We all want to do our best to take care of the skin we're in. Over the counter skin care products found on the shelves of pharmacies and supermarkets seem to share this noble purpose at first glance. With their marketing and packaging, these products assure us that they will help with skin issues and make your skin healthier than ever before.
But the truth is that many of the over the counter skin care products you'll find for sale on retail shelves and online are filled with toxic ingredients that may worsen skin conditions or even cause disease. Even though many of these ingredients have been known for years to cause skin irritation, respiratory issues, or even cancer, manufacturers of skin care products continue to load their formulas with toxic chemicals and preservatives that are harmful.
It is, therefore, the responsibility of the individual consumer to make sure that the over the counter skin care products he or she consumes do not contain any of these harmful ingredients.
Familiarize yourself with all the ingredients on this list so you'll be able to recognize them when you're shopping for a new face wash, eyeshadow, or nail polish.
While it's incredibly unfortunate that these ingredients are used in skin care products in the first place, by arming yourself with knowledge you can protect yourself and your loved ones from harm.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Sodium lauryl sulfate is one of the most commonly found toxins in skin care products. The first sign that this ingredient might be toxic is the fact that it was originally designed as an industrial degreaser and was never meant to be used on human skin. However, once skin care product manufacturers realized that SLS is an excellent foaming agent, this harmful ingredient started appearing everywhere.
If an over the counter skin care product becomes foamy during use, chances are that it contains sodium lauryl sulfate. This surfactant has been found in over 90% of personal care products and at the very least leads to skin irritation. While SLS is found in many acne products, this chemical can actually make acne worse and is especially associated with cystic acne, which is the most painful and pernicious form of this skin ailment.
Sodium lauryl acetate also disrupts the balance of your natural skin oils and can cause eye damage. Worst of all, SLS can combine with other chemicals to create carcinogens called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines can also cause damage to the kidneys and lungs.
SLS is found in:
Acne treatment products
Most foaming products
The most common types of ethanolamines are DEA, TEA, and MEA. All of these ingredients are used as foaming agents and all of them have been linked to cancer.
Ethanolamines are used to reduce the surface tension of substances used in personal care products to allow oil-bases and water-bases to mix. These toxic ingredients are also used to control the pH of skin care products. As a common foaming agent, ethanolamines are found in almost every product that foams upon use.
Ethanolamines are known carcinogens and also accumulate over time as deposits in the skin. One type of ethanolamine, DEA, has been shown to accumulate in the liver and kidneys, causing problems with the body's natural process of toxin elimination.
It has also been demonstrated that ethanolamines cause neurotoxicity issues and inhibit normal male reproductive function. Worst of all, ethanolamines formulate into nitrosamines when combined with other chemicals. Nitrosamines are notorious carcinogens.
Ethanolamines are found in:
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
Butylated hydroxyanisole is commonly sold as an exfoliant. Thousands of customers use BHA without knowing that this chemical has been linked to cancer. In animal studies, BHA has been shown to stomach cancer and liver damage.
This substance also interferes with normal thyroid function and can cause issues with the development of the reproductive system. With many natural exfoliants available that work just as well, there's no reason to use butylated hydroxyanisole as an exfoliant.
BHA is found in:
Formaldehyde is banned in the European Union. Thankfully, use of formaldehyde in skin care products has become much less popular in recent years, but this substance can still be found in some fake eyelash adhesives and eyeshadows. Formaldehyde can cause respiratory issues, cancer, and developmental problems in utero.
This substance is most commonly used in nail polish and is a common cause of cancer for nail salon workers. While many skin care companies are discontinuing the use of formaldehyde on their products, always check the label to make sure that the product you're buying is free of this toxic and carcinogenic substance.
Formaldehyde is found in:
Fake eyelash adhesive
- Triclosan and Triclocarban
Both ingredients have been shown to disrupt the healthy endocrine system and cause cancer. Triclosan and triclocarban negatively impact the health of the thyroid, and can upset the natural regulation of reproductive hormones. These ingredients have also been shown to irritate the skin. Furthermore, the FDA has officially found triclocarban and triclosan to be unsafe for human use (1).
Triclosan and triclocarban are found in:
"Anti-bacterial" hand soaps
- Coal Tar
Coal tar is a by-product of coal production that has been used in personal care products for decades. This toxic substance is usually used to alleviate skin dryness but has been found to cause cancer and other illnesses. Salon workers are the most at risk to coal tar exposure since many hair dyes and anti-lice treatments contain this dangerous chemical.
