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5 Harmful Chemicals in Personal Care Products

We’ve talked about 5 harmful food additives you should avoid (you can find that here) so now let’s move to our personal care products.  A study by the Environmental Working Group reveals the average American woman puts 168 synthetic chemicals on her body each day.  168!  That’s simply crazy to me, I don’t wear much make-up but 168 chemicals in personal care products?  What the hell is in all these products sold in drug stores, department stores, beauty stores, etc?  If there are that many synthetic chemicals, is there anything natural in it?  Is there a problem with that many synthetic chemicals coming in to contact with our skin?

According to a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average woman uses 9 to 12 personal care products per day, the average man uses 5 to 7 and the average teenage girl uses 17.  Seems high to me but I suppose once you start counting, it adds up fast.  Unfortunately, current government regulations look at chemicals on a per-product basis.  They don’t seem to understand that many of these products contain the same harmful ingredients and that the toxic load adds up fast.  That sort of throws the acceptable limit levels they set, out the window.

Body Burden

Body burden is a term used to describe the total accumulation of toxins in your body.  When we think of total body burden, we have to think of the toxins that enter our bodies via the food we eat, the beverages we drink, the air we breathe, and the products that are applied to our skin.  It only takes 26 seconds for the chemicals in personal care products to enter your bloodstream.  Um, I don’t know about you but I think that’s a pretty short window.  Now think about those 168 synthetic chemicals that we’ve just put on our bodies.  Thankfully our bodies have the ability to detoxify themselves, however, if more toxins are coming in than going out, our health is going to suffer.


Parabens are synthetic compounds that are used as preservatives in about 90% of common grocery items, many of which are personal care products. You’ll see them listed in the ingredients as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben.  They are added to prevent the growth of icky things like fungus, bacteria, and other potentially harmful microbes in these products.  We surely don’t want those things growing in our toothpaste, shampoo, makeup, and other products but what’s the alternative?  Breast cancer? Tumors? Reproductive Issues?


Phthalates are a family of chemicals that are added to plastics and vinyl to increase flexibility, durability, transparency, and longevity.  Phthalates are also used in many other personal care products such as nail polish, hairspray, lotions, shampoos, makeup, etc. These pesky chemicals help the nail polish stick and not crack, the hairspray to hold without being too stiff, the “fragrance” stick to your skin and last longer, etc.  Anytime you see the word fragrance on a personal care product bottle, you can be pretty sure phthalates are present.  Phthalates are a hard one to “label read” for that specific reason, they are covered up by the ingredient “fragrance”.   These chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, have been linked to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cancer, diabetes, male fertility issues, and many more health issues.  In this post, we are focusing on chemicals in personal care products but phthalates abound everywhere – paint, vinyl, exercise equipment, detergents, adhesives, medical equipment, toys, just everywhere.  Here are some things you can do to best avoid them:

  • read labels
  • avoid products packaged in anything labeled with a #3 recycling symbol
  • purchase organic products packaged in glass (although even then, if it’s something like milk, the plastic tubing used in the milking process most likely contains phthalates
  • avoid anything with “fragrance” as an ingredient
  • look for products that say PVC free
  • use less plastic

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

SLS is a surfactant derived from petroleum or coconut.  Sounds good, eh?  Well, not so fast.  Just because it might be derived from coconut oil, doesn’t mean it’s natural and not harmful.  A surfactant is an ingredient that breaks down molecules to small bits and lathers quite well.  We’ve all been trained to think that the more lather that’s produced, the cleaner we’ll be.  As you know, I don’t do science but I spent a bit of time and drew myself some diagrams, to try to understand this.  So, here’s how it plays out.  To make the ingredient SLS, you need lauryl alcohol.  Lauryl alcohol can come from coconut oil or petroleum.  The lauryl alcohol is extracted by a fancy high tech process and it then gets synthesized in a lab with sulfur trioxide gas or chlorosulfuric acid.  The alcohol is then mixed with other chemicals and voila, you have SLS.

Aside from the fact that SLS is a carcinogen, can irritate the skin, is a hormone disruptor, and more, it also strips skin of its natural oils and moisture which leads to dry, irritated skin.

So here’s something interesting:

SLS is found in cleaning products and personal care products and maybe more, I can’t research everything y’all!  At least not yet.  Anyway, SLS is known to increase the risk of scalp irritation, stinging eyes, and tangled, split, frizzy, and dull hair but it’s an ingredient in several different shampoos I looked at, that claim to combat these problems.  Anyone see the irony in this?

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

SLES is a cousin to SLS.  It’s a yellow detergent that also acts as a surfactant although, with a higher foaming ability but not quite as harsh as SLS.  Ironically, in order to make it less irritating, a cheap toxic gas is added during the manufacturing process (the process is called ethoxylation – that’s a science mumbo jumbo term) and the result is a chemical that’s even more toxic!  This process produces a byproduct called 1,4-Dioxane which is a known cancer-causing agent and is harmful to our environment.  If you geek out on science and want the technical info, I’ve linked a great article in my sources below.


Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical that was registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a pesticide in 1969 and how awesome is this, it’s included in some personal care products like toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, hand sanitizer, etc.  Ironically, research shows it’s no more effective than good old soap and water for killing bacteria.  It penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream fairly easily, is a known endocrine disruptor and suspected carcinogen, what’s not to love?  Don’t get me started on the effects it’s having on our environment.  Given how many products it’s in and how frequently those products are used, this harmful chemical is continually being washed down drains, contaminating our waterways and harming marine life.  The good news is, it’s easy to spot when you read ingredient labels because there aren’t 50 different names for it.  Thankfully, in September 2016, the FDA banned Triclosan (and 19 other chemicals) from being used in personal care products, not including those antibacterial products used in hospital settings or consumer hand sanitizers or wipes.  Companies had a year to reformulate products or remove them.  We’re not that far out from September 2017 so I’ll still be reading ingredient labels looking out for chemicals in personal care products.  It’s probably also a good idea to go through those cabinets and check any products that have been in there a while.

inspirational quote

One of my most favorite quotes!  I apply that same idea to the choices I make in my life.  Sure, I would love to completely eliminate all the harmful chemicals from my life but the reality is, it’s simply not possible.  So, I focus my efforts on areas I can control and that will at the very least, reduce my body burden and put me in a better position than if I just turned a blind eye.  Yes, I know we’re all going to die someday but why not try to strike a realistic balance?We do have options that don’t contain all these harmful chemicals in personal care products.  You might have to pay a little more but do you want to pay now or later?

I’d love to hear your favorite personal care products, comment and let me know!

~ Heather


Not So Pretty: Women Apply An Average of 168 Synthetic Chemicals Every Day

Should People Be Concerned about Parabens in Beauty Products?

Phthalates are everywhere, and the health risks are worrying. How bad are they really?

Deadly and Dangerous Shampoos, Toothpastes, and Detergents: Could 16,000 Studies Be Wrong About SLS?

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate From Coconut – Is It Safer?

lady wearing rubber glove holding bottle of red liquid



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  1. Great post, Heather! I try to keep everything organic and natural because of this! It’s crazy how many chemicals are found in products that we put on our bodies – so unnecessary!

  2. It’s so disheartening how many products continue to be sold with known toxins. Thanks for helping to create awareness. I found Neal’s Yard Remedies offers natural, organic, cruelty free beauty and personal care products.

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