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The 10 Most Toxic Skin-Care Ingredients

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By the time a woman steps out of her door in the morning, she’s applied an average of nine personal-care products to her face, body and hair—and been exposed to about 126 different chemicals, according to Rick Smith, PhD, coauthor of Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals Out of Our Bodies and Our World. Men may use fewer products, but they get exposed to plenty of chemicals, too.

Are all of these chemicals toxic? Of course not. But there is growing evidence that exposure to certain compounds, especially hormone (endocrine) disrupting chemicals, is contributing to diseases such as diabetes, obesity, reproductive disorders, neurological conditions and cancer. There is a lot that we don’t know yet, but what we’re finding isn’t reassuring. New laboratory research, for example, recently uncovered that parabens, once considered a weak endocrine disruptor, may be 100 times more likely to promote breast cancer tumors than originally thought.

The good news: Switching personal-care products can reduce your body’s level of hormone disrupters—quickly. In a recent study, researchers at UC Berkeley School of Public Health tested urine levels of four common endocrine disrupters in teenage girls—pthalates, parabens, triclosan and oxybenzone. Then they had the young women switch to personal-care products that are free of those chemicals for just three days. Results: Levels of endocrine disrupters went down an average of 25% to 45%. “In researching my books,” adds Dr. Smith, “I conducted numerous experiments on volunteers and found similar results across a range of products and chemicals.”

There’s no need to panic and toss out everything in your bathroom. Dr. Smith suggests replacing each product as it runs out with a healthier one. Which ones should you toss first? To get more specifics, we asked Sharima Rasanayagam, PhD, director of science at the Breast Cancer Fund, a nonprofit that works to prevent breast cancer by reducing exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation.

1. Parabens. These endocrine disrupters are so common in personal-care products that it’s tough to know where to start. A recent Swedish study of mothers found levels of parabens in urine were highest in women who used more makeup, shampoo, hair-styling products, lotion, fragrance, deodorant, massage oil and nail polish.

Shopping tips: Skip any skin-care product that contains the word “paraben” by itself or as part of the another chemical name, such as ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben or benzylparaben. Or shop for products that specifically claim that they are “parabens free.”

2. Triclosan. This antibacterial compound contributes not only to antibiotic-resistant bacteria but is also an endocrine disrupter, says Dr. Smith. “Triclosan is a registered pesticide, and extremely worrisome,” he warns. It’s found in soft and bar antibacterial soaps, cosmetics, shaving products, deodorants and dry shampoos, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. The FDA is currently evaluating the ingredient based on animal studies that show that it disrupts hormones and may lead to more antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but it already emphasizes that the soaps and body washes with triclosan provide no extra health benefit to consumers.

Shopping tips: Avoid any product that contains triclosan. In particular, Dr. Smith recommends that if you have Colgate Total toothpaste, toss it immediately even though it is effective against gingivitis. Why? Exposing your gums to triclosan means more may be absorbed than from, for example, washing your hands with liquid soap. When shopping for face- or body-washing products, remember that plain old soap and water is highly effective at removing bacteria—if you wash long enough. Travel tip: If you want to avoid triclosan-containing antibacterial soaps in, say, public bathrooms, carry a small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you.

3. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a suspected carcinogen found in some antiaging creams. According to a recent Breast Cancer Fund study, this compound, originally used to create Teflon, often travels with a related chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (aka PFOA or C-8).

Shopping tips: The Breast Cancer Fund study names three products to avoid—Garnier Ultra-Lift Transformer Anti-Age Skin Corrector, Garnier Ultra-Lift Anti-Wrinkle Firming Moisturizer and Cover Girl Advanced Radiance with Olay, Age Defying Pressed Powder. Read labels—in addition to PTFE, other ingredients that may mean PFOA include Polyperfluoromethylisopropyl and DEA-C8-18 Perfluoroalkylethyl. Check for products that specifically state that they are PTFE- and PFOA-free. (To learn more, see Bottom Line’s article, Natural Anti-Aging Treatments for Your Skin.)

4. Resorcinol, found in hair dyes. According to Dr. Rasanayagam, hair dyes often contain “a bunch of nasty chemicals,” often derived from coal tar, but resorcinol, a potent endocrine disruptor, is the worst.

Shopping tips: Unfortunately, resorcinol is found in most hair dyes in most colors as well as certain over-the-counter acne products. Says Dr. Rasanayagam, “Hair colorings are particularly difficult to formulate without these chemicals, but some companies are working on better options.”

Safer, non–coal-tar dye alternatives include temporary hair colorants and henna, which imbues a reddish tinge and is approved by the FDA as a natural dye. Indigo, which is a dark blue, is another natural nontoxic dye that may also be mixed in with henna. Other botanical-based hair dyes can also be used for lighter colors, including blond. But beware of “black henna,” which may contain coal-tar–based hair dyes. The best way to approach the issue? Learn to love your gray.

5. Formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and toluene, aka the “Toxic Trio,” often found in nail polish.  Formaldehyede is a carcinogen, DBP is an endocrine disruptor, and toluene is a toxic compound often contaminated with benzene, a carcinogen.

Shopping tips: Read labels, and shop for toxic-trio–free brands such as Honeybee Garden and Acquarella, suggests Dr. Rasanayagam.

6. Hydroquinone, found in skin lighteners and age-spot removers. Animal studies link topical use of this bleaching compound with cancer, and it can also cause a skin-darkening medical condition in some people. The US National Toxicology Program has proposed removing it from the “safe” list of ingredients—pending more studies. Meanwhile it’s banned in Europe in concentrations above 1% but still legal and readily available in the US in concentrations up to 4%.

Shopping tips: Avoid any product with hydroquinone on the label. You may want to try home-remedy concoctions using food-based ingredients such as lemons, honey, oranges and/or milk that help naturally lighten skin without harsh chemicals.

7. Phthalates, commonly found in fragrances and perfumes. These are potent endocrine disrupters, and while exposure in cosmetics is dropping, one big exception is DEP, a phthalate found in fragrances. By law, companies don’t have to reveal fragrance ingredients, yet many of those ingredients contain not only phthalates but also parabens and synthetic musk (another endocrine disrupter).

Shopping tips: Avoid any product that just lists “fragrance” or “parfum.” Says Dr. Smith, “Because companies aren’t legally obligated to disclose the presence of phthalates in their products, look for products that say ‘No Phthalates’ on the label.”

8. Petrolatum, aka petroleum jelly, mineral oil and paraffin oil, found in many moisturizers, ointments and skin creams. The big exception: Refined petrolatum, also called white petrolatum, has no known health concerns. That’s what’s in Vaseline, which is safer. But products that simply list “petroleum jelly” may be using less refined products, which may be contaminated with suspected carcinogens including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Shopping tips: Avoid any product that contains petroleum jelly unless it specifies white petroleum jelly or white petrolatum. Vaseline, as noted, is a safer choice. You may also want to explore moisturizers that contain botanical-based ingredients such as beeswax, coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter and coconut butter instead.

9. Oxybenzone and benzophenone found in sunscreens. How dangerous these are is still a controversy. While the Environmental Working Group warns that these are endocrine disrupters that are absorbed into the skin, the American Academy of Dermatology believes they are safe to use. According to Dr. Rasanayagam , however, you should avoid these chemicals.

Shopping tips: Avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone or benzophenone. Instead, choose cream sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

10. Formaldehyde, found in hair straighteners or hair-smoothing products such as Brazilian Blowout or keratin treatments. When heated, these products can release formaldehye (a carcinogen) into the air, which can lead to eye problems, headaches, dizziness, breathing problems, nausea and rash.

Shopping tips: Avoid any product that contains formaldehyde—by FDA regulation, it must include a warning on the label. If you go to a salon, ask to look at the product they use to make sure it doesn’t contain formaldehyde. However, beware of salon products that claim to be formaldehyde-free but list “methylene glycol” on the ingredient list—that’s just formaldehyde by another name.

Some salons use hair-straigthening products that rely primarily on botanicals instead—Aveda makes one, called Smooth Infusion Professional Smoothing Treatment. Also consider going old school with a straight iron.

HOW TO SHOP FOR HEALTHIER PERSONAL-CARE PRODUCTS

Now that you know the ingredients that are most important to avoid, how can you start? A few tips…

  • Get familiar with websites. Two sites let you search for healthy personal-care products—the GoodGuide (which also works well on your smartphone and other mobile devices) and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep. You can educate yourself about these issues with the Breast Cancer Fund’s site, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, as well.
  • Download an app. The EWG has a Healthy Living app (free), and the Think Dirty app lists thousands of personal-care products. Download one on your smartphone so that you can spot-check products while shopping.
  • Decide what “healthier” means to you. SafeCosmetics.org addresses only long-term chronic health issues, but the Good Guide and the Skin Deep sites discourage not only products with toxic ingredients but also those that cause irritation, trigger allergies, negatively impact the environment or have been tested on animals. But if your body wash, for example, contains a possible irritant and it doesn’t irritate you, you may decide to keep it anyway.
  • Don’t be fooled by labels that claim a product is “All Natural” or made with “100% Natural Ingredients.” While the “organic” term is regulated on cosmetics and personal-care products, the term “natural” is not.

For tips on healthy skin care, including DIY body lotions and home remedies, see Bottom Line’s Guide to Younger-Looking Skin. If you’re looking for safer skin-care products, you may also want to browse The Bottom Line Store.

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Source: Sharima Rasanayagam, PhD, director of science at the Breast Cancer Fund, San Francisco. She was also the founding academic coordinator at the UC Berkeley Institute for the Environment. Rick Smith, PhD, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, a progressive Canadian think tank, and former executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Defence Canada. Dr. Smith is the coauthor, with Bruce Lourie, of  Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things and Toxin Toxout: Getting Harmful Chemicals Out of Our Bodies and Our World. Date: May 10, 2016 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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