Coal tar is banned in the European Union but is still widely in use in American skin care products, so be sure to check the ingredients list of any personal care product you're considering for purchase to make sure that coal tar isn't used in that product.
Though some sources have listed coal tar as being safe when used in small quantities, as with any substance that has been identified as a carcinogen, it’s probably best to just stay away from coal tar entirely.
Topically applied carcinogenic substances like coal tar accumulate in the skin over time, meaning that even if you use coal tar in small amounts you’re still exposing yourself to the risk of developing cancer.
Coal tar is found in:
Face and hand moisturizers
Anti-lice and anti-dandruff treatments
Oxybenzone is one of the worst offenders in a category of toxic personal care ingredients that are especially dangerous to men: estrogen mimickers. Chemicals that mimic the effects of estrogen have become mysteriously prevalent in recent years and can now be found in the lining of aluminum cans, plastic bags, and many personal care products.
Estrogen mimickers lower sperm count in men, cause endometriosis in women, and cause hormone imbalance and liver damage in both children and adults of both sexes.
Since this toxic chemical accumulates in the body's fatty tissues, use of oxybenzone has a cumulative effect that can lead to cellular damage throughout the body.
Since almost all sunscreens contain oxybenzone and since sunscreen is such a popular product, it isn't surprising that the Centers for Disease Control found that almost all Americans had oxybenzone stored in their bodies.
But not only is this chemical dangerous to people that are already living, oxybenzone is also toxic to unborn children. Women with high concentrations of oxybenzone in their systems were found to bear children with lower birth weights.
Why oxybenzone was ever considered safe for human use remains a mystery, but it's clear that anyone who wants to protect their health or the health of their children should stay well away from any product containing oxybenzone.
Oxybenzone is found in:
Parabens pose a special danger to women. There have been samples taken of breast cancer tumors have found the presence of abnormally high levels of parabens. It turns out that parabens aren't naturally flushed out of the bodies and instead absorb into deep tissue, where they await their chance to start growing cancer tissue.
The official purpose of parabens is to act as a preservative for food and personal care products. But it seems that the costs of using parabens far outweigh any purported preservative benefits. Parabens don't only cause breast cancer, they also cause skin cancer and can even lead to birth defects. Learn how to recognize parabens in skin care products and make sure that you and your family stay far away.
Parabens are found in:
Many, many other products
- Polyethylene glycol (PEG)
Most of us have used at least one type of exfoliating product that contains tiny plastic balls mixed in with the other ingredients. These balls are made of a highly toxic compound called polyethylene glycol that is used by personal care product manufacturers because natural exfoliants like walnut shells are more expensive.
PEG is used to penetrate the skin, a function which it performs well, but this toxic substance often brings some nasty friends along for the ride.
Batches of polyethylene glycol are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide. Both of these substances are dreaded carcinogens that have no place in any skin care product. Interestingly, both 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide are easily eliminated from batches of PEG, but for some reason, manufacturers choose to leave them in instead.
The result is that this effective skin penetrator delivers carcinogens into your body tissues where they build up over time and lead to cancer.
To make matters even worse, PEG beads aren't broken up by even the most advanced sewage filtration systems, meaning that this carcinogenic chemical enters the waterways and finds its way into the bodies of fish and other sea life.
If these fish happen to end up on the dinner table, then the polyethylene glycol cycle continues on and on. PEG products should be completely boycotted by any health-conscious individual.
Polyethylene glycol is found in:
Retinol, which is a type of vitamin A compound, is designed to reduce wrinkles and other signs of aging through nightly application to the face and neck. Whether or not retinol truly does have anti-aging effects, what's known for certain is that retinol and other vitamin A topical compounds break down in sunlight and become free radicals, which don't only speed up the aging process but also drastically increase your chances of developing skin cancer.
Free radicals even damage your DNA, so if you're absolutely determined to use retinol products, make sure to only use them at night and wash your face thoroughly before going out into the sunshine. Some sunscreens have even been found to contain retinol-derived substances, so make sure to avoid these products like the plague. As with all the items on this list, it's probably best to avoid retinol altogether and focus on other ways to diminish the visible effects of aging.
Retinol is found in:
- Petroleum Distillates
Petroleum distillates are commonly found in mascara products and can expose you to a higher risk of many types of disease. The fact that these toxic substances are manufactured in oil refineries should be your first clue that the might not be safe for human consumption.
But when you factor in the CDC's warning (2) that petroleum distillates cause dermatitis, breathing problems, and decreased liver and kidney function, it's obvious that these chemicals are a no-go for anyone that wants to maintain perfect health.
To top it off, petroleum distillates are often contaminated during the manufacturing process with various carcinogens. With so many natural ways available to make an effective and alluring mascara, there's no reason to use products that contain petroleum distillates.
Petroleum distillates are found in:
There couldn't be anything harmful about a simple fragrance, right? In reality, the fragrances used in perfumes, body wash, and moisturizers are usually made up of more than a dozen unnamed chemicals.
Federal law allows personal care product manufacturers to keep their special blend of fragrance chemicals secret in order to protect their proprietary formulas, but this loophole leaves plenty of room to squeeze in harmful chemicals that would otherwise cause label-shock for any savvy consumer.
Fragrance mixes have been shown to cause allergies, dermatitis, reproductive issues, endocrine imbalances, and respiratory distress. If you can't pin down all of the ingredients present in a product, it's probably best to simply make a different choice. All products with the word "fragrance" in the ingredients list should be avoided.
Fragrance is found in:
Many other skin care products
Phthalates area especially insidious because they are often included in fragrances and therefore don't need to be labeled.
Phthalates have been linked to reproductive defects in babies whose mothers used products containing these chemicals, young girls experiencing breast development sooner than what is considered normal, an increased risk of breast cancer, endocrine disruption, and liver damage.
Phthalates can be found in:
In recent years, growing disillusionment with traditional sunscreen chemicals has led many companies to devise new and improved sunblock formulas that are less toxic. This initiative has led to the rise of so-called "nanoparticles", which are increasingly used in sunscreens around the world.
Usually consisting of microscopic flecks of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and applied with sprays, manufacturers advertise that nanoparticle sunscreens don't absorb into your skin, supposedly solving one of the major issues with older sunscreen technologies.
However, if inhaled, these nanoparticles can do serious damage to your respiratory system and it's next to impossible to avoid inhaling something that you're spraying all over your body.
Since research into nanoparticles is still in its infancy, manufacturers aren't required to label these toxic ingredients in their products. To add insult to injury, it appears that nanoparticles in sunscreens do in fact penetrate the skin. Metal buildups in the body can lead to endocrine disruption, birth defects, and even cancer.
Nanoparticles are found in:
This highly-toxic substance is also linked to reproductive issues and cancer. As a further reason why you should never use chemicals to try to lighten your skin, skin-lighteners often contain mercury, a substance which is especially toxic during pregnancy.
Bleaching your skin is never a good idea, and substances that contain hydroquinone are certain to do some serious damage to your body.
Hydroquinone is found in:
- Silicone-derived Emollients
In order to increase the perceived softness of their products, many manufacturers of skin care products misguidedly include silicone-derived emollients in their moisturizers. These toxic chemicals supposedly add a smoother feel to moisturizing gels and creams but actually, keep your skin from breathing. This leads to intense skin irritation and can even cause tumors to grow in your skin.
Silicone-derived emollients are another example of industrial chemicals that never should have found their way into skin care products. While these dangerous ingredients are usually clearly labeled, they still have a severely negative impact on your health and any product that contains silicone-derived emollients should never be used on your skin.
Silicone-derived emollients also don't biodegrade under any circumstances and therefore pose a serious danger to the environment.
Silicone-derived emollients are found in:
It turns out that talc does lead to cancer. Studies have demonstrated that use of products that contain talc not only causes respiratory problems but even leads to greater likelihood of developing ovarian cancer. Yet, to this day, dozens if not hundreds of products on the market still use talc as a main ingredient.
Conscientious consumers should abstain from using talc products even if they are labeled as asbestos-free since even talc on its own has been confirmed to be a form of magnesium silicate, which is a known carcinogen.
Talc is found in:
In every case, natural ingredients provide a safe alternative to all the products on this list that still deliver the level of efficacy you may have come to expect from these toxic substances. As public awareness of the dangers of these ingredients grows, many companies are opting to remove them from their over the counter skin care products.
However, many other companies are staying the course, full speed ahead. For years, they have gotten away with selling their customers unsafe products and see no reason to stop now.
That's why it's so important that you carefully examine the ingredients label for any trace of these toxic ingredients. But remember that ingredients labels aren't perfect and many companies have found ways around public distaste for toxic ingredients by relabeling them with seemingly innocuous names.
In general, if the labeling of a product doesn't explicitly state that it is free from toxic ingredients, or if there are any ingredients listed on the label that you don't recognize or can't pronounce, that product might be harmful to your health. it's safer to simply choose not to buy over the counter skin care products that you feel might contain toxic ingredients.
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