This Isn’t Pretty

Below is a (short?!) list of toxic ingredients found in many conventional personal and beauty products.  If you really love science, you can learn more by reading A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients: Complete Information About the Harmful and Desirable Ingredients Found in Cosmetics and Cosmeceuticals by Ruth Winter.  If you want layman’s terms in a quick, easy, and even fun read, I highly recommend No More Dirty Looks by Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt.

COAL TAR: Made from bituminous coal.  Ew.

Function: To soften skin, control itching.  Also used in many synthetic colors.

Found in: Shampoo, (especially anti-dandruff varieties) conditioner, lipstick, hair dye, toothpaste, mouthwash

Listed as: It is usually not listed on labels (!)

Risks:  Eye and skin Irritant, known human carcinogen.  The EU banned Coal Tar in 2004.



Function: Surfactant, foaming agent, emulsifying agent, foaming agent, pH adjusting chemical.

Found in: Shampoo, soap, facial cleanser, body wash, hair dye, hair relaxer, deodorant, moisturizer, baby products, acne treatment products, shaving products.

Listed as: Cocamide DEA, Lauramide DEA, Cocamide MEA, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, DEA Oleth-3 Phosphate, Linoleamide MEA, /myristamide DEA, Oleamide DEA, Stearamide MEA, TEA Laryl Sulfate, Triethanolamine.

Risks: May form carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines on the skin or in the body after absorption.  Studies have linked topical application to cancer in lab animals.


FORMALDEHYDE: What they use to embalm the dead.

Function: Preservative, germicide, fungicide.

Found in: Moisturizer, styling products, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray/dyes, “keratin” hair treatments, anti-aging treatments, facial cleanser, sunscreen, facial moisturizer, foundation, eye makeup, acne treatments, mascara, body wash/cleansers, deodorant, concealer, exfoliator, powder, body scrubs, bath oils/salts, eye/contact care, lip makeup, shaving products, after sun product, douche/personal cleanser, makeup remover, depilatory cream/hair remover, liquid hand soap, nail treatments, Fragrance.

Listed as: Cormaline, Formis Aldehyde, Oxymethane.  Sometimes it is not listed on the label because it is a by-product of two other ingredients, such as DMDM Hydantoin, quaternium-15, Diazolidinyl Urea, etc.

Risks: Know human carcinogen, irritant to the eyes and upper respiratory tract, can damage DNA.  Banned by the European Union.


FRAGRANCE: This smells bad…

Function: To seduce you and cover up the ugly smell of dirty chemicals

Found in: Almost Everything.

Listed as: Fragrance, Perfume, Parfum.

Risks: Eye, skin and respiratory allergen and irritant.  Some are known neurotoxins.  Most contain Phthalates, which are serious endocrine (hormone) disruptors.  More on that below.


LEAD & MERCURY: Heavy metals with heavy consequences.

Function: Preservative

Found in: 99% of lipsticks, mascara, eye make-up

Listed as: Thimerosal, or not listed due to the fact that it is a “contaminant” of another ingredient.

Risks: Brain damage, depression, miscarriage, renal failure.  Enough said.


PARABENS:  I know you have heard of these bad boys.

Function: Preservative, anti-bacterial agent.

Found in: Everything.  Go take a look on the back of every bottle/package in your bathroom.

Listed as: Methyl/Ethyl/Propyl/Butyl/Isobutyl Paraben

Risks: Hormone/Endocrine disruptor.  Increased risk of infertility, certain types of cancer.  Impairs development of fetus/young children.


PETROLEUM DISTILLATES/SOLVENTS: Extracted by distillation during the refining of crude oil.  Would you eat it?

Function: Solvent

Found in: Skincare, hair and nail products, mascara

Listed as: Petroleum Distillate, Stoddard Solvent, Liquid Paraffin.

Risks: Increased potential of developing undifferentiated tissue connective disease.  Aspiration can cause chemical pneumonia, pulmonary damage, and death, according to an EPA report.  Banned by the European Union.


PHTHALATES: Imagine melting down your plastic water bottle and slathering it all over your body.

Function: Industrial chemicals used as plasticizers and solvents

Found in: Most fragrances, nail polish, mascara, lotion, hair spray, deodorant, hair gel/mousse.

Listed as: Anything with “Phthalate” in its name, DBP, DEHP, DMP, DEP, but in fragrance it is not listed at all.

Risks: Suspected carcinogen to the lungs, kidneys, and liver.  Known endocrine (hormone) disruptor.  Can cause birth defects in male reproductive system and can impair fertility.


PROPYLENE GLYCOL: Can be safe when naturally derived.

Function: Penetration enhancer, humectant (moisture-sealer), keeps products from melting in heat and freezing in cold.

Found in: Shampoo, conditioner, face wash, body wash, liquid hand soap, bar soap, acne treatments, hair dye, shaving cream, sunscreen, toothpaste, toner, foundation, bronzer, nail polish, eye make-up, perfume, baby products.

Listed as: Propylene Glycol, Polyethylene Glycol, Diethylene glycol, 1-2 Propanediol, 1-2 Dihydroxypropane, Methylethylene Glycol.

Risks: Alters skin structure, allowing for deeper penetration of itself and other chemicals.  Skin irritant, allergen.



Function: Inexpensive surfactants that foam and clean while cutting through oil.

Found in: Most cleansers; shampoo, body wash, face wash, baby wash, bubble bath, soap, exfoliants, mascara, toothpaste.

Listed as: Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Sulfate, PEG Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Dodecyl Sulfate, Sodium Salt Sulphuric acid.

Risks: Endocrine (hormone) disruptor, skin and eye irritant, cannot be metabolized by the liver.



Function: Solvent.

Found in: Nail polish, nail hardener, hair dye, fragrance,

Listed as: Toluene, Toluol, Methylbenzene, Phenylmethane.

Risks: Known carcinogen can cause spontaneous abortion, liver damager, lung damage.  Banned in the European Union.


TRICLOSAN: Germ killer or super-bug creator?

Function: Synthetic antimicrobial, antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral agent and preservative.

Found in: soaps, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, mouthwash, acne treatments, antiperspirants, lipstick.

Listed as: Triclosan, many other variations involving the prefix “Chloro”.

Risks: Skin, eye, & lung irritant, endocrine (hormone) disruptor.  Concern exists that regular use could cause susceptibility to resistant strains of bacteria.