Last updated: February 2017
There are thousands of ingredients used in personal care, many of them have negative environmental impacts and health effects ranging from skin irritation to carcinogenicity.
Some consumers buying cosmetics may want to look for them on the label and try to avoid them.
Parabens are a group of compounds widely used as an antifungal agent, preservative and antimicrobial in creams, lotions, make-up and other cosmetics, including underarm deodorants. According to breast cancer charities, they are absorbed through the skin and have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumours.
Parabens are also linked to hormone disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation.
The EU has banned five parabens from cosmetics but not the most common ones used in cosmetic products – methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. However, it has restricted the amounts of these that can be used in products.
Triclosan and triclocarban can be used as an antimicrobial in soaps. Its use in toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorants, cosmetics and hand soaps is restricted by the EU whilst, last year, the US banned its use in liquid soaps and bars of soap.
Triclosan, which is classified as a pesticide, can affect the body’s hormone systems – especially thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism – and may disrupt normal breast development.
The EU classifies triclosan as irritating to the skin and eyes, and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, noting that it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment. Widespread use of triclosan may also contribute to bacterial resistance to antimicrobial agents.
Many companies have stopped using it but, notably, Colgate still uses it in its Colgate Total toothpaste.
Phthalates are a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals that are most commonly used to make PVC soft and flexible but are also found in cosmetics like nail polish and hairspray, and in synthetic fragrances. Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant and laundry detergent.
Phthalate exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls, a risk factor for later-life breast cancer.3
Several phthalates have been banned in the EU but not all, including diethyl phthalate (DEP).7 Because the chemical constituents of ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ do not have to be listed on labels, one way to avoid phthalates altogether is to go for fragrance-free products or those free of synthetic fragrances.
Synthetic fragrances are commonly used in personal care products and often contain as many as 200 ingredients. These ingredients are, however, considered to be trade secrets, so companies don’t have to tell us what they are. However, studies suggest a number of possible negative effects of the compounds used to create them including:
- immune system damage
- a cause and trigger asthma attacks
- hormone disruption, which can affect development and fertility
- a potential neurotoxin (chemicals that are toxic to the brain)
- increase in the proliferation of oestrogen-responsive breast cancer cells
- they have also been found to be toxic to aquatic life and can accumulate in the food chain.
SLS and SLES
Two of the most widely-used detergents and foaming agents in shampoos, liquid soap products and toothpaste are sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES). You’ll often find greener products being marketed as SLS-free.
According to ethical cosmetics company Green People, SLS is known to be irritating to the skin so it is not surprising then that it can cause scalp problems when frequently applied as part of a shampoo. It is recognised as being one of the most irritating of the foaming agents used in shampoos.
The Skin Deep website gives SLS and SLES hazard ratings of 1-2 (low hazard) and 3 out of 10 (moderate hazard) respectively. The website states that research studies have found that exposure to the ingredient itself, not the products that contain it, have indicated potential health risks.