When you’re shopping for self-care products like deodorant, moisturizer, shampoo, and toothpaste, how do you choose from the dozens of options available? If your go-tos are simply a favorite brand or scent, you may be forgetting to check something incredibly important: the ingredients list.
The list of health concerns associated with certain chemicals used in personal care products is a long and scary one. They’re easily absorbed by the skin, and have been linked to skin irritations, endocrine system disruptions, reproductive problems, behavioral issues, and even an increased risk of cancer.
“These are toxic substances that can do harm by disrupting immune functions, blocking key enzyme pathways, and mimicking other hormones and chemical messengers in the body,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., Medical Director of Vital Plan. “For example, many mimic the hormone estrogen. This not only inhibits sexual functions in men and women, but has also been linked to a variety of hormonally-related cancers, including breast cancer and prostate cancer.”
Fortunately, you do have choices. “You can control what you put on your skin, and you should take advantage of that,” says Dr. Rawls. “Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and it takes on a significant amount of the toxic load you encounter each day.”
So how do you begin making wiser choices?
The simplest solution is to read your product labels — but first you have to know what to watch out for. This can require a little homework, since federal law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients to have FDA approval, and pretty much anything goes. But if you’re aware of smart alternatives, you can significantly reduce your toxin exposure simply by choosing one bottle over another at your local grocery store or drugstore.
Step one is familiarizing yourself with the most commonly used problematic chemicals in self-care products. Avoid these, and you’ll go a long way toward detoxifying your shower and cosmetics bag. Here are the 10 most ubiquitous toxins to stay far away from:
10 Toxins to Avoid in Your Self-Care Products
1. Formaldehyde. Take a close look at your nail polish, body wash, shampoo, hairspray, and other products to determine whether or not they contain formaldehyde. The chemical is known to trigger allergic skin reactions, and may potentially damage the immune system. Watch out for this ingredient hiding under other names, including Diazolidinyl urea, 3-diol Imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM Hydantoin, Quaternium-15, Nitorpropane-1, Formalin, Methanal, Methyl Aldehyde, and Methylene Oxide.
2. Fragrance. The word fragrance sounds harmless enough, but cosmetic companies use it as an umbrella term for a whole host of different chemicals that can be toxic to your health. According to the Environmental Working Group, these chemicals have been linked to allergies, respiratory distress, skin irritations, and other unwelcome side effects.
3. Parabens. Many cosmetic products, deodorants, shampoos, and body washes contain parabens to help prevent the growth of mold, yeast, and bacteria. As good as that might sound, parabens also have a serious downside: They’re known endocrine disruptors, and they’ve been found in biopsy samples of breast tumors. The most commonly used parabens are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.
4. Phthalates. This group of chemicals can often be found in nail polish, lotion, perfume, and hairspray. Phthalates have been identified as endocrine disruptors, and they’re linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, as well as reproductive birth defects in both men and women. They’re often disguised as dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), or as the word “fragrance.”
5. Propylene glycol. Propylene glycol is an alcohol known to cause skin irritations, including dermatitis and hives. It’s able to penetrate deep into the skin, causing irritations at concentrations as low as 2%. Propylene glycol may be hiding in your moisturizer, sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner, and other cosmetic products.
6. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). This chemical is added to more than 90% of personal care and cleaning products. If the product foams (think body wash or face wash), there’s a good chance it includes SLS. Sodium lauryl sulfate has the potential to interact with other chemicals and form a carcinogen known as nitrosamines, which can lead to kidney damage and respiratory damage, among other health problems. Look for products marked SLS-free.
7. Synthetic colors. Keep an eye out for “FD&C” or “D&C” on labels — this means the product includes artificial colors, like Red 27 or Blue 1. Synthetic colors, derived from petroleum or coal tar, may be carcinogenic. Studies have also linked them to ADHD in children.
8. Toluene. Toluene can hide in labels under the name benzene, toluol, phenylmethane, or methylbenzene. Like synthetic colors, toluene is derived from petroleum or coal tar, and it can cause nausea, skin irritations, and respiratory irritations. It’s also been linked to immune system toxicity.
9. Triclosan. A known endocrine disruptor, triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical that often causes skin irritations. It can be found in antibacterial soaps, toothpastes, hand sanitizers, and deodorants. Research suggests that triclosan may be especially harmful to the thyroid and reproductive hormones.
10. Chemicals in sunscreen. Benzophenone, PABA, avobenzone, homosalate, and methoxycinnamate are chemicals commonly added to sunscreen to absorb ultraviolet light. While they may help protect you from a sunburn, these chemicals can also be easily absorbed into your body, causing cellular damage and even cancer. Opt for a fragrance-free mineral sunscreen, sans the ingredients above, when spending time outdoors.
That’s a lot of complex scientific words to remember, so if you can’t keep them all in your head, no worries. In general, a mile-long list of ingredients you can’t pronounce is often a good indication that the product contains some less-than-ideal additives. You can also always head over to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. It’s a great resource for making sure the products you’re considering are as safe as possible.
Finally, it helps to take key natural supplements that support your body’s natural detox powers, so you can better filter out any harmful chemicals your skin does absorb. At the top of Dr. Rawls’ list is chlorella, a nutrient-dense freshwater algae. It’s high in chlorophyll, which binds with toxins and potentially interferes with their absorption in tissues. He also recommends glutathione, an antioxidant that supports detoxification systems of the liver and intestinal system.
Add these supplements to your daily routine, spend a little time policing your product labels, and enjoy your self-care routine for the health-enhancing practice that it is.