An increasing number of the soaps, lotions, deodorants, hair products, and cosmetics we use every day on various parts of our bodies appear to contain harmful chemicals.
To put things in the proper context, you’re just as likely to encounter unsafe chemicals in processed foods and drinks and even prescription medications as you are in personal care products. But all these low doses can add up over time.
It’s difficult to say how much exposure to a chemical is too much – even experts don’t always agree at this point – but researchers advocate choosing products that don’t increase your overall exposure whenever you can. This is especially important during early childhood, puberty, and pregnancy.
You don’t have to overhaul your entire skincare routine overnight. Treat it like eating healthier: From time to time, take stock of what you’re putting on, or in, your body and replace some of the stuff in your shopping cart with better options.
To help with that effort, I’m going to highlight some of the chemicals you should be looking out for below. And in my next blog post, I’ll outline a simple but methodical process for updating your routine.
The bar for regulating chemicals in the United States is very high. For perspective, the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees cosmetics in the US, has banned about a dozen ingredients for safety reasons. By contrast, Canada, Japan, and European Union countries have banned hundreds more.
The following are some of the chemicals that are frequently flagged by researchers and advocacy groups, as well as ones named in recent state bans as a result of the growing observational evidence against them.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
Commonly used as a preservative in personal care products that contain oils and fats, such as moisturizers, lipsticks, and eyeliners, BHA is considered a potential human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, the US National Toxicology Program, and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, among other groups.
DEA is part of a group of chemicals frequently used as emulsifiers in shampoos and shaving creams. It often reacts with other preservatives in personal care products to form nitrosamines, chemicals the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the US National Toxicology Program identify as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Companies are able to hide any number of chemical ingredients under the umbrella terms “fragrance” or “parfum” because fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets. The International Fragrance Association estimates there are more than 3,600 chemicals used in fragrance mixtures around the world, including benzophenone, BHA, naphthalene, and phthalates, which toxicologists and environmental exposure researchers agree should be avoided. Other ingredients can trigger nasal irritation, asthma, skin allergies, and eczema. Studies on some fragrance chemicals have also suggested they can interrupt normal hormone function.
A component of natural gas and crude oil that’s widely used in aerosol sprays like many of the deodorants, sunscreens, and dry shampoos that were recently recalled. Isobutane isn’t usually a concern on its own, but it’s frequently been found to be contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen that’s also found in crude oil.
Compounds that have “paraben” in their name, such as propylparaben and methylparaben, form a group of preservatives used in water-based products. Low concentrations are found in face washes, toothpastes, shampoos and conditioners, and various cosmetic products. Exposure has been linked to an increased incidence of breast cancer in women and the disruption of reproductive systems in men.
Johnson & Johnson pledged to stop selling its talc-based baby powder globally by the end of this year after thousands of lawsuits claimed it caused cancer. But it’s still used by other companies in deodorants, blotting sheets, eye shadows, and powder formulations. Research dating back to the 1960s has suggested that talc use, particularly in the pelvic area, is linked to cancer. There’s also concern that it can be contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen found near talc mines.
Triclosan and triclocarban
These antimicrobial agents were once used in hand soaps and body washes and are still found in many deodorants, toothpastes, and other personal care products. In 2017, the FDA banned the use of triclosan, triclocarban, and several other antimicrobial agents in soaps because, according to the agency, the safety of their long-term use was not clear. Some evidence suggests the overuse of antimicrobial products induces resistance to antibiotic medicines.