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Toxic chemicals in toiletries and beauty products

We look at some of the toxic ingredients found in cosmetics and toiletries.

There are thousands of ingredients used in personal care products, many of them have negative environmental impacts and health effects ranging from skin irritation to carcinogenicity.

Parabens, phthalates and triclosan have been selected by Ethical Consumer as important indicators for our own toxics rating. We checked all the companies in this report to see whether they had policies on their use. Their ratings appear in the Pollution & Toxics column on our score tables:

Best rating

No use of the three chemicals, or clear, dated targets for ending their use.

Middle rating

Some policy on the three, or policy on one or two of them.

Worst rating

No policy/commitment to phase them out. We have highlighted in each guide what the brands scored.


Parabens are a group of compounds widely used as antifungal agents, preservatives and antimicrobials in cosmetics and toiletries. Parabens are 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 the US banned its use in liquid soaps and bars of soap in 2016.

Due to public pressure, most companies have been quietly reformulating their products. Colgate was one of the few companies to still use it in its 'Colgate Total' toothpaste but even it has removed it now. In our soap guide, Dettol hand soap was the only product we found that contained triclocarban.

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.


Phthalates are a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals that are most commonly used to make PVC soft and flexible but are also used as a solvent in cosmetics 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.

Several phthalates have been banned in the EU but not all, including diethyl phthalate (DEP). 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.


Two of the most widely used detergents and foaming agents in shampoos and liquid soap products 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 states that research studies have found that exposure to the ingredient itself, not the products that contain it, have indicated potential health risks.

Synthetic fragrances

Synthetic fragrances are commonly used in personal care products and often contain as many as 200 ingredients. These ingredients are 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 of asthma attacks
  • Hormone disruption, which can affect development and fertility.
  • A potential neurotoxin (chemicals that are toxic to the brain).
  • Increase in the proliferation oestrogen-responsive breast cancer cells.
  • They have also been found to be toxic to aquatic life and can accumulate in the food chain.

Reducing your risk

  • Use less – use fewer products, less often.
  • Check ingredients lists before you buy them.
  • Or you could make your own.
  • Buy from companies you trust. These could include brands that get our best rating for toxic chemical policies. Find out which brands performed best and which scored worst in our guides to soap, shampoo, shower gel and sunscreen.

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