Personal Care Products

3 Essentials

Skin is the largest organ, protecting the body from toxins and microbes, injuries, sun exposure, and helping a person sense their surroundings and regulate their temperature. However, it is not equipped to filter out many pollutants in the environment, especially those applied directly to the skin. On average, each person applies 11 personal care products on their body each day, containing as many as 126 different chemicals [1]. Because ingredients that are absorbed in skin do not pass through the liver, the toxins exposed to through personal care products may be more detrimental to health than the toxins consumed in food and water [2] [3]. Yet, very few countries, including the FDA in the USA does not regulate personal care products, putting the uninformed consumer at risk of harmful exposure to dangerous chemicals [1].


Cosmetics and personal care products are the largest class of avoidable exposure to toxic ingredients – let’s dive into what chemicals are found in these products, what they can do in the body, and how to best avoid them.

Where Do They Come From?

The most common environmental pollutants and chemical toxins found in personal care products are outlined below according to main concerns – i.e., endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and neurotoxins.

Endocrine Disruptors

Parabens: Parabens are anti-microbial preservatives found in foods, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetic products [4], increasing the shelf life of a product. They are absorbed through the skin, and even more readily absorbed through abraded skin (i.e. after shaving) [5]. They function as endocrine disruptors, harming fertility and reproductive organs as well as increasing the risk of some cancers [6] [7]. Personal care products are the largest source of human paraben exposure, as they can be found in shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, skin cleansers, sunscreens, deodorants, shaving gel, toothpaste, makeup, sanitary cloths, and many more [1]. To identify parabens on an ingredient label, they will likely have the prefixes methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl-, and isobutyl paraben.
 

Bisphenol A (BPA): The most notorious toxin in plastic is BPA [8]. BPA is a human-made chemical that gives rigidity to plastics. Note that some BPA free products contain Bisphenol-S, which may be a more toxic phenol. BPA is a hormone disruptor and is linked to a host of health issues [8]. It can be found in plastic containers, including some personal care product containers.
 

Phthalates: Phthalates are used in a wide variety of products such as fragrances, cosmetics, lotions, and shampoos [9]. The phthalate chemical is not tightly bound to the other molecules, so they easily migrate from the product into the body. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and have been associated with allergies, asthma, infertility, and reduced testosterone production [9].
 

Triclosans and triclocarbans: Triclosans are a class of chemicals used for their anti-bacterial properties [10]. You can find triclosans in a variety of personal care products including soaps, antimicrobial wipes, and toothpaste [10]. It has been associated with liver and inhalation toxicity, and even low levels cause thyroid dysfunction [11] [12]. Avoid products with triclosan or triclocarban in the ingredient list, as well as any “antibacterial” product, which may use triclosans but not include it on the label.
 

Siloxanes (i.e. cyclosiloxanes): Siloxanes are extremely persistent toxins found in 1 of every 7 personal care products, including body lotions, hair-care products, soaps, and more [1] [13]. Because they are difficult to degrade, they bio-accumulate in the environment, wildlife, and in our bodies for long periods of time [13]. As endocrine disruptors, they have been linked to uterine tumors, liver and lung damage in mice, but few studies have been done on the health effects in people [1] [13].


Fragrance: Fragrances are found in countless personal care products, and the specific ingredients in a fragrance do not need to be disclosed on a label. They may be made from petroleum, phthalates, synthetic musk ketones and xylenes, or natural substances. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors and fragrances as a whole are considered one of the top 5 allergen sensitizing ingredients in products [1].

Carcinogens


Talc: Talc is a mineral that is formed in the same parent rock as asbestos [14], a known deadly carcinogen when inhaled. For this reason, the US International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified talc as a 2b carcinogen [15]. Talc is found in loose powders and over 2,000 products, including baby powder and cosmetics [14].

 

Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is used more frequently in construction materials and as an embalming agent; however, it is also used in 1 in 5 personal care products including hair straightening agents, nail polish, shampoos and conditioners, lotion, cosmetics, no-iron clothing, fabric softeners, and baby wipes [1] [16]. Specific formaldehyde-releasers to look out for include DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, Bronopol, 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, and Hydroxymethylglycinate [1] [16].

