Have you ever wondered just what’s in all those products you slather, spray, spritz, apply, and rub onto your body? I mean, who hasn’t tried to kill time in the shower by hunkering down with a good shampoo bottle ingredient list? It’s a laundry list of unpronounceable words separated by dozens of hyphens. In short, it all appears to be a big bottle of chemicals. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a “chemical.” Most everything can be called a chemical; ever heard of dihydrogen monoxide ? But not all chemicals are benign, particularly the manmade, industrial ones created to fulfill a specific purpose in a product. They likely do their intended job very, very well, but it’s difficult to impossible to account for any other effects a chemical might have on an organism.
That’s where I come in. I don’t use a ton of cosmetics – which, for today’s purposes, I’ll define as any product you apply to your body to clean, moisturize, beautify, or cover up or improve an odor – but many of my readers do, and they want to know the effects of what they’re putting on and into their bodies. Today, I’ll discuss some of the most common and problematic cosmetic ingredients, both from a personal and environmental health standpoint.
Although parabens are sometimes used as food preservatives, the majority of urinary parabens  derives from nondietary sources like cosmetics, primarily, where they are used to extend shelf life. We now know beyond a doubt that humans can absorb parabens from makeup through the skin . Okay, so parabens are absorbed transdermally and show up in your urine. Does that actually matter? Well, the blogs of conventional skincare apologists would have you believe that the presence of parabens in urine means that the body is doing its job and fully eliminating toxins. Recent human studies, on the other hand, suggest a link between urinary paraben levels and certain health conditions, such as sensitivities to airborne and food allergies , elevated stress hormones in pregnant mothers and their newborn children  (who, by the way, are showing up with parabens in their first urine!), and DNA damage to sperm .
Furthermore, not all parabens are eliminated through the urine (contrary to the apologists’ claims). Some is retained in plasma, and these plasma parabens are far more stable than urinary parabens , even when stored at 37 degrees celsius for 30 days. It seems clear that urinary paraben levels offer an incomplete picture. Even scarier, parabens have estrogenic activity  and show up in the vast majority of breast cancer tumors . That’s not proof of guilt – recall the presence of cholesterol  in atherosclerotic plaque being used as “proof” of cholesterol’s causative role in heart disease  – but it’s intriguing evidence, however circumstantial (plus, whereas cholesterol is manufactured by the body, parabens are not and therefore deserve far more scrutiny).
Where to find them: Shampoos , conditioners, makeup, toothpaste, lubricant, shaving gel, moisturizers, sunscreens.
Other names: Just look for any word with “paraben” as the suffix in the ingredient list. It’s pretty much everywhere.
Being plasticizers, phthalates are most abundantly found in plastics, but they also show up in most cosmetics, especially nail polish (to keep the polish from becoming brittle on the nail) and synthetic fragrance (as a preservative). Like most other plastic compounds, phthalates are endocrine disruptors  with the ability to negatively affect a whole host of physiological functions. In animal studies, phthalates have anti-androgenic effects  (they counter “male” sex hormones) and affect fetal development, particularly of male sexual function . The biggest effects are seen in utero, when the fetus is most vulnerable.
Human studies are primarily observational. One recent study  found that women with the highest levels of certain cosmetics-related phthalates in their blood were at an elevated risk for diabetes. Another  discovered a link between phthalate blood levels and obesity in children. They have also been linked to ADHD , altered thyroid function , breast cancer , decreased motor and mental development  in children, and “less male-typical play behaviour in boys .”
The combination of observational studies coupled with potential physiological mechanisms (endocrine disruption) make me pretty suspicious of phthalates. Of course, much of our exposure to the chemicals comes from plastics and the ambient environment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t limit exposure through cosmetics, too.
Where to find them: Nail polish, fragrance, hair spray, deodorant.
Other names: Fragrance almost always contains phthalates. Sometimes, ingredient names will have the suffix “phthalate,” but you can’t always rely on that. Acronyms of some phthalates used in cosmetics include DEP, DBP, and BzBP. You know what? Just be wary of that “phth” (how the heck do you even pronounce that?) because it shows up in the middle of words, too.
Triclosan is essentially an antibiotic. Although it’s being phased out, it still appears in some hand sanitizers . Yes, triclosan does kill bacteria and fungus. Yes, it’s even been shown to be better at that than soap and water. But that comes at a big cost.
