7 Ingredients to Avoid in Your Body Care Products

April 21, 2015

There are so many harmful ingredients found in products. Knowledge is power. Learn to read labels. Here is a comprehensive list of whatyou may want to avoid--not based on fear--but on research. Sources are provided for each one.

1. Phthalates-- Phthalates have been linked from everything to testicular cancer to liver cancer, but they are still in almost all synthetic fragrances, including masking agents which cause a product's other natural scents to disappear.

Phthalates are an industrial plasticizing agent. Here is what is on the Cosmetics Database page about phthalates: "More than two decades ago, scientists began building a body of work indicating that phthalates are reproductive and developmental toxicants in laboratory animals, particularly in males. Early studies focused on phthalates' ability to cause testicular atrophy. (e.g., Gray and Buttersworth 1980). New studies are confirming these findings in humans (Swan et al. 2005, Main et al. 2005)."

Additional Sources:

Committee on the Health Risks of Phthalates, National Research Council. (2008). Phthalates and Cumulative Risk Assessment: The Task Ahead. National Academies Press.

Salazar-Martinez E, Romano-Riquer P, Yanez-Marquez E, Longnecker MP, Hernandez-Avila M (2004). "Anogenital distance in human male and female newborns: a descriptive, cross-sectional study". Environ Health

Swan, S.H. 2004. Phthalates in pregnant women and children. e.hormone 2004 conference. October 27–30. New Orleans

2. Parabens -- This widely used class of preservatives is avoided by many.  A credible study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology has also linked parabens to breast cancer as they may be hormone disruptive and lead to tumor growth. Plus, paraben esters can easily penetrate the skin, making them potentially more dangerous. A study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology has also linked parabens to breast cancer as they may be hormone disruptive and lead to tumor growth. The jury is still out on parabens, however. I prefer to err on the side of caution.


Darbre PD, Harvey PW. Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks

Crinnion WJ. Toxic effects of the easily avoidable phthalates and parabens. Altern Med Rev. 2010 Sep;15(3):190-6.

Darbre, P. D. (2003), Underarm cosmetics and breast cancer. J. Appl. Toxicol., 23: 89–95. doi: 10.1002/jat.899

3. Triethanolamine-- Typically used as a pH adjuster, this ingredient can cause irritation to the eyes, dry skin, brittle hair, and more. This is a petrochemical, meaning it is derived from crude oil. It is also proven to be harmful and should never be used in skin care products, especially those for kids. Triethanolamine is an emulsifier and pH adjuster; can be especially hazardous when combined with Diazolidinyl Urea. Studies have shown that a large number of cosmetics with TEA (short for Triethanolamine) are contaminated with Nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. Also avoid labels which say TEA Lauryl Sulfate, as it's the same thing.

Sources: Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics, The Environmental Working Group, NTP Technical Report on the Toxicology and Carcinogenesis Studies of Triiethanolamine

4. Methylisothiazolinone-- Another preservative, this ingredient has been shown in lab studies of the brain to be a neurotoxin.  Additionally, this ingredient is classified as a known human immune system toxicant. Studies have shown that Methylisothiazolinone can negatively impact nerve cells, resulting in cell death or damage. Toxic effects aside, this ingredient is one of the most irritating ingredients found in skin care when it comes to dermatitis.

Sources:  A. C. De Groot, A. Herxheimer: "Isothiazolinone Preservative: Cause Of A Continuing Epidemic Of Cosmetic Dermatitis", The Lancet, Volume 333, Issue 8633, Pages 314-316 (1989), National Library of Medicine HazMap,

5. Triclosan-- This active ingredient is commonly found in anti-bacterial hand products. Triclosan has also been shown to linger on the skin–in other words, you believe you’re rinsing it down the drain, but it continues to sit on the skin and kill bacteria. What you end up with is a greater chance of becoming ill and resistant to treatment because your healthy bacteria isn’t there to fight the nasties.

While there haven’t yet been conclusive results and multiple studies, there is research being done with potential links between triclosan and autism because it interferes with myelination in the brain. This has prompted researchers to start studying a possible link between triclosan and Alzheimers. By the way, triclosan is a cholorphenol (a pesticide linked to cancer). Studies have shown that, like many other ingredients, triclosan gets into the skin and is passed to nursing babies.


Allmyr, M., M. Adolfsson-Erici, et al. (2006). "Triclosan in plasma and milk from Swedish nursing mothers and their exposure via personal care products." Sci Total Environ 372(1): 87-93.)

6. BHT-- BHT stands for butylated hydroxytoluene. This synthetic antioxidant is typically used as a preservative. It is also found in many foods.  It is a possible carcinogen.  In fact, the state of California requires a warning label to alert people to this fact.

In animal studies, BHT has been shown to cause damage to the kidneys, thyroid, liver, and lungs.  In these studies, problems with blood coagulation have been directly linked to BHT.  This ingredient has also been shown to promote the growth of tumors.

Sources: Baur, A.K. et al., "The lung tumor promoter, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), causes chronic inflammation in promotion-sensitive BALB/cByJ mice but not in promotion-resistant CXB4mice," Toxicology 169, no. 1 (December 2001): 1-15

UNEP and OECD, 2,6-di-tert-butyl-p-cresol (BHT) Screening Information Data Set: Initial Assessment Report (Paris: OECD,2002), http://www.inchem.org/documents/sids/sids/128370.pdf

7. Synthetic Fragrance-- The typical artificial fragrance contains up to 200 different ingredients, many of which are known to aggravate asthma and allergies. Fragrance can also cause dizziness, headaches, and dermatitis. Toxic phthalates are also commonly found in fragrance.  Back in 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences officially classified fragrance as an ingredient that needed to be studied more because of their concern that it may be a neurotoxin. There are also newer concerns over the possible  link between exposure to artificial fragrance and autism.

Sources: The Cancer Prevention Coalition, Bagasra O, Pace DG. Smell of autism: Synthetic fragrances and cause for allergies, asthma, cancer and autism. OA Autism 2013 Jun 19;1(2):15.


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