12 Chemicals in Personal Care Products You Should Avoid: The Dirty Dozen

NUNM students have many opportunities to explore topics, research and areas of practice that interest them. From broad elective choices to research study participation and self study, our students choose the doctor they want to become. Here, Christina Baghdanov, naturopathic doctoral student, shares her research and tells us the 12 chemicals you should avoid in your personal care products.

Thousands of Products Being Sold Without FDA Approval

The term “Personal Care Products” is a very large umbrella term that encompasses cosmetics such as: skin moisturizers, shampoos, lipsticks, nail polish, toothpastes, deodorants, mouthwash, antiperspirants, and acne treatments.[1] Some personal care products are further classified as drugs. Drugs are products that are intended to treat a specific condition, such as anti-dandruff shampoo to treat dandruff. While drugs must be approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the myriad of other non-drug cosmetics do not require approval (exception: color additives, like those found in hair color, are subject to FDA approval).[1] This means that there are potentially thousands of products available in the market whose chemical formulations have not had pre-market approval by the FDA.

However, while cosmetics are not FDA-approved, they are FDA-regulated.[2] The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) are two laws that were put in place to ensure cosmetics do not contain any poisonous, putrid, or decomposed substance, or packaged or held in a facility where they could be contaminated with such a substance.[2] These acts also ensure that product labeling contains all the required information and is displayed prominently enough for a consumer to make an informed decision.[2] However, these rules still do not take into account the chemical formulations of the product. This means a lot of chemicals are making their way into everyday use in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, lipsticks, deodorants, and toothpastes without FDA oversight.

Chemicals Bioaccumulate in Our Bodies

The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit, non-partisan organization comprised of scientists, policy experts, and lawyers whose mission is to “empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment.”[3] In 2004, the EWG performed a survey amongst 2,300 people asking about personal care product use and concluded that “the average adults uses 9 personal care products every day, with 126 unique chemical ingredients,” and more than 25% of women, but only 1% of men, use 15 or more products every day.[4] That adds up to a lot of chemical exposure over a life-time and some types of chemicals bioaccumulate, which means they continue to accumulate in the body over time instead of being removed. Women bear the brunt of this as women are typically aggressively targeted by advertisements, media, and social expectations to maintain their “youthful appearance”.

Learn to Read Your Product’s Labels

So, what’s a woman to do? While swearing off all personal care products may be an option for a select few individuals, most women, for a myriad of reasons (personal, professional, etc.), are unable to do this. Therefore, what is the best way to decrease the body’s toxic burden while still enjoying the benefits of silky-smooth skin moisturizers and a wicked red lipstick? Become a scrupulous label reader.

Just as there is a “dirty dozen” of fruits and vegetables,[5] there is also a “dirty dozen” of cosmetics.[6],[7] The David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian non-profit with the goal of conserving and protecting Canada’s natural environment,[8] conducted a survey of over 6,200 participants asking them about the most common chemicals found in household products.[9] The survey found that 80% of products contained at least one of the Dirty Dozen and over half contained more than one.[9]

Top 12 Chemicals to Avoid

They have all been found to have some function as either: endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, mutagens (causing genetic mutations), estrogen mimickers, and allergens, as well as being harmful to the environment and aquatic life.[6] This is only a brief summary, but if you would like to read much more detailed information about these ingredients click here:

  1. BHA & BHT (Butylated Hydroxyanisole & Butylated Hydroxytoluen) are preservatives found in lipsticks, moisturizes, and some food items.
  2. Coal tar Dyes are used as a colorant in hair dye and often labeled as P-phenylenediamine or CI followed by a 5-digit number.
  3. DEA (Diethanolamine) is used to make products sudsy and may be found in cleansers, soaps, shampoos.
  4. DBP (Dibutyl Phthalate), a plasticizer found in nail polish.
  5. Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives. These may also be labeled as DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.
  6. Parabens, found in 75-90% of cosmetics as a preservative. These are easily absorbed through the skin and may potentiate breast cancer.
  7. Parfum, often listed as Fragrance. According to the FDA, Fragrance (and flavors) can be classified as a trade secret and therefore its specific ingredients do not need to be disclosed on packaging.[10]
  8. PEG Compounds are used as thickeners in cream-based cosmetics.
  9. Petrolatum, also called mineral oil jelly, is used to “lock in” moisture on the skin.
  10. Siloxanes can be found in cosmetics, deodorants, moisturizers, and facial treatments.
  11. SLS (Sodium Laureth Sulfate) makes products sudsy and foamy. It can be found in cleansers, shampoos, and shower gels.
  12. Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent. In 2016, the FDA banned triclosan from use in antibacterial soaps and hand washes,[11] but it may still be found in other cosmetics including toothpaste, shave gel, deodorant, lotions, and shampoo.[12]

Remember, the FDA must disclose all ingredients contained in a cosmetic product (with the exception of fragrance and flavor). If you would like to reduce your exposure to these chemicals, the best strategy is to start reading labels and learn what’s in your products. Reading labels can be a very daunting task at first, but over time the process will become easier, and it is the only way to be certain of what is in your products. Don’t trust a label’s claim of being “Organic” or “All-Natural,” as these descriptions are not regulated either.[13] Also, please visit the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.[14] It contains so much more information than can be included here.


    1. Are all “personal care products” regulated as cosmetics? U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/forindustry/fdabasicsforindustry/ucm238796.htm. Published 2016. Accessed January 30, 2019.[1]
    2. FDA Authority Over Cosmetics: How Cosmetics Are Not FDA-Approved, but Are FDA-Regulated. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/GuidanceRegulation/LawsRegulations/ucm074162.htm. Published 2013. Accessed January 30, 2019.[2]
    3. EWG | About Us. https://www.ewg.org/about-us. Accessed January 30, 2019.[3]
    4. Exposures add up – Survey results | Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database | EWG. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/2004/06/15/exposures-add-up-survey-results/. Accessed January 28, 2019.[4]
    5. EWG’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Dirty Dozen. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php. Accessed January 30, 2019.[5]
    6. The “Dirty Dozen” Ingredients Investigated in The David Suzuki Foundation Survey of Chemicals in Cosmetics.; 2010. https://davidsuzuki.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/dirty-dozen- BACKGROUNDER.pdf. Accessed January 31, 2019.[6]
    7. Chow ET, Mahalingaiah S. Cosmetics use and age at menopause: is there a connection? Fertil Steril. 2016; 106(4): 978-990. doi:10.1016/J.FERTNSTERT.2016.08.020[7]
    8. Our Work – David Suzuki Foundation. https://davidsuzuki.org/our-work/. Accessed January 31, 2019.[8]
    9. Gue L. A Survey of Toxic Ingredients in Our Cosmetics.; 2010. www.davidsuzuki.org/publications. Accessed January 31, 2019.[9]
    10. Ingredients – Fragrances in Cosmetics. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductsIngredients/Ingredients/ucm388821.htm. Published 2018. Accessed January 31, 2019.[10]
    11. Press Announcements – FDA issues final rule on safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/ucm517478.htm. Published 2016. Accessed January 31, 2019.[11]
    12. Browse Products || Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database | EWG. Environmental Working Group. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/browse.php?containing=706623&&showmore=products&start=30. Accessed January 31, 2019.[12]
    13. Labeling Claims – “Organic” Cosmetics. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/labeling/claims/ucm203078.htm. Published 2018. Accessed January 31, 2019.[13]
    14. Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database | EWG. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/. Accessed January 31, 2019.[14]

More Articles on Women’s Health

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