Safety in Personal Care Products: 12 Ingredients to Know & Avoid

You all are beautiful.  

Before I launch into a discussion of safety of body care ingredients, let’s get that straight: you are beautiful already.   

Furthermore, the most important things you can do to take care of your body are not for sale. They don’t come in a bottle. You can’t put them on your shopping list. Sleep, healthy food, drinking water, exercise, de-stressing and smiling. If you don’t have these, no potion or cream will fully substitute for the lack

Why Bother Reading Ingredients 

Our society is facing many troubling unanswered questions. Among them, why are rates of cancer, infertility, hormone imbalance, and behavioral disorders skyrocketing? While undoubtedly there are many contributing causes, it might not be coincidental that 1 in 13 women are exposed daily to known or probable human carcinogens, or that 1 in 24 women to known or probable reproductive and developmental toxins through their personal care products. Our skin is semi-permeable, and so even though we don’t eat our cosmetics, in a way, our skin might. 

On average, women use 12 products daily (men about half that)That’s easy to believe when you start counting soap, deodorant, toothpaste, mouthwash, shaving cream, aftershave, toner, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, lotion, lip balm… and that doesn’t even get into makeup. With an average of 14 unique ingredients per product, that adds up to roughly 168 different ingredients.   

I’m not throwing numbers at you to elicit an ooh and ahh, or freak and flee. The problem with those 168 ingredients is that they are mostly unregulated. Personal care products are under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the needed oversight for food and drugs pushes personal care off to the side.   

Legal Oversight (or Lack of Oversight) 

Two laws regulate personal care products: The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938The parts relevant to cosmetics focus on misbranding and adulterationand not on the safety of the ingredients. You can put anything in the product you want, so long as you say on the label what you’ve put in it(Color additives are an exception which I’ll save for another day.) The safety of products is the manufacturer’s responsibility. 

However, although there have been red flags through the years about certain ingredients, manufacturers have the choice on whether or not to respond.  

Reporting of cosmeticrelated injuries is voluntary, and even if reported, the FDA has no authority to recall products. As the FDA affirms, products do not need FDA premarket approval and “neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients.” Through the decades, the FDA has restricted only a handful of ingredients, and even then, their response has been reactionary, acting only after a problem has been demonstrated among consumers. 

Because cosmetics do not have the same (or any) pre-market approval process, the burden is on consumers to make their own decisions.  

Total Exposure – My biggest concern 

Longterm, cumulative exposure is what concerns me most. Many ingredients have a threshold at which they are generally regarded as safe (GRAS)A single product will have less than that threshold. But what if that ingredient is in four of your daily, leave-on products? What if you don’t do a super thorough job of washing it off each day? How does all that exposure add up when studies are showing that above the GRAS levels, problems arise?   

Not Enough Research 

Below are the ingredients I avoid in the body care aisles. I will tell you first, that there is not enough research to substantiate these concerns irrefutably. It is terribly difficult to correlate cause and effect from ingredients that are used alongside a hundred others and results that may show up only after years of exposure. However, there are the beginnings of evidence for each of these ingredientsSince there are easy alternatives, I play it safe and choose those alternatives.  

Ingredients I Avoid 

IngredientPurpose/ProductsConcernNotes
-ParabensPreservative across body careEndocrine (Hormone) disruptor Highest Concern: Butylparaben, Propylparaben;
Moderate Concern: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben
Methylisothiazolinone Preservative across body careAllergen, irritant
Octinoxate SunscreenEndocrine disruptor, bioaccumulation, penetration enhancer
Oxybenzone SunscreenHigh absorption, significant penetration enhancer, photoallergic reaction
Retinyl Palmitate (vitamin A) Anti-aging, often in sunscreen Skin tumors Tumors may form when exposed to sunlight
“Fragrance” All body care May include Phthalates Secret, proprietary blend of any of 3000+ possible chemicals
Phthalates Anywhere there’s “Fragrance” (works as a fixer) Linked to altered reproductive development especially in boys, asthma, ADHD, breast cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, and autism spectrum disorders Never listed with ingredients
Quaternium-15 Detergent in Shampoo, body wash, etc. Formaldehyde releaser Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen
Ureas Preservative across body care Allergen, formaldehyde releaser Highest concern: Polyoxymethylene Urea
Moderate Concern: Imidazolidinyl Urea, Diazolidynol Urea
Ceteareth, laureth, steareth, other “-eths” Detergent in shampoo, body wash, etc. 1,4 Dioxane contamination 1,4 Dioxane (a production byproduct) is a known human carcinogen
Diethanolamine (DEA) pH adjuster across body care Toxicant, possible human carcinogen
Triethanolamine (TEA) pH adjuster & emulsifier across body care Toxicant, irritant, suspected human carcinogen Use recommendations emphasize only short-term use and thorough washing

Even as you keep these terms in mind, know that with every step you take down the aisle, a massive marketing machine is waging war against your judgment with misleading or deceptive labeling. Arm yourself against that by reading my previous article 10 Labeling Traps.” 

