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3 Harmful ingredients in personal care products

Unless you have an advanced degree in chemistry, reading the labels on personal care products can be frustrating. What are all those abbreviations and multi-syllabic ingredients? What do they do? And, more importantly, what are the potential risks of smearing them onto our teeth or skin?

Personal care products

You might think that because you purchase something from the “Health & Beauty” section of your local drugstore, it’s OK to use. But many of the products we use on a daily basis — such as deodorant, moisturizer, shampoo and other personal care products — can be loaded with harmful ingredients. Below, we decode three potentially harmful ingredients commonly found in personal care products.



Phthalates (pronounced THAY-lates) are synthetic compounds frequently used in fragrances and plastics. They are extremely common and can be found deodorant, shampoo, lotion, nail polish and even baby products.

The problem: When absorbed by the body, phthalates can act as endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic the body’s hormones. Laboratory tests have linked phthalates to reproductive damage in young children and certain types of cancer. On labels, phthalates will usually be listed as DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate) or BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate). Avoid products that list these ingredients on the label, along with any product that simply lists “fragrance.” Look for products marked “phthalate-free” or that use essential oils as fragrance.



Triclosan (and chemically similar triclocarban) are antimicrobial agents found in toothpastes, antibacterial soaps, cosmetics and deodorants, as well as many other household products. There is growing concern about the prevalence of triclosan and triclocarban in our bodies and in the environment.

The problem: Like phthalates, triclosan and triclocarban can cause endocrine disruption as well as thyroid impairment and skin irritation. Triclosan has also been linked to increased resistance among certain strains of bacteria to antibiotics. Additionally, triclosan and triclocarban don’t break down in our bodies but are passed into the environment where they can have a negative impact on ecosystems in stream and rivers and can be absorbed by plants.



Parabens are the most widely used preservative in cosmetics and personal care products and can be found in just about everything from shaving cream to self tanner. The most common are methylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben. Manufacturers put parabens into their products to inhibit the growth of mold and other fungi.

The problem: Once absorbed by the body, parabens mimic estrogen and have been linked to suspicions about breast cancer. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found parabens in breast tumors, and because they are endocrine disruptors, parabens have also been linked to reproductive health issues. There is concern that parabens could accumulate in the body over time and pose a health risk. To play it safe, avoid products that list parabens in the ingredients and opt for organic, oil-based products that don’t list water — which requires a preservative — as an ingredient.

More on personal care products and health

Choosing organic beauty products
Dangerous skin care ingredients to avoid
Study: Toxic chemicals found in pregnant women

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