Unless you have some sort of a biochemistry degree, it can be very hard to understand those long words listed under the ingredients section at the back of your skincare product. Instead, we focus on the parts of the label that talk about discovering a new kind of collagen, or a different kind of anti-wrinkle ingredient – and bam! We’re sold.
However, many of those ingredients in your newly purchased item could be a dangerous threat to your skin and your health. And if that sounds even the slightest bit scary to you, it’s time to start educating yourself about the most toxic ingredients that most skincare products contain.
Let’s start with the top 6 most unsafe ingredients to look out for.
Found in: Fragrance oils, nail polish, perfumes, moisturizing lotions, and hairspray
Phthalates are a group of chemicals, mainly used to increase softness and flexibility in plastics. In cosmetic products, three main types of phthalates are used – dibutyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, and dimethyl phthalate.
Phthalates are dangerous endocrine disruptors and have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and obesity.1 2 They can interfere with your hormone levels, causing reproductive birth defects, ovarian aging, and even decreased sperm quality.3
Found in: body washes, nail polish, conditioners, shampoos, cleansers, and eyeshadows
Aldehydes are linked to an increased risk of liver diseases, respiratory allergies, embryotoxicity, sclerosing peritonitis, diabetes/hypertension, cerebral ischemia/neurodegenerative diseases, and multiple aging-associated diseases.4 5
The most common and simplest form of aldehydes that is widely used in skin care products is formaldehyde. This chemical was recently termed as a human carcinogen and is known to increase your risk of occupational cancers.6 Not only that, formaldehyde can also trigger allergic reactions, reproductive defects, embryotoxicity, and immune system damage.7
Found in: makeup products, body washes, deodorants, shampoos, and facial cleansers
Parabens are preservative ingredients that are added to extend the shelf life of skin care and cosmetic products. However, they are also notorious for being endocrine disruptors. To understand how dangerous they can be, you must first know what happens when these are absorbed by your body.
Parabens can mimic estrogen – the female sex hormone. This means it can trick the body into thinking it’s the actual estrogen hormone, and thus can significantly alter hormone signaling.8 This property of parabens can not only cause you to enter into puberty before you’re even ready but can also lead to decreased fertility in both men and women.9 Studies have also proved that parabens can cause diminished sperm count in rats. 10
It doesn’t just stop there. Parabens can also trigger skin allergies, especially if you leave your skin soaking in a paraben-containing product for too long. Studies have also identified parabens in biopsy samples of breast tumors, and have, therefore, been linked to breast cancer.11
Found in: facial cleansers, body cleansers, makeup products, and moisturizers
Many consumers have become increasingly aware of various health hazards linked with parabens. This, unfortunately, has led the skincare industry to use a newer preservative – known as phenoxyethanol (ethylene glycol monophenyl ether). This ingredient is widely marketed as a safer ingredient to make it seem appropriate enough for use by even ‘certified organic’ skincare brands. But don’t be fooled.
Research claims that in moderate concentrations, this preservative can show some toxic effects like:
- Damage to the central nervous system12
- Reproductive and fetal developmental complications
- Contact dermatitis or skin irritation
Luckily, many countries have limited the use of phenoxyethanol to about 1%, while Japan has actually banned the use of this ingredient in all cosmetics altogether.
Found in: almost all skincare products
Dioxins make their way to almost every list of ‘hazardous chemicals.’ Initially, one only needed to beware of these toxins as environmental pollutants that snuck their way into the food chain. However, dioxins are now used unscrupulously by skincare and cosmetic brands. Like parabens, these are also potent endocrine disruptors, that are associated with cancer.13 They can also poison your organ system and overall development.
Note that dioxins will never be listed down directly on a label. But if you see antibacterial agents such as sodium laureth sulfate on the label, which is already a toxic chemical by itself, know that the product you’re about to buy contains dioxins as well.
6. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Found in: body washes, body cleansers, acne treatment creams and serums, and mascaras
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), also known as sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) common surfactant that is not just found in cleaning products but also in a majority of your personal care products. Anything that can work up a foam is very likely to contain SLS.
This particular toxin is known for being a common skin, eye, and lung irritant. The biggest concern that researchers have regarding this chemical, is its ability to combine with other chemicals to form nitrosamines – a common carcinogen.14 This property of SLS can further lead to damage of the kidneys and the respiratory system.
|↑1||Diamanti-Kandarakis, Evanthia, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Linda C. Giudice, Russ Hauser, Gail S. Prins, Ana M. Soto, R. Thomas Zoeller, and Andrea C. Gore. “Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: an Endocrine Society scientific statement.” Endocrine reviews 30, no. 4 (2009): 293-342.|
|↑2||López-Carrillo, Lizbeth, Raúl U. Hernández-Ramírez, Antonia M. Calafat, Luisa Torres-Sánchez, Marcia Galván-Portillo, Larry L. Needham, Rubén Ruiz-Ramos, and Mariano E. Cebrián. “Exposure to phthalates and breast cancer risk in northern Mexico.” Environmental health perspectives 118, no. 4 (2010): 539.|
|↑3||Meeker, John D. “Exposure to environmental endocrine disruptors and child development.” Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine 166, no. 10 (2012): 952-958.|
|↑4||Yu, Rwei-Ling, Chun-Hsiang Tan, Ying-Che Lu, and Ruey-Meei Wu. “Aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 is associated with cognitive functions in patients with Parkinson’s disease.” Scientific reports 6 (2016): 30424.|
|↑5||Jurnak, Frances. “The pivotal role of aldehyde toxicity in autism spectrum disorder: the therapeutic potential of micronutrient supplementation.” Nutrition and metabolic insights 2015, no. Suppl. 1 (2016): 57-77.|
|↑6||Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. National Cancer Institute.|
|↑7||Duong, Anh, Craig Steinmaus, Cliona M. McHale, Charles P. Vaughan, and Luoping Zhang. “Reproductive and developmental toxicity of formaldehyde: a systematic review.” Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research 728, no. 3 (2011): 118-138.|
|↑8||Analysis Finds Hormone Disruptor Used in Cosmetics in Nearly 50 Different Foods. Environmental Working Group.|
|↑9, ↑10||Smith, Kristen W., Irene Souter, Irene Dimitriadis, Shelley Ehrlich, Paige L. Williams, Antonia M. Calafat, and Russ Hauser. “Urinary paraben concentrations and ovarian aging among women from a fertility center.” Environmental health perspectives 121, no. 11-12 (2013): 1299.|
|↑11||Darbre, P. D., A. Aljarrah, W. R. Miller, N. G. Coldham, M. J. Sauer, and G. S. Pope. “Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours.” Journal of applied toxicology 24, no. 1 (2004): 5-13.|
|↑12||Pomierny, Bartosz, Weronika Krzyżanowska, Irena Smaga, Lucyna Pomierny-Chamioło, Piotr Stankowicz, and Bogusława Budziszewska. “Ethylene glycol ethers induce oxidative stress in the rat brain.” Neurotoxicity research 26, no. 4 (2014): 422-429.|
|↑13||Xu, Jinming, Yao Ye, Fang Huang, Hanwen Chen, Han Wu, Jian Huang, Jian Hu, Dajing Xia, and Yihua Wu. “Association between dioxin and cancer incidence and mortality: a meta-analysis.” Scientific reports 6 (2016).|
|↑14||Bondi, Cara AM, Julia L. Marks, Lauren B. Wroblewski, Heidi S. Raatikainen, Shannon R. Lenox, and Kay E. Gebhardt. “Human and environmental toxicity of sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): evidence for safe use in household cleaning products.” Environmental health insights 9 (2015): 27.|