If Looks Could Kill: Is Your Beauty Regimen Putting You at Risk for Cancer?


Want to avoid becoming part of the cancer epidemic?  Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t eat it, perhaps you shouldn’t rub it on your skin.

Of course, this is oversimplified – there are many natural cosmetics that are not really items you’d want to ingest, but the principal is sound.  Why?  First of all, because your skin is permeable, and it’s only 1/10th of an inch thick!  So anything that you put on your skin has easy access to your bloodstream. Secondly, many of these chemicals cause toxic vapors that pose serious risk when inhaled. Add this to the steam of the shower, and those vapors have even easier access to your lungs.
The Environmental Working Group, and EcoWatch have assembled a list of the 7 most dangerous chemical additives in cosmetics.

1. Phthalates Scientific studies link phthalate exposure to reproductive abnormalities in baby boys, reduced testosterone and sperm quality in men and early puberty in girls. Animal experiments underscore their toxicity to the reproductive system. Where might you encounter these pernicious chemicals? In some cosmetics fragrance mixtures. Since the law doesn’t require full disclosure, you have no way to know when phthalates lurk in that bottle of lotion. To be on the safe side, buy unscented personal care products.

2. Formaldehyde releasersSome cosmetics chemicals are designed to react with water in the bottle to generate a little formaldehyde, a preservative, to keep the product from growing mold and bacteria. But formaldehyde is a potent allergen which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization consider carcinogenic. Formaldehyde releasers include DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15. Where do you find them?Shampoos, conditioners, bubble bath and other personal care products–even those intended for children. A 2010 study found that nearly one fifth of cosmetic products contained a formaldehyde releaser. Johnson & Johnson, a personal care products giant, is phasing out formaldehyde releasers under pressure from health advocates. We hope other cosmetics makers will follow Johnson & Johnson’s lead.

3. ParabensParabens are used as preservatives in some cosmetic products, but so-called “long-chained” parabens can act as estrogens and disrupt hormone signaling. A recent study by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health linked one type of paraben to impaired fertility in women.  Johnson & Johnson agreed to stop using most parabens in 2012, but they can still be found in numerous cosmetics. Read the labels carefully to spot products that contain parabens, especially the long-chained varieties–propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben.

4. Triclosan and triclocarbanTriclosan is a bacteria-killing chemical used in Colgate Total toothpastes (to prevent gingivitis), liquid hand soaps, body washes, clothing, cutting boards and other household goods. It has been shown to interfere with thyroid signaling and male and female sex hormone signaling. Triclocarban is the active ingredient in some antibacterial bar soaps. Researchers have linked it to reproductive abnormalities in laboratory animals. Last month, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that these chemicals should not be considered safe or effective in antibacterial soaps and body washes and gave manufacturers time to substantiate their claims or phase them out of the market. Already, Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble have pledged to rid their personal care products of triclosan. We hope to see other companies do the same.

5. Retinyl palmitate and retinoic acidRetinoic acid is used in anti-aging skin creams. Retinyl palmitate, a related chemical, is added to roughly one-quarter of the sunscreens in EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens database. U.S. government scientists have found that these chemicals speed the development of cancerous lesions on sun-exposed skin. The results suggest that people who go out in the sun while wearing retinyl palmitate creams and sunscreens may be at an increased risk for skin cancer. Instead of restricting these chemicals immediately, the FDA has ordered additional testing. EWG recommends that you avoid products containing retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate.

6. Hair straighteners with formaldehyde or formaldehyde-like chemicalsSome hair straighteners can contain as much as 10 percent pure formaldehyde. The cosmetic industry’s own scientific advisory board has warned against formaldehyde-based hair straighteners. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued warnings and fines to numerous salons that use them, exposing their workers to intense, and potentially cancer-causing, formaldehyde fumes.  Some nations ban formaldehyde-based hair straighteners. Yet some small companies persist in making and selling them to unwitting consumers, and the FDA has failed to take punitive action. People who want to straighten their hair or undergo a “smoothing” treatment should find out if the salon uses a product containing formaldehyde, also called methylene glycol. If it does, avoid it.

7. Lead acetate in men’s hair dye Lead acetate in some men’s hair dyes, such as “Grecian Formula” products, can increase the body’s lead level. Because lead is a potent neurotoxin, lead acetate has been banned in Canada and the European Union. The FDA should restrict lead acetate in hair dyes. In the meantime, consumers can use EWG’s Skin Deep database to find lead-free hair dyes.


Homemade alternatives

So, what’s a woman to do if she doesn’t want to go totally granola and eschew all cosmetics?

First, let’s look at some homemade alternatives.
Coconut oil:

I haven’t used lotion or commercial moisturizers for years. I use pure organic coconut oil in a million different ways. Here are some uses for cosmetic purposes:

  • Facial moisturizer
  • Moisturizing body wash
  • Body lotion
  • Deep conditioner for hair
  • Cuticle treatment
  • Make-up remover
  • Lip balm
  • Aftershave
  • Deodorant (because of the antimicrobial qualities)
  • Toothpaste (mix with baking soda)
  • Sunscreen

Body scrub:

Homemade body scrub can help exfoliate off the dead and dry skin just as well as the ones you buy at the store – and best of all, they won’t contain tiny particles of metal.  Choose ingredients that nurture your skin, like honey, coconut oil, hemp seed oil, organic sugar, or sea salt.  Mix 2 parts grit to 1 part oil, then add a few drops of your favorite essential oil for a decadent spa treatment.

Body wash:

Forget those silly moisture beads that are full of petroleum products. Make your own quick and easy products. A great combo is 7 parts castille soap (I like Dr. Bonner’s unscented) mixed with 1 part of oil (I like coconut or hemp seed) and scented with my own essential oils or a dash of vanilla extract.  You have to shake well each time you use it because the components will separate.  This is because unlike the soap companies, you aren’t adding artificial emulsifiers. This will leave your skin smooth and moisturized.

Body butter:

Body butters are lush and spreadable, and they don’t require chemical additives to be that way. It’s simple chemistry – you need a product that is firmer at room temperature mixed with a product that is liquid at room temperature. Figure out your ratio, add a natural fragrance, and boom!  You’ve got body butter.  A nice combination is 2 parts coconut oil to 1 part hemp seed oil.


Arrowroot flour makes a nice, light, relatively translucent powder.


Cocoa powder can be lightly dusted on eyes for shadow.  If you want to make the color even more subtle, mix it with some arrowroot powder.

Lip color:

Mix cocoa powder with coconut oil to make a nice neutral color.  The more cocoa you mix in, the darker the color.  If you want it to be sweetly flavored like the store-bought colors, mix in a touch of honey.  This will store for a long time.

Recommended companies

At the time of this publication and to the best of my knowledge, the following companies provide far healthier alternatives than the big highly advertised companies that load little bottles full of poison. We all know that in corporate America, things can change quickly and quietly, so always confirm the safety of the products with your own research.

Here’s a list of companies that do not use parabens that was compiled by Breast Cancer Action.

If you have questions about a favorite product that you don’t see on this list, the Environmental Working Group has compiled a fabulous collection of information on their website Skin Deep Database.

Reader Recommendations for Favorite Cosmetics

I asked the community on Facebook which cosmetic products they recommended, and this is a compilation of the top suggestions. Links to the company website are embedded. Some of these are quite pricey, but a little goes  long way.  I’ve noticed that these products seem to last longer than their drugstore counterparts.

Ecco Bella (I use this one and really like it!)


Melaleuca’s Sei Bella



Everyday Minerals

Emani (vegan products)

Ava Anderson

Eminence  (these products are lovely but far out of my personal price range)

Here is some additional reading if you’d like more information about the toxins in our personal environments.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity:Victims of a Toxic Society

Our Chemical Lives And The Hijacking Of Our DNA: A Probe Into What’s Probably Making Us Sick

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

10 Household Products You Never Have To Buy Again


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