This is a condensed list of the main ingredients I believe should be added to everyone’s ‘watch-list’. It is by no means a comprehensive list. What it is though, is a great starting point – a list of names to add to your ‘chemical awareness catalogue’. Become familiar with them, memorise them, make a note in your phone, carry around a list – whatever you need to do until they are familiar and easily identifiable when you’re out shopping.
Be wary of companies that try to tell you that the chemicals they use occur in nature, that Parabens are found in blueberries for example. It is worth noting that it is highly unlikely that they’re actually getting their Parabens from blueberries. If you feel inclined to do so, drill them! Ask them how their ingredients are derived, whether chemical processes are used, whether they test for harmful by-products.
You might be interested in my short course: Becoming a Label Detective, or have a read this blog for more tips and tools to help you along this chemical awareness journey, and keep in mind that while it is impossible to eliminate all chemicals from your life, simply avoiding these unnecessary chemicals (or majority of them) is a giant leap in the right direction.
Chemical ingredients to learn and avoid
The main antiperspirant ingredient in deodorant; used to block pores and stop us from sweating. It is a light metal that accumulates in our brains, kidneys and liver (among other places), affecting the absorption of other minerals. Studies show that toxic metals contribute to brain disease, and Aluminium in particular, affects our neurological systems.
There is a story from Cornwall regarding the accidental dumping of Aluminium sulphate in the town’s water supply. Even though this is a rare and unrealistic dose of Aluminium, it’s worth a read; note the link between Aluminium and brain disorders/disease. Link to article.
BHT/BHA (Butylated Hydroxytoluene/ Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
Used as synthetic preservatives and antioxidants. Both may induce headaches/migraine, allergic reactions, aggressive behaviour etc. BHA is toxic to aquatic organisms and listed as a possible human carcinogen. Long-term exposure to BHT has demonstrated toxicity to mice, causing liver, lung, thyroid and kidney issues. You might find these ingredients in chewing gum and mayo too.
Often marketed as ‘natural’, this synthetic ingredient is used as a foaming agent, and can be found in anything from baby wash to shampoo. It was named allergen of the year in 2004 and may cause skin and eye irritation, and contact dermatitis. The biggest concern comes from the ingredients used in its manufacture, which may be retained.
The issue with ingredients that are ‘derived from natural sources’ is the way these chemicals are extracted and manufactured. Don’t assume that it is safe because the label has an asterisk stating it is derived from coconuts, for example.
CI, D&C, FD&C – colours
Found in so many cosmetics including lip balm, cleanser and toner. The problem with these is that it is hard to know exactly where they are coming from. Some may be plant-based, others may be synthetic or petroleum-derived, some are derived from coal tar, and some are even created from crushed beetles (not joking)! They are known to cause skin aggravation; some are known carcinogens, teratogens (affects embryos) and mutagens. I prefer to avoid completely.
I am talking about fake smells – the petroleum-based toxic concoction added to almost every conventional hand wash, shampoo, body wash, laundry powder, deodorant and so on. Fragrance is the no. 1 chemical wreaking havoc. It has been dubbed as the new second-hand smoking. Fragrance formulations are protected by loopholes allowing companies to add whatever they like (from a list of thousands of different chemicals) without having to declare it on the label. Unless there is information stating that the fragrance in a product is derived from essential oils, be cautious.
Ethanolamine compounds (MEA/TEA/DEA)
Widely used in cosmetics such as cleanser, shampoo and deodorant and have been associated with skin irritation, asthma, and contact dermatitis so it is safest to avoid them altogether. When Ethanolamines combine with certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen, they can form nitrosamines which are possible human carcinogens. It’s easiest to just avoid ingredients with ‘eth’ in their name, or at least research further.
With gorgeous carrier oils like sweet almond and fractionated coconut oil, I just don’t think we need this ingredient in our lives. Commonly found in baby lotions, lip gloss, lipstick and massage oils, mineral oil is petroleum-derived and suspected to cause skin irritation, respiratory and liver toxicity, and may aggravate acne.
These endocrine-disrupting synthetic preservatives, also known as gender-benders, are seriously affecting our hormones. They can be found in anything from body cream to toothpaste. Studies have found Parabens in urine 8-12 hours after application, proving that they are absorbed and metabolised by our bodies. They have an accumulation effect and may also cause skin ailments – hives, eczema, rashes etc. Many companies are proudly declaring the removal of Parabens from their formulas, but beware of what else is lurking in that bottle or bar. See Phenoxyethanol.
This is a tricky one, because many ‘green’ and ‘eco’ companies, with excellent ingredients lists, are using it as a replacement to Parabens. It is said to be safe at very low doses (<1%), but what is a ‘low dose’ and how many low dose products are you exposing yourself to every day? As infants and children are more vulnerable to these chemicals, is that safe low dose calculated with them in mind, or adults? There are studies out there that have demonstrated this chemical to be extremely irritating, endocrine-disrupting and cell-mutating. Just be aware of this one, and the sneaky marketing surrounding it.
Polyethylene is a form of plastic, which becomes a thick and sticky liquid when combined with glycol. It will precede a number: PEG-40, PEG-120 etc. These chemicals are petroleum-derived and produced using the highly toxic chemical, ethylene oxide, and may contain traces of 1,4-dioxane which is classified as a potential human carcinogen. PEGs can be found in anything from hand wash to sunscreen and they help to carry other chemicals into the skin. They should never be used on broken or compromised skin (or at all…?). These chemicals can cause irritation and have been linked to damage of the brain, liver, kidneys as well as the immune and nervous systems.
You will find this ingredient, named Allergen of the Year in 2018, in heaps of personal care items. It has been found to cause contact dermatitis, and irritate skin and is also a penetration enhancer, helping to drive other chemicals into your skin.
QUATS (quaternary ammonium compounds)
You’ll find this ingredient in fabric softener, shampoo and conditioner, to name a few. There is concern that this ingredient is an asthmagen and very toxic to aquatics.
SLES/SLS (Sodium Laureth Sulfate/Sodium Lauryl Sulfate)
Found in 90% of personal care, these ingredients reduce the surface tension of water and allow bubbles to be created. A huge problem with these chemicals is their potential to combine with other chemicals and form nitrosamines (which are known to be carcinogenic).
SLS absorbs into the skin quickly and is very irritating (they often add other chemicals to counteract this!). There are concerns that SLS is retained in the body and may have long-term health issues. I used to think SLS in wash off products was ‘ok’ but I no longer agree with that. Avoid it wherever you can, especially in toothpaste and other products making prolonged contact with your skin.
The problem with SLES, while it is less irritating to the skin than SLS, is that the manufacturing process (Ethoxylation) results in possible contamination with Ethylene Oxide and 1,4-dioxane, both high human health priority.
These are chemicals that many companies are proudly declaring to be absent from their products – yay; just watch out for what they’re not telling you.
Sodium Coco Sulfate (SCS) is an ingredient with very little data available on it. It is in a few low-toxin products that I personally use, including Ethique shampoo bars (which I talk about in this blog). I suppose it comes down to being aware and vigilant, and when data becomes available, reassessing. In this case, Ethique bars have only a handful of ingredients, with SCS being the only one presenting any doubt for me.
Found in many antibacterial formulas, as well as toothpaste and deodorant, this petroleum-derived chemical was first registered as a pesticide in the 1960s. It is added to products to prevent bacterial growth. There are concerns surrounding possible contamination with Chloroform, and the highly toxic 1,4 Dioxane. Studies on animals have shown that this chemical alters the way some hormones work, disrupting thyroid function, and there is concern that the over-use of Triclosan is impacting on the effectiveness of antibiotics. It is also persistent in the environment, meaning it doesn’t really ever go away, and has shown to be highly toxic to aquatic animals.
Essential Oil Constituents (a bonus one to add to your watch-list)
Ingredients like cinnamaldehyde, linalool, limonene, geraniol, citral, etc., sometimes appear on ingredients panels and may cause alarm when you search on Chemical Maze or EWG.org and see the negative ratings. This is because these constituents can cause skin, eye and lung irritation, and some are produced synthetically, but unless it is specifically stated, or you call the company, it is hard to know for sure. So, I encourage you to make a note of this piece of info and weigh up for yourself whether you want to put these ingredients on your alert list.
This journey is just that – a journey. There is usually a beginning, but no end. It is a steep learning curve at times, but one that you will be glad you’re investing energy into. My journey is continuous; how long is a piece of string? I am constantly learning and referring back to some of my trusty, reputable ‘idols’ and sources. For further info pay these guys a visit and get educated and inspired:
Peter Dingle – Dangerous Beauty (released in 2017 and a wonderful resource!)
Author, Advocate & Founder
Krissy wants to see a world where people make conscious, educated decisions that honour both humans and habitat. With a background in education and health promotion, she devotes her time to passionately increase awareness on common and avoidable toxins, in everyday items like washing powder and deodorant, and to educate individuals on how they can easily reduce their daily exposure, through simple and realistic do-it-yourself ideas and recipes.
Krissy has sold over 30,000 copies of her natural DIY recipe books, including her latest, award-winning book, Naturally Inspired - Simple DIY Recipes for Body Care and Cleaning, and offers honest and gentle guidance, education and 100+ natural DIY recipes on her website The Inspired Little Pot.