Toxic ingredients in self-care products.

We all like to look beautiful, and feel comfortable in our own skin. Boy, girl, all of us. We have sacrificed our health for this privilege in many cases, though. We need to be much more concerned about whether we are healthy than whether we are pretty. You can have both, though! Read my post here for recipes for natural DIY skincare products.

When we talk about toxic ingredients in cosmetics sometimes the lines get blurred, because there is a lot of sources out there that will tell you not to worry about one ingredient or another. This can be misleading. Sometimes an ingredient in isolation may not do you harm, but what if during production this ingredient picks up another chemical, one that is very dangerous? Something else worth considering, is what about when a lot of these “semi-harmless” ingredients get together? What kind of reaction occurs? How will this affect your skin, your body, your health, the environment? Something else that a lot of these sources ignore is the accumulation effect. Many of the chemicals and ingredients we will discuss on this page haven’t been studied long term to know what the results will be in the body as these things build up in the body, as things often do… especially when our body’s innate detoxifying mechanisms are halted (some of these ingredients can be traced to that, too!)

To get started, here are the main ingredients common to many cosmetic ingredients that we will be discussing (don’t worry, we won’t get too technical):

  • Phthalates
  • SLS
  • BPA
  • 1, 4 Dioxane
  • Polysorbates
  • Nitrosamines and nitrates
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • BHA
  • Parabens
  • PEGs
  • Fragrance

For each chemical we will talk briefly about what they are used for, where you’ll see them, and why they should be avoided when possible.

Phthalates.. the everywhere chemical

This is a family of a colorless oily liquid that is used to soften plastics and also works as a solvent (helps things dissolve.) They are EVERYWHERE! You will see it (maybe) listed in ingredients as DEHP, DMP, DEP, DAP, DPP, DBP… and many different combinations of these letters. It is best to find things clearly listed as not containing phthalates.

How you get exposed:

This class of chemicals is put into some makeups and personal products like shampoos. You can also see it in toys, flooring, detergents, food packaging (think your TV dinners and fast food,) pharmaceutical products, blood bags (where blood is stored for those receiving transfusions,) various types of medical tubing, nail polish, hair sprays, soaps, vinyl shower curtains, car seats… and the list could go on. Harvard published a study/statement in 2005 about the high amounts of phthalates found in infants that have been treated in the NICU, due to the high amounts in medical devices. They have suggested using alternatives to the products that contain this class of chemicals. I assure you, you would find high amounts in most of us. Babies, young males, and pregnant women are most sensitive to the effects, but they are damaging to everyone.

What they do in the body:

Like many of the chemicals and compounds we will talk about here, a lot of problems we face is when these chemicals are allowed to build up in the body. This is particularly a problem we see with phthalates because they can be found in so many things we use/eat on a daily basis. Phthalates have been found to participate in the damage of kidneys, liver, lungs, and the reproductive system. There is particular attention about the relationship this family of chemicals has on developing testes, allowing for the possibility of young boys growing up to be sterile when there are high levels of exposure due to this chemical’s ability to cause death of testicular cells. Because this class of chemicals is also listed as an Endocrine disruptor, exposure can also be linked to breast cancer, diabetes, and thyroid issues.

If you suspect that you, a child, or a friend are suffering from hormonal disregulation, please see this very short guide on popular Endocrine disruptors and how to avoid them.

How to avoid them:

It can be challenging, but do your best to avoid plastic food containers. This means not only the ones you buy to store leftovers, but also the ones used in the frozen food section and at restaurants. If you are taking leftovers from a restaurant and are given a Styrofoam or plastic container, immediately put into a glass storage container when you get home. In the same way, avoid the plastic wrap used to cover foods, especially those made from PVC (look for recycling label #3.) At the very least, keep these plastic food containers OUT of the microwave (not that I encourage using microwaves, ever.) The heat increases the ability of these chemicals (among others) to leach into your food.

Look for cosmetics that are Phthalate free. I recommend using EWG’s guide (Environmental Working Group,) called SkinDeep when picking out cosmetics. The makeup line I use that is plant based and free of Phthalates is Savvy Minerals.

SLS (Sodium Laurel Sulfate) SLES (Sodium Laureth Sulfate) and ALS(Ammonium Laurel Sulfate):

This a class of chemicals that gets debated a lot, but has brought about attention to the dangers. You can now find a lot of products labeled “sulfate free.” These chemicals are used as a surfactant (they decrease surface tension so things cam spread out easier,) as a detergent, and an emulsifier (helps oils blend.) You will see usually one or several forms of these chemicals in cosmetics and cleaners that claim to be “all natural.”

How you get exposed:

You may see SLS or a form of it in shampoos, soaps, cleaners, liquid foundations, household cleaners, and all other sorts of personal products including toothpastes. While safety organizations tout that this is safe and is nothing more than an “irritant,” there is evidence that this builds up in the system. It has been found in tissues of the heart, brain, and lungs.

