Food Freedom Friday Edition 121 - Skin Deep

While many people understand the importance of eating organic to avoid chemicals and pesticides, most people do not think about their exposure to chemicals via personal care products. However, these should not be overlooked, because what you use on your body, including lotion, deodorant, make-up and sunblock, is absorbed by your largest organ, your skin, and contribute to your toxic load. In addition, many of these products have a negative environmental impact. Personal care products are highly unregulated and most governments have no pre-approval process for most products. The FDA categorizes cosmetics as “anything applied to a person’s body to make the person more attractive”.


Parabens are one of the main preservatives used in almost all personal care products. The most commonly found parabens in personal care products are methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isobutyl-, butyl- and benzyl-paraben. Known hormone disruptors, parabens mimic your natural hormones, specifically estrogen, and have been connected with increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive problems in women, and decreased sperm counts, prostate and testicular cancer in men.

Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea are additional synthetic preservatives that the have been established as the primary cause or contact dermatitis.

Most organic and natural products do not have preservatives, and may expire more quickly than their chemical-laden counterparts. Always check expiration dates.

Shampoo, Conditioner, Lotion, Hand Soap, Face and Body Wash:

The foaming agent in many of these products are Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or Sodium laureth sulfate(SLES). These commonly used surfactants are well-documented skin, lung and eye irritants. On the cellular level, SLS use is linked with the denaturing and breakdown of inter-cellular proteins. The chemical structure forms a bridge between the fat and water-soluble portions of cells. This reduces or eliminates the cell’s ability to heal itself. Over time, the destruction of cellular tissue is irreversible. New protein is affected during the construction process and existing protein is damaged. When the protein is damaged, the body has to expend extra energy to try to heal the distressed cells. There are also concerns in the scientific community that SLS use may have cancer-causing effects based on its interaction with other chemicals.

Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical, is a skin irritant and endocrine disrupter mimicking thyroid and reproductive hormones. In addition, studies show that triclosan may be contributing to antibacterial-resistant bacteria and ‘super bugs’.

Under U.S. regulations, fragrances in cosmetics do not need to be individually listed on labels and can be listed simply as fragrance. This is due to a loophole in the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. ‘This law is not allowed to be used to force a company to tell trade secrets.’ Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be these trade secrets.

Even products labelled as unscented may have fragrances to mask the smell of other ingredients. Fragrance therefore, as a category is too difficult to define, as it includes complex and varied mixtures of chemical ingredients, but has been widely linked to allergic reactions, skin irritation and respiratory problems. Look for products that explicitly state that they do not contain synthetic fragrances or voluntarily list their individual components of their fragrance.

In addition to fragrance and parabens, products frequently contain phthalates, a group of chemicals known to be endocrine disrupters. The most commonly used phthalates in personal care products are diethyl- and dimethyl-phthalate, which have been linked to reproductive birth defects as well as an increased risk of breast cancer. Phthalates are commonly used in fragrances and thus fall under the same labelling protections from the FDA and are frequently not listed on the ingredient lists.

Many exfoliating soaps and scrubs contain microbeads, tiny plastic pieces that are especially detrimental to the environment in lakes, rivers and streams. These tiny beads are too small to be filtered out in the water treatment process and end up in the fresh water supply, where fish ingest them as they look like food. The plastics are killing fish and scientists suggest that the chemicals could be passed to humans and wildlife as well.


There are many concerning ingredients in toothpaste. SLS and microbeads are frequently found in toothpaste advertised to increase the cleaning and scrubbing power. Functionally, toothpaste just needs to be a paste, but thanks to the commonly included SLS, toothpaste is expected to create foam or lather when used.

Another hotly debated issue is the inclusion of fluoride in almost all toothpastes in the mainstream market. Fluoride is a chemical which kills enzymes in the mouth that can contribute to tooth decay. However, risks from ingesting fluoride toothpaste include permanent tooth discoloration (dental fluorosis), stomach ailments, acute toxicity, skin rashes (perioral dermatitis), and impairment in glucose metabolism


The concerns over sunscreen and sunblock are two-fold, as the active ingredients in most commercial products have been shown to cause health problems and there is a growing debate over whether the public health crisis of Vitamin D deficiency is caused in some part by limited sun exposure.

In addition to often containing the chemicals already discussed, sunscreen and sunblock frequently contain two or more of: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Some of the health effects linked to these chemicals include allergic reactions, hormone disruption, increased risk of endometriosis and decrease in sperm production. The Environmental Working Group website has a very good list of the active ingredient toxicities of these chemicals.

Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency is now considered a global public-health problem, affecting an estimated 1 billion people worldwide and resulting in increases in many diseases including rickets, osteomalacia, skeletal diseases, metabolic disorders, cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, infections and cognitive disorders. The body needs sunlight in order to produce Vitamin D. Our culture is increasingly spending more time indoors and when we do go outside we are fearful of developing skin cancer, so apply sunscreen. Therefore, the skin rarely is exposed to the sun’s rays.

Choose to cover up, stay in the shade or apply a mineral-based sunscreen if sun exposure exceeds 20 minutes or is between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm..


Synthetic colors and dyes are very common in makeup and cosmetics although they are used in many personal care products. Synthetic colors are labelled FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and number. Synthetic colors have been linked to cancer as well as ADHD in children

In addition to the chemicals previously discussed, an increasing number of foundations, lip balms and powders now include sunscreen as an active ingredient.

Nail polish specifically is made up of some surprisingly dangerous chemicals including formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, toluene, camphor and dibutyl phthalate, a mix of toxic chemicals known to be carcinogenic and have detrimental effects on immune, respiratory and nervous system functions. While you are not necessarily ‘absorbing’ these chemicals through your skin as you do with other personal care products, many women absent-mindedly put their fingers near their mouth or may even bite their fingernails while wearing nail polish.

Deodorant vs. Antiperspirants:

Many of the chemicals explained above are also in most deodorants and antiperspirants, including high amounts of fragrances. The difference between the two products is that deodorant neutralizes or masks armpit odor, while antiperspirant containing aluminum, clogs your pores so that you do not sweat. Not only does this block one of your body’s routes for detoxification (releasing toxins via your underarm sweat), but it raises concerns about where these metals are going once you roll them (or spray them) on. Studies have shown an increase in aluminum in the breasts of women with breast cancer, causing discussion of whether antiperspirant may increase your chance of developing breast cancer.

Start Cleaning!

These are a few of the most common chemicals found in popular personal care products but is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the potential harmful additives. The Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep website is a wonderful resource to research the ingredients in your favorite products.

Read the ingredients when you dispose. Most organic products can be composted or flushed down the toilet. However, if the product has chemicals, you would not want it to end up in your septic tank or water supply, leeching into the ground water and soil, the trash is the only option.

Look for organically and ethically sourced and made products and read ALL ingredients thoroughly. Focusing on the quality of the products you use on your skin will ensure that your beauty is way more than skin deep.

Michal Ofer