When we lather up in the shower or apply skin cream to our face, we think we are using something that is healthy for us. Or at least safe. So for many of us, it would come as a shock to realize some of the most toxic chemicals in our homes, just dripping with known carcinogens, are hidden in our bathroom cupboards.
What You Will Learn
What is a Carcinogen?
Anything that leads to cancer is a known carcinogen. (1) This could be drugs, energy, or pollutants in the environment, additives in food or cosmetics, lifestyle factors such as nutrition and physical activity, and even some medical treatments such as radiation therapy. This may seem simple enough; however, it is not so cut and dried.
Several authorities on the topic such as the World Health Organization’s (WHO), International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) have delineated numerous carcinogen categories to assist consumers in deciding exactly how potentially cancer-causing the substances in their food, drugs, and cosmetics may be. (Scared yet? Not to worry—tips on easily avoiding these known carcinogens will follow!)
The IARC chemical categories are:
- Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
- Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
- Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
- Group 3: Unclassifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans
- Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans (2)
The IRIS chemical categories are:
- Group A: Carcinogenic to humans
- Group B: Likely to be carcinogenic to humans
- Group C: Suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential
- Group D: Inadequate information to assess carcinogenic potential
- Group E: Not likely to be carcinogenic to humans (3)
As you may have already deduced, almost every substance tested falls in the middle categories, Groups 2A, 2B, and 3, or Groups B, C, and D. Just over 100 substances ever tested have been listed as known carcinogens.
Other groups such as the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) list only known or suspected carcinogens and seem to be somewhat more rigorous—they have listed significantly more carcinogens to the benefit of consumers everywhere, at least 250 substances. (4, 5).
Clearly the tests used to fit into these categories varies widely. The international community has higher standards yet—many ingredients considered safe for use in US cosmetics are banned in Canada, the European Union, and Japan. This suggests the need for a closer look at the potential harm, the tests that support safety, and the reasons other governments are protecting their citizens from products we glibly apply to our bodies and our children’s bodies daily.
Until the standards in the US change, it is wise to do some research ourselves. Any of the above ratings at minimum indicates the substance has been suspected of causing cancer, and any rating that does not completely clear away the doubt means it is too risky to continue exposing your body to potential harm in exchange for the dubious benefit of smoother, more beautiful skin; shiny, manageable hair; or really great-looking nails.
Why Are Known Carcinogens in Bathroom Products? When “Just Skin Deep” is Deadly!
Does skin absorb enough known carcinogens to really matter? Actually, skin is your largest organ, and it does absorb a lot. Absorbency is not really the problem. Permeability is. Your skin is permeable, meaning it not only absorbs substances it contacts, it also allows them through the skin and into other tissues, such as the subcutaneous fatty layer. Because many known carcinogens are fat-soluble, this presents a huge problem.
Transdermal Drugs Show the Power of Direct Contact
People are increasingly aware that skin is more like living fabric than living plastic wrap. Doctors prescribe transdermal patches to distribute some medications without stomach upset or to ensure a continuous dose over time, as the patient’s skin will slowly absorb the medicine through all its layers and into the tissue beneath. Unfortunately, beneficial medications are not the only substances that can travel through the skin into the body. Harmful ingredients in anything we touch may travel in just as readily.
Fumes & Inhalation
Skin is VERY absorbent and permeable, but it is not the only inroad for known carcinogens in your body care products. Many contain fragrances and solvents to help the fragrances become airborne, so you inhale them more readily. Lung irritation is a real risk when considering body care ingredients. The lovely scent you inhale may enter through your lungs, but cause inflammation throughout your body.
Your Contact Passed to Children
If you are a mother, remember, what touches you touches your baby. Pesticides, phthalates, and UV filters or other known carcinogens from sunscreens were found in high concentrations in human breast milk from the mothers’ use of cosmetics—many in concentrations above the “safe” limit for adults! (6) This is just what was found in the mothers’ milk, without the more direct connection the umbilical cord would provide during pregnancy.
Try the garlic test. Don’t just read about it and take my word for it.
For a very quick, simple object lesson on the ability of the skin to open the doorway into your entire body, take off your shoes and socks, and rub the sole of your foot with a piece of garlic for a few minutes. Set a timer if you are curious. How long does it take you to taste garlic in your mouth? The average time for this test is 3 – 5 minutes. Garlic doesn’t have any penetration-enhancing ingredients to force it deeper into tissue like many cosmetics, so most of them enter your tissue even faster.
