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What’s in Your Personal Care Products?

A plethora of harmful ingredients are unfortunately hidden in the majority of personal care products. Most lotions, shampoos, makeup and other beauty products contain chemicals such as synthetic fragrance, phthalates, parabens, oxybenzone, polyethylene, petroleum, triclosan, triclocarban and more. Some of these compounds are known carcinogens with links to the development of cancer in humans while others are hormone disruptors tied to reproductive, neurological and immune system dysfunction. Additionally, many of these chemicals end up in our water supply and negatively affect the health of our surrounding environment.

Endocrine disruptors are any substance that interferes with the release, transport or metabolism of hormones in the body. These substances can mimic our naturally occurring hormones or inhibit the release of our natural hormones, both of which can be problematic. For example, industrially produced estrogens, known as “xenoestrogens”, are endocrine disruptors that have specific estrogen-like effects in the body. Xenoestrogens increase toxic burden in the body and the negative effects associated too much estrogen, also called “estrogen dominance”, in both men and women. Endocrine disruptors are associated with an increased risk of cancer, decreased fertility, adverse effects on developing fetuses and increased prevalence of thyroid dysfunction and metabolic diseases such as diabetes. 

Now that we have some terminology down, let’s dive deeper into a few of the most common chemicals found in personal care products around the world and their effects on our health. 

When we hear the word “fragrance” we most commonly think of perfumes, but synthetic fragrance is found in most scented products. Companies use numerous chemicals to achieve the “floral” or “vanilla bean” scent of your favorite lotion or conditioner. A study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that there were 38 chemicals used in 17 name-brand perfumes. Topping the list was Seventy-Seven by American Eagle with 24 chemicals used and Chanel Coco with 18 chemicals used. The eeriest part of this is that the EWG found that most of these chemicals were not listed on the labels! Of the chemicals that were on the label, many disrupt hormones, cause allergic reactions or accumulate in human tissues. The majority of other non-labeled substances in these products have never been assessed for safety in humans.

Phthalates are a synthetic group of chemicals found in a wide range of consumer products including perfumes, hair sprays, soap, shampoo, nail polish and skin moisturizers. Phthalates function to hold fragrance, reduce the cracking of nail polish and stiffness of hair spray and make lotions and other topical applications penetrate the skin. Six of the most widely used phthalates in consumer products (and names to look out for on labels) include di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), di-n-octyl phthalate (DNoP) and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP.) DEHP and BBP are classified as probable human carcinogens by the US Environmental Protection Agency. This means they can cause cancer. Besides cancer, high urinary concentrations of certain phthalates have been linked to an increased development of ADHD in children, reproductive complications in male fetuses and sperm DNA damage in adult males. 

Another widely used chemical in personal care products is oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is most commonly found in sunscreen. Sunscreens are made to be highly absorbable to maximize their ability to protect skin from the sun. They achieve this through ingredients know as “penetration enhancers”. Oxybenzone is one of these penetration enhancers and has been measured in blood, urine and breast milk samples long after application. Oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor that alters reproductive and thyroid hormone function in both men and women. Mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide seem to be a safer option as very few, if any, zinc or titanium particles are able to penetrate the skin. 

Not only are the chemicals found in so many of our everyday products harmful to humans, they are also harmful to the environment. Many of these substances get washed away down the drain into our local ecosystems. These chemicals accumulate in nature, just like they do in bodily tissues. The chemicals dumped down our sinks and showers end up in lakes, rivers, streams and public water systems. Aquatic plant and animal life is directly harmed during this process. Furthermore, the vapor evaporated from these water sources goes on to become rain and eventually affects land-dwelling plants and animals. Chemicals that originated from cosmetics have been found in agricultural soil and household dust particles, yuck! Microplastics also originate from cosmetics. 

Polyethylene is one of the most commonly used microplastics in the world. Microplastics have been added to cosmetics since the 1960s and are now found, quite literally, everywhere on the planet. Polyethylene is found in mascara, lipsticks, face powders, eyeliners, eye shadows and skin cleansers and moisturizers and functions to bond surfaces together and exfoliate, smooth and soften skin. Tens of millions of tons of this plastic is produced every year!

It’s challenging to be an educated consumer in today’s world when it is estimated that we each come into contact with over 500 chemicals daily! Although it is nearly impossible to avoid all chemical exposures, it is possible to limit them by making conscious purchases of “cleaner” products. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource for learning more about the safety of the products we use daily and how to make healthier, informed choices for yourself, your loved ones and the planet. 


Not So Sexy:  The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics & Environmental Working Group. May 2010.

Fact Sheet: Potentially Toxic Chemicals in Personal Care Products. New York State Health Foundation

Phthalates and their alternatives: Health and environmental concerns. 2011. Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. University of Massachusetts Lowell. 

Boxall, Alistair B.A. et al. “Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: What Are the Big Questions?” Environmental Health Perspectives. 120(9). September 2012.

Dr. Kelcie Harris

Dr. Kelcie Harris

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