A recent French paper  put it nicely: triclosan is a resilient chemical, making it off our bodies, down our drains, and into our lakes, rivers, oceans, and even drinking water. Fish and people alike have it in their bodies, and triclosan also reacts with chlorine and ozone to form toxic dioxins. Most importantly, like any antibiotic that’s used flagrantly, there’s evidence that it contributes to antibiotic resistance in bacteria . The fact that people tend to use it to ward off disease-causing bacteria means that those disease-causing bacteria are developing resistance. Triclosan trains them.
This is pretty clear cut. Just use soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Where to find them: Hand sanitizers, deodorants, certain toothpastes.
Other names: Irgasan DP-300, Lexol 300, Ster-Zac, cloxifenolum.
Fragrances are exactly what they sound like: synthetic compounds added to products to make them “smell good.” I put that in quote marks because fragrances can be truly overpowering and downright unpleasant, in my opinion. Let’s just say that they “add odors” to products.
The real problem with fragrance, other than, well, the smell, is that fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets. This means companies don’t have to disclose the chemicals contained in a particular fragrance. They can just add “fragrance” to the ingredients list and go on their merry way. Unfortunately, most synthetic fragrances contain pthalates, which I’ve already covered, and synthetic musks, which have been shown to impair endogenous cellular defense mechanisms . In other words, synthetic musks may hamper our cells’ ability to detoxify, thereby leading to excessive exposure to otherwise easily detoxified toxicants. They’re persistent bastards, too, as musk residues show up in the ocean, in blood, in breast milk, and in babies. American breast milk, for example, almost invariably contains fragrances, up to five times as much as breast milk from Germany or Denmark . Many fragrance ingredients are also allergens, making fragrance one of the most common triggers for people with allergies (PDF ).
Where to find them: Obviously, you’ve got your colognes and perfumes. If a cosmetic is scented, it also likely contains a fragrance. That goes for soaps, lotions, deodorants, and laundry detergent.
Other names: Parfum (classy, eh?) or aroma.
Many sunscreens use UV-filters like benzophenone and oxybenzone for their UV-blocking properties, but they also possess a hidden feature: endocrine disruption. Certain forms of benzophenone, for example, inhibit the action of thyroid peroxidase , an enzyme necessary for the production of thyroid  hormone. Another study  showed that application of sunscreen containing benzophenone-2 for five days lowered T4 and T3 thyroid hormones in rats. Later, researchers examined  the estrogenic effects of another UV-filter used in sunscreen – octyl-methoxycinnamate – and found that typical amounts were enough to disrupt hormonal function and exert other, non-endocrine health effects when applied to rat skin. That might not a problem if UV-filters in sunscreen weren’t designed to be absorbed into the skin, and therefore the body, nor if every expert weren’t telling us to slather a quarter cup full all over our bodies at the first hint of sunlight .
It’s also worth mentioning that UV-filtering chemicals often have even more drastic effects on wildlife, like the zebrafish , in whom low amounts of oxybenzone exert multigenerational effects at the gene transcription level.
The best part of all this? It’s not even effective against the development of melanoma ! In fact, one study found a positive association between sunscreen usage and melanoma incidence.
Where to find them: Anything containing sunscreen.
Other names: Benzophenone, oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), octyl-methoxycinnamate, para-amino benzoic acid (PABA), 3-benzylidene camphor (3-BC), 3-(4-methyl-benzylidene) camphor (4-MBC), 2-ethylhexyl 4-methoxy cinnamate (OMC), homosalate (HMS), 2-ethylhexyl 4-dimethylaminobenzoate (OD-PABA). These are different chemicals with similar effects.
There are other potentially harmful cosmetics chemicals, like the “dirty dozen of cosmetics ,” but I found these five to have the most evidence of serious harm and cast the widest net of influence across the sexes. I hesitate to ask you to lose sleep over every little chemical that might do us harm when we have much bigger fish to fry in the path toward health, including food, fitness, sleep, stress, sun, and community. These five deserve scrutiny, though.
Three major problems with most of these chemicals exist, as I see it:
1. They tend to accumulate in the body. Some gets excreted, but not all.
2. We use them frequently, oftentimes every single day. Small, one-time amounts of some of them might be okay. When you continuously slather it all over you, day in and day out, the problem compounds. Short term studies can’t account for that.
3. They often have external effects, whether it be drug resistance of bacteria, environmental accumulation, or developmental effects in unborn fetuses.
So, what about you guys? Have you been paying attention to what you put on your body? Have you noticed anything from being more selective with your cosmetics? Have you shunned them altogether? Let me know!