Beauty Products: Are They Toxic?

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For the past several years I have been making an effort to reduce the toxic load on my body. This has entailed not only paying close attention to what I eat, but also what personal care and cosmetic products I use. When I began this journey, I started to learn about the ingredients used in many common products that are considered toxic and was a bit overwhelmed. In this post, I’m going to do my best to explain why I decided it was important to change and give an overview of some common toxins. There is a tremendous amount of research that has been done and I’ve included many links below for your reference and deeper reading. This post is part 1 of a 2 part series. Come back in 2 weeks to read my follow-up to get started with cleaning your beauty routine.

Why Make the Shift?

It’s important to understand that what we put on our skin affects our health. Most personal skin care and cosmetics are applied directly to the skin. The skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and anything applied to the skin can be absorbed into the bloodstream. The skin is made of three main layers, the epidermis, dermis and subcutis. At a high level, the epidermis is the outermost layer of the skin and it protects the body from external conditions. The dermis is found beneath the epidermis and is the thickest layer of the skin held together by collagen and elastin. The dermis regulates the body temperature, supplies the epidermis nutrient-saturated blood and stores much of the body’s supply of water. This layer also contains the blood vessels, lymph vessels, sweat glands, nerve endings, hair follicles and sebaceous glands. The inner most layer is the subcutis responsible for insulating the body and protects the inner organs. Each layer works to protect our body from the outside in and the inside out. If you’d like to get a deeper understanding on the Layers of the Skin, read this training module from the National Cancer Institute.

So, if I put moisturizing lotion on my skin, what happens to the lotion? Does it stay on the epidermis? Does it sink into my pores? Or is it in my lymphatic fluid or bloodstream? There is varying research about what can be absorbed through the layers of the skin and it is largely dependent on the structure of the ingredient. Some ingredient’s molecules are small enough that they can make it into the bloodstream. There are thousands of ingredients used in personal care products and cosmetics and it’s a challenge to know which ones will make it into the bloodstream and which ones will stop on the epidermis. On top of that, think about how many products you use on a daily basis from body soap, body lotion, hand soap, shampoo and the list goes on and on. It starts to get overwhelming.

The Toxic Chemicals

Regardless of whether or not all ingredients make it into the bloodstream, I personally want to do what I can to reduce my toxic load. As part of this effort, I investigated what chemicals are considered toxic and how they can potentially impact me. I found a wealth of information and published materials on the different toxic chemicals. I found these three resources particularly useful in my search.

  1. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published an article entitled, The Toxic Twelve Chemicals and Contaminants in Cosmetics.
  2. The David Suzuki Foundation published a similar Dirty Dozen list. You can review the entire report entitled, What’s Inside? That Counts: A Survey of Toxic Ingredients in our Cosmetics.
  3. Another site that contains a wealth of information is The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Check out Chemicals of Concern portion of their website.

For the most part, these resources call out the same toxins. Below is a high-level summary of the most common toxins identified and the possible side effects. I would encourage you to review the resources above for complete details on all possible toxins and side effects.

  • BHA and BHT – These are butylated compounds that are used as preservatives in lip products, hair products, sunscreen and deodorants. The risk is that these chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system and cause organ toxicity.
  • Coal Tar – This is a carcinogen derived from coal that is used in hair dyes, shampoos, scalp treatments and other cosmetics. Coal tar can cause cancer and organ system toxicity.
  • Ethanolamine Compounds – Beware if the ingredient label shows a designation of MEA, DEA or TEA. These are used as an emulsifying agent, fragrance or pH adjuster in hair products, body lotions, sunscreen, eye make-up, face make-up and pharmaceutical ointments. These compounds are linked to cancer, liver tumors and organ system toxicity. It’s also important to note that they have been banned in the European Union.  
  • Formaldehyde – When I first saw this toxin on the list, I immediately thought back to high school Biology and couldn’t understand the reasoning as to why Formaldehyde would be in my personal care and cosmetic products. It turns out that formaldehyde releasing ingredients are used as a preservative and to prevent bacteria growth. It can be found is nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, hair gel, body soap, shampoo and more. Formaldehyde is known as a human carcinogen and can cause cancer.
  • Fragrance – Fragrance is found in almost every personal care product and cosmetics. In fact, it’s challenging to find unscented products.  According to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) there are over 3,000 materials that are reported as being used in fragrance compounds. Of these 3,000 plus ingredients, some have evidence linking them to health effects including cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and sensitivities.
  • Heavy Metals – Metals such as lead, mercury, aluminum, zinc, etc. are found in a wide variety of personal care products including lipstick, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner, eye shadow and nail color. Exposure to metals has been linked to health concerns with the reproductive system and can cause damage to the kidneys, immune and nervous systems.
  • Parabens – Once again, Parabens are used as a preservative in shampoos, conditioners and lotions. These are known to disrupt hormones and harm the reproductive system.
  • Phthalates – These can also be referred to as DEP, DBP, DEHP and fragrance and has been banned in the European Union but is not in the United States. These are found in fragranced lotions, nail polish, body washes and colored cosmetics. The risk is hormone disruption and damage the reproductive system.
  • Triclosan – Used as an antimicrobial agent in soaps, detergents, toothpaste, deodorant and colored cosmetics. There have been some reports that this contributes to antibiotic resistance and can disrupt the endocrine system.  

The fact that these chemicals make it into products that we use daily is frightening. We need to vote and make a statement with our money to the companies that refuse to stop using these toxins. There are so many alternatives today and I believe it’s time we support these small companies that are working to make a difference in our health and the planet.

When I began this journey, I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know where to begin. Maybe it’s because I pay more attention today, but I feel like the options have increased substantially in recent times. Join me in 2 weeks for part 2 of this post where I will share ideas on how to get started on the “clean-up” journey, how I find healthy products, where I buy my products and why I love these vendors.

Additional Resources

  1. 13 Ingredients to Avoid in Personal Care Products
  2. Toxic Load: What’s in Your Personal Care Products?
  3. How What You Put on Your Skin Affects Your Health

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