How many potentially toxic ingredients do you smear on your skin, hair or nails on a daily basis?
An initial study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducted in 2008 found 16 chemicals from four chemical families — phthalates, triclosan, parabens and musks — in the blood and urine of 20 teen girls. Though some of these ingredients have since been banned, some are still not strictly regulated.
Long-term exposure to these chemicals can also affect mothers and have future consequences for their daughters. A 2018 study shows that mothers who had higher levels of phthalates and tricolsan during pregnancy would have daughters who started puberty earlier than other girls. The researchers also discovered that girls with increased levels of parabens in their system started puberty as young as 9.
"We already suspect that certain chemicals that are widely used in personal care products — like phthalates, parabens and triclosan — are endocrine disruptors," Dr. Kim Harley, associate professor at the University of California and lead study author, told The Telegraph. "This means that they mimic, block or otherwise interfere with natural hormones in our bodies, such as estrogen."
These chemicals and others also affect our bodies in other ways. Here's what you can do to avoid them.
This group of chemicals is often used as a softener in plastic products and an additive in cosmetics like nail polish, moisturizer and fragrance, including scents added to other products. Because companies aren't required to list the ingredients used to create "fragrance," phthalates are often not listed on the label.
Health hazards: Phthalates are considered hazardous waste and are regulated as pollutants in air and water. Banned in Europe, chemicals in the phthalate family are known to be endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, and linked to a number of heath problems. Phthalate exposure is linked to a number of reproductive problems in both men and women including reproductive system birth defects, damage to sperm DNA and infertility.
How to avoid it: Choose products that don't list phthalates or fragrance among the ingredients, or specify that they are phthalate-free.
Parabens are widely used as a preservative in all sorts of body care products and cosmetics to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. On ingredient lists, they appear as methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl- and butylparaben.
Health hazards: The FDA concluded that very low levels of parabens are a safe additive in cosmetic products, but this determination does not account for the constant exposure that we receive through dozens of products on a daily basis. Laboratory studies show that parabens mimic the hormone estrogen in the body, and in one 2004 study, parabens were found in the breast cancer tumors of 19 of 20 women examined.
How to avoid it: Look for products that say “paraben-free” right on the label.
Triclosan, the main active ingredient in antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizer, is also found in toothpastes, deodorants, face and body washes and acne treatments. Numerous studies have detected triclosan in the breast milk, blood and urine of ordinary people; in fact, a 2008 CDC survey found that 75 percent of Americans have triclosan in their bodies.
Health hazards: Triclosan, which has been proven to accumulate in the bodies of people and animals over time, is linked to the disruption of thyroid function and other critical hormonal systems. A 2010 study found that triclosan exposure is linked to allergies and hay fever in young people. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are currently evaluating the safety of triclosan use.
How to avoid it: In 2005, the FDA determined that soaps branded as “antibacterial,” including those containing triclosan, are no more effective than soap and hot water at killing germs or reducing the spread of infection. In 2016, the FDA took it a step further and banned the use of tricolsan in antiseptic products used with water (i.e. antibacterial soap). However, it can still be found in some toothpaste brands.
Nitro- and polycyclic musks
Another toxic ingredient hidden in the catch-all term 'fragrance' is musk, or specifically, nitro- and polycyclic musks. These chemicals are found in many products that list 'fragrance' among their ingredients and can be absorbed through the skin, inhaled and ingested.
Health hazards: Studies have shown that musks irritate the skin or cause allergic reactions, disrupt the hormone system and may be linked to cancer.
How to avoid it: Choose products with no added fragrance; products with naturally-derived fragrance will list the individual ingredients used for scent such as essential oils.
Eyelash glue, nail glue, nail polish and hair gel: these are just a few of the ways in which we are exposed to formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is used to prevent the growth of bacteria in personal care products and cosmetics.
Health hazards: Formaldehyde has been shown to cause allergic skin reactions and rashes in some people, and is considered a probable carcinogen.
How to avoid it: In Europe and Canada, products containing formaldehyde must carry a warning label, and in Japan and Sweden, it has been banned from use in cosmetics and toiletries altogether. In other countries such as the U.S., look for the following ingredients: formalin, methanal, urea, quatemium 15, oxymethyline, methylaldehyde, formic aldehyde, oxomethane formalin, 1,3-dioxetane, phenol formaldehyde and methylene oxide.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in February 2011.