7 Chemicals Women Should Avoid in their Food & Personal Care Products!

Join our resident scientist and safe-ingredient specialist Sara Bonham for her introductory guest article, as she dives into a list of 7 Chemicals Women Should Avoid in their Food and Personal Care Products!

How often do you read the nutritional label or ingredient list on the food and personal care products before purchasing? A new study by the University of Minnesota reveals that people say they look at the nutritional label a lot more than they actually do.

Surprisingly, only 9% of consumers actually read the calorie count label on a product. This is contradicting to the 33% of people who say they always read the nutritional facts labels on their products. What’s more shocking is only 1% looked at the “other” components including fat, trans fat, sugar and serving size.

Sometimes what is perceived to be important on a product label and what actually is can be two different things. The answer often lies in that list of ingredients underneath the nutritional label. The truth is, most people don’t have the time to flip the box over and pull out their reading glasses to decipher what ingredients they should stay away from. However, it is much easier than you think – especially with our list of 7 chemicals in both personal care products and food that you should look for when shopping.

1. Parabens

What to Look For on Label: Methylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben, benzylparaben

Did you know that an estimated 75 to 90 percent of cosmetics contain parabens (typically at very low levels) and it has been estimated that women are exposed to 50mg per day of parabens from cosmetics.[i] The role of parabens in cosmetics and fragrance ingredients is to stop fungus, bacteria and other microbes from growing in your makeup.

Parabens have been used for almost 70 years and come in many forms (i.e. methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben). The European Union even restricts the concentration of parabens in cosmetics (i.e. propylparaben is banned in Denmark).

Why Avoid Parabens?

Although methylparaben and many of its derivatives are not carcinogenic, mutagenic or teratogenic, all parabens can be absorbed through the skin and migrate into the bloodstream.[ii] What’s more, in a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, parabens were found to be present in human breast tumors! Although it is not clear whether the parabens migrated into the tumors before or after they were formed, it does raise some serious concern about parabens. The scientists analyzed 20 human breast tumors and found the mean concentration of parabens in the tumors to be 20.6 ± 4.2 ng g-1 tissue, which is significant.[iii]

2. Siloxane

What to Look For on Label: Ingredients that end in “-methicone” or “siloxane” (i.e. cyclopentasiloxane (D4), cyclotetrasiloxane (D5))

Siloxanes are found in everything from cosmetics, deodorant creams to moisturizers. Their role is to soften, smooth and moisten. In general, they make hair products dry more quickly and deodorant creams slide on more easily.

Why Avoid Siloxane?

If you care about the environment, definitely avoid siloxane chemicals. Environment Canada assessments concluded that cyclotetrasiloxane and cylcopentasiloxane — also known as D4 and D5 — are toxic, persistent and have the potential to bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms.[iv],[v]Secondly, several studies suggest that siloxane derivatives are not good for your health. The European Union even classifies D4 as an endocrine disruptor. This is based on evidence that it interferes with human hormone function[vi] and is a possible reproductive toxicant that may impair human fertility.[vii]

3. Phthalates

What to Look For on Label: Fragrance, DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate),DEP (diethyl phthalate)

Let’s face it, we have all been lured into buying products because of their fabulous “citrus zing” or “orchid mist” fragrance. Unfortunately, chances are, you have been taking in doses of these hormone-disrupting phthalates with every squirt, smear or slather.

The most common phthalates are DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) and DEP (diethyl phthalate) which can be found in shower curtains and personal care products (i.e. nail polishes, deodorants, perfumes and cologne, aftershave lotions, shampoos, hair gels and hand lotions). In fact, back in 2007, 72% of deodorants, perfumes, hairsprays/mousses/gels and lotions tested in a report called “Not Too Pretty” by Health Care Without Harm and the Environmental Working Group contained at least one phthalate.

Why Avoid Phthalates?

