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One of the most frequently overlooked sources of chemical exposure are the cosmetics and personal care products many people use on a daily basis. In fact, a recent study found that in the course of everyday grooming, the average woman applies an average of 515 synthetic chemicals on her body each day. Not only are personal care products loaded with possible toxins, but the fact that we apply them directly to our hair and skin means they are readily absorbed into the body.

Shampoos and cosmetics that can be absorbed through the skin often contain toxic chemicals, especially dyes. (Weil, 1995) Yet the industry is largely unregulated. The FDA web site states that “cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority with the exception of color additives (which are monitored separately under the more stringent safety standards applied to food). It also states that “recalls are voluntary” and that the FDA “is not authorized to require recalls of cosmetics. Manufacturers are not required to register their cosmetic establishments, file data on ingredients, or report cosmetic-related injuries to the FDA.” In other words, companies can use whatever chemicals they want in their products (even if these chemicals are harmful to human health), and the FDA is powerless to do anything about it. If there’s a bad batch that happened to be mixed with too much of a toxic substance, it’s up to the company alone to alert the public and recall the product.

Types of chemicals in cosmetics & personal care products

Virtually every personal care product contains at least 1 chemical known to be harmful. “Nail products contain solvents and formaldehyde,” write Phillip and Alice Shabecoff. “Revelon Moondrops lipsticks contain phthalates, as do two-thirds of all personal hygiene products; hairsprays, deodorants, nail products, and hair mousse usually contain two varieties of that chemical.” Any products that contain phthalates will be absorbed into the skin and show up in your urine 2 hours later. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2006, p. 66)

“Almost all personal care items, including cosmetics, lotions, creams, and sunscreens, also contain parabens, yet another gender-bending hormone-disrupting family of chemicals,” they add. (ibid, p. 66) Parabens are a likely endocrine disruptor used as a preservative, and can be found in makeup, moisturizers, shaving products, and shampoos and conditioners. Denmark banned these chemicals in products marketed to kids under three.

Sulfates, used as a foaming agent, can be found in things like shampoos, soaps, or toothpastes. Not only do some sulfates irritate the skin, but when combined with petrochemicals they can form 1,4-dioxane, listed as a probable human carcinogen. (Rochman, 2011) Because 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct and isn’t added intentionally, it doesn’t need to be listed as an ingredient, even though it’s an inevitable consequence of the other chemicals in the bottle. Some moisturizers, shampoos, body washes and hair dyes also contain DMDM hydantoin, an antimicrobial preservative that releases formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Many liquid cleansers and baby shampoos contain 1,4-dioxane. Consumer groups are trying to get Johnson & Johnson to phase out dioxane and quaternium-15 from its baby products. Johnson’s Baby Shampoo also contains formaldehyde and color additives. Deodorants, medications, shampoos and mouthwashes all contain propylene glycol (often abbreviated as PG), a petroleum based product we know little about. Even some of the natural ingredients in personal care products have caused concern. Doctors in 2007 described 3 boys who developed temporary breast enlargement after using shampoos with lavender tea tree oil, which contain plant estrogens. (Szabo, 4-11-2011)

What to do about chemicals in hygiene products

It’s hard to know to what degree people are being affected by these products. Since everyone uses them in one form or another, it’s almost impossible to study. People shouldn’t panic, and it doesn’t mean you need to skip the sunscreen, forego deodorant, or stop washing your child’s hair. It’s just another means of chemical bombardment that we are exposed to in modern society.

“In a world where we’re exposed to increasing amounts of chemicals, I recommend patients consider switching to natural skin care products,” says Francesca Fusco, a NYC dermatologist. “The new cleansers and treatments are better than ever – they nourish, protect and address skin issues just as well as non-natural products, and are quite luxurious too.” (Katz & Abrenica, 2016) Yet consumers need to be cautious. The cosmetics industry is notorious for greenwashing – making all-natural claims that simply aren’t true. (Bianchi, 2010) So the “organic” claim on personal care products is often misleading. In order to be truly organic and free of harmful chemicals, it must be specifically labeled as “USDA Organic,” which is an official stamp of approval.

The Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have also developed a database for consumers of more than 42,000 cosmetic and personal care products, which can be accessed at


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