Cosmetics and personal care products are made from numerous chemicals and there is growing but not totally convincing evidence that some of these ingredients are dangerous. Today, I’m going to offer my “be on the lookout for” warning about the top 10 substances you should try and avoid.

In the interest of fairness, these substances are legal and regulators in charge of such things do not consider them dangerous at least when used in cosmetics. However, there are some compelling reasons I’ll share below that some of these ingredients are problematic. When at all possible, they should be avoided.

  1. Methylisothiazoline (MIT) has been suspected of impairing the way that nerve cells communicate with each other. Look for it mainly in shampoos. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that MIT “is highly acutely toxic when applied dermally or to the eye.” If you put this substance in insecticide, the EPA requires that a warning label appear on the container and those “exposed to methylisothiazoline products must wear long-sleeved shirt and long pants, chemical resistant gloves, and shoes plus socks.” However, we are supposed to believe that you can take it into your shower and wash your hair with it safely!
  2. Sodium lauryl sulfate (and its cousin sodium laureth sulfate) appear in lots of “foamy” products, including soaps, shampoos, and even toothpaste. This substance is approved for use but is known to be irritating to the skin. It’s the same stuff mechanics use to degrease engines.
  3. Phthalates are used in many cosmetics and perfumes and even medical products (like blood transfusion bags and tubing). There are numerous chemicals in this family and while government regulations allow them in cosmetics and perfumes, the EPA has published a toxicity summary on these ingredients and even states that exposure of young ones to these phthalates is “of concern for children’s health.” The EPA report mentions that phthalates have been associated with rashes, colds, birth defects, cancer, liver damage, lung disorders, and skeletal abnormalities. One study in mice found that excessive exposure to these chemicals resulted in exencephaly (brain growth outside the skull).
  4. Coal tar is perhaps a less common ingredient, but it has been linked to cancer. Look for it in hair dyes, dandruff and specialty shampoos, and some anti-itch products.
  5. Petroleum distillates are a category of products produced by the petroleum industry and often used in mascara, foundation, lipstick (including lip balms), and perfume.  Petroleum distillates may contain impurities and are suspected carcinogens.
  6. PEG (polyethylene glycol) or PPG (polypropylene glycol) are two chemicals that appear in numerous cosmetics although they are known to be harmful. The government allows these ingredients in cosmetics because small amounts of the substances are thought to be relatively safe.  PEG is an ingredient in antifreeze and is regulated by the EPA, although it is considered of “low toxicity.”
  7. Dyes, often labeled as FD&C or D&C with a color and number (such as FD&C Red No 3). These are synthetic colorings that are frequently used in color cosmetics (blush, foundation, nail polish, hair dye and so on) and even in food. Some of these dyes are known to be carcinogenic.
  8. The Paraben Family: Methyl, Propyl, Butyl, and Ethyl. Parabens refer to a class of chemical ingredients which help cosmetic products stay fresh by inhibiting the growth of germs.  Some parabens block UV radiation and are used in sunscreens. It is believed that certain parabens are irritating to the skin; animal studies suggest parabens have a pro-estrogenic effect.
  9. Formaldehyde seems like an obvious substance to avoid, but this chemical is widely used in everything from embalming fluid to fabric softeners and even cosmetics. Formaldehyde is reported by the US National Toxicology Program as a substance “known to be a human carcinogen.” It may appear in shampoo, bubble baths, shower gels, antibacterial cleansers, nail hardeners, and liquid hand wash products.
  10. “Fragrance.” This seemingly harmless term on a product label may be most dangerous of all since manufacturers can use it as a catch-all to describe any or all “masking agents” intended to camouflage an undesirable odor in the product. The FDA allows manufacturers to call certain ingredients “fragrances,” “flavors,” or “other ingredients” without disclosing them as a type of trade secret.  This means that a whole laundry list of chemicals may get an exemption from disclosure so you do not know what you are using! The FDA gets to find out what the product contains, but not you and I, the consumers. All companies have the right to disclose all ingredients without hiding behind the “fragrance” designation, so I have to assume that a company that goes to the trouble to get an exemption to conceal ingredients with a “fragrance,” “flavoring,” or “other ingredients” label must be trying to hide something from me.


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