Written by Audrey Swanson. Medically reviewed by board-certified pediatrician Dr. Ryan Blackman DO, FAAP.
From moisturizers and soaps and toothpastes to deodorants and shampoos and gels, all of our personal care ingredients sit directly on our skin. At a time when our medicine cabinets and beauty counters are so full of products, it’s never been more important -- or seemingly more difficult -- to understand what you are putting in and on your body. From sulfates and phthalates to aluminum and parabens, it’s hard to keep track of it all. In today’s post we’ll give you the skinny on questionable chemicals in your personal care products, and we’ll outline which ingredients you should avoid.
Which questionable chemicals are commonly found in personal care products?
When it comes to regulating cosmetics and personal care products, the FDA says that “it’s against the law for a cosmetic to contain any ingredient that makes the product harmful when consumers use it according to directions on the label, or in the customary or expected way.”
However, there is no real way to fully be aware of the long-term side effects of many of the chemicals present in personal care products, and the FDA does not require manufacturers of cosmetic and personal care products to submit safety data. Yet several ingredients commonly found in personal care products may be harmful with prolonged use, including:
While studies have shown that most levels of aluminum in cosmetics can be safe, aluminum is a neurotoxin and research theorizes that aluminum in products like deodorant can lead to an increased risk of neurological diseases like Parkinsonism dementia.
While often used in products to treat dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis and typically safe in low concentrations, coal tar is a known carcinogen that has been linked as an occupational hazard for cancer.
Often found in hair care products and cosmetics, parabens are a family of preservatives that are meant to protect products from harmful bacteria. In low concentrations parabens are generally considered safe to use. However, recent research has raised questions about parabens producing similar effects to those of estrogen in the body and possibly encouraging the growth of breast cancer cells
Often included unnecessarily in personal care products, synthetic fragrances can be irritating to your skin. The real issue with synthetic fragrance is that fragrance itself is protected under trade secret laws. While not all fragrances are bad, you often just don’t know what you’re exposing yourself or your family to.
Often used in hair care products, sulfates can cause skin irritation, according to data prepared for the World Health Organization.
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Shampoo ingredients to avoid
Although many shampoos on the market contain sulfates and parabens in their formulas to increase sudsing and longevity, it’s worth exploring shampoos without parabens and sulfates, as they tend to be much gentler on your hair and scalp. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, some of the common sulfates used in conventional shampoos can strip natural oils already found in hair and can be harsh on those with color-treated hair.
Parabens -- often noted as methylparabens, propylparabens, and ethylparabens in ingredient lists -- are effective preservatives, but they’re also not regulated by the FDA and could pose some health risks. You’ll also want to avoid dimethicone, which has been shown to be harmful to the environment, and quaternarium ammonium compounds -- also known as quats -- which are used most often in hair products and show an increased risk of sensitivity and irritation.
Soap ingredients to avoid
Similar to shampoos, many soaps on the market contain sulfates to increase sudsing of the product -- which can be harsh and drying on skin -- and parabens, which increase product longevity but also could pose some health risks.
Another chemical we expect you’ll hear a lot about in the coming years is cocamidopropyl betaine (coco betaine). This ingredient, which is commonly used as a surfactant and foam booster in many personal care products like shampoos and hand soaps, was named “Allergen of the Year” in 2004 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
In our opinion, coco betaine is suitable for use in fabric cleaning products like laundry detergent, but you should avoid it in any product where it is applied directly to your skin or hair. Furthermore, we believe many companies are now using coco betaine as a way to forego sulfates. It is similar in efficacy, foaming and harshness, but it doesn’t carry that ugly designation of being a sulfate. We expect that to change in the coming years as more evidence mounts that coco betaine causes skin irritation in some individuals.
Dr.Jackson MD, FAAD, a board certified dermatologist and member of our consulting team here at Puracy, reports, “I commonly see allergic reactions to cosmetic products, particularly a reaction called eyelid dermatitis, which often requires patch testing to identify the allergen. Cocamidopropyl betaine (CAPB) is included in our patch testing, and the most frequent site of dermatitis from CAPB was reported as the head and neck region, thus being a potential cause of eyelid dermatitis. However, this chemical is made with another common allergen, 3-(dimethylamino)propylamine (DMAPA), which is often a contaiminent in products containing CAPB. Therefore, patients can show allergy to DMAPA, but not CAPB, and still need to avoid use of CAPB given the contamination with DMAPA.”
Preservatives to avoid
Several preservatives commonly found in personal care and cosmetic products can also pose health risks. Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) are used in many personal care products to inhibit bacterial and fungal growth. MIT was also named “Allergen of the Year” in 2013, and the MCI/MIT combination was estimated to be the fifth most common contact allergen between the year 2009-2010. Dr. Jackson MD, FAAD, again notes, “MCI is an allergen that made headlines in the dermatology world in 2013. I have personally seen many allergic reactions to MCI. This is a preservative found in some baby wipes, and I have seen painful reactions in the groin area in children and adults. I commonly recommend to avoid the use of MCI, and to make sure any baby wipe products do not contain this ingredient.”
Which beauty and personal care products are safe for me and my family?
When choosing which products to use on yourself and your family, it seems like there are a million different options on each shelf at every store. However, educating yourself on certain side effects and potential health risks of widely-used ingredients can empower you to choose products that are right for you and for your family.
Keep an eye out for the specific chemicals that we have pointed out, and rest easy knowing that many companies sell products that are specially formulated to be free of harsh chemicals. For easier shopping hauls and less complicated carts, consider downloading an app like Think Dirty to grade your products before you buy them.
At Puracy, our goal is to make sure you have safe and effective personal care products that you can trust. Whether you’re using our natural shampoo and natural conditioner or our natural body wash and organic lotion, rest assured that our personal care products are formulated with gentle ingredients that are good for you, your skin, your body, and your family.