 

1, -4 Dioxane: 1, -4 Dioxane is a carcinogenic byproduct of “ethoxylation” – a chemical process used to make numerous personal care products [1]. It is found in as many as 46% of personal care products, including many organic products (Nature’s Gate, Jason, Giovanni, and Kiss my Face). Ingredients to look for include sodium laureth sulfate, PEG (followed by a number), polyethylene (glycol), polysorbate, -eth, or -oxynol [1].

 

Neurotoxins


Lead: There is no safe level of lead (Pb) in products that will be ingested or absorbed. Still, the FDA permits an upper limit of 0.1 ppm in products that will be consumed [17]. Lead is found in 75% of lipsticks, and 47% of those tested had more than 0.1 ppm [17]. Lipstick has also been found to contain other heavy metals including cadmium, chromium, manganese, and aluminum [18]. Lead is also found in anti-graying agents for hair, in the form of lead acetate [1].

 

Mercury: Mercury is a potent neurotoxin. The FDA allows a limit of 1 ppm in most cosmetics, and products made outside the USA may allow for more [1]. It can be found in eye creams, skin lightening creams, and cake-mascara [1]. Most of the products with high levels of mercury are made outside of the USA, but still may be available on US shelves. When reading the ingredient label, look for ethylmercury, mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, or mercurio. It may not be listed on the label if it comprises less than 1% of the total product [1].

 

Aluminum: Aluminum is a heavy metal that can cross the blood brain barrier, accumulating in the brain. It acts as a pro-oxidant and competes with magnesium, iron, and calcium in cells, leading to neuroinflammation [19] [20]. It also acts as a “metallo-estrogen”, interfering with estrogen receptor activity and estrogen-regulated gene activity [21-24]. It is implicated in both cystic breast disease as well as Alzheimer’s disease [19-24]. Aluminum is most frequently found in aluminum-based anti-perspirants.

How They Affect You

The impact of endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and neurotoxins found in some personal care products is outlined below:


Endocrine Disruptors
 

Endocrine disruptors are agents that bind to endocrine receptors in our body, potentially blocking or upregulating activity at that receptor [25] [26]. Endocrine disruptors may also interfere with the production of hormones in the body and infant sexual development in utero [25] [26]. Parabens, BPA, phthalates, triclosans, triclocarbans, siloxanes, and fragrance all act as endocrine disruptors, and are ubiquitous in personal care products [1].
 

Parabens have been shown to act as estrogen mimetics, androgen receptor antagonists, and an inhibitor of sulfotransferase enzymes, increasing estradiol activity in the body [4] [5] [27]. They can also disrupt lysosomal and mitochondrial function, produce DNA-damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) and nitric oxide (NO), and up-regulate several cancer markers [4] [5]. They are implicated in reproductive organ dysfunction, impaired birth outcomes, skin irritation, and increased cancer risk [27].
 

BPA has carcinogenic, genotoxic, immunotoxic, neurotoxic, and endocrine disrupting effects in the body [8]. It is implicated in metabolic disease, cancer, autoimmune conditions, and neurological dysfunction [28] [29]. BPA can exist in the body in two forms –unconjugated (before it passes through the liver) and conjugated (after it passes through the liver). Conjugated BPA was once thought to be biologically inactive, however it has been shown to exhibit estrogenic activity [29] [31]. Additionally, the process of conjugating BPA produces metabolites which exhibit hepatotoxic and endocrine disrupting activity (Fertile sterile 2016). Unconjugated forms of BPA are the most toxic disturbing insulin signaling, activating autoimmune processes, and acting as an endocrine disruptor [32] [33]. Dermal exposure to BPA leads to higher levels of unconjugated forms in the body because it avoids first pass in the liver [32] [33]. Additionally, animal studies have shown that pregnant rats and fetuses accumulate higher levels of deconjugated BPA due to elevated beta-glucuronidase in placental tissue, putting pregnant individuals and fetuses at higher risk of BPA toxicity [30] [34]. Note that BPA-free products are often made with Bisphenol-S instead, which also disrupts the endocrine system [34]. It is best to avoid plastics altogether, and opt for glass, metal, and fabric alternatives whenever possible.
 