What they do in the body:

It may be “safe” if it makes up less than 1% of the total ingredients of the product (the safety claim) but what happens after this build up occurs? There is speculation that it also upsets the Endocrine system as this chemical acts similar to estrogen in the body. While most studies looking at SLS are looking at only this chemical in isolation, in the natural occurrence of things this chemical isn’t alone. It picks up a carcinogen during the manufacturing process, one called 1, 4 Dioxane which is a known carcinogen. Studies looking at the safety of SLS do not account for the addition chemical it is commonly contaminated with, or what happens when this chemical meets other chemicals in the product or in your body. Truthfully, it would be nearly impossible to test all the different combinations of chemicals that are in our products. This is a great article written by Dr. Mercola with more specifics about SLS.

How to avoid it: the best way to avoid this chemical and the contaminates that follow, is to not buy or use products that contain SLS. Because there has been much attention given to SLS in recent years, it is somewhat easy to find brands/products that specifically leave this out. SLS Free is a website with the purpose of sharing information about products that do not contain this chemical. While I do believe there are much better brands that leave out a lot more harsh chemicals than just SLS, this is a good start.


You will see this chemical in many places where SLS and Nitrates are involved.

How you get exposed:

These get absorbed during the processing of SLS. Anything that has SLS in it could be contaminated with Nitrosamines, meaning any of your personal care products, household cleaners, and some processed foods. This chemical also allow the body to absorb Nitrates, which is another carcinogen found in processed meats, alcohol, and tobacco.

What they do in the body:

These chemicals have been correlated to cancers of the pancreas, lung, brain, liver, kidney, bladder, stomach, esophagus, and nasal sinus. Woah! That’s a lot. It is important to keep in mind that you won’t develop these cancers by using a product with these ingredients one time. It happens when using toxic lotions and potions and eating overly processed foods (especially meats) is your norm. Obviously smoking and heavily drinking also contributes.

1, 4 Dioxane

We mentioned this briefly in the paragraphs above, since SLS picks this chemical up in the production process. Polysorbates also are often contaminated with this chemical. Again, it is important to note this is considered by the CDC to be a “probable carcinogen.” This essentially means while they aren’t willing to say this chemical certainly causes cancer, they believe it probably does.

How you get exposed:

While this chemical can contaminate anything with SLS or Polysorbates in it (meaning personal care products, cosmetics, and cleaners,) it is also sadly in much groundwater. Meaning, this could be in our water supplies at home, and in the water used to grow our produce. It has also been seen in meat, fish, eggs, and butter. It is important to understand water’s relationship with our very existence. If our water is sick, everything that touches it can become sick, including our food.

What it does in the body:

Like most of the harmful chemical we will discuss, this is one that builds up in the body. The toxicity most affects the Central Nervous System, which includes the brain. This risk assessment also links it to liver and kidney damage.

How to avoid it: Do not use products that are made with SLS or Polysorbates. This means checking your personal products and cleaners for those specific things, since we know that 1,4 Dioxane often hangs around with those chemicals. Remember, 1, 4 Dioxane doesn’t have to be listed on the ingredient list in order to be included. Proper filtration and growing our own food is another way to avoid these things.


This is an oily liquid that is used as an emulsifier, meaning that it breaks down other oils and allows them to mix. Because of this they are also used in gel capsules. The most common ones to see are -60 and -80.

How you get exposed:

Because of this chemical’s ability to act as an emulsifier, it is common to see it included in the ingredients of “natural” products, especially those that say they are made with essential oils. The most common ones to see are -60 and -80. If you haven’t heard of the term “greenwashing” before, please read this and get acquainted with the idea. It is important to know the natural products you are using for your family really are pure, natural, and not harmful to our planet which is the home of our future generations. You can also find these popular polysorbates in some foods and (unadulterated) vitamin supplements.

What they do in the body:

This chemical is able to cross the Blood Brain Barrier, meaning it can reach the most sensitive areas of your brain. It is suggested that since it can cross the Brain Barrier and is often contaminated with 1,4 Dioxane (the carcinogen we mentioned above) that it is possible that polysorbates can bring this extremely harmful substance into your brain. Also, it has been found to be mutagenic, meaning it can cause changes to your genetic material. Animal studies also show damage to reproductive organs! It is also being seen to cause bowel issues and increase symptoms of Crohn’s disease.

How to avoid it:

Like many things we are discussing, it is best to find the most truly natural personal products to use on yourself and children. Avoid “cheap” supplements and overly processed foods.


This word is a mouthful! A lot of people give the general rule that if you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably not food and therefore probably not good for you. Truthfully, that’s a bad rule. It can be misleading at times, though. Some very healthy compounds have strange names, but in this case I’ll say the rule rings true!

How you get exposed: