professor in the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Pharmacology at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. He led research on Triclosan that ws published in 2014. The study found prolonged exposure, over years, to aggravate the growth of liver and kidney tumors. He told Science Times, “If you have a damaged cell that’s been attacked by a mutagen, triclosan promotes the development of the tumor. The compound also causes inflammation, which means that all the ingredients necessary for developing cancer are present.”

The FDA says, “Animal studies have shown that triclosan alters hormone regulation. However, data showing effects in animals don’t always predict effects in humans. Other studies in bacteria have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.” They also published: “At this time, FDA does not have evidence that triclosan added to antibacterial soaps and body washes provides extra health benefits over soap and water. Consumers concerned about using hand and body soaps with triclosan should wash with regular soap and water.”

When I first published this post, the FDA had been saying for years that it would fast track a review of Triclosan, but no such review had been published. Then on September 6, 2016, the FDA banned triclosan in “consumer antiseptic washes” (antibacterial soaps).

Triclosan in antibacterial soap disrupts hormones and may foster birth defects. Click To Tweet

Steps to clean up your personal care products

If I was starting from scratch, I would eliminate the highest levels of exposure first. Eliminate in this order:

  1. Anything you apply and don’t wash off, like deodorant, lotions, face creams and body powder.
  2. Anything you soak in, like bubble bath
  3. Shampoo and conditioner because it absorbs into your scalp and rinses off over your entire body.
  4. Any product you apply to a child.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Many people find that emphasizing a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet, like the Wellness Repair Dietimproves their skin quality and overall appearance. You might discover that you don’t want to use as many products as you used to. It never occurred to me that my hair got greasy if I skipped a shower because of my shampoo. My old chemical shampoo would strip my head of natural oils and then my body would produce more oils to restore balance, thus making my hair and face greasy. When I stopped putting chemical-laden products on my head, the problem went away.
  • Check every product in the EWG Skin Deep database. I use their app on my phone and scan barcodes right in the store before buying.
  • Look for the genuine USDA Organic Seal. Use of the word “organic” without the official seal is not regulated.
  • If it’s not something you would want in your mouth or bloodstream, it’s probably not a good idea to put it on your body. I like to say, “If you wouldn’t lick it, don’t stick it!”
  • Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in descending order by volume, so pay attention to the order in which the ingredients are listed.
  • Simplify! Do you really need 20 products to prepare for your day?
  • Look for products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic, since chemicals can leach out of plastics and into the contents. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a serious concern, so make sure any plastic container is BPA free.
  • Look for products made by companies that are health-friendly.

Finally, I challenge you to shift your thinking from “What won’t hurt me?” to “What will IMPROVE my health if put it on my body?” Applying a substance to your body is an opportunity for nutrition. So don’t just remove; improve!

The first personal care products to replace are those that you don't wash off. Click To Tweet

Some products I use



EWG Rating

Conditioner Acure Organics 1
Dental floss Radius N/A
Deodorant Schmidt’s N/A
Shampoo Acure Organics 1
Soap Kiss My Face 1

Additional Resources

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  1. […] produce you buy to the $5 toys you purchase at the chain store, each is laced with chemicals that we absorb into our bodies through our skin. It’s not hard to see why either considering skin is our body’s largest […]

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