By Dr. Nasha Winters, ND, FABNO

There are more than 20 million synthetic chemicals on our planet, and that number increases by more than 1 million EVERY YEAR. Sadly, the vast majority of these chemicals have not been tested for their safety, and they have most certainly not been tested in combination with each other. That is a scary fact because many times harmless chemicals become carcinogenic (cancer-causing) when they are combined together.

Carcinogenic chemicals are present in our air, water, food, furniture, cleaning supplies, and more. It is impossible to entirely avoid these chemicals, but some exposures we have more control over than others. One area where we do have control is through our use of personal care products.

The skin can act like a sponge, allowing chemicals to pass directly into the bloodstream. That means we need to start thinking about the products we put on our skin in the same way we think about the foods we put in our mouths. Many people believe that toxic chemicals are tightly regulated, and they do not need to worry about it. That is unfortunately not the case, as cosmetics and body care products are the least regulated arm of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, at least 11 of the 113 agents listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogens are currently used in personal care products. Those chemicals are formaldehyde, phenacetin, coal tar, benzene, untreated or mildly treated mineral oils, methylene glycol, ethylene oxide, chromium, cadmium and its compounds, arsenic, and crystalline silica or quartz.

Those 11 carcinogens are not the only chemicals of concern in beauty products. Even chemicals that are not cancer-causing can disrupt the body’s metabolism by triggering allergies, skin irritation, or hormone imbalances. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a comprehensive database of personal care products (Skin Deep), where you can enter the name of any product and view a report on its ingredients and safety concerns. It is also helpful to know some of the top ingredients to watch for when you are scanning labels of personal care products in the aisle of the grocery store. Keep an eye out for these top 5 categories of toxic chemicals.

5 Top Chemicals in Skin Care Products

1. Parabens

Parabens are used as preservatives in skin care products. They have estrogenic effects and are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. You might see ingredients like methylparabens, propylparabens, or butylparabens in facial cleansers, makeup, shampoo, and other beauty products.

2. Phthalates

Much like parabens, phthalates also disrupt hormones and increase the risk of breast cancer. Phthalates come under multiple names, such as dibutyl phthalate or diethyl phthalate. They are commonly found in lotions.

3. Fragrance

If you are trying to avoid phthalates, you could be fooled by products that contain “fragrance.” Fragrances do not need to be listed as specific compounds on the label, and may contain any number of chemicals—including phthalates. Always choose fragrance-free options for soaps, shampoos, and lotions.

4. Synthetic colors

Synthetic colors are derived from coal tar and petroleum sources. They can irritate the skin and are suspected human carcinogens. Synthetic colors will be listed on the label as FD&C or D&C, followed by the name of a color and a number (FD&C red 40).

5. The “Unpronounceables”

Many of the chemicals in cosmetics and skin care products are just unpronounceable. These include benzophenone, butylated compounds (like BHA), ethanolamine compounds (like MEA, DEA, TEA, and others), hydroquinone, methylisothiazolinone, polyacrylamide, polytetrafluoroethylene. A good rule of thumb? If you can’t pronounce it, don’t put it on your skin.


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