You’re likely familiar with the “dirty dozen” for produce, but did you know that the beauty industry has its own dirty dozen? That’s right, your beauty care products are riddled with ingredients that can cause health issues like cancer, reproductive harm, endocrine disruption, and much much more.
How do the regulatory bodies allow this to happen?
The sad truth is, the cosmetics industry is woefully under-regulated — leading many manufacturers to go for cheap (yet efficient) ingredients that are known to be detrimental to your health.
In fact, cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and reproductive harm! 
If you’re a conscious consumer and want to stay alert to the ingredients that could be harmful to yourself and your family, read on.
In this article, you’ll learn
- We’re naming names! The top dirty dozen ingredients of the beauty product world
- These nasty ingredients are linked to cancer, endocrine dysfunction, and other serious health issues in the research
- How these ingredients interfere in your hormones and weight
- Exactly which products these compounds are hiding in
The Beauty Industry’s Dirty Dozen
Parabens are commonly used in your beauty products as preservatives. They’re especially helpful in preventing the growth of microbes, so you can find these chemicals in a wide variety of personal care and food products. They help your products last for years.
Parabens can go by many different names (ethylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben), with the commonality being that the name will end in “paraben”.
These preservatives are most common in beauty products that are liquid and contain water like shampoos, liquid soaps, and lotions.
While a safety limit for parabens has been set for personal care products, this doesn’t account for the fact that many people use more than one product — and therefore end up with levels of parabens that are higher than deemed safe.
As a result, parabens have been found in almost all urine samples collected from US adults — regardless of geography, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background.
Common Products That Contain Parabens:
- Facial cleanser
- Body washes and scrubs
The health risks associated with paraben exposure include hormone disruption, cancer, and developmental and reproductive issues.
Due to their ability to mimic the hormone estrogen, parabens can disrupt your endocrine function. They do this by binding to estrogen receptors and therefore inhibit the natural function of this crucial hormone. Some research even shows that parabens can increase the growth of breast cancer cells.
What’s more, parabens can inhibit other hormones (such as testosterone), which play an integral role in your hormonal balance, and also inhibit the enzymes that metabolize estrogen — potentially leading to excess estrogenic activity.
Another serious concern associated with parabens is an increased risk of skin cancer. When you apply lotion on your skin that contains parabens, it can lead to UV-induced skin damage, and eventually disrupt normal cell proliferation. This disruption, combined with parabens’ estrogenic activity, can lead to malignant melanomas — a dangerous type of skin cancer.
The hormonal implications of estrogen-mimicking extend to developmental and reproductive harm as well. For instance, research shows that paraben exposure can reduce sperm count and testosterone production, which is an essential aspect of male reproductive health.
In women, paraben exposure during gestation and lactation can alter the development of reproductive organs and may lead to anxiety and behavioral difficulties in children.
What to look for on the label: Ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, other ingredients ending in –paraben
The label “fragrance” can be used to describe a wide range of chemicals, and there is currently no regulation over the need to disclose exactly which chemical compounds make up a fragrance.
Fragrance can contain hundreds of ingredients that don’t need to be on the label to protect a manufacturer’s “proprietary formula.” The FDA describes fragrance as the combination of chemicals that gives each perfume or cologne its distinct scent.
A 2016 study found that 99.1% of participants were exposed to fragrance at least once a week, either from their own use or others’ use. Exposed as in second hand smoke exposed.
The use of fragrance goes beyond traditional perfume or cologne, however, and many personal care products on the market include petroleum based fragrances to either cover up scents or to enhance the scent of the product.
Fragrances can also include toxic compounds like solvents, stabilizers, and preservatives that do not need to be labeled when they are included in the formula that the fragrance comes in.
Common Products That Contain Fragrance:
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Skin creams
- Exfoliating scrubs
- Body lotion
- Body wash
There are over 3,000 different chemicals that can be used to create a fragrance. While not all of these chemicals have been studied for their harmful health effects, some of them have been linked to health conditions like cancer, allergies and sensitivities, and reproductive harm.
One study reported a wide range of health effects that participants attributed to fragrance, including migraines, cardiovascular issues, digestive disturbance, and asthma.