What To Do 

My hope here is to empower and not to overwhelm. There are many good products out there made with alternative ingredientsManufacturers have started to respond to consumer concern. (Another proof for the power of voting with our spending!) Do not open your bathroom cabinet and trash the contents all at once. That will only frustrate you tomorrow when you’re trying to get out the door and you have no shampoo, deodorant, or sunscreenAnalyze one product at a time and replace, if needed.  Start with “leave-on” daily productsto which you have the highest exposure. Perhaps you and a friend can split the task.  

Resources 

Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database: a continuously updated analyses of thousands of products, brands, and ingredients. 

Think Dirty app: similar to EWG for help on the go.  

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: Lots more research of ingredients. 

Not Just a Pretty Face: the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry: Stacy Malkan’s 2007 book was my wake up call to these issues. 

17 thoughts on “Safety in Personal Care Products: 12 Ingredients to Know & Avoid

  1. I just received shampoo and conditioner in the mail maybe 10 minutes ago. First thing I did was look at the ingredients after reading your article this morning. It does have “fragrance” and I’m disappointed. The reason I bought it was after a recommendation from someone on an instagram page that is based on using essential oils and keeping things natural. I may send it back. It does have a lot of good ingredients, but I guess that doesn’t matter if it’s mixed in with the bad.

    • Hi Judy- A company can’t lie on its packaging, so if it’s made with good ingredients otherwise, it might be worth reaching out to the company for an explanation. The company’s response will be an indicator of how transparent it is about ingredients.

  2. At last, pleased to see this article. I have realised for a long time that all these ingredients are harmful
    but people think I am mad.
    Also I have found that PEG/PPG are also a problem. They affect my asthma and cause me to choke coughing.
    Unfortunately I cannot get anyone to take me seriously. Even Doctors say they have never heard of that but do not
    take me seriously either. A hairdresser suggested to me that these items could be a cause of my problem, he was right. These things are in so many medications etc. I am convinced nobody realises. They are an eye, skin and lung irritant.

    • Hi S- It’s great that you persisted and determined your sensitivity to PEG/PPG. Thank you for sharing, as your learnings might be helpful to another reader.

  3. Thanks for the article. I can share with friends who I have been “preaching” to for a long time. I try to stay as “clean” as possible – making my own detergent with Sal-Suds, floride-free toothpaste, skin care from essential oils and carrier oils. It’s sad what is in these products destroying our health. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing, Sherri. Sounds like we are in sync here!

    • Hi Tom- Choosing a sunscreen can be dizzying. I don’t have a brand to recommend, but do suggest choosing mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as an alternative to chemical UV filters. The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Sunscreen can help you identify good one: https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/.

    • Tom, my favorite sunscreen is Badger. Super clean and effective.

  4. Thank you for this great material! It’s really important to know that sometimes personal care products may be really harmful. Unfortunately, a lot of people do not understand it and know nothing about ingredients in their everyday stuff.

  5. I love this article. I’ve been preaching this for years. I recently purchased a new curling iron and looked up some videos on how to use it. I was shocked at the 3-5 different products recommend to purchase just for my hair ! Using just one of those and I could smell the artificial fragerance of it all day. For me I don’t style my hair everyday but it still concerns me. Thanks for spreading the information.

  6. Great article Lisa, spot on. Your biggest concern: “But what if that ingredient is in four of your daily, leave-on products?” is a great take away and one to respect. Our skin is our largest organ and it takes in what we put on it. I need to show my husband the info on the sunscreen, sometimes he buys whatever when I’m not watching :-). I didn’t know about the ingredients to avoid in sunscreen. Thank you.

    • Hi Margarita – Thanks for reading. I’m glad it resonated with you.

  7. May I share a link to this post on another fb page? I think it’s so important for this information to be shared with others.

    • Hi Deborah – Please feel free to share. I’m glad it’s helpful!

  8. Good article Lisa. Have you checked out LUME? Really great deodorant and I don’t think it has any of the no no’s.

    • Hi Kelle- Thanks for reading the article! LUME is what I’m currently using, and it seems to be work well. The product isn’t in the EWG.com database, but I ran the ingredients through and didn’t see any problems.

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