Phthalates: Phthalates are linked to allergies, asthma, infertility, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, reduced testosterone concentrations, and the abnormal development of reproductive physiology in baby boys [35]. Animal studies have demonstrated phthalates reducing folliculogenesis and steroidogenesis, impairing fertility [35]. Human studies have exhibited a correlation of decreased ovarian reserve and higher levels of systemic DEHP (a phthalate), further demonstrating the reproductive toxicity of phthalates36. Human studies have also found increased risk of diabetes during pregnancy with increased exposure to phthalates [36].


Triclosan/triclocarbans: Triclosans and triclocarbans have been shown to reduce thyroid hormone production, increase BMI, depress muscle contractility, activate cancer-associated endocrine receptors, and exhibit sperm toxicity [11] [12] [37]. It has also been linked to liver and inhalation toxicity [11] [12]. Considering it is prevalent in anti-microbial products, like hand sanitizers, soap, and antimicrobial wipes, we are exposed to higher levels of these with the rise of the COVID pandemic. Take care to avoid these products if they are not necessary, and choose natural products made with essential oils if possible.
 
Cyclosiloxanes: There is a particular class of cyclosiloxanes in personal care products (D5 and D6) that create a “silky texture” (i.e. lotions, hair products) and/or help products dry quickly (i.e. nail polish) [1]. One of the primary concerns of these chemicals is that it is not removed readily from the body, leading to bioaccumulation [13]. In animal studies, they are associated with fatal liver and lung damage, as well as uterine cancer [13]. As an endocrine disruptor, they’ve exhibited estrogenic and dopaminergic activity, and inhibition of prolactin [13].


Carcinogens
 

Carcinogens are agents that have been shown to increase risk of cancer in animal and human studies. Talc powders are considered class 2B carcinogens, and are associated with uterine cancer [15]. Individuals at increased risk for talc toxicity are those with a GSTT1-null genotype or a combined GSTT1-null/GSTM1- present genotype [38]. Formaldehyde is typically inhaled and is associated with nasopharyngeal and sinonasal cancers, as well as myeloid leukemia [16]. Additionally, exposure to formaldehyde has been shown to induce allergies and skin irritations [16]. Ethoxylated ingredients, like 1,-4 dioxane may pose a cancer risk at levels as low as 0.35 ppb according to the EPA [1], demonstrating tumor inducing activity in the liver, nasal cavity, and the peritoneal and mammary glands in some subjects [1].


Neurotoxins


Neurotoxins are substances that alter the structure or function of the nervous system. Common neurotoxins found in personal health products include lead, mercury, aluminum, cadmium, chromium, botulinum toxin, phthalates, and BPA.


There is no safe level of exposure to lead. It is known to harm the neurological system, increase total oxidative stress, and also impair cardiovascular and kidney function [39]. In children, exposure to lead can lead to lifelong changes to behavior and development [29]. In adults, evidence is mounting to suggest that higher levels of lead exposure leads to as much as a 70% increased risk of death by cardiovascular disease and a 50% increased risk of death by ischemic heart disease [39].


While most people are exposed to highest levels of mercury in seafood (i.e. tuna, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, grouper, and others), it can also found in several personal care products [1]. When absorbed through the skin, it avoids first pass in the liver and is more likely to accumulate in the body where it impairs the formation of neurons [40]. Mercury poisoning can cause vision and hearing damage, induce tremors, numbness, tingling, and memory problems, and it is particularly dangerous for the developing fetus [40].
 