How Much is Too Much? Known Carcinogens in Body Care
These ingredients are not in parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb) like pollutants in drinking water (See our favorite water filter for solving THAT problem!) or preservatives in food—they are often the main ingredients. Even in products that only use known carcinogens as a preservative or emulsifying agent, the ingredients are present in much higher concentrations than we usually think. For example, the lead in drinking water or the tocopherols in cracker packages are in extremely minute quantities compared to the sodium lauryl sulfate in body wash.
They are applied to our largest organ and one of our most porous organs—our skin, and many are applied directly to our hands, face, and lips—ingestion and absorption of cosmetics is a fact. (Hint – this is why topical application of essential oils is so beneficial!)
Is it ever safe to apply a chemical believed to be capable of causing cancer to your skin, and hope it does not penetrate in sufficient quantities to harm you? When dealing with known carcinogens it seems common sense to err on the side of caution but that's not how large corporations think. Most substances are cumulative if they have been adulterated.
Our bodies are designed to ingest, absorb, utilize, and excrete many beneficial foods, drinks, and even body care aids without any detrimental effects. The trouble comes when we alter natural substances too much—we want to preserve ingredients beyond their pre-programmed time for decay, we want to make colors brighter and scents more powerful, we want soaps to foam like a science experiment, we want anti-aging creams to penetrate through our skin and work miracles, we want shampoos to strip every trace of natural moisture from our hair, and we want conditioners to replace the stripped oils with synthetic ones.
All of these unnatural wishes yield unnatural consequences, and unnatural consequences tend to be cumulative—that is, they add up in our systems over time. It is difficult for our bodies to excrete the carcinogenic ingredients, and it is difficult to heal the damage they cause—it all keeps adding up. Allowing your body time to detoxify itself, or using essential oils to boost the detox process, can be helpful. But minimizing your exposure and choosing healthier options is vital.
Many known carcinogens are fat soluble, so the protective hypodermis—the subcutaneous fat layer—fails to protect us. Our skin’s innermost layer is a layer of fat that protects us from thermal shock and other harm. Unfortunately, in the case of fat-soluble carcinogens this protection backfires. If the ingredients penetrate through the upper skin layers—usually with the addition of penetration enhancers which are frequently fat-soluble—it is readily absorbed into our own tissue where it does much unintended harm.
How much cancer do you want? How will you decide how much is too much when considering exposure to known carcinogens? Is even a very small amount of mercury acceptable in your child’s dental filling? How much formaldehyde do you want to absorb? What is a tolerable amount of coal tar in your daughter’s lip balm? Or how much cancer risk would you like to invite into your life?
Is the US the least-protected first world nation? The European Union (with Japan and Canada not far behind) has banned over 1,300 cosmetic ingredients due to safety concerns while the US has banned 11, not a typo; eleven ingredients are banned for use in cosmetics in the US. (7)
12 Known Carcinogens Commonly Found in Body Care Products
1. Formaldehyde – A Well-Known Carcinogen
Formaldehyde (and formaldehyde releasers such as: bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15) is classified as a known human carcinogen by both the IARC and the NTP. (1, 2) This is the product used to preserve bodies for scientific research—how can it possibly belong in your cosmetics? It is frequently included as a preservative in nail polish, shampoo, hair conditioner, baby wash, body wash, facial cleansers, and eye shadow.
2. Phthalates – Danger in Nearly Everything
Phthalates especially diethyl phthalate—feminizes American male newborns. The emasculating effects of phthalates in otherwise healthy male infants, including an irreversible decrease in genital growth and development, reduced male hormone levels, and impaired adult sexual function, directly correlates to the mother’s level of phthalates during pregnancy—a more severe effect than exposure during adulthood. (8) To make matters worse, maternal phthalate levels during pregnancy also correlate with reduced IQ in children at 7 years of age, even when levels are within safe limits. (9)
Sources of phthalates include anything packaged in flexible plastic containers, perfume, deodorant, hair spray, shampoo, soap, and lotion, as well as nail polish and nail care products. (10) Phthalates are also included in most fragrance blends since the public is increasingly aware of the harm they cause, and since cosmetic manufacturers are not required to list the individual ingredients in their fragrance blends.
