Know what toxic ingredients are slowly killing you


Let’s work on demystifying some of the chemicals used in conventional skincare, personal care and cleaning products; the ones that we come into contact with on a daily basis. We want to make sure you steer clear of some of the nastiest of these ingredients and realise why natural skincare and lifestyle products are the way to go. Knowledge is power!

So, to start, a bit of hard truth time. In 2004, the environmental working group (EWG) surveyed a bunch of women and found that on average women use 12 personal care products every day, equating to approximately 168 different compounds (1). Seriously… 168! Not hard to see how when you look at the list of ingredients on the back of your average skin care product. It can be pretty overwhelming trying to understand all of those ingredients with names as long as your arm; (A blog looking at debunking labels is on its way.)

In Australia, our laws don’t restrict the use of a huge array of chemicals used to manufacture personal care and cleaning products; many of which have been banned in the EU and Japan but are still permitted to be used here. Without government regulation of these chemicals, a volunteer industry program called the Cosmetic Industry Review (CIR) process has stepped in to assess the safety of personal care product ingredients (which companies can completely ignore if they choose) (2). As at 2008, in 3 decades, the CIR only reviewed 11% of the ingredients used in products, equating to about 1400 of a total of 12,500 ingredients (1)  These synthetic chemicals are used for an array of functions; such as emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilisers, preservatives, chelating (bind up minerals to make then unavailable for microbes) agents and others; the vast majority not tested for use in or on humans and they don’t have to be – nuts! Several of the dirtiest chemicals are contaminated with hidden carcinogens. 

So, this is where it gets a bit heavy and can’t really be sugar coated!

Here are some of the main compounds you need to avoid. This is not an exhaustive list, there are many more environmental and industrially used toxins that have been linked to many diseases and metabolic dysfunction that we won't go into here. 

1. Fragrances 

Companies are NOT required to disclose the composition of the ‘fragrance’ component of their product. These are usually a toxic mixture of any number of thousands of chemicals. Not just found in personal care, some are used as ‘plasticiser’ compounds (plastic softeners) and are used in hundreds of products from toys, food packaging to paints and, believe it or not, pharmaceutical pills. 

Pthalates are one type of chemical coming under the 'fragrance' umbrella and include Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), Diethyl-pthalate (DEP), DHEP and others. DEP is used as a solvent and fixative in fragranced products (helps to keep the scent on your skin for longer) and while DEHP has been declared a public health risk by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), it is still used at low concentrations in some products, and DEP is still used.

Classified by the US EPA as harmful to our health, these compounds are highly susceptible to leaching out of products into the environment (3) and well… us! Pthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption (4), reproductive and developmental interference, low sperm counts (5,6) asthma (7) and suspected to be linked to some cancers (8). Pthalate plasticizers have also been linked to birth defects in male reproductive systems (9). About 2 million tonnes of DHEP are produced annually (10) and we are exposed to these toxins ALL the time….. everywhere! Scary stuff.

Found in:

Pthalate containing products that come into close contact with our skin include nail polish, make-up, soaps, shampoos, perfumes and most fragranced products among others (think all the scented cleaning products we use). 

How will I find them on my label?

These will be hidden under the term ‘fragrances’ or ‘parfum’ in the ingredients list, so unless it is specified that the fragrance is from an essential oil or a ‘natural’ source, avoid it. You may also see the following; Diethylpthalate, DEP and Diethylhexyl phthalate, DEHP.

2. Parabens (butyl, benzyl, ethyl, methyl and propyl – all nasty!)

Parabens are pretty nasty. They penetrate the skin easily, interfere with hormone function and studies have shown some to mimic estrogen. These compounds have been detected in breast cancer tissue biopsies (11) which suggests their possible link between their use and cancer. Please be aware; since all the public hoo-ha about parabens, manufacturers are labelling products as ‘paraben free’ but contain replacement molecules that are not much better; like phenoxyethanol, classified as an irritant with other potential unknown systemic negative impacts.

Found in:

Deodorant, shampoo, soap, moisturiser, make-up, haircare and sunscreen

How will I find them on my label?

The term ‘paraben’ will be listed on the ingredients list so if it is there, scrap that product.

