What’s dirty in your shampoo?

08 April, 2019

Over 100 chemical substances can enter your body just from personal care products

This is the first of a two-part blog series on concerning ingredients that may be present in personal care products (such as shampoos, lotions) and other products we use every day in our homes. These are supposed to make us feel good or make our lives easier. However, many of the ingredients used in these products are not regulated in the U.S. and may actually be bad for us. This is because these compounds can enter our bloodstream through the skin, ingestion or inhalation.

According to EWG, the average American woman uses 9 personal care products a day, which accounts for an average of 126 different chemical substances that end up on our body’s every day. That is too many for us to address in this blog post.  Instead, we have approached this topic by discussing groups of compounds, by following the David Suzuki Foundation. This watch group tracks chemicals used in consumer products and has narrowed down the list of ingredients to twelve chemical substances or chemical groups, known as the  “Dirty Dozen”. Part one of our blog series will focus on the first six chemical substances of the Dirty Dozen and part two will address the other six.

Some of the references focus on a particular human health or environmental concern such as endocrine disruptors. Many of the Dirty Dozen have this negative effect. For example, the National Institute of Environmental Sciences conducted a study on phthalates, parabens, and phenol in personal care products and how they affect adolescent girls can be found here. We also included the 2014 National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals that includes many of the Dirty Dozen.

Phtalates, Parabens, Antimicrobials

Phthalates.  Phthalates are a group of synthetic chemicals found in almost all beauty care products including hairspray, deodorant, makeup, and perfumes. They are also used in other consumer products and are often found in home furniture such as shower curtains, carpet, rubbery products and so on. Phthalates are not chemically bound to the products in which they are used, which means they can migrate easily onto our skin and the air. They can, therefore, be inhaled and absorbed by the skin. Phthalates can also be ingested, but this route of exposure is less common. Some phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which mean they interfere with our hormones at certain doses. This can result in cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders. In addition, research has shown that some phthalates may alter the development of the male reproductive system in some animals, which has led the FDA to caution against exposing male babies to a specific phthalate called Bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP).

Parabens.  Parabens are a group of synthetic chemicals that are used to preserve cosmetics and other chemical formulations.  They are potential endocrine disruptors and have been found in the urine of nearly all American adults. In one study, adolescents and adult females had higher levels of methylparaben and propylparaben in their urine than did males of similar ages. In addition, according to the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, parabens have been linked to skin cancer and developmental and reproductive toxicity. Commonly used parabens include methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben and they are listed on the label of many beauty care products.

Triclosan is an antimicrobial commonly used in liquid soaps, acne cream, deodorants, shaving cream, toothpaste, and other products. They are also used in cleaning products alongside other antimicrobials. It is designed to stop the growth of bacteria, fungi and mildew, and has been registered and used as a pesticide since 1969. There are many health concerns with triclosan including endocrine disruption, triclosan-resistant bacteria, and bioaccumulation. Triclosan accumulates in fatty tissues and has been found in human breast milk.    

Fragrances, BHA, BHT and Coal Tar Dies

Fragrances are a group of chemical substances that when reacted create a pleasant aroma. They are ubiquitous because they are present in almost all beauty products and beyond, they are also used to scent dustbin bags or in drying sheets. However, when you look at the product label, the specific substances are not listed; instead, there are words such as fragrance, perfume, essential oil blend or aroma. According to the International Fragrance Association IFRA, there are over 3000 chemicals substances used to make fragrances and many of them are linked to health effects including cancer, allergies, and reproductive toxicity. In a study, 34.7 % of people reported health problems, such as migraine headaches and respiratory difficulties, when exposed to fragranced products.  

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).  Butylated compounds  are synthetic antioxidants commonly used as preservatives in lipsticks and moisturizers (although they can appear in other products). They can even be used to extend the shelf-life of food. The National Toxicology Program lists BHA as reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. The California EPA’s Proposition 65 list identifies BHA as a possible human carcinogen and requires labeling for products that are used on the lips.  A safety assessment of BHT reported that BHT applied to the skin of rats was associated with toxic effects in lung tissue, but judged that the low concentrations used in cosmetics were safe.

Coal tar dyes are a mixture of petroleum-derived chemicals used to color hair dye and cosmetics.  As an ingredient on the label, they will be listed as P-phenylenediamine (hair dye) and either Color Index (C.I.), FD&C or D&C  with a five-digit number afterward in the 75000 to 77000 range. P-phenylenediamine, one of the chemicals found in coal tar is a recognized human carcinogen.  Some other chemical substances in the coal tar dye family contain low levels of heavy metals and aluminum, both of which are toxic to the brain. Some of these colors are not approved for use in food, but because the cosmetics industry is largely unregulated, they are often used in lipstick where they can be easily ingested. If you see an ingredient on the label called D&C followed by a number, it means the FDA has not approved it for use in food, and therefore you should avoid it.

Why isn’t someone regulating this?

Many consumer and home furnishing products are not well regulated in the U.S. With regards to personal care products, to protect your health look for products with ingredients that do not appear on the dirty dozen list above. There are also some excellent apps and online resources that can guide you in your purchasing decisions. These include: EWG Skin Deep database, Think Dirty, Detox Me and GoodGuide that can help you buy better products.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog!

Author Serena Pozza Materials Health Geek