Are You Putting These Dangerous Chemicals on Your Skin?

Dr. Janet Zand
January 11, 2019


We talk a lot about toxins and other dangers to your skin. You know to wear sunscreen and to wash your face every night to remove grime and pollution.

But did you know that some of the greatest dangers to your skin could be lurking where you least expect them – in your skincare products themselves?

You would think that products formulated specifically to go on your body would be safe to, well, put on your body. But many manufacturers are a lot more concerned about your wallet than your well-being.  The good news is they can’t completely disguise what they’re doing. Dangerous ingredients will be printed right on the label – possibly underneath some audacious claims about the product’s “benefits.” If you know what to look for, you can decide which products to leave on the shelf.

But wait, you might be thinking. If an ingredient is dangerous, surely the government won’t allow it in consumer products. If you live in Europe, that’s probably true. In fact, the European Union has banned over 1,100 ingredients from cosmetic products.

Those of us in the U.S. aren’t so lucky. The U.S. has banned only 10. I’m not going to list out all 1,090+ ingredients that the EU would recommend you avoid in addition to these 10. But I will highlight a few that I think have no business being in products we’re going to put on our bodies.

It’s not just that the U.S. has different standards than the EU. It’s actually not holding most cosmetic ingredients to any standards at all. In fact, of the over 10,000 ingredients found in personal care products, the government has assessed only 11% of them to determine if they’re safe. That means there could be literally thousands of potential carcinogens and other toxins lurking in our products.

Keep in mind that anything you put on your skin will make its way into the body – for better or for worse. So you can either apply ingredients that will help or ingredients that will harm. And unfortunately, you can’t count on the government to help you tell the difference. Let me help you know what to look for so you can be your own advocate.

The Most Common Ingredient to Avoid

The first is a detergent called sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). SLS is a synthetic surfactant. Surfactants help to lower the surface tension between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid. This improves the texture of the final product. And it helps shampoos and body washes foam. That’s not a bad thing. But it turns out that using SLS to do it is. In fact, study after study after study (to the tune of about 15,000) notes that SLS is toxic.

One of SLS’s worst effects is disrupting the skin barrier. Disruption to the skin barrier, whether it occurs as a result of dry skin, irritation, or injury, creates inflammation and opens the door to allergens. Eczema is essentially a severe form of skin barrier disruption.

Whether you have eczema or just a mild case of dry skin, you’re likely to reach for a moisturizer for relief. That’s a good place to start. But unfortunately, many lotions and moisturizers – including those marketed specifically to treat eczema – contain SLS. So you’ll be creating a vicious cycle every time you apply it to your vulnerable skin.

If you’ve been using an emollient aqueous cream, but your eczema isn’t getting better, check the label for SLS. There’s a good chance that’s the culprit. Look for an option without SLS, or try an oil-based ointment instead.

If you really enjoy water-based products or foaming shampoo, there’s good news. More and more companies are turning toward biosurfactant compounds. These tend to work just as well as the chemicals at helping ingredients play nicely together. But they won’t irritate your skin – or the environment. Some of them even function as prebiotics, so they can actually improve your health rather than harming it.

An Exciting Alternative to SLS

One such biosurfactant comes from white willow bark. You might think this is a new product. But this anti-inflammatory and antibacterial exfoliator has actually been around for thousands of years. In fact, the Egyptians were quite fond of it, and legendary beauty Cleopatra herself likely used it.

White willow is also the source of aspirin, so it’s no surprise that other ingredients derived from it are good at reining in inflammation. It’s a bit more surprising that they work to increase surface tension—but I’m glad they do! White willow bark can help give your products the texture you want while benefiting your skin rather than harming it. It’s a good one to look for while you’re checking ingredient lists for products that don’t contain SLS.

SLS is just the start, unfortunately. There are many other ingredients you should scan for if you want to avoid toxins in your personal care products.

Other Chemicals to Watch Out For

Among the worst are phthalates, parabens, and toluene. These chemicals disrupt your endocrine system. And studies have even linked phthalates to diabetes. You want to be especially careful to avoid these ingredients if you’re pregnant. Your endocrine system plays a key role in promoting the healthy development of your baby. And keep them away from your kids once they’re outside the womb too. They don’t need anything else affecting their hormones.

Next, watch out for ethanolamines. You won’t find these for sale in Europe, but here in the U.S., we still have access to these chemicals in our skincare products. Ironically, they can cause skin lesions. Mice and other animal studies have linked them to liver and kidney tumors, testicular degeneration, and reduced sperm motility and count. Check your labels for diethanolamine (DEA), monoethanolamine (MEA), and triethanolamine (TEA).

You’ll also want to stay away from DMDM hydantoin. This is another one that’s been banned elsewhere but not in the U.S. This preservative can release formaldehyde. And research has linked that chemical to joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches, chest pains, chronic fatigue, and dizziness.

Many manufacturers add ingredients to their products to help them look and smell better without considering the effects those ingredients will have on how their users will look. I don’t know about you, but “cancer patient” isn’t the look I’m going for. So I stay away from FD&C color pigments (listed as FD&C Red 40, for example). I also avoid synthetic fragrances.

Finally, watch out for sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), triclosan, and diethyltoluamide (DEET). All of these have toxic effects as well. Triclosan, a common antimicrobial, may damage your liver over time. And you certainly don’t want bug repellant in your products.

One of the best ways to avoid these chemicals is to look for natural or organic products from trusted sources, such as Système 41. Find a safe company that has done the legwork for you, since you can’t rely on the government to keep manufacturers in check or look out for your best interests.

You want your products to help you look and feel your best. Make sure they aren’t doing the opposite! Check the ingredients list carefully before you bring any new product home. Check the ones you’re currently using as well. I think these ingredients are dangerous enough that you should cut your losses and start fresh with a product that won’t harm your skin – or your health.

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