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Identifying and Avoiding Toxins in Beauty and Personal Care Products

Written by contributor Stephanie Langford

Have you ever received a topical prescription from a doctor, such as an anti-fungal or anti-bacterial cream? Or used a topical pain reliever for a mouth sore (or for your baby’s teething)? What about a birth control patch that slowly releases hormones?

Why do these products work so well when applied to our skin, rather than taken orally?

The reason is that our skin readily absorbs chemicals and other substances deeper into our body– through our skin layers, into muscles and fat, and ultimately into our bloodstream. That pretty shade of Champagne eye shadow does not just float around on the outer layer of your skin until you wipe it away before bed that evening. No, it penetrates deeper and deeper into your body throughout the day.

Once absorbed into our bodies and blood streams, toxic chemical ingredients can cause and/or contribute to a wide array of problems (source):

  • Cancer
  • Developmental/reproductive toxicity
  • Allergies
  • Immunotoxicity
  • Neurotoxicity
  • Endocrine (hormonal) disruption
  • Organ system toxicity
  • Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs)
  • Enhanced skin absorption (some chemicals actually cause our skin to absorb even more chemicals!)
  • Biochemical or cellular level changes

Photo by ktpupp

But aren’t chemicals and ingredients in beauty products regulated?

Sadly, the short answer is no. Here’s a longer answer (source):

The unfortunate reality is that the government does not currently require health studies or pre-market testing for these products before they are sold. According to the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors,

“FDA cannot require companies to do safety testing of their cosmetic products before manufacturing,”


“…a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA.” (FDA 1995)

The Cosmetics Ingredients Review (CIR), the industry’s self-policing safety panel, falls far short of compensating for the lack of FDA oversight. An EWG analysis found that in its 30-year history, the CIR has reviewed the safety of just 13% of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products. FDA does no systematic reviews of safety. That means that nearly 90% of ingredients used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety by any publicly accountable institution. And as people apply an average of 126 unique ingredients on their skin daily, these chemicals are raising concerns, for their potential impacts to human health and to the environment

Photo by takot

Aren’t these small amounts of toxins fairly harmless?

Once again, the answer is unfortunately no.

To best answer this question, I’m going to defer to this incredible series of 3 short videos titled “10 Americans”, put out by EWG. You will be absolutely stunned by the findings of this research project and the implications that it has for us, women and moms desiring to be informed and careful consumers. Also of interest is this study Teen Girls’ Body Burden of Hormone-Altering Cosmetic Chemicals.

(If you’re wondering why I consider Environmental Working Group such a fantastic source for this type of information, it is because this non-profit organization ardently researches the dangers of toxins and exposure to them, and actively lobbies the government for greater consumer awareness and health-protective policies.)

What types of ingredients should be avoided?

I’m going to work through most of the typical beauty care products that we women use, and list some of the most dangerous and common toxins that they contain. My lists aren’t exhaustive, but they do include most of the major offenders. A highly worthwhile activity would be to gather up your most-used bathroom products, and compare their ingredients to these lists.

To understand more about why a specific chemical is considered harmful, visit the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, and type in the name of the chemical. It will tell you health concerns associated with that chemical, and where that information comes from, as well as give you a rating on a scale from 1-10.

Photo by pumpkincat210


Silica/Crystalline (or Quart or Rose Quartz), Propylparaben (or Butylparaben or Methylparaben or any paraben), Aluminum Power, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Fragrance, PEG-4 Diheptanoate, BHA, D&C Red 30 Lake (this is one example of an artificial color– most come up highly toxic), Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate), Alumina, Octinoxate, Ferric Ammonium Ferrocyanide, Benzyl Alcohol, BHT, Polyethylene Glycol, Manganese, Barium Sulfate, Oxybenzone, DMDM Hydantoin, Triclosan, Aluminum Starch Octenylsuccinate, Steareth-21,  Cetyl PEG/PPG-10/1 Dimethicone.


BHA, Fragrance, Butylparaben (and again, all of the parabens), Octinoxate, Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate), Methylchloroisothiazolinone, DMDM Hydantoin, Coumarin, Geraniol, Limonene, Triethanolamine, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (almost anything with Laureth or Laurate in it), Cocoamide DEA, BHA, Resorcinol, P-Phenylenediamine, P-Aminophenol, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, Salicylic Acid, Ceteareth-12, Benzyl Alcohol, PEG-10 Sorbitan Laurate.