In addition, many infant care products, such as baby wash, baby shampoo, baby lotion, diaper cream, and scented baby powder (with or without talc) increase the urinary level of phthalates in infants. (11) Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that raise the risk of breast cancer in women, induce early puberty in girls, and cause reproductive birth defects in newborn boys and girls. (12)
3. Parabens – Known Carcinogen for Breast Cancer
Parabens are a known carcinogen that have been found intact in human breast cancer tumors. (13) Even prior to the discovery of parabens’ link to breast cancer, it was widely known that parabens in cosmetics readily penetrate skin. (14) Parabens used in cosmetics have been shown to exhibit estrogenic effects (i.e. feeding estrogen-dependent tumors and binding to estrogen receptor sites, thus increasing circulating estrogen levels) in breast cancer cultures. (15)
Parabens are alleged to increase the incidence of female breast cancer, to interfere with male reproductive function, and to stimulate development of malignant melanoma. Estrogenic stimulation itself has also recently been shown to encourage the growth of malignant melanoma, so parabens may feed this cancer in multiple ways, as they demonstrate both estrogenic and androgenic disruption, and are genotoxic, meaning they damage genes in such a way that cancer-causing mutations form. (16)
Parabens lower sperm count and are associated with male infertility. (17) Parabens demonstrate similar hormone disrupting and carcinogenic activity in the environment as they do in human health. (18) Parabens alter maternal (and thus infant) hormone levels during pregnancy.(19) Parabens are used as synthetic preservatives in cosmetics such as makeup, facial cleanser, body wash, deodorant, and shampoo.
4. Synthetic Color (FD&C or D&C Coloring Agents)
Even the earliest versions of these artificial colors were based on coal tar, and some more recent ones are petroleum derivatives. All lakes (FD&C Blue Lake 1, for example) are processed with 2 forms of aluminum. By law, any coloring agent of any nature with any ingredients (except the 11 cosmetic ingredients already banned in the US) may bypass the regulatory process if the manufacturer claims it is added for a purpose other than coloring.
Toxic dyes that are banned for food use are exempt from regulation if used as hair dye despite the fact that the scalp is both more sensitive and more porous than skin in general. FDA approved dyes have been proven to cause acute illness in children since 1950. Due to the adverse effects of coloring agents listed as safe, a law prohibited permanently listing any color as safe; however, that practice has been gradually phased out, and now almost all colors including lakes are permanently listed as safe meaning a huge legal uproar would be needed to remove a listed coloring.
Each batch of approved color is tested for properties such as moisture content and color density, but not for safety, except for approving some level of lead, arsenic, and mercury—which along with other carcinogenic coloring agents are allowed. (20) Finally, the IARC lists several colors as suspected or probable carcinogens, and ALL dyes metabolized to benzidine are listed as Class 1 carcinogens—substances proven to cause cancer in humans. (2)
5. Synthetic Fragrance – Known Carcinogens That Tickle Your Nose
Synthetic fragrances are among the trickiest labeling problems to address. Due to a legal loophole intended to allow manufacturers to protect their proprietary blends, secret formulas, or trade secrets, the ingredients in a fragrance blend are protected from the normal ingredient declaration requirement under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). (12) Fragrance blends and their secret ingredients are strongly associated with allergic reactions and skin disorders. (22)
Some are listed as likely carcinogens. (2) Fragrance blends can be found in every type of cosmetic and body care product imaginable, and although fragrance-free options are increasingly available, almost all body care products contain artificial fragrance. The phrase “fragrance” on the label could be any one of over 2,000 chemicals and you'd never know it!
6. Pesticides – Known Carcinogens for Killing
Pesticides are commonly used in grass and weed killers. But did you know they may be lurking in your favorite cosmetic and body care products?
Due to gross misuse of a conditional registration provision, many pesticides are included in household products without completing the EPA’s required testing process. In 2008, a watchdog group (the Natural Resources Defense Council) called conditional registration into question. Here are some sobering facts: since 1972, approximately 90,000 pesticides have been registered, and over 25,000 of them were granted conditional registration—more than 1 in 4 pesticides reached market in nearly innumerable products without oversight of their safety testing, if in fact, any testing was conducted at all! (23)
In 2010, of the 16,000 pesticides currently registered and in use, 11,000 were registered conditionally. That is over 2/3 of the pesticides in use with no accountability at all. Studies confirm the endocrine damage of pesticide exposure, even at doses too low to produce acute symptoms. (24, 25) California EPA’s Proposition 65 lists several pesticides as known carcinogens. (4, 26)
Pesticides are often present as contaminants in any product containing rice (extracts, bran, starch, etc.), cottonseed oil or meal, corn and soy products of any kind, and even oatmeal products. See toxic free alternatives for weed killers and pest control that we use to avoid these chemicals.
