Dangerous Chemicals in Personal Care Products

woman reading product label

People are exposed to a multitude of toxins over the course of their daily lives, including through their personal care products. Given the frequency at which people use personal care products, it's a particularly worrying phenomenon. For the sake of their long-term health, many consumers may need to be more wary in the future.

Common Toxic Chemicals in Personal Care Products

There is a great deal of controversy about the risks involved with the chemicals in personal care products. However, many of the chemicals used in seemingly innocent personal care products have been linked to severe long-term health consequences. Some of these chemicals will also have worrying environmental effects. The consequences of underestimating the toxicity of some of these chemicals could be drastic.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that there may be links between triclosan and changes in hormone regulation and indicates that it may be a factor in the creation of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) refers to troubling new evidence implying that triclosan may contribute to the formation of cancer, thus exacerbating a patient's cancer risk. While the NCBI acknowledges that more studies need to be conducted, which is a professional necessity for scientists, it should be noted that consumers using soap and toothpaste that contain triclosan are going to be exposed to a lot of it on a daily basis. The risks associated with most substances will increase in proportion to exposure levels.

Products With Triclosan

The Mayo Clinic (MC) says that triclosan can be found in soap, toothpaste, and cosmetics, and that it is added to counteract bacteria. However, the addition of triclosan has potential consequences which may outweigh some of the potential benefits, and the MC indicates that even some of the theoretical benefits of triclosan are controversial.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that while short-term formaldehyde exposure can bother the nose, skin, throat, and eyes, significant long-term exposure could lead to the development of cancer. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) links formaldehyde exposure to neurological consequences, respiratory problems, asthma, eczema, and allergies. The ATSDR also refers to animal studies that connect formaldehyde exposure with liver problems, unexplained weight loss, kidney problems, and gastrointestinal ulcers.

Formaldehyde's effects on human health are more extensive than its effects on the environment, but that doesn't mean that formaldehyde doesn't carry any environmental consequences. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) indicates that formaldehyde may contribute to the production of ground level ozone. The consequences of using formaldehyde may be far-reaching.

Products With Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a common ingredient in fabric softeners, cosmetics, and dishwashing liquid according to the EPA. The EPA is currently in the midst of researching the effects of formaldehyde exposure and trying to create new regulations regarding formaldehyde usage.

Coal Tar Dyes

The FDA indicates that some components of coal tar hair dyes have been linked to cancer in animal studies. The FDA also considers some coal tar dyes worse than others. For instance, 4-methoxy-m-phenylenediamine can penetrate the skin. The standard defense against many chemicals is that they're not dangerous when used externally, but that may not be the case for some coal tar hair dye ingredients in practice.

Products With Coal Tar Dyes

Many people dye their hair almost continuously or work with hair dyes professionally. Their exposure level could be alarmingly high.


The National Toxicology Program (NTP) listed di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate as a substance that's reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen in their Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens. Phthalates only slowly break down when they are released into the water and they have a strong tendency to build up in the tissues of animals, according to Green Facts. That tendency is worrying for humans and for wildlife.

Nail polish may contain phthalates.
Polishes may contain phthalates.

Products With Phthalates

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that literally hundreds of products contain phthalates, including hair spray, soap, nail polish, and shampoo.


The Journal of Applied Toxicology released a study involving parabens and the tissue of breast cancer patients, and a full 99 percent of the samples had at least one paraben ester. The Breast Cancer Fund (BCF) indicates that parabens mimic estrogen in the body, which could be the causal link between breast cancer and parabens.

The CDC indicates that parabens do not have environmental consequences, however, as they degrade in air and water.

Products With Parabens

People may use dozens of products that contain parabens throughout the day, including cosmetics and underarm deodorants, as the BCF indicates.

How to Choose Products

Low levels of exposure to even very toxic chemicals could be relatively harmless. However, many people will use multiple personal care products throughout the day, and many of these chemicals will only accumulate in their tissues with time. Choose products carefully to lessen your exposure.

Read Ingredient Labels

Reading the ingredients labels on products is certainly a good practice, but it may be insufficient. WebMD indicates that when it comes to fragrances, manufacturers do not necessarily have to include the composite chemicals on the associated ingredients lists. Consumers may be able to get around this problem by avoiding products that have added fragrances or researching certain products more thoroughly before using them.

Familiarize Yourself With Chemical Names

Many potentially toxic chemicals actually form larger categories of toxic chemicals. For instance, WebMD recommends that people that are trying to monitor their exposure to parabens should examine labels and look for listings of methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and benzylparaben. Consumers may have to familiarize themselves with a wide range of chemical names in the process.

Check Internet Databases

The Internet has made finding safe products easier and more efficient. There are databases available online that include listings of the chemicals in various products, such as California Safe Cosmetics Program Product Database. Databases like these can help people that have inquiries about the specific types of personal care products that they use on a regular basis.

Avoiding Toxins in Personal Care Products

People that are concerned about the toxic chemicals in personal care products should know that just reducing the amount of toxins they absorb is worthwhile. The main factor with regards to toxins and disease is the quantity that consumers absorb. Reducing one's consumption of products that contain toxic chemicals is still worthwhile even if eliminating them altogether is logistically difficult.

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Dangerous Chemicals in Personal Care Products