Aluminum crosses the blood brain barrier and acts as a pro-oxidant, disrupting calcium homeostasis and signal transduction in the brain [19]. It accumulates over time in neurons, inducing neuroinflammation and subsequent neurodegeneration [19]. Aluminum exposure is associated with the development and progression of age-related neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s [20]. It is not only a neurotoxin, but it is also a metalloestrogen, interfering with estrogen receptor ligand binding and estrogen-regulated gene expression. As a metalloestrogen, it may be a causative factor in the formation of breast cysts, the most common disorder of the breast [21-24]. It is also a risk factor for breast cancer [21]. Frequent use of aluminum- containing antiperspirants was correlated with an earlier age of breast cancer onset [21-24].


Botulinum A (botox) is a known neurotoxin which prevents the release of acetylcholine from axon endings, inducing paralysis of muscles [41]. Although used safely for cosmetic and therapeutic purposes, the toxin can spread away from the injection site, inducing paralysis in the muscles it travels to [41]. While typically benign and temporary, there is risk of toxin spread causing death and hospitalization [41].

How To Protect Yourself

In order to avoid exposure to harmful chemical toxins and pollutants in personal care products, be sure to choose products that list their ingredients on the label and/or use resources such as those outlined below to identify if a product contains known toxins. Check to see what resources may be available in your country or WHO Region.

  • Skin deep at EWG.org

  • Think Dirty App

  • Safe.orgMade

 

While some toxins may not be listed on an ingredient declaration, many are. Avoid products containing the following ingredients:

  • Parabens: -paraben, methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben

  • PA: a “3, 6, or 7” or “PVC” on the triangle symbol on plasticsB

  • Phthalates: -phthalate, DBP, DINP, DEP, DEHP, DMP, BBP, DNOP, DIDP

  • Triclosans/triclocarbans: triclosan, triclocarban, “anti-bacterial”, “odor-fighting”

  • Siloxane: -siloxane, -silane, -cone, -conol (i.e. octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane [D4], decamethylcyclopentasiloxane [D5], dodecamethylcyclohexylsiloxane [D6], etc)Silo

  • Talc: talc, talcum powder, magnesium silicate

  • Formaldehyde: formalin, formic aldehyde, methanediol, methanal, methyl aldehyde, methylene glycol, methylene oxide; releasers: DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, bronopol, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, hydroxymethylglycinate

  • Ethoxylates: 1,-4 dioxane, ethylene oxide, laureths (sodium laureth sulfate), oleths, polyethylene glycol (PEG), polysorbates, nonoxynols, octoxynols

  • Fragrance

  • Lead: lead acetate, Pb

  • Mercury: thimerosal, ethylmercury, mercurous chloride, calomel, mercuric, mercurio

  • Aluminum: aluminum sulfate, sodium aluminum phosphate, aluminum hydroxide

 

When selecting personal care products, opt for products in glass, metal, or paper containers as opposed to plastic. If using plastic, choose BPA-free. Look on the label for an indication that a product is phthalate- free, paraben-free, fragrance-free, aluminum-free, etc. Not all ingredients are required to be listed on labels, so screen products through the resources above before purchasing.

Work with a naturopathic doctor / naturopath to help you assess for environmental pollutants and to understand how they may be affecting your health. The information on this website is a guide for ways to protect you and your family from environmental pollutants.  It is not meant to replace advice from a healthcare professional.

  1. Read the labels on your personal care products and choose products that are paraben, phthalate, triclosan, aluminum/metal, fragrance, siloxane, talc, and BPA free.

  2. Make use of existing websites and apps to screen products before purchasing.

  3. Opt for glass, metal, and paper packaging over plastics whenever possible

Additional Key Recommendations

  • Remember to:

    • check your deodorant for aluminum

    • check your baby powder for talc

    • check your sanitizers and antimicrobial wipes for triclosans/triclocarbans

    • and check all personal care products for fragrance, parabens, phthalates, siloxanes, formaldehydes, and ethoxylates

  • Avoid touching receipts when you make purchases, as receipts contain high levels of BPA

  • Reduce plastic by using re-fillable glass and metal containers. Numerous shops are popping up with refillable care products like soaps, detergents, lotions, etc.

  • Consider making your own personal care products - there are countless blogs with recipes and guidance!

References

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