7. Triclosan (and Triclocarban)
In addition to causing skin inflammation and contact dermatitis, triclosan also a known endocrine disruptor, targeting thyroid hormone and reproductive hormones. (27, 28, 29) Studies suggest it can contribute to reproductive cancers, largely through its estrogenic activity. (30) Antibacterial agents, including triclosan, contribute to resistance—that is, when we kill off 99.9% of the bad guys, the strongest, most resistant 0.1% live on and reproduce, resulting in offspring with super-resistance to our antibacterial chemicals. All this effort, it seems is for nothing, as no study has demonstrated any benefit to using antibacterial washes, soaps, and hand gels over ordinary soap and water. (31)
In fact, the WHO recommends hand-washing with plain soap and water as the best preventive measure against communicable diseases and pathogens. (32) The FDA has decided to ban triclosan in hand soap; however, some still contain it, and many other products do as well, so be sure your toothpaste, soap, deodorant, and even gym wear does not contain triclosan or its relatives. (33)
8. Toluene (Toluol, Phenylmethane, Methylbenzene) – Seriously Powerful Toxin
Touene is one of the components in nail products that make your eyes burn, but that minor irritation is the least of your worries. Toluene is a known carcinogen, and a heightened risk of cancer is too high a price to pay for pretty nails. (34) It also targets the central nervous system (to the point of brain damage), can change behavior and impair basic dexterity and memory, and cost you your ability to see color even at “safe” doses! (35, 36, 37)
A pregnant mother who simply breathes the fumes may cause reproductive harm to her baby. (38) Toluene is derived from petroleum and coal tar and is used to manufacture benzene (another known carcinogen), and in nail polish, nail treatments, hair coloring, and hair bleaching products.
9. Propylene Glycol – Helps Toxins Penetrate
Propylene glycol is a penetration enhancer, carrying other potentially harmful ingredients deeper into skin and tissue layers than they would normally penetrate. Propylene glycol has been shown to cause liver cancer, even if it is only inhaled. (39), (40) It is associated with an increased risk of seizures in low birth weight infants. (41) It causes central nervous system depression and acute acidosis. (42) Propylene glycol has been shown to cause apoptosis, a cell-suicide mechanism, in the central nervous system. (43)
Propylene glycol toxicity is not uncommon in body care products and carries a host of severe health consequences. (44) In addition to direct risks of propylene glycol, it is a sensitizer, meaning it makes the skin and surrounding tissue more likely to react badly to other substances. Be sure to avoid propylene glycol in sunscreen, moisturizers, lotions, makeup, and hair products.
10. Alkylphenols – Known Carcinogen and Hormone Disruptor
These chemicals are often used in surfactants and in plastic manufacture are xenoestrogens that contribute to greater risk of breast cancer. (45) Other studies focus on synthetic alkylphenols as endocrine disruptors due to their hyper-estrogenic activity. (46) Indeed, endocrine disruptors are shown to be carcinogenic and are implicated in many types of cancer. (47)
Remember the BPA scare that resulted in the mass replacement of all things plastic due to its endocrine disrupting, estrogenic, cancer- feeding activity? BPA is just one of the alkylphenols, namely bisphenol A (BPA) which has now been replaced with bisphenol S (BPS) which is just as estrogenic as BPA. (46) Don’t settle for BPA-free plastics—read labels to ensure any plastic you buy is entirely alkylphenol-free.
11. Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) / Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
SLS and SLES chemicals comprise up to 50% of the volume of approximately 9 out of 10 cleaning and personal care products, so its effects are widespread. It is added as a surfactant that greatly multiplies the foaming action of cleansers, body wash, shampoo, baby products, and hand washes. Sodium lauryl/ laureth sulfate damages skin, eyes, and lungs, and other internal organs. (48, 49)
SLS/ SLES is also an environmental toxin, and SLS so reliably causes inflammation that researchers frequently use it to induce acute skin and eye irritation, allowing them to then test the healing efficacy of other substances. (50) Although SLS and SLES have so far evaded a listing as a known carcinogen by groups such as IARC and the NTP, it’s material safety data sheets openly admit it is mutagenic, meaning it damages DNA such that it can lead to cancer—not exactly the same as carcinogenic (which means it directly causes cancer, but close in that it can indirectly lead to cancer because the cellular damage is so severe.) (51)
The same safety data sheet also indicates a respirator should be worn when handling SLS, it is corrosive to skin, and skin contact should be avoided. There is controversy over the possibility that SLS can form nitrosamines when combined with formaldehyde or 1,4-dioxane to make SLES since nitrosamines are listed as known carcinogens. (52, 53, 54, 55)
12. Sunscreen chemicals – Some of the Worst Known Carcinogens
Sunscreen chemmicals have a variety of label names from similar chemical families – you might see benzenes, benzophenone, PABA, avobenzone, homosalate, methoxycinnamate, oxybenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, and octinoxate. What we are seeing is that despite nearly universal use of sunscreens and the presence of sunscreen active ingredients everywhere (including in human urine) malignant melanoma continues to increase. Since this is the very condition that sunscreens are purported to prevent studies have now been done investigating the role of sunscreen active ingredients in this apparent paradox.