*Note– Don’t be taken in by “natural” products without still reading the ingredients. I did my ingredient research by looking up products with a rating of 10 (the most-toxic) and I found J/A/S/O/N shampoos in there, a supposedly natural brand!


Fragrance, Ceteareth-12, Ceteareth-20, Triclosan, Coumarin, Lilial, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Limonene, Propylene Glycol, Isobutane, Benzyl Alcohol, Zinc Oxide (sunscreen grade), Eugenol, Benzyl Salicylate, Butane, Aluminum Chlorohydrate, 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor.

Bar Soap/Body Wash:

DMDM Hydantoin, Fragrance, Ceteareth-20, Retinyl Palmitate (Vit A Palmitate), Octinoxate, Cocamide DEA, Methylparaben, Propylparaben (and all other parabens), Triethanolamine, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Coumarin, Salicylic Acid, Lyral, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Cinnamal, BHT, Eugenol, Oxybenzone, Benzyl Alcohol, Benzyl Salicylate, Benzalkonium Chloride, Hydroxycitronellal, Diazolidinyl Urea.

Skin Cleansing and Lotion:

Fragrance, Retinyl Palmitate (Vit A Palmitate), Salicylic Acid, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, PEG-100 Stearate, PEG-40 Stearate, PPG-2-Cetearathe-9, PEG-7 Glycerol Cocoate, Benzyl Salicylate, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Geraniol, Limonene, Polysorbate-20, Laureth-23, Ceteareth-20, Triethanolamine, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Polysorbate-60, Eugenol.

Photo by stevendepolo

Nail Polish:

Toluene, Triphenyl Phosphate, Ferric Ammonium Ferrocyanide, Benzophenone-1, Dibutyl Phthalate, Aluminum Powder, Octinoxate, Barium Sulfate, Tartrazine, BHT, Formaldehyde, Oxybenzone, Alumina, Isobutylphenoxy Eopxy Resin.

Hair Styling Products (mousse, hair spray, gel, etc):

Fragrance, Retinol (Vitamin A), Octinoxate, DMDM Hydantoin, Butylparaben, Propylparaben (and again, all parabens), Triethanolamine, Polysorbate-20, Retinyl Palmitate (Vit A Palmitate), Phenoxyethanol, Polyethelene Glycol, Geraniol, Limonene, Isobutane, Propane (this one surprised me!), Diazolidinyl Urea, PEG-40.


Fragrance (hmm, a theme), Sodium Fluoride (of course, there is debate over whether this is toxic or not), Retinol (Vitamin A), Propylparaben, Aluminum Hydroxide, Hydrogen Peroxide, FD&C Blue 1 Aluminum Lake (another example of a coloring), Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine.

Perfume/Fragranced Products:

Oxybenzone, Retinyl Palmitate (Vit A Palmitate), Fragrance, Propylparaben, Octinoxate, Diazolidinyl Urea, BHT, Lilial, Benzyl Salicylate, Limonene, Ceteareth-20, Tartrazine, Geraniol, Citral, Lyral, Coumarin, Amylcinnamaldehyde.

Now that you know, what should you do?

Most of us would be both overwhelmed and utterly broke if we tried to suddenly replace all of our beauty care products in one fell swoop. That’s not what I would recommend.

Instead, pick one that you are most concerned about or that feels reasonable to replace. Research some better brands on the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, try visiting your local health food store for some options, or consider making your own replacement (see below). This post also gives some excellent tips for choosing safer personal care products.

Once you’ve found a replacement that you’re happy with, consider what you might like to replace next. One at a time, little by little, you will slowly transform your beauty care routine into a non-toxic, pampering affair.

Photo by -MONICA

Recipes for homemade beauty care:

How do you avoid toxins in your beauty and personal care routine? What types of products do you use?

Reading Time:

5 minutes





  1. Kara

    Can anyone recommend a nice, natural, chemical-free eyeliner? I cannot find one anywhere, and eyeliner is my favorite product after mascara.

    My most recent switch was to a new soap! I now use bars without all of those icky chemicals and little packaging waste (paper cover). Oh, and in February, I tried out hard lotion bars; I really like them for cold weather, but not this warm weather. I also like homemade deodorant. I’ve been wanting to try no-poo, but I’m not sure it’ll work for my dry, sometimes dandruff prone scalp.

    Great links by the way! I’m going to see if I can implement another switch in the next few months!

    • Nikki Moore

      Kara, I buy most of my makeup, including eyeliner, from Honeybee Gardens (online). I haven’t checked her products against this exact list, and not everything’s perfect, but I’ve found most of the products to be fairly clean, and I’ve done a lot of checking on the Skin Deep site. (Her prices are also pretty good — and if you sign up for her newsletter, she always sends coupon codes.)

      • Kara

        Thanks! I shall check them out.

    • elizabeth

      My husband has dandruff and is a no-poo convert. He prefers it over shampoo! I put 10 drops of tea tree essential oil in our 32oz spray bottle of baking soda mix, and it keeps the dandruff at bay – as well or better than the expensive, toxic dandruff shampoos he used to use!

      Tea tree oil has antifungal (amongst other things) properties, and some people think that dandruff is a fungal issue of the scalp. Whatever the case, it has been working for us for two years. 🙂

    • Jessie

      You can wet a small makeup brush, dip it in powder eyeshadow, and then use it as eyeliner. Super easy.

      And, if you’re hesitant to go no-poo, try washing your hair with bar soap, rinse with water, squirt a few tablespoons of cider vinegar on your hair, work it through, and then rinse again with water. I find it’s a happy medium between shampoo and baking soda. Also, for dry scalp do a weekly or monthly oil treatment – as in slather your hair and scalp in olive oil, let it sit for a few hours or overnight, and wash out.

    • Tiffany

      Kara – I like the Physician’s Formula Organic black eyeliner. It’s very affordable, too!

    • amber

      Everyday Minerals carries mineral eyeliner. I LOVE their products, they are very reasonably priced too.

  2. Jes

    Love this post, thanks so much for compiling all this information. I’ve been more mindful of this lately and am trying to switch over to natural products and make my own. This article is very helpful!

    • Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home

      Thanks, Renee. I know that this is an area of importance for you, too. Your soap looks amazing, btw!

  3. Chalise @Memphis Misfit Mama

    Great post! I have been in the process of purging my toxic cleaning supplies and cosmetics over the past year. I cleaned out three paper grocery bags full a few months ago. It felt great! I am still having trouble finding a non-toxic acne cleaner for my face is my only complaint.

  4. Christine

    Does anyone know of healthy makeup that is hypoallergenic? I’ve been afraid to switch from my usual brand (clinique – which is rarely in the EWG database) to others for makeup or sunscreen because I have had horrible reactions in the past. I’d like to try some of these other products, but don’t want to spend a bunch of money and throw them out.

    The department store counters have something going for them – you can always try out the products, they give you samples and when you come back in looking like frankenstein, they’ll give you your money back. 🙂

    But I’d much rather use healthier products.

    • lucia

      If you like I can send you a free sample from Jordan essential our mineral tint is very light and contains sun protection as well as moisturizer it contains aloe n soy unless you are allergic to some natural ingredients which happens to some people send me a message if you would like one

    • Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home

      I personally use Everyday Minerals. It’s all powdered, no liquids, but I do like it a lot. I also have sensitive skin (I broke out in a rash when I tried Arbonne, which is supposedly more “natural”, though I disagree). You can request free samples, particularly of the foundation, but I think also of blush and maybe some others.

    • Tiffany

      Christine – Some stores offer to return personal care products if you don’t like them. For example, I know Fred Meyer has that policy. Then you are able to try new products and they have a decent selection of safer products to test out.

      • Christine

        Thanks for all of the hints everyone. I think it’s time to try a few things.

    • Danika @ Your Organic Life

      What are you looking for? Foundation?

      Have you ever tried Miessence makeup? It’s all natural, every ingredient that can be certified organic is and there are no fillers, synthetic chemicals, etc. It’s made by the first company to make certified organic skin care in the world, so it’s from a very ethical company committed to organic and 100% natural ingredients. Every ingredient is 100% beneficial. You can find it at

  5. Amy

    Two years ago my skin was red, itchy and at times, peeling. I went to the allergist and had patch testing done. I came out with very enlightening results. I am highly allergic to all the formaldehyde-releasing agents including DMDM Hydantoin, all the ureas (Diazolidinyl and Imdiazolidinyl), Quaternium 15 (in many mascaras), EDTAs, and the list goes on. I am still in the hunt for hair care products for my straight hair that does best with volumizing products. I changed out everything–soap, shampoo, lotions, hand soap, hair styling products, laundry soap, deodorant, all cosmetics (interestingly I had my Bare Escentuals line tested at the same time and had no reaction to any of those products–I realize that line is in Skin Deep with some concerns, but it works for me). You are so right, Stephanie–you have to check the “organic” and “natural” products just as carefully. I look forward to checking out the links you and other here have provided. Thank you!

  6. lucia

    Wow so much info I like it thanks for it all and all the amazing information

  7. Jessie

    Thanks for the great info! I’ve been doing oil cleansing for my face, and I switched out soap to use Trader Joe’s Oatmeal Almond bar soap (very low on the scale), which I also use on my hair! I’ve switched to powder foundation, which is a little better than liquid, but I want to switch to entirely mineral based makeup eventually, as $ permits.

    And how timely! I’m doing a natural beauty week right now over at my blog –

  8. Kylie

    Thanks for putting together this list! I make all natural personal care products, and it’s scary to see how many of these harmful ingredients are in the products I used to never think twice about using on myself or my baby! I know that the price of natural products can be intimidating for many, but Etsy is a great place to find affordable products while also supporting small businesses. My shop is everblossom, and I also recommend flying bird botanicals and swan mountain soaps. There are a ton of great sellers there.

    • Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home

      Thanks for mentioning Etsy sellers, Kylie. I hadn’t thought to include that in my post, but it’s totally true. I’ve purchased some wonderful soaps, lip balms, face washes and scrubs, etc., made with very pure ingredients for reasonable prices.

  9. Malinda @ vintagehomesteademporium

    What a fantastic post!
    Thank you for all the time it took to put all this information together. The timing is wonderful. I am currently reading a book that is covering the same issue.
    In our home, we have slowly been replacing all our personal-care products (and cleaners too) with homemade versions or all-natural/organic products. Even then, I am really reading the ingredients on the back.
    As I have researched, it birthed my own company:
    Vintage Homestead Emporium
    where I make all natural and/or organic body and home products.
    As a family, we use lots of coconut oil and shea butter for our skin. We love it! Especially for my almost teen who has eczema. We also make mixtures of ingredients like jojoba oil, beeswax, shea butter, vitamin E, sweet almond oil, epsom salts and essential oils. They are used in a variety of items like hot oil treatments, lip balms, hand balms, pillow sprays, baby butters, insect repelents, feet and bath products.

    It is amazing how simple and pure these items are but how effective they are!

    Thank you so much for a wonderful post and all the wisdom and wealth of information shared!

    Malinda @
    Vintage Homestead Emporium

    • Lauren Alley

      I shop online with a health and wellness company that specializes in eco-friendly, non toxic, household cleaning and personal care products. They are less expensive and work wonderfully. Let me know if interested, I would love to share it with you!

  10. Magic and Mayhem

    Wonderful post! I especially love the links in the end.

  11. josette

    great post! Now, can we tackle the hidden dangers in feminine pads? Or have we already?

  12. Emily

    Great post! Thanks so much for the links to making things for yourself. Love that!

  13. Diana Sullivan

    I have to say, the database is a bit ridiculous. Giving high danger number for potential skin irritation and/or allergies is asinine – that is as varied as the weather. With nearly EVERYTHING in existence there is a potential of reaction – that is everyone is different and can develop an allergy to the darnedest things. For instance- my husband is allergic to lettuce. Now does that make lettuce a higher risk category for everyone? Of course not!! It’s score shouldn’t reflect as such.

    It is asinine that they are causing concern and panic about things like Vitamin E! Yes- vitamin E is an element to be concerned about… hardly. They site a caution level 4 for LANOLIN. Yes, some people are allergic but it is NOT the same as being a toxic ingredient. It IS completely natural. Same with ingredients such as Salicylic Acid; Willow Bark or aspirin is also salicylic acid.

    Honestly, you ARE going to find some of these things in natural products on the market BECAUSE THEY *ARE* NATURAL! They can only cause irritation or allergic reactions in SOME people. So can sunlight!!! Rather than rest on a panic driven database, read about the ingredients from natural sources and timeless experience.

    • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

      i use lanolin for lips and dry skin and believe it is better than most multi-ingredient conventional products, but the truth is, it is an animal product, and things like pesticides can concentrate in it. lanolin may play host to a number of questionable and toxic chemicals through environmental absorption.

      lanolin is natural, but unless it’s organic, there could be reasons to be concerned.

    • Danielle

      As for lanolin, I read that it is not in itself a problem, but that it is often contaminated with DDT and other pesticides. Disappointing, I know. Anyway, just wanted to clear that up.

  14. Gail Brunt

    This is a wonderful post- I need to print it out and take it with me when I shop. This past year I have switched to pretty much organic hair and skin care. I used EO shampoo and conditioner, but didn’t like it at first because my hair felt heavy and not clean. I realize now that it was the adjustment period to not using detergents. I also tried the no ‘poo method, but in the cold weather I couldn’t tame the static electricity. I have extremely fine, stick-straight hair. So I have used shampoo and conditioner. Soon I will try baking soda and ACV (apple cider vinegar) again. I also use the oil cleansing method for my face. I have tended to have oil forehead to chin, especially when it’s hot out. It took a bit for my skin to adjust, but now I love it. I have to use a bit less castor oil because it dries my face too much. Sometimes I use MadeOn Hard Lotion (made by myself) to moisturize my face. I also used this on a winter trip to FL before I went into the sun, and I did burn a bit, but I used it on the burn and within HOURS any burning sensation and redness was gone, and I got quite brown on those shoulders! I used it regularly, and never peeled. I don’t like to use sunscreens, and really don’t spend a lot of time in the sun. But I don’t like to burn, either. I’ve heard that sunscreens can also block vitamin D formation. Any ideas on mascara? I tried Physicians Formula Organic but it flakes and sheds by the end of the day. Next step: deodorant and toothpaste. Looks like there are lots of ideas in this post and in the comments!

  15. Stephanie - Green Stay at Home Mom

    I’ve never been big on makeup, so those are easy for me to avoid. I started using baking soda and vinegar for hair washing several months ago, and that’s been going great for me.

  16. Kristina

    This was so thorough and informative, thanks for the terrific article. I’ve found GrowandMake to be a great source for natural cosmetics, like the natural eyeliner someone mentioned above. They have lots of mineral-based makeups, as well.

  17. Danika @ Your Organic Life

    Really the only way to know your products are totally safe and free of synthetic chemicals is to buy certified organic. Certified organic products are certified to food-grade standards. That’s a very high standard. Even 100% natural products can have pesticide residue and genetically modified ingredients.

  18. amber

    Okay ladies,
    If you didn’t view the EWG video “10 Americans” you must! Especially if you are a mother. It is so shocking, and scary. Our world is getting so terrible. I think this fact brings an entirely new aspect into how our children’s bodies will/are responding to vaccines. Just some food for thought.

  19. Robert

    I really liked this post. I guess I’m designed to be less of a ‘toxins victim’ anyway – being a man :-).

    But my wife and I found the best way forward for us was to first question the number of products you use – did we really need them all? We plain cut out some products completely. And decided we’d be happy sharing some others. Some we’ve now replaced with safer alternatives, a few we haven’t. But overall we’re a lot happier these days with the products in our bathroom cabinet (and under the kitchen sink).

  20. Adam

    I understand what chemicals to avoid in your personal care products is the only certain way we can be sure what you put on your skin is safe.
    Many grocery stores now have organic sections that carry organic and natural brands of personal care products. You may find what you’re looking for there.


    I am very concerned about my physical appearance. I always want to look pretty. I spend too much to buy beauty products without thinking that too much chemicals can cause even more problems. Thanks for the post! I learned a lot!

  22. Clarissa

    you are right. Cosmetic products are included so much chemicals which are very harmful to human body. We always neglect that but these chemicals causes so many diseases. Every cosmetic products like nail polish, shampoo, soap, deodorant, perfumes, hair styling products and also toothpaste these all products contains chemicals in so much amount. So avoiding cosmetics is always beneficial for body. Your post is really helpful, I like it so much.

  23. Lauren Alley

    I know of an awesome company that manufactures over 350 eco-friendly, non toxic household cleaning and personal care products. They are less expensive and work better than anything I’ve ever used. You do all your shopping online and it’s delivered to your door. Email me if you want to know more about it. I would love to share it with you!

  24. Dermatal Scam

    This is very wonderful post & informative.
    Thank you so much for sharing this information with us.

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  26. Jordan

    Great article, I’ve linked to you on my blog: Thanks.

  27. Jams

    VERY useful! Thank you! I always look out for ingredient names that I’m not familiar with or that look like chemicals.


    Very interesting post.
    I knew each of the culinary properties of olive oil
    and serves as a cosmetic remedy, even better.

    In beauty is increasingly used as very well have noted,
    either as an ingredient in other products or direct application.

    Another property of olive oil, is hydration in people
    encemas suffering, relieving itching and making them disappear
    if put in the above olive oil soaked cotton.

    have a great day

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