Common Toxins in Personal Care Products

Up until recently, Krishn and I lived in a condo and one of our biggest pet peeves was stepping into an empty elevator, only  to find the synthetic scent of the previous occupant still lingering in the air. It sounds dramatic, but after years of having eliminated heavily scented products, the slightest odour of perfume or cologne just isn’t enjoyable. 

At one point in my life I never paid attention to what I was applying to my skin. Despite not being overly conscious, I was never able to tolerate perfumes. I always found that shortly after applying, my head would begin to pound and a full-blown headache would ensue. As a result, I didn’t bother much with them, but didn’t give much thought as to why they affected me in such a negative way either.

People today are exposed to a plethora of toxins daily. The average person wakes up and washes their hair and body with sulphate-containing shampoo, conditioner and body wash; proceeds to use a “botanical” moisturizer that contains no real botanicals at all; applies at least two or three makeup products (often more) consisting of ingredients that are impossible to pronounce; and then finishes off the morning routine with a toxic soup otherwise known as “perfume”. We haven’t even sat down for breakfast and many people have applied upwards of 500 toxins through personal care products! 33921114_m

Disguised amongst packaging adorned with pictures of natural looking fruits, flowers and plants, toxins are typically the furthest thing from your mind while applying products to the skin. You would assume a product like “apricot” scrub would have apricot as at least one of the main ingredients, but might be surprised to learn upon closer examination that “apricot” is one of the last ingredients listed and used the least.

Most personal care products feature a long list of ingredients on the disposable packaging, never to be thought of once the user opens the product up for application. While skimming the labels of unpronounceable names, it’s difficult not to think about what these ingredients do on their own, let alone when combined with hundreds of others and accumulated in the body over time. The high amounts of toxins and hormone disruptors turning up in breast milk, or the increasing rates of cancer and other disease starts to make sense when looking at the lists of potentially carcinogenic ingredients that begin accumulating in the body from the moment we are born.

Cleaning supplies and cosmetics cause irritation and toxicity due to both the physical contact with the product and the fumes that they release into the air. For the purpose of this post, I’ll highlight just three ingredients commonly found in personal care products: 

Butylphenyl Methylpropional the pale colour and strong floral scent of this ingredient makes it a common additive for fragrant products such as perfume and cologne, aftershave, bubble bath, cleansing products, hair care products, moisturizer, shampoo and skin care products.

Much of the research indicates that this ingredient is toxic, resulting in skin rashes and effects on the Central Nervous System such as drowsiness and breathing difficulties. High concentrations also can cause damage to sperm. The safety of Butylphenyl Methylpropional has officially been evaluated by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), a group that sets voluntary standards for chemicals in the fragrance industry. As a result of this evaluation, the IFRA has restricted the use of the ingredient in both leave-on and wash-off products because of its powerful sensitization potential.

According to the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Database, the additive has been included in a list of banned/restricted fragrances in the European Union. In addition, Canada has noted the following concerns  on the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List (2008):

  • Persistent or bioaccumulative – moderate to high toxicity concern in humans
  • Organ system toxicity – classified as medium human health priority
  • Associated with endocrine disruption

Whether on its own or combined with any number of the fragrance industry’s 3,100 stock ingredients, Butylphenyl Methylpropional has been linked to serious health implications. The IFRA’s recommendation that this ingredient only be included in wash-off products, has understandably left many consumers to question its safety.

The rise of infertility may also suggest that the increasing use of ingredients such as Butylphenyl Methylpropional could be contributing to reproductive problems. Many medical journals have found that the environmental causes of infertility and miscarriage provides surprising evidence on how common toxins in the home and workplace can damage the reproductive process in both men and women.

Tetrasodium EDTA –  is a water-soluble ingredient used as a chelating agent in cosmetics and personal care products because of its ability to preserve formulas and improve their stability. What makes this ingredient particularly effective in skin care products, is the fact that it is often labeled as a “penetration enhancer” given its ability to alter skin structure and allow other chemicals to penetrate deeper. Tetrasodium EDTA is also a persistent environmental pollutant and is made from the known carcinogens formaldehyde and sodium cyanide.

Tests of the ingredient on various animals resulted in the following findings:

  • Primary skin irritant (rabbit)
  • Primary eye irritant (rabbit)
  • Broad systemic toxicity (mouse)
  • Kidney or renal system – changes in tubules; including acute renal failure (mouse)
  • Organ system toxicity – expected to be toxic or harmful

As a product that enables other cosmetic components to further penetrate the skin, concerns should not be limited to Tetrasodium EDTA, but the other ingredients paired with it. Many companies will use this ingredient in lieu of parabens, however evidence indicates that Tetrasodium EDTA could be just as bad (if not worse.) Consumers looking for ‘paraben-free’ products should ensure the item does not contain Tetrasodium EDTA as a substitution. The ingredient may also be difficult for consumers to avoid and identify in products, due to the many additional names used.

Imidazolidinyl Urea – one of the most widely used cosmetic preservative in the world; preventing products from going bad due to bacteria, yeast and mold. The ingredient is often combined with parabens, a toxic ingredient that mimics the hormone estrogen and plays a role in the development of breast cancers. Imidazolidinyl Urea is produced by the condensation of allantoin and formaldehyde, with hydroxide and acetic acid also being added.

According to a report compiled by the Chemical Selection Working Group (CSWG) for the National Cancer Institute, the ingredient readily breaks down in the product and releases formaldehyde into the skin. The chemical is also an endocrine disruptor, possible neurotoxin, a known immune system toxicant, and has a possible link to cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology has also established the additive as a primary cause of contact dermatitis.

Despite the findings of the CSWG and other research groups, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel considers Diazolidinyl Urea safe to be used in cosmetics up to a maximum concentration of 0.5%. In Europe, when the concentration of formaldehyde in the finished product exceeds 0.05%, the labels have to state “contains formaldehyde.”

The controversy on the safety of Diazolidinyl Urea continues; however given formaldehyde’s known carcinogenic properties, it is difficult to rule out the possibility that a product containing such an ingredient would not have implications for both humans and the environment over time. The significant differences in what various research groups consider to be “safe” amounts of Diazolidinyl Urea is also alarming.

So… what’s the alternative? 11209437_850435488364397_1794242317344248698_n

In looking at the three ingredients above, it is apparent that many products used on a daily
basis are questionable and the long term effects unknown. The documented reactions to these ingredients make it hard to envision what is happening inside our bodies when hundreds of  toxins with potentially similar effects are combined and accumulated. Even scarier, are the thousands of synthetic ingredients currently in use that have not been studied at all.

While the sheer volume of toxins in our environment can seem overwhelming and it may not be possible to change every aspect of our lives, making small changes and educating others can make a difference. We can all limit exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment, while bettering ourselves and the planet by simply going back to the basics. 

In our home we use lemon, vinegar, baking soda and essential oils for cleaning, personal care products and more. We leverage common kitchen ingredients, including coconut oil for moisturizer and makeup remover; bentonite clay and tea tree oil for blemishes, infections and skin masks; mixes of honey and fruits for hair conditioners; sulfate-free shampoos and homemade toothpaste. We also teach clients how to make their own products through home wellness workshops and information sessions. Taking control of the products found within your home can be fun, affordable and empowering, give it a try! 🙂 



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