Findings show now that these toxic ingredients do actually increase reproductive and developmental toxicity and disturbance of the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis. (56) Numerous researchers have investigated the use of sunscreen and its correlation with incidence of skin cancer; their findings indicate that some types of sunscreens can increase the risk of cancer. (57, 58, 59) There's a reason we make our own sunscreen for our family!
The Worst of the Worst Body Care Products with Known Carcinogens
These products contain high levels of dangerous ingredients, contain some of the most harmful carcinogens, or numerous known carcinogens, and offer little benefit in return.
- Nail polish and other nail products are far worse for your health—and your daughter’s—than you may believe. They combine nearly every known carcinogen listed above in one bottle—at minimum toluene, formaldehyde, synthetic color, and many more. Even the 3-free brands (or 5-free, 7-free, etc.) contain numerous seriously harmful ingredients, many of which have long been known to cause cancer. Now, more than ever, it is important to send a message our young women that they do not need to paint themselves to be beautiful, especially when so much permanent endocrine damage is likely.
- Sunscreen and sunblock—with estrogenic ingredients, preservatives like formaldehyde, BPA or BPS in the bottle, and synthetic color and fragrances, most of the available commercial, chemical sunscreens pose significant risks. Add to that the fact that they may cause the very cancer they are meant to prevent, and it only makes sense to seek non-toxic alternatives.
- Anti-bacterial hand washes, hand sanitizers, and cleansers are among the worst, especially those marketed for use by children. They generally contain Triclosan or a substitute, SLS/ SLES, phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde, and are packaged in bottles made of alkylphenols, BPA or BPS. In addition, there is no evidence of benefit and are creating dangerous strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria making them something to avoid whenever possible.
15 Useful, Non-Toxic Alternatives Without Known Carcinogens
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of poison all around you, rest assured that there are safe, effective alternatives. The best news is that many natural cleansers are multi-purpose, meaning the castile baby soap you just bought to replace your child’s baby wash and shampoo can also be the main ingredient in your body wash recipe, your shampoo base, and even a main ingredient in your laundry soap, dish soap, counter scrub, and surface cleaner!
- Castile soap—bars or liquid: replace almost any soap or cleanser with castile soap alone or in recipes—gentle, safe, and effective.
- Apple cider vinegar: this naturally occurring mild acid is great at cleaning many things and is often used as a clarifying rinse.
- Baking soda: Safe enough to use as a soak or scrub if diluted.
- Borax? Yes, borax! Prior to the advent of commercial shampoo, most women washed their hair with eggs or borax solutions.
- Aloe gel—fresh or bottled: very soothing to skin of all types and ages; aloe can replace many lotions and creams, alone or in recipes.
- Witch hazel: a natural astringent, witch hazel is not as harsh as commercial products with rubbing alcohol, yet still as effective.
- Avocado: used alone, avocado is a luxurious moisturizing mask.
- Food grade oils: can be used alone as healing cleansing oils or as carrier oils in recipes to very convincingly replace commercial lotions and creams.
- Diluted essential oils: essential oils such as lavender, frankincense, chamomile, neroli, rosemary, and oregano can be used for cosmetic or healing properties in conjunction with many natural healing recipes.
- Flax: soaked in water overnight, flax makes a great hair gel, and ground flax is used in scrub recipes.
- Bentonite/ French clay: historically, clay masks are a top clarifying and detox mask ingredient for glowing skin.
- Honey: very healing for the skin and helps promote probiotic activity and reduce acne.
- Milk: has long been prized for its hydroxy acid; used in milk baths—at least since Cleopatra made milk baths a famous beauty treatment.
- Fruit acids: mashed, blended, or freshly juiced fruits are natural sources of alpha and beta hydroxy acids; try lemon, apple, cream of tartar (from grapes), or strawberries.
- Cleaner, safer prepared products: Check with the Environmental Working Group or other watchdog group for scorecards on better options when buying body care items from the store to ensure you don’t become the victim of greenwashing (false or misleading claims about natural or green ingredients)! One of the companies we trust is Annemarie Skin Care which uses only the best, non-toxic ingredients in their products. Try some awesome sample kits by Annemarie Skin Care today!
If this seems like too much information, try to improve just one product each shopping trip. You may feel compelled to get rid of all known carcinogens in your products at once and replace them all today! If you’re convinced, go for it, but don’t become overwhelmed. Every small change helps improve your family’s health.
- Epstein, Dr Samuel, Safe Shoppers Bible, P.190-19