Acetaldehyde is one compound that’s commonly found in fragrance that’s been labeled as a potential carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program. It’s also been shown to cause harm to the kidneys, nervous system, reproductive system, and respiratory system.
Benzophenone is another compound that’s commonly used in fragrance formulas and has been labeled as a possible human carcinogen. In addition, benzophenone may act as an endocrine disruptor (causing hormonal imbalances) and could lead to organ system toxicity.
These are just two of a long list of compounds that may be hiding under the guise of “fragrance” in your beauty products. Other ingredients to watch out for include but are not limited to Butoxyethanol, Benzyl Benzoate, Benzyl Salicylate, Chloromethane (methyl chloride), Diethyl phthalate (DEP), and Oxybenzone (BP-3).
Any commercial product that says “free” or “clear” of fragrance usually has a host of chemicals in them to cover up the nasty smell of the other chemicals in the product. Just so you are aware. Merely buying a product that doesn’t contain fragrance is not enough to avoid toxins.
The best way to avoid fragrance’s downfalls is to read your ingredient labels and avoid any products that omit information regarding the ingredients used to create their fragrance.
I recommend buy products that have essential oils in them for scent – anyone going to the expense to put essential oils in their product will have their clearly on the ingredient list. You can also add your own essential oils to your favorite beauty products or cleaning products.
What to look for on the label: Fragrance, perfume, parfum, essential oil blend, aroma.
Petroleum is often used in personal care products as a moisturizing ingredient. It helps to seal in moisture, but at what cost? Apparently, millions have been sold on the notion that oil makes one more beautiful.
When petroleum is properly refined, it has no health risks associated with it. However, in the US this ingredient is often not refined properly, which results in contamination with toxic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Common Products That Contain Petroleum:
- Hand and body lotion
- Some moisturizing cosmetics
- Petroleum jelly (Vasoline)
- Mineral oil (avoid like the plague)
The primary health risk associated with petroleum (and PAHs) is cancer. One study even found that women with high amounts of PAHs in their bodies had a 50% greater risk of breast cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has labeled 14 PAHs as possible carcinogens, while one PAH is regarded as a known carcinogen.
What to look for on the label: Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Oil, Mineral Oil and White Petrolatum (refined and safe for use).
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing products can be found in a wide range of personal care products due to their antimicrobial behavior. While many formulators will add formaldehyde outright, formaldehyde-releasing products are a by-product of other preservatives that can build up over time.
These chemicals are absorbed by your skin and have been linked to health concerns like cancer and skin allergies.
Common Products That Contain Formaldehyde:
- Nail polish
- Nail glue
- Hair gel
- Eyelash gel
- Baby shampoo
- Hair smoothing products
- Body soap
- Color cosmetics
Formaldehyde has been labeled as a known carcinogen by the United States National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Research shows that formaldehyde promotes tumor formation, and has been linked to leukemia.
In addition, formaldehyde applied topically is widely known to cause skin irritation and rashes. This would make sense, as a 2015 study indicated that 11.9% of the population is allergic to formaldehyde.
What to look for on the label: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.
#5 Butylated Compounds (BHT and BHA)
Butylated compounds are used as preservatives in food, cosmetic, and personal care products. They’ll be found on your labels as either BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) or BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene).
Common Products That Contain BHT and BHA:
- Lip products
- Hair products
There are several health risks associated with BHA and BHT.
In particular, BHA has been labeled as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen by The National Toxicology Program (NTP). One animal study found that BHA exposure resulted in both benign and malignant tumors in the stomach of rats, mice, and hamsters.
It’s also been determined by the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption that there is strong evidence that BHA is a human endocrine disruptor. This means that BHA can disrupt the normal function of your hormonal system.
One consequence of endocrine disruption is issues with development and production. BHA has been linked to such issues as changes in testosterone levels, underdevelopment of reproductive organs, and halted sexual maturation.
BHA has also been found to cause kidney damage at a cellular level in lab tests, exerting significant cytotoxic effects even at low doses (in other words, BHA is toxic to your cells).