3. Sulfates

Sulfates are salts that are formed when sulfuric acid reacts with another chemical and there is a bit of contention about whether these are safe or not. They can be produced from petroleum or plant sources like coconut or palm and are included in product formulations because they produce the lather we all love about cleansing products. Those derived from petroleum are of concern due to their origin not only because they are associated with greenhouse gases and climate change but there is also evidence to suggest SLS and SLES are irritants and may also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane (potential carcinogen) and ethylene oxide (known carcinogen) (12). SLS is also a suspected environmental/ aquatic toxicant. Plant based glucosides (i.e decyl, coco, and other glucosides) and are good alternatives as is liquid castile soap. There are other ethoxylate compounds that can also be contaminated by ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane and these will show up with a chemical name that includes ‘eth’ (Steareth, laureth, ceteareth, ceteth).

Found in:

Soaps, shampoos, body and face washes, bubble bath products, laundry and dish detergents and toothpastes.

How will I find them on my label?

Sodium laureth sulphate (SLES) and Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) as well as ‘eth’s.

4. Ethanolamines (EAs)

These are ammonium containing compounds used as cleansing and foaming agents, emulsifiers as well as pH adjusters. Excess absorption of ammonia compounds can be toxic, particularly problematic when used in leave-in products. These react and can form molecules called nitrosamines, known to be carcinogens. They have also been linked to reproductive disturbance (13) as well as liver and kidney toxicity (14).

Found in:

Most face and body washes, make -up (mascara, foundation), fragrances, sunscreens and cleaning products.

How will I find them on my label?

Diethanolamines (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA) and monoethanolamine (MEA)

5. Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing agents

Formaldehyde can be added directly to products but more often we see the ingredients below interacting with other molecules that form formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen (15) and formaldehyde releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used widely in cosmetics. A few of the chemicals below (quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin) can also irritate skin and eyes and trigger allergic reactions (16).

Found in:

You’ll find them in nail polish, eye lash glue, hair gel, hair smoothing products, baby shampoos, body and face washes.

What to look for on the label:

Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

6. PEG compounds (ethylene glycol containing compounds)

There are hundreds of PEG derived products used in cosmetics and these petroleum-based compounds are used as thickeners, solvents, softeners and moisturiser carriers. Most have very little in terms of scientific safety data to support their safe use. Similar to SLES above and the –‘-eths’, the issue with these compounds is the contamination with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, both suspected carcinogens (17).

Another concerning factor is that they also act as penetration enhancers (18) that increase the uptake of other ingredients, some of which are nasty… which surely isn’t a surprise. The smaller the number at the end of the chemical name, the smaller the molecule is and the greater chance it will be absorbed through the skin.

Found in:

Make-up, haircare (shampoo/ conditioner/ serums/ gel), sunscreen, moisturiser and serums, hand creams, face masks, face and body scrubs.

What to look for on the label:

Look out for Polyethylene glycol or PEG on the label, usually followed by a number i.e. PEG-7, PEG-20.

7. UV Filters

Protecting our skin for harmful UV radiation is essential but how we do it is important. Melanoma is one of the deadliest cancers out there and Australia has one of the highest rates of Melanoma globally (19). Some ingredients we use to protect us from UV radiation are better in terms of human safety than others. There are two main filters we can use; organic and inorganic. Organic compounds absorb the UV radiation and convert it to another form, one that is safer for the skin and inorganic filters, like Zinc and titanium dioxide work by scattering the UV rays away from the skin. The latter are considered the safer option. The issue with the organic compounds, like oxybenzone, used in many sunscreens is that some can be absorbed into through the skin and enhance the uptake of other hazardous chemicals (20)  into the bloodstream with potentially detrimental effects. They have the potential to affect cell growth as well as reproduction; in one study oxybenzone was found to affect the size of mammary glands in mice (21) and in another it was found in breast milk (22). Furthermore, in a study of 500 couples trying to conceive, analysis of semen quality found that males with higher levels of a benzophenone derived UV filter in their urine showed a 30% lower chance of conceiving in a given menstrual cycle (23). Too little is known about their safety in humans for us to use them indiscriminately.

Found In:

Sunscreens, some anti-wrinkle creams, moisturisers, some lipsticks and fragrance ingredients.

What to look for on the label:

Avobenzene, oxybenzone, octanoate, ethylhexyl methoxy cinnamate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC), benzophenone-3 (this is a nasty one) and homosalate oxybenzone

As I mentioned earlier, this is not an exhaustive list, there are thousands of ingredients used in personal care, cosmetics, domestic cleaning products, toys and more that can be harmful.

If you’re serious about cleansing your environment of these damaging ingredients, we recommend starting to take a really good look at the labels on the products you use. Are the ingredients freely available? Any honest company lists the ingredients on their label, whether the law requires them to or not. All cosmetics sold in Australia, by law, must show all ingredients on them at the time of purchase so you have the choice as a consumer. The power is entirely in your hands.

Over the coming weeks we will be providing you with a guide to help you understand and decipher those perplexing product labels designed to overwhelm you. In the meantime, if you’re ready to starting cleansing, jump on to our previous blog here to find some steps about how to start your journey.

Tammy X



(1) EWG, 2008. Statement of Jane Houlihan on Cosmetics Safety. Accessed June 10 2020. Read more here

(2) CIR wesbite.

(3) Halden, R. 2010. Plastics and Health risks. Annual Reviews of Public Health. 31: 179-194. Read more here

(4) Meeker, S and Swan, S. 2009. Phthalates and other additives in plastics: human exposure and associated health outcomes. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 364(1526). Read more here

(5) Dobrzynska, M. 2016. Phthalates - widespread occurrence and the effect on male gametes. Part 2. The effects of phthalates on male gametes and on the offspring. Rocz Panstw Zaki Hig. 67 (3). Read More here

(6) Rehman, S. et al. 2018. Endocrine disrupting chemicals and impact on male reproductive health. Translational andrology and urology, 7(3), 490–503. Read more here.

(7) Wang et al. 2015. Effects of phthalate exposure on asthma may be mediated through alterations in DNA methylation. Clinical Epigenetics. 7 (1). 27. Read more here

(8) Zuccarello et al. 2018. Implications of dietary Pthalates in breast cancer. A systematic review. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 118; 667-674. Read more here

(9) Houlihan J, Brody C, Schwan B. 2002. Not Too Pretty. Phthalates, Beauty Products & the FDA. Accessed May 12 2020 at Read more here

(10) Latini G. 2005. Monitoring phthalate exposure in humans. Clinica Chimica Acta. 361 (1-2):20–29. Read more here.

(11) Dabre et al. 2004. Concentration of parabens in human breast tumours. Journal Applied Toxicology. 24 (1); 5-13. Read more here

(12) David Suzuki Foundation. The Dirty Dozen: Sodium Laureth Sulfate. Accessed June 10, 2020.

(13) Panchal, A and Verma, R. 2013. Spermatotoxic effect of diethanolamine: An in vitro study. Asian Pacific Journal of Reproduction. 2(3); 196-200. Read More here

(14) Gamer, A., Rossbacher, R., Kaufmann, W., and van Ravenzwaay, B. 2008. The Inhalation toxicity of di-and triethanolamine upon repeated exposure. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 46(6), 2173-2183. Read more here

(15) IARC. “Formaldehyde.” Monographs 88 (2006). Read More here

(16) Groot et al. 2009. Formaldehyde‐releasers: relationship to formaldehyde contact allergy. Contact allergy to formaldehyde and inventory of formaldehyde‐releasers. Contact dermatitis. 61; 63-85. Read More here

(17) David Suzuki Foundation. The Dirty Dozen: PEG compounds and their contaminants. Accessed June 10, 2020.

(18) Casiraghi A. et al. 2015. Nonionic Surfactants: Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) Ethers and Fatty Acid Esters as Penetration Enhancers. In: Dragicevic N., Maibach H. (eds) Percutaneous Penetration Enhancers Chemical Methods in Penetration Enhancement. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

(19) Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2019. Cancer in Australia 2019. Cancer series no.119.
Cat. no. CAN 123. Canberra: AIHW. Read more here

(20) Pont, A. et al, 2004. Active ingredients in sunscreens act as topical penetration enhancers for the herbicide 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. 195 (3); 348-354. Read more here

(21) LaPlante, C., Bansal, R., Dunphy, K., Jerry, D. and Vandenberg, L. 2018. Oxybenzone Alters Mammary Gland Morphology in Mice Exposed During Pregnancy and Lactation. Journal of the Endocrine Society. 2 (8), 903-921. Read more here

(22) Schlumpf, M. et al. 2008. Developmental toxicity of UV filters and environmental exposure: a review. International Journal of Andrology. 31 (2); 144-151. Read more here

(23) Buck Louis, G., et al. 2015. Urinary Concentrations of Benzophenone-Type Ultra Violet Light Filters and Semen Quality. Fertility and Sterility. 104 (4), 989-996. Read More here


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