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Toxic Ingredients to avoid in Cosmetics

Adapted from David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen Cosmetic Ingredients at

1. BHA and BHT

  • BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
  • synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks and moisturizers
  • widely used as food preservatives
  • Health Canada has categorized BHA as a “high human health priority” on the basis of carcinogenicity and BHT as a “moderate human health priority”
  • their use is unrestricted in Canada

2. Coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colours listed as “CI” followed by a five digit number (ie CI 77891)

  • natural and inorganic pigments used in cosmetics are also assigned Colour Index numbers (in the 75000 and 77000 series, respectively); Titanium Dioxide is CI 77891 and Zinc Oxide is 77947
  • the U.S. colour name may also be listed (“FD&C” or “D&C” followed by a colour name and number)
  • P-phenylenediamine is a coal tar dye used in many hair dyes; darker hair dyes tend to contain more phenylenediamine than lighter colours.
  • FD&C (Food, Drug and Cosmetics) dyes are approved for these uses; D&C (only approved for Drug and Cosmetics, not food)
  • some colours are not approved as food additives, yet they are used in cosmetics that may be ingested, like lipstick
  • coal-tar (mixture of chemicals derived from petroleum) derived colours are used extensively in cosmetics
  • coal tar is recognized as a human carcinogen and the main concern with individual coal tar colours (whether produced from coal tar or synthetically) is their potential to cause cancer
  • several coal tar dyes are prohibited on Health Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist and Canada’s Cosmetic Regulations prohibit all but seven of these colours in eye makeup and other products used in the area of the eye.
Sustainable Shopper’s Guide to a Dirty Dozen Ingredients to Avoid in your Cosmetics

3. DEA-related ingredients

toxic ingredients to avoid in cosmetics

  • DEA (diethanolamine) and DEA compounds are used to make cosmetics creamy or sudsy
  • also acts as a pH adjuster, counteracting the acidity of other ingredients
  • DEA is mainly found in moisturizers and sunscreens, while cocamide and lauramide DEA are found in soaps, cleansers, and shampoos
  • DEA and its compounds cause mild to moderate skin and eye irritation
  • DEA compounds can also react with nitrites in cosmetics to form nitrosamines, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a possible human carcinogen
  • DEA compounds in cosmetics is unrestricted in Canada, although Health Canada has categorized them as “moderate human health priorities.”

4. Dibutyl phthalate

  • Dibutyl phthalate (pronounced thal-ate), or DBP, is used mainly in nail products as a solvent for dyes and as a plasticizer that prevents nail polishes from becoming brittle
  • phthalates are also used as fragrance ingredients in many other cosmetics, but consumers won’t find these listed on the label
  • fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets, so manufacturers are not required to disclose fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients (see also Fragrance/Parfum).
  • DBP is also commonly used in polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC) to render it flexible
  • the EU classifies DBP as a suspected endocrine disruptor on the basis of evidence that it interferes with hormone function and as toxic to reproduction on the basis that it may cause harm to the unborn child and impair fertility
  • the EU classifies DBP as very toxic to aquatic organisms
  • Health Canada recently announced regulations banning six phthalates (including DBP) in soft vinyl children’s toys and child care articles, but its use in cosmetics is not restricted
  • the best bet to avoid phthalates in fragrances is to use products that are “fragrance-free” (but beware of products marketed as “unscented” — see Fragrance/Parfum)

5. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives

  • formaldehyde-releasing agents are used as preservatives in a wide range of cosmetics
  • these ingredients are a concern because they slowly and continuously release small amounts of formaldehyde, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a known human carcinogen
  • Formaldehyde may off-gas from cosmetics containing these ingredients and be inhaled (most of the cancer research on formaldehyde has focused on risks from inhalation)
  • laboratory studies suggest that formaldehyde in cosmetics can also be absorbed through the skin
  • Formaldehyde is a restricted ingredient in cosmetics in Canada. It cannot be added in concentrations greater than 0.2 per cent in most products
  • there is no restriction on the low-levels of formaldehyde released by DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quarternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, nor on the use of these ingredients themselves

6. Parabens

  • Parabens are the most widely used preservative in cosmetics; also used as fragrance ingredients
  • Parabens easily penetrate the skin.  The European Commission on Endocrine Disruptionhas listed parabens as Category 1 priority substances, based on evidence that they interfere with hormone function
  • Parabens can mimic estrogen; they have been detected in human breast cancer tissues, suggesting a possible association between parabens in cosmetics and cancer
  • Parabens may also interfere with male reproductive functions; studies indicate that methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with UVB leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage
  • Parabens in foods are metabolized when eaten, making them less strongly estrogenic; when applied to the skin and absorbed into the body, parabens in cosmetics bypass the metabolic process and enter the blood stream and body organs intact
  • there are no restrictions on the use of parabens in cosmetics in Canada

7. Parfum (a.k.a. fragrance)

  • “fragrance” or “parfum” on a cosmetic ingredients list usually represents a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals; some 3,000 chemicals are used as fragrances
  • fragrance is an obvious ingredient in perfumes, colognes, and deodorants, but it’s used in nearly every type of personal care product
  • products marketed as “fragrance-free” or “unscented” may in fact contain fragrance along with a masking agent that prevents the brain from perceiving odour
  • of the thousands of chemicals used in fragrances, most have not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination
  • many of these unlisted ingredients are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines, and asthma symptoms
  • there is also evidence suggesting that exposure to perfume can exacerbate asthma, and perhaps even contribute to its development in children
  • some fragrance ingredients are not perfuming agents themselves but enhance the performance of perfuming agents; i.e. diethyl phthalate (prounced tha-late), or DEP, is widely used in cosmetic fragrances to make the scent linger
  • Health Canada recently announced regulations banning six phthalates in children’s toys (including DEP), but the use of DEP in cosmetics is unrestricted

8. PEG compounds 

toxic ingredients to avoid in cosmetics

  • PEGs (polyethylene glycols) are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers
  • PEGs are commonly used as cosmetic cream bases
  • depending on manufacturing processes, PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancerclassifies ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane as a possible human carcinogen
  • 1,4-dioxane can be removed from cosmetics during the manufacturing process by vacuum stripping, but there is no easy way for consumers to know whether products containing PEGs have undergone this process
  • PEG compounds themselves show some evidence of genotoxicityand if used on broken skin can cause irritation and systemic toxicity
  • PEG functions as a “penetration enhancer,” increasing the permeability of the skin to allow greater absorption of the product — including harmful ingredients
  • there are no restrictions on the use of parabens in cosmetics in Canada. Ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane are prohibited on Health Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist
  • when present as a contaminant the Hotlist restriction does not apply
  • Propylene glycol is a related chemical that, like PEGs, functions as a penetration enhancer and can allow harmful ingredients to be absorbed more readily through the skin. It can also cause allergic reactions
  • Health Canada categorized propylene glycol as a “moderate human health priority” and flagged it future assessment under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan.

9. Petrolatum 

  • Petrolatum, a petroleum product, is mineral oil jelly (i.e. petroleum jelly); used as a barrier to lock moisture in the skin in a variety of moisturizers and also in hair care products to make your hair shine
  • petrolatum can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • exposure to PAHs — including skin contact over extended periods of time — is associated with cancer
  • the EU classifies petrolatum a carcinogen and restricts its use in cosmetics
  • PAHs in petrolatum can also cause skin irritation and allergies
  • in the EU, petrolatum can only be used in cosmetics “if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen”
  • there is no parallel restriction in Canada

10. Siloxanes

  • these silicone-based compounds are used in cosmetics to soften, smooth, and moisten
  • Environment Canada assessments concluded that cyclotetrasiloxane and cylcopentasiloxane — also known as D4 and D5 — are toxic, persistent, and have the potential to bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms
  • the EU classifies D4 as an endocrine disruptor, based on evidence that it interferes with human hormone function, and a possible reproductive toxicant that may impair human fertility
  • January 2009, Environment Canada and Health Canada proposed to add D4 and D5 siloxanes to the List of Toxic Substances pursuant to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999(CEPA), and to develop regulations “to limit the quantity or concentration of D4 and D5 in certain personal care products.”
  • Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) silicone polymers are produced from D4 and contain residual amounts of D4 and D5
  • Dimethicone is a common PDMS ingredient in cosmetics

11. Sodium laureth sulfate 

toxic ingredients to avoid in cosmetics

  • Sodium laureth sulfate (sometimes referred to as SLES) is used in cosmetics as a detergent and also to make products bubble and foam
  • depending on manufacturing processes, sodium laureth sulfate may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane as a possible human carcinogen
  • the industry panel that reviews the safety of cosmetics ingredients notes that sodium laureth sulfate can irritate the skin and eyes (though approving of its use in cosmetics)
  • Ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane are prohibited on Health Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. However, the Hotlist does not control for the presence of these chemicals as contaminants

12. Triclosan  

  • Triclosan is in use in antiperspirants/deodorants, cleansers, and hand sanitizers as a preservative and an anti-bacterial agent
  • Triclosan can pass through the skin and is suspected of interfering with hormone function (endocrine disruption)
  • The EU classifies triclosan as irritating to the skin and eyes, and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, noting that it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment
  • Environment Canada likewise categorized triclosan as potentially toxic to aquatic organisms, bioaccumulative, and persistent
  • Health Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist limits the concentration of triclosan to 0.03 per cent in mouthwashes and 0.3 per cent in other cosmetics
  • the problem is that triclosan is used in so many products that the small amounts found in each product add up — particularly since the chemical does not readily degrade
  • Environment Canada has flagged triclosan for future assessment under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan.

toxic ingredients to avoid in cosmetics

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