Research shows that BHT, when applied to rats’ skin, resulted in toxic effects on lung tissue. What’s more, The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has determined that there is moderate evidence that BHT is a human respiratory irritant.
What to look for on the label: BHA, BHT
Phthalates are widely used in consumer products as plasticizers, adding softness and creating a more flexible and elastic feel. They also help to keep fragrance in your hair and in your sheets long after you use products that contain a fragrance and phthalates.
The two most common phthalates in cosmetics products are dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and Diethyl phthalate (DEP). DEP is mostly used in scented products, as an addition to fragrance, while DBP is commonly used in nail polish to give it a flexible finish.
Common Products That Contain Phthalates:
- Color cosmetics
- Fragranced lotions
- Nail polish
- Body wash
- Hair care products
- Detergents like laundry soap
The European Commission has determined that there is sufficient evidence that DBP leads to endocrine disruption in living organisms, while The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) included both DBP and DEP as endocrine disruptors.
Research shows that pregnant women exposed to phthalates may experience feminization in their newborns, with the improper formation of sex organs. Metabolites of DEP have also been associated with issues in male reproductive systems, including male infertility and impaired sperm motility.
DBP has been shown in studies to cause the proliferation of breast cancer cells while simultaneously reducing the effectiveness of medications like tamoxifen, which are meant to reduce high estrogen levels.
What to look for on the label: phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP and fragrance
Triclosan is a common antibacterial ingredient found in a range of soaps and detergents. Among the harmful effects of triclosan is an issue that goes beyond your typical health concern — something known as antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance happens when microbes become resistant to the effects of antibiotics. This is a huge concern as antibiotics are the primary treatment for infections and without the ability to treat infections, they could continue to spread and produce harmful effects on the host.
Common Products That Contain Triclosan:
- Antibacterial soaps and detergents
- Hand sanitizers and gels
- Tooth whiteners
- Shaving products
- Color cosmetics
Aside from its role in antibiotic resistance, triclosan has also been indicated as an endocrine-disrupting agent. It’s been found to disrupt thyroid hormone production, and also enhance the expression of estrogen and androgen-sensitive genes.
It’s also been shown to increase cell proliferation in hormone-sensitive breast cancer cells.
This toxic ingredient is also washing into rivers and streams and oceans and killing fish and wildlife by disrupting the food chain.
What to look for on the label: Triclosan (TSC) and triclocarban (TCC)
#8 Lead and Other Heavy Metals
There are a number of heavy metals that can be found in personal care products, including lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, and chromium. These metals can cause symptoms ranging from mild to serious health issues when they accumulate in your body.
Common Products That Contain Lead:
- Lipsticks and lip products
- Whitening toothpaste
- Skin lighteners
- Nail color
- Eye shadow
- Concealers and foundations
- Eye drops
Lead, in particular, has been found in 61% of lipsticks on the market that have been tested. While some heavy metals have benefits to human health in trace amounts, there is no known level of lead that is considered safe to the human body.
This heavy metal is a known neurotoxin, and it’s been linked to learning, language, and behavioral problems.
Lead also causes a host of problems to the hormonal systems of both men and women and has been linked to infertility. What’s more, lead is able to cross the placenta of pregnant women and may enter the fetal brain.
Mercury is another heavy metal that can be found in your beauty products. It’s used as an antimicrobial and in skin lightening creams and products. The detrimental health effects of mercury include fatigue, nervous system toxicity, reproductive issues, respiratory issues, immune dysfunction, and hormonal imbalance.
What to look for on the label: Lead acetate, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate. Note: products that contain contaminant metals will not list them on ingredient labels
#9 Ethanolamine Compounds (DEA and TEA)
Ethanolamines are a group of chemicals that contain both amino acids and alcohols. In personal care products, both DEA (diethanolamine) and TEA (triethanolamine) are used as emulsifying agents, with TEA also being used in fragrance and as a pH adjuster.
When ethanolamines are used in products with nitrogen-containing compounds, they can form something called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are a group of over a dozen different chemicals that have been labeled as either known carcinogens, or possible carcinogens
Common Products That Contain Ethanolamine Compounds:
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Shaving cream
- Paraffin and waxes
- Eye shadow
The health risks associated with ethanolamines include cancer and organ system toxicity.
One type of nitrosamine, Nitrosodiethanolamine, is a listed carcinogen and has been shown to cause liver cancer and kidney tumors in rats. Meanwhile, DEA and TEA have been found to cause cancer in the livers of mice.
DEA has been shown to accumulate in the liver and kidneys, causing toxicity to these organs and possibly having neurotoxic effects as well. What’s more, research shows that DEA may affect male reproductive health by altering the structure of sperm and interfering with sperm’s ability to swim and fertilize the egg.
What to look for on the label: Triethanolamine, diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate
#10 1,4 Dioxane
1,4 dioxane is not an ingredient in itself, per se, but rather a contaminant that occurs from a process called ethoxylation. Ethoxylation happens when ethylene oxide ( a known carcinogen) is added to other chemicals to make them less harsh — a practice that is common in the beauty industry.
Common Products That Contain 1,4 Dioxane :
- Liquid soap
- Bubble bath
- Hair relaxers
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers 1,4 dioxane a probable human carcinogen, and it’s listed in the California Prop 65 list of chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer and birth defects.
What to look for on the label: PPG, PEG, polysorbate and ingredients that end in –eth such as laureth, steareth, ceteareth.
Phenylenediamine is commonly used as an ingredient in permanent hair dyes that use chemical reactions to fix the color. Therefore, the most vulnerable populations to exposure are hairstylists, but those who frequently have their hair dyed are also at risk.
Common Products That Contain Phenylenediamine:
- Hair dyes
What to look for on the label: p-phenylenediamine, para-phenylenediamine, 4-aminoaniline; 1,4-benzenediamine; p-diaminobenzene; 1,4-diaminobenzene; 1,4-phenylene diamine
Phenylenediamine has been linked to increased risk of bladder cancer, and when combined with hydrogen peroxide (as it often is in hair dyes), it can form a DNA-altering compound called Bandrowski’s base, which has been shown to be possibly carcinogenic.
When ingested, phenylenediamine is highly toxic and can cause renal failure and severe respiratory distress. In fact, if the poisoning is severe enough, it can even become fatal.
Siloxanes are silicone-based compounds that are used to soften and bring smoothness and moisture to cosmetic products.
Common Products That Contain Phenylenediamine:
- Hair products
- Facial products
Siloxanes are endocrine-disrupting compounds that interfere with hormonal systems and may impair fertility. Some research shows that in high doses, siloxanes may cause uterine tumors and therefore interfere with the reproductive system.
What to look for on the label: silicones, antifoam FD 62, DIME, DC 35A, DC 360, dimethyl siloxane, Dow Corning 200, Dow Corning 561, dimethylpolysiloxane, KO 08, or PMS 1.5
In lieu of more strict government regulations around personal care and beauty products, the responsibility of avoiding harmful compounds like those listed above falls squarely on the consumer.
I wish I could say that this list of the “dirty dozen” is all you need to know in order to protect yourself, but unfortunately, this list is just the tip of the iceberg. While being aware of the compounds included here is definitely a step in the right direction, you want to support companies that produce clean beauty products.
To help you choose safer products, I have created a comprehensive list of safe products that I love in my article, Wendy’s Favorite Natural Beauty Products. Check that out to find products that are natural, nontoxic and actually perform like their toxic counterparts.
Another great resource to look for safe responsible brands is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. They have done the majority of the legwork to determine which products are consumer safe, and which should be avoided at all costs. You can find a link to the Skin Deep database here.
U.S cosmetics regulations haven’t been updated in more than 80 years. And though more than 40 countries have banned or restricted 1,400 ingredients in cosmetics for health and safety, the U.S. has restricted only 11.
The Toxic-Free Cosmetics act would ban 12 of the most notorious carcinogens, hormone disruptors and reproductive toxicants used in cosmetics. It’s a commonsense first step toward modernizing U.S. cosmetics regulations. Can we count on you to take action today to help BAN the toxic 12?
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