For starters, dibutyl phthalate is absorbed readily through the skin[viii] and is toxic to aquatic organism.[ix]Furthermore, the European Union classifies DBP as a suspected endocrine disruptor on the basis of evidence that it interferes with hormone function,[x] and is toxic to reproduction on the basis that it may cause harm to the unborn child and impair fertility. [xi]

If you are serious about ridding phthalates from your life, why not start with purchasing phthalate-free shampoo (find the right one for you at our all-natural health & beauty department) or a phthalate-free shower curtain? This would probably make the most impact in your daily life since most of us shower every other day.

4. DEET (Pregnant Women)

This point is targeted specifically for pregnant women.

What to Look For on Label: N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, DEET

DEET is used as the active ingredient in many insect repellent products and was developed by the U.S. Army in 1946. It wasn’t registered for use by the general public until 1957. Despite Health Canada saying DEET is a safe product and limiting it’s concentration to 30% in bug repellents; pregnant women should try to avoid DEET as much as possible.

 Why Avoid DEET?

It lingers in cord blood. A scientist by the name of McGready et al. (2001)[xii] studied the effects of DEET applied in the second and third trimesters of pregnant women (449 DEET treated; 448 controls) as part of a double-blind trial of insect repellents in the prevention of malaria.[xiii] DEET was found in 8% of cord blood samples, indicating that it crossed the placenta. More so, Health Canada recommends infants never use DEET and children under the age of 12 use repellants containing less than 10% DEET.

5. Talcum Powder

What to Look For on Label: Talcum, Talc

Yep, you read that right. Talcum Powder. We have all probably used it a few times in our life. For myself, I used to put it in my bathing cap before competitive swimming practice. You may not realize it, but it is also in a lot of cosmetics. Talcum Powder is made from talc, a mineral made up of three elements (1) magnesium (2) silicon and (3) oxygen. As a powder, it absorbs moisture well and helps cut down on friction, making it useful for keeping skin dry and helping to prevent rashes. Its use in cosmetics is primarily as a filler.

Why Avoid Talcum Powder?

Talc can often be contaminated with asbestos. Asbestos is a substance known to cause cancers in and around the lungs when inhaled.[xiv] It’s also, detrimental to the environment and has been known to cause more damage to the environment in comparison to the revenue it generates. With respect to women, research has shown that those who apply talcum powder to the genital area regularly have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.[xv],[xvi],[xvii]Note, the average woman’s lifetime risk of ovarian cancer is less than 2%. Recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) has classified talc as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on studies of genital use.

6. Coal Tar Dyes

What to Look For on Label: P-phenylenediamine and colours identified by “C.I.” followed by a five digit number

According to the Environmental Working Group, most of the over ten thousand ingredients used in personal care products on the market today have not been evaluated for safety! Selecting products that are effective and safe has become a daunting task.

Coal tar dyes are extensively used in cosmetics and found in hair dyes. Essentially, coal tar is a mixture of many chemicals, derived from petroleum.

Why Avoid Coal Tar Dyes?

Several coal tar dyes are prohibited on Health Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist. Furthermore, Canada’s Cosmetic Regulations prohibit all but seven coal-tar derived colours in eye makeup and other products used in the area of the eye. However, dozens of coal tar-derived colours are still widely used in other cosmetics and have been flagged for future assessment under the government’s Chemical Management Plan.[xviii]

The European Union classifies p-phenylenediamine as toxic (in contact with skin, by inhalation, or if swallowed), and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, noting that it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.[xix]

The good news is that if you’re looking to avoid coal-tar altogether, you can safely shop at Nature’s Emporium’s health and beauty department. All of our products are coal-tar free.

7. Sodium Laureth Sulfate

What to Look For on Label: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, SLS

Sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), is a detergent used in cosmetics that also makes products bubble and foam. SLS is found in everything from shampoo’s, shower gels, dish soaps, cleansers, bubble bath foam, cosmetics, detergents to household