5 Types of Toxic Chemicals in Skincare and Cosmetic Products

Time to go clean | The white Pigeon Said | Clean Living | Low Tox Living | Eco Living | Clean products | @Lisa_indever

So on average, women use 12 personal care products every day, containing around 168 ingredients in total. And get this: Our skin absorbs 50-70% of these ingredients during application.

It’s time to stop sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it’s not doing you any harm. Let's get informed and make cleaner choices. 

Do you look at the ingredients list on your skincare, haircare and personal care products? 

Generally speaking, we, the consumers, are completely in the dark about the hidden dangers of all the toxins lurking in the skincare products we use. 

The thing is that many of these synthetic skincare ingredients have not been tested for safety in humans, are not well regulated, and are therefore legally permitted in our products.

So this really leaves us no choice but to start gathering our own knowledge and making positive changes to minimise our exposure to harmful chemicals in skincare products.


I get it. Switching to a cleaner and greener lifestyle can be pretty daunting. The first step is understanding why it’s important and this is what I want to address for you today. 

There is just so much crap piled into all of our everyday products and they affect us in ways that are incredibly scary. 


Synthetic chemicals are added to everything from toothpaste, body wash and shampoo to dish and laundry detergent, all our cleaning supplies, and our food.

They have a multitude of purposes including as emulsifiers, thickeners, stabilisers, pH adjusters, preservatives and plenty of others. The vast majority are not tested for use in or on humans (and they don’t have to be, thanks to the Australian Government). 

In Australia, our laws don’t restrict the use of a huge array of chemicals (including many nasty ones) that are used in the manufacture of these products – unlike in the EU and Japan where there are much more stringent regulations.

Shelves lined with Skincare and cosmetic products many including synthetic skincare ingredients

There are so many studies out there that highlight how synthetic chemicals are detectable in various bodily fluids and tissues. 

If you’re science-minded (like I am) and want to look at some of the evidence, there is a great review article looking at the cumulative chemical exposure during pregnancy and early development and an interesting read about the effects of chemical exposure on reproductive health

These chemicals don’t just affect US, they are affecting the development of our children and we are only just scratching the surface on how. 


Since many of the synthetic chemicals used in cosmetics have not been evaluated for safety in animals or humans, there is a distinct possibility that they are having an impact on your health and not likely in a good way.

This is not a complete list but some of the main toxins in skincare and cosmetic products that can be damaging. If you want to delve deeper, check out this other article that gets more specific on which toxic skincare ingredients to avoid.

Toxic ingredients in skincare and cosmetics you must avoid

Allergenic chemicals

These substances trigger your immune system by acting like a flag, alerting your body that they are foreign invaders and causing an allergic response.

What does this response look or feel like?

Well, it could mean stinging, burning, hives, itching or a red rash that shows its face whenever you use that product or it could be worse by causing a full-blown allergic reaction.

The interesting thing is that this type of response can happen straight after using a product or after years of using a product with seemingly no issues.

Some of the main culprits here are:

Carcinogenic chemicals

These are substances that are capable of causing cancer. They do this by altering normal cellular reactions and processes that ultimately cause damage to cells. This makes them replicate faster than they die, resulting in the formation of tumours. 

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are fairly common in personal care products and behave in this way. Other carcinogenic chemicals are less common but still used. These include:

  • Quaternium-15

  • Diazolidinyl urea

  • Imidazolidinyl urea

  • DMDM hydantoin

  • Benzene

  • Untreated or mildly treated mineral oils

  • Ethylene oxide

Learn more about formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives here.

Bio accumulative chemicals

These compounds are problematic on several levels:

  1. They accumulate in both our bodies and the environment

  2. They don’t degrade, they linger

  3. They are TOXIC

Referred to as PBTs (Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic chemicals), our bodies just can’t process or excrete them quick enough so they build up, mostly in fat tissue, bones and brains

It has been suggested that accumulated mercury and pesticides may affect metabolism or circulation and may trigger chronic diseases. 

As you can imagine, studies supporting this in humans would be difficult to carry out but this 2019 study looks into bioaccumulation in food chains. 

Some common ingredients considered PBTs are:

  • Nanoparticles

  • Oxybenzone (think sunscreens)

  • Ethanolamines (MEA, DEA and TEA)

  • Cyclosiloxanes (the basis for many silicones)

  • Aluminium salts

  • Mercury

  • Lead

  • Heavy metals 

  • PABA (UV absorbers in sunscreens)

Mutagenic chemicals

These ones get into your cells and mess with your DNA — your genetic material — which means you create more genetic mutations than would be normal without exposure. 

Some of these mutations can cause cancer but this isn’t always the case. A 1981 study by Gocke et al. looked at the mutagenicity of various cosmetic chemicals if you're interested in reading more. 

Endocrine disruptors

There are far too many of these Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) in everyday products, from cosmetics and makeup to cleaning supplies. 

This is a big topic and covers synthetic chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system and may affect several other systems too.

These disruptors have been linked to lowered sperm counts, thyroid dysfunction, endometriosis, PCOS, several cancers, and autoimmune conditions (you can see all the references for these studies at the bottom of this page). 

Learning to avoid these compounds can help protect your hormonal balance. While there are lots of these around, the most common ones are:

⚠️ Parabens — The most notorious endocrine disruptors that have been shown to mimic oestrogen. Multiple parabens have been detected in biopsies of breast cancer tissue. Look out for any ingredients ending in ‘paraben’.

⚠️ Phthalates — Found in a huge array of products from perfumes to plastic kids toys, vinyl, and PVC products and have been linked to reproductive disruption in both men and women and an increased prevalence of breast cancer and tumours. 

Look out for the term ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on the ingredients list and just swiftly return the product to the shelf.

⚠️ Bisphenol A (BPA) — Studies have linked BPA to accelerated puberty, breast cancer, behavioural changes, diabetes and obesity, which is why lots of your plastics are now labelled BPA free (which doesn’t necessarily make them safe, by the way).

⚠️ Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs) — These are pretty nasty. They build up in the bloodstream and liver, which can affect women’s fertility. 

Studies have shown that they are passed via the placenta and umbilical cord to a fetus, leading to a whole range of issues like low birth weight, increased rate of miscarriage and can negatively impact organ and skeletal development in a fetus. 

You’ll find these in products formulated to repel grease and water. Think nail polish, moisturiser, eye makeup, non-stick cookware and stain/water-resistant clothes.

⚠️ Triclosan — Used as an antibacterial and antifungal, triclosan has been shown to mess with the endocrine system, particularly thyroid hormones, which control many of our metabolic processes. Hmm. I wonder why so many of us have thyroid issues?

⚠️ Synthetic fragrances — These can contain thousands of toxic chemicals, most of which do not need to be divulged to the consumer.


This is not meant to scare you or make you feel bad for using products with these ingredients — they’re EVERYWHERE, but there ARE alternatives. 

We want you to make the switch to tox-free and safer products but doing this can feel like a big ask. 

Cleaner products may not feel or behave like the conventional products you’re used to but that’s not a reason to dismiss them; they are better for you and will reduce your exposure to the nasty stuff. 

We recommend switching out to cleaner products slowly so the process isn’t a huge upfront expense and seems much more achievable. 

Baby steps — but the first step is becoming informed, which you've already chosen to do. Ten points for that, my friend! 

If you’re keen to make some changes but don’t know where to start, we recommend Alexx Stuart's book Low Tox Life: A handbook for a healthy you and a happy planet.  Alexx also has some pretty awesome resources, podcasts, and courses to learn more.

Another really useful tool is to download the Healthy Living App prepared by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). With it, you can scan products (mostly US products though) and look up individual ingredients to assess their safety (they give ingredients a score) and get a little more familiar with those crazy lists of ingredients. 

Although daunting at the start, you will quickly get familiar with the nastiest of ingredients, be able to spot them on the labels (and promptly put those products back on the shelf), and start opting for the cleaner alternatives.

Here is a list of some steps we think are important to start working through to start reducing your family’s exposure to toxins:

1. Use non- toxic personal care products

We have a range of non-toxic products but there are some amazing clean brands around. You just need to find one or a couple that you trust and look past all the greenwashing (easier said than done)!

2. Mop and dust often (well, try to!)

We know this is probably not what you feel like hearing but toxic substances (lead, pesticides, and others) are often found in household dust. It’s best to use a wet cloth to wipe down surfaces.

3. Clean with non-toxic products

4. Leave your shoes at the door

So much crap is transferred from our shoes into our homes.

5. Avoid dry cleaning your clothes

They use way too many chemicals. 

6. Avoid products that contain flame retardant chemicals 

Here’s a good resource about what types of products contain these.

7. Choose to eat cleanly

Again not always possible. Eat organic where you can and if this isn’t an option choose fruits and veggies that are less likely to be contaminated (check out the EWG clean and dirty lists). 

8. Choose clean meat

Toxins can be found in higher quantities in animal fat. So if you are choosing higher fat meats, try to make them organic where possible.

9. Ditch the plastic everywhere

Particularly for food and drinks.

10. Limit your intake of fish with high mercury levels 

Like shark, swordfish and orange roughy.

11. Avoid canned food and drinks

They can contain BPA lining.

And remember.... 

‘Be proud of that little change you’re going to make today. Be proud of the plans you’re laying out as time, circumstance and energy permits’  - Alexx Stuart

Be kind to yourself and do what you can. 

We have plenty of non-toxic, zero-waste skincare products to help get you started. Browse our natural skincare products (including soaps and deodorants) online now and get free shipping Australia wide on orders over $95.

Tammy X


Ali, H & Khan, E. 2019. Trophic transfer, bioaccumulation, and biomagnification of non-essential hazardous heavy metals and metalloids in food chains/webs—Concepts and implications for wildlife and human health. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. 25(6): 1353-1376. Read here.

Barr et al., 2012. Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 32(3): 219-232. Read here.

Calsolaro, V. et al., 2017. Thyroid Disrupting Chemicals. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 18(12): 2583. Read here.

Gocke, E. et al.1981. Mutagenicity of cosmetics ingredients licensed by the European Communities. Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology. 90(2): 91-109. 

Mitro, S. et al., 2015. Cumulative Chemical Exposures During Pregnancy and Early Development. Current Environmental Health Reports. 2(4): 367–378. Read here.

Kuo et al., 2012. Immunomodulatory effects of environmental endocrine disrupting chemicals. The Kaohsiung Journal of Medical Sciences. 28: S37-S42. Read here

Mikołajewska, K. et al. 2015. Bisphenol A – Application, sources of exposure and potential risks in infants, children and pregnant women.International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health. 2015;28(2):209-241. Read here.

Reddy, B. et al., 2006. General gynaecology: Association of phthalate esters with endometriosis in Indian women. An international Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 113(5): 515-520. Read here.

Palioura, E. & Diamanti-Kandarakis, E. 2015. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders 16: 365. Read here.

Wang, A. et al., 2016. Environmental influences on reproductive health: the importance of chemical exposures. Fertility and Sterility. 106(4): 905-929. Read here.

Weatherly, L. & Gosse, J. 2017. Triclosan Exposure, Transformation, and Human Health Effects. The Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. , Part B. 20(8), 447-469. Read here.

Check, L & Marteel-Parrish, A. 2013. The fate and behavior of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) chemicals: examining lead (Pb) as a PBT metal. Reviews of Environmental Health. 28(2-3), 85-96. Read here.

Soto, A. & Sonnenschein, C. 2010. Environmental causes of cancer: endocrine disruptors as carcinogens. Nature Reviews; Endocrinology. 6: 363-370. Read here.

Sumner, R., 2019. Independent and combined effects of diethylhexyl phthalate and polychlorinated biphenyl 153 on sperm quality in the human and dog. Scientific Reports. Read here..

1 comment

  • Dude. You write so well. This is fabulous. Have forwarded the links to friends. Looking forward to your next post. X x

    Lizzie Dennis

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