Toxic Personal Care Products: 12 Ingredients to Avoid

Toxic Personal Care Products: 12 Ingredients to Avoid

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There has generally been a positive shift in the last few years towards things like organic food, physical fitness, and mental health.

But when it comes to personal care products, there hasn’t been the same amount of growth in the right direction.

If you use commercial bath and beauty products including bath bombs, soap, air fresheners, candles, or perfume - take a look at those labels!

The last thing you want when you’re having a nice Self Care Sunday is to be unknowingly inhaling chemicals or spreading toxins all over the largest organ of your body (your skin).  

Here’s a list of 12 commonly used toxic ingredients to avoid in your personal care products:

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1. Synthetic fragrances

If you like to burn paraffin or soy candles, you might be getting more than the comforting scent and candlelit glow that you bargained for.

Most commercial candles contain synthetic fragrance which can be made up of hundreds, even thousands of chemicals.

What exactly is in that synthetic fragrance? The truth is, we may never know.

Fragrance ingredients are considered “trade secrets” and are therefore protected under the U.S. Fair Packaging and Label Act.

So, manufacturers don’t have to disclose their secret ingredients to us.

No matter how toxic they are.

And these franken-fragrances are not only in candles. They’re also in perfumes, air fresheners, bath bombs, soaps, lotions, and pretty much every type of personal care product.

That's what makes "fragrance" one of the most important things to avoid when it comes to candles, perfumes, lotions, etc.

2. Parabens

Parabens are man-made chemicals often found in makeup, bath products, and hair care products.

They go by many different names. Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben are a few types of parabens to look out for.

This common additive helps extend the shelf life of cosmetic products by stopping the growth of bacteria and mold.

But this convenience comes at a price.

Research shows that parabens disrupt endocrine and hormone function by mimicking estrogen. 

Although the FDA assures us that they are safe when used in small quantities, the truth is that there are some potentially harmful effects such as breast cancer and reproductive/fertility problems.

It’s understandable that companies would want to make their products last longer – that just increases their profit margin.

But why would you want to put these toxic ingredients in your body? There’s no reason why your personal care products need to last forever!

Especially when you can easily get freshly made, small-batch self care products with organic ingredients.

3. Phthalates

Phthalates are industrial chemicals used in personal care products as well as other types of products such as plastic and vinyl to increase their flexibility.

Much like parabens, phthalates interfere with testosterone production and change sex hormone levels.

This toxic personal care product ingredient has been linked to a variety of side effects including obesity, reduced fertility, cancer, neurological disorders, and worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms.

According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, humans are routinely exposed to phthalates through ingestion, inhalation and dermal exposure.

Although we can’t control our exposure to all phthalate-containing ingredients, we can at least control our exposure to some. Make sure your cosmetic, hair, and bath products are paraben and phthalate-free.


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4. Petroleum

Petroleum, petrolatum, and petroleum by-products are made from crude oil.

They are odorless, colorless, and have a long shelf life – once again, great for the company but bad for you.

And although petroleum is supposed to be moisturizing, it actually lays on top of the skin and inhibits its ability to breathe, absorb nutrients, and release toxins.

Mineral oil is another byproduct of petroleum often included in personal care products due to its inexpensive cost.

It clogs the skin and does not metabolize – meaning once it gets into your system, it doesn’t leave!

Paraffin is yet another petroleum byproduct created from the sludge waste that is produced when crude oil is refined into gasoline.

Once it has been deodorized and bleached, it is made into wax and used in many commercial candles.

Paraffin candles contain known carcinogens that release toxins similar to diesel fumes when burned.

*Beeswax candles are a healthy, all-natural alternative that emit negative ions and actually help to clean the air.

5. SLS

Sodium laureth sulfate (SLS) and sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (SLSA) are surfectants, meaning that they help soaps, bubble baths, and other bath products to bubble and foam.

If you use commercial bath bombs, you might be releasing a lot more than just fizz into your bath!

SLS is a sudsy skin irritant often found in bath bombs that can cause dry, itchy skin. According to a report published in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology, concentrations of just .5% causes slight to moderate skin irritation.

And concentrations of 10 to 30% causes severe irritation and skin corrosion.

Toxicologists also report that SLS ages the skin by disrupting and possibly destroying protein.

SLS gets absorbed into the skin where it accumulates in deep tissues and the blood stream.

And when SLS reacts with other chemicals found in personal care products, it can create carcinogenic nitrates.

6. Polysorbate 80

Yet another synthetic compound found in bath bombs, soap, shampoo, and skin creams is Polysorbate-80.

It is an emulsifier that helps keeps bath products from separating and helps the oil and water-based ingredients more easily blend together.

Studies suggest a link between polysorbate-80 and infertility, bowel problems, exacerbated Crohn’s disease, increased risk of blood clots, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, tumor growth, and recurrence of certain types of cancer.

7. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a chemical preservative used in personal care products.

Interestingly (and disturbingly) enough, it is also used in embalming fluid - as in, to slow the decomposition of corpses.

I remember the day when my Biology class was doing frog dissections in high school.

I went home early that day because I just couldn’t stomach the smell of the formaldehyde.

And if that isn’t unsettling enough, consider these chilling reports:

  • The American Cancer Society reports that formaldehyde has been linked to cancer
  • According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the WHO), formaldehyde is carcinogenic
  • The National Toxicology Program lists formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen
  • National Cancer Institute reports that formaldehyde can cause leukemia

8. Artificial Colors/Dyes

This is one of the most common additives in toxic personal care products.

Artificial dyes are often made from a combination of synthetic chemicals, from coal tar to heavy metal salts.

Mica, a colorant often used in bath bombs, has been linked to fibrosis in the lungs, chronic coughing and shortness of breath, and possibly even cancer.

It’s true that mica is a naturally occurring mineral dust. But so is asbestos. And talc - both known carcinogens. 

It's worth noting that research shows most of the harmful health effects associated with mica are caused by exposure to large amounts.

However, I’d personally rather steer clear of it altogether.

I think white bath bombs with flower or leaf garnishes are so pretty!

But if you want to add color to your personal care products, there are plenty of natural alternatives.

Beet root powder, butterfly pea powder, turmeric, pink kaolin clay, activated charcoal, and green tea all create beautiful, natural colors.

9. Lead

In this day and age, you wouldn’t think that lead would be included in personal care products.

But, guess what?

Some paraffin candles still have lead-containing wicks.

Especially those that are imported from countries where the safety standards are lower than in the U.S.

Breathing in lead can give rise to several negative health effects including depression, irritability, nausea, memory loss, heart disease, and reduced fertility.

Unfortunately, there isn’t usually an easy way to make sure that the wick in a commercial candle is non-toxic.

But, it’s fun and easy enough to make your own candles once you get the hang of it!

I like to make candles out of beeswax and coconut oil and use hemp wicks dipped in beeswax.

10. Benzene

Benzene is known to cause cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

And yet it is another one of thousands of toxic chemicals lurking in commercial personal care products.

The CDC reports that benzene causes cells to not work correctly, thus leading to blood-related health issues.

For example, by changing blood levels of antibodies, benzene can cause the loss of white blood cells and damage the immune system.

Benzene is often found in air conditioners, along with formaldehyde.

You can make your own 3-ingredient room/linen spray with just 100% vodka, distilled water, and essential oil.

11. Styrene

Styrene is a derivative of benzene and is another common ingredient found in commercial air fresheners.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that acute exposure to styrene may result in skin, eye and upper respiratory tract irritation, depression, headache, fatigue, and reduced kidney function.

It is a synthetic polymer found in nail polish, sunscreen, body wash, moisturizer, foundation, and other personal care products.

When it evaporates into the air, it is readily absorbed and taken up into the bloodstream.

Effects of exposure to benzene include nausea, gastrointestinal effects, impaired balance and vision, allergic reactions, headache, fatigue, and depression.

12. BHA, BHT, Ethanol/Ethylene Glycol/Polyethelyne Glycol, DEA, DBP, TEA, Tricolsan, Siloxanes, Toluene, Butylatedhydroxy Anisole/Butylated Hydroxytoluene, EDTA … the list goes on and on

There are more than 3,000 ingredients that could go into a toxic cocktail that gets labeled as “fragrance” (see the International Fragrance Association Transparency List).

And so called “natural” fragrances are often anything but. The term “natural” is not legally defined or regulated the way “organic” and “non-GMO” are.

So, be careful when purchasing personal care products – check the label to make sure there aren’t any potentially unhealthy ingredients lurking inside.


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About the Author

Kalliope Archondis, JD, LLM. 👋Hi! I'm Kalli, lawyer turned freelance writer and founder of 3dsuccess.org, a personal development blog dedicated to helping you reach your goals and achieve your definition of success - without all the stress & anxiety. You can read more about me & 3D Success here.

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