The Ban List: 7 Ingredients to Avoid in Personal-Care Products

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Know which chemicals are most important to avoid when shopping for personal-care products.
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Stay healthier by avoiding these common personal-care ingredients.

Browsing the aisles for healthy personal-care products can be daunting. Knowing which chemicals are most important to avoid can help you make healthy, informed decisions. Here are our top picks of ingredients to avoid and why.

1. Synthetic Preservatives

Synthetic preservatives such as parabens and formaldehyde are used to prevent microbial growth in liquidy personal-care products such as shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, and face and body washes. While they increase shelf life, these synthetic preservatives can trigger skin allergies, irritation and more serious health effects.

Parabens mimic estrogen in the body, may cause reproductive disorders and have been detected in cancerous breast tumors. Ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben are frequently used in cosmetics. Formaldehyde is listed as a human carcinogen by the EPA, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the National Toxicology Program of the Department of Health and Human Services. Yet formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are used in many personal-care products, particularly shampoos and liquid body soaps. Formaldehyde is listed under a variety of names on labels, including dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol). Methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone are two other widely used synthetic preservatives that can cause allergic reactions and should be avoided.  

2. Triclosan

Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical used in soaps, face washes, deodorants, toothpastes, mouthwashes and some other personal-care products. It accumulates in our bodies and is linked to skin irritation, liver toxicity and hormone disruption. Triclosan can also accumulate in waterways, killing beneficial bacteria that contribute to healthy ecosystems. Other studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to the FDA. The FDA has found no evidence that antibacterial hand wash is more effective than plain soap and water for preventing the spread of infection and reducing bacteria on the skin. 

3. Fragrance (Phthalates)

Unfortunately, one of the most potentially troublesome ingredients in personal-care products is also one of the most ubiquitous. Synthetic fragrances are present in nearly every personal-care product, including face washes and moisturizers; soaps; body washes and lotions; hair-care products; and deodorants. The term “fragrance” on a label can indicate the presence of any combination of an array of ingredients, some of which are derived from petrochemicals. Phthalates, a group of chemicals used in plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and regularly labeled “fragrance,” have been found to accumulate in the body and have been linked to hormone disruption; possible birth defects; infertility; and breast and possible liver cancer. Check labels on “unscented” products carefully; they often still contain synthetic fragrance.

4. SLS and SLES

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are common ingredients that cause shampoos, cleansers and toothpastes to foam. They remove oil effectively but can cause dryness and skin irritation. Of greater concern is the manufacturing process used to turn sodium lauryl sulfate into sodium laureth sulfate, which creates the byproduct 1,4-dioxane–a known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen that is also suspected to be toxic to the kidneys and respiratory system. Because of these concerns, some manufacturers have replaced SLS and SLES with sodium coco sulfate. Although it hasn’t been subjected to as much testing, sodium coco sulfate is less irritating than SLS and doesn’t create SLES’s cancerous byproduct. 

5. Propylene Glycol

Commonly used in moisturizers and deodorants as a skin-conditioning agent and in toothpaste to help retain moisture, propylene glycol is a petroleum derivative that may cause allergic reactions, hives and other skin irritation in concentrations as low as 2 percent, according to the EWG. It also enhances skin absorption, which may help other potentially harmful ingredients reach the bloodstream more easily. Look for these synonyms on labels: PPG; 1,2-dihydroxypropane; 2-hydroxypropanol; methylethyl glycol; 1,2-propanediol; and propane-1,2-diol.

6. DEA and TEA (Nitrosamines)

Diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) are additives used to adjust product pH or act as foaming agents. They can irritate skin and, if used in formulations that also contain certain preservatives, can become nitrosamines as the formula begins to break down. Some nitrosamines are readily absorbed through the skin and repeated exposure may lead to liver and kidney damage. The European Union and Canada have banned the use of nitrosamines in cosmetics, and the EPA classifies them as possible human carcinogens. Because of the common nature of this impurity, almost every type of personal-care product–from baby shampoo to shaving cream–can contain nitrosamines. 

7. Retinyl Palmitate and Retinol (Vitamin A)

Many sunscreens, lip balms, moisturizers and anti-aging products include retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A rich in antioxidants and anti-aging properties. Unfortunately, this ingredient may also speed up the development of cancerous skin tumors when exposed to the sun. And according to the EWG, excessive amounts may be toxic to a developing fetus if women are exposed during pregnancy. Avoid retinyl palmitate in daytime skin products, and limit exposure if you are or may become pregnant.

For more on chemicals and other ingredients to avoid in beauty products, read the original article, “Come Clean: Natural Alternatives to Chemical-Laden Personal-Care Products.”

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