You might actually be more likely to absorb dangerous chemicals directly into your bloodstream through your skin than if you were to ingest them (where enzymes can break them down). If you’re not convinced, the common occurrence of systemic side effects when using prescribed topically applied ointments is indicative of high absorption through the skin. Transdermal patches are becoming a common way to administer drugs because they “avoid the digestive tract completely and the drug is slowly absorbed across the skin directly into the circulation resulting in a long lasting effect.”
For many of these controversial ingredients, the FDA claims that the amount in products is not significant enough to actually do any harm, but with breast cancer rates up higher than ever, you can never be too safe.
1. Permanent and Semi-Permanent Hair Dyes (Especially Darker Colors)
Several studies have linked longtime hair dye use to bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Researchers found that rodents that were fed these compounds from coal-tar in certain hair dyes were more likely to develop cancer than rodents that were not fed these compounds. Read more about it here.
Scary Scientific Fact: Aside from cancer scares, you could build up a tolerance to the chemicals and eventually suffer from a scary allergic reaction, even if you’ve been using the same product for years. Just do a little Google image search of “hair dye allergies.” Shudder.
How To Avoid: There’s always lemon juice for lightening and tea to cover up gray.
2. Compound Henna Hair Dye
Despite the “all natural” ingredients, there are almost always metallic salts used as pigmentation lurking in any henna dye that claims to dye your hair any color other than “reddish.” These dyes are known as compound henna hair products, and many of the boxes don’t even list metallic salts as an ingredient.
Scary Scientific Fact: If you’ve dyed your hair with a compound henna hair product, you should wait at least a year or two before re-dyeing with any kind of chemical hair dye containing hydrogen peroxide. According to HennaForHair.com, your hair “may turn frog butt green or offshore sewage outlet black.” The chemical reaction could also cause your hair to SMOKE and emit a foul odor.
How To Avoid: Do a strand test by taking some of your henna-dyed hair from a hairbrush and testing the chemical dye over it. If something catastrophic happens, then you know you’ve got metallic salts in your henna.
3. Aluminum Powder in Highly Pigmented Eyeshadows and Eyeliner
It’s found in popular products like Nars eyeshadow, Urban Decay 24/7 Glide-On eye pencil, and Yves Saint Laurent’s Everlong waterproof mascara. According to the Environmental Working Group, aluminum powder allegedly shows strong linkage to neurotoxicity and cancer. However, the FDA has deemed it safe as an ingredient in cosmetics.
Scary Fact: During the filming of the Wizard of Oz, Buddy Ebsen, who played the Tin Man, reportedly suffered a reaction to the aluminum powder makeup he wore. The powder had coated his lungs, and nine days later, Ebsen was hospitalized in critical condition and left the project.
4. Vitamin A in Sunscreen
Government data shows that an ingredient called retinyl palmitate, or vitamin A palmitate (used in over half of sunscreens available on the market) causes cancer on skin exposed to sunlight. Retinol (an animal form of vitamin A) is specifically used in night creams because it should never be applied during the day.*
Another popular sunscreen ingredient, oxybenzone, is believed to be linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage.
Scary Scientific Fact: Lab animals covered in a retinol-laced skin cream and exposed to just nine minutes of sunlight every day for a year developed tumors and lesions up to 21% sooner than animals coated in vitamin A-free block.**
5. Nail Polish
You’re probably aware of the toxicity of nail polish by the fumes, the flammability, and the fact that you should always apply nail polish in a well-ventilated area. The three offending chemicals are: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, and formaldehyde. Despite the fact that many big-name nail polishes have agreed to remove the “Toxic Three,” tests show that a majority of them still contain the dangerous chemicals.
Scary Fact: Researchers who tested 33 nail salon workers found that they performed significantly worse on tests that measured attention and brain-processing speed. Maybe you aren’t exposed to as many fumes as they are, but if you’re pregnant or nursing, the chemicals inhaled could result in an actual effect on your child’s mental development.
The average mainstream perfume product might contain up to 14 secret ingredients, but due to a loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973, perfume brands are not required to list them. Some common perfume ingredients are chemicals that have been associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions. Many of these chemicals have also not been tested for safety.
Scary Fact: Secondhand scent might be considered the next secondhand smoke. Smelly people who apply too much cologne or perfume can trigger asthma, migraines, and nausea in those with chemical sensitivities. Some lawmakers and employers are even considering perfume bans.
How To Avoid: Well, there are always indie perfumes made from essential oils instead of industrial chemicals. And you should also probably avoid any product that has the generic umbrella term “fragrance” in its ingredient list. This sadly rules out pretty much every nice-smelling product you own. Goodbye, St. Ives Apricot Scrub and Chanel face cream.
7. Brazilian Blowouts and Hair Straighteners
Even if a label claims a keratin product is “formaldehyde-free,” many keratin-based hair straighteners were actually found to still contain substantial amounts of the cancer-causing chemical. Also, if formaldehyde is sprayed into the eyes, it can cause blindness. The FDA has only recently claimed that Brazilian blowouts can be dangerous, and has issued a warning rather than declaring a recall.
Scary Story: “Salon workers and consumers have reported a number of injuries to the FDA due to use of the products, including eye and nervous system disorders, respiratory tract problems, chest pain, vomiting, and rash,” according to WebMD.
How To Avoid: Watch out for an ingredient called “methylene glycol,” which is basically just formaldehyde mixed with water. It’s how companies get away with calling their products “formaldehyde-free.”
8. “Natural” Products That Still Contain Harmful Ingredients
Always check the ingredients list and don’t be fooled. Burt’s Bees baby lotion contains phenoxyethanol. A bottle of anything by Kiehl’s could contain phenoxyethanol, parabens, PEGs, chlorphenesin (a neurotoxin that is restricted in Japan), triethanolamine, sulfates, and oxybenzone. Body Shop’s ingredient lists commonly include artificial fragrances and parabens. Tom’s Of Maine “Wicked Fresh!” mouthwash contains zinc chloride, which was recently classified as a possible carcinogen and corrosive chemical. If you’re nursing or pregnant, you especially want to watch out for these offending ingredients.
Sad But True Fact: Many of the “natural” and “eco” products sold in drugstores or at your local Sephora are owned by giant companies like Colgate, L’Oréal, and Estée Lauder. These are the same companies that put lead in their lipsticks and triclosan in their toothpaste (which has been known to alter hormone regulation in animal studies).
9. Mineral Makeup
Iron oxides and other mineral pigments, although natural, are often found in association with toxic metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, antimony, and selenium. When the FDA found lead in over 400 lipsticks, the common ingredients were mineral pigments. According to a Canadian study, “all mineral makeups tested had nickel, 96% had lead, 90% beryllium and the average mineral makeup tested had four of eight heavy metals.” In the U.S., your typical mineral powder foundation could contain iron oxides, which contains lead “at levels acceptable to the FDA.” Individual exposures to these metals in small amounts are unlikely to cause harm, but they can allegedly build up in the body over time and can increase risk for a variety of health problems.
Read why this organic skin-care company won’t be launching a mineral makeup line anytime soon.
Interesting Fact: “The Government of Canada has implemented numerous measures to reduce the amount of heavy metals to which Canadians are exposed, including prohibiting their use in cosmetics. Lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, antimony and chromium are heavy metal ingredients prohibited in cosmetics sold in Canada.” Click here for a much more detailed explanation of the harms of heavy metals in cosmetics.
How To Avoid: If you don’t want to wear synthetic chemicals and you don’t want microscopic metals permeating through your skin, you’re probably just better off not wearing any makeup at all.
Research has shown that high doses of the same aluminium salts used in antiperspirants have had devastatingly detrimental effects in mice, including ovarian lesions and reproductive failure, according to this study. There is also a possible link between aluminum and breast cancer, because deodorant is applied so closely to the outer-upper quadrant of the breast, where tumors are likely to appear. Breast tissue biopsies showed a “statistically higher concentration of aluminum in the outer as compared with the inner region of the breast.” And it’s not just aluminum that could have carcinogenic effects — most anti-perspirants also contain phthalates and parabens, both of which are banned in other countries.
How To Avoid: There are many natural deodorants on the market which have very low toxicity scores on the EWG Skin Deep database. Unfortunately, many chronic perspirers claim the natural stuff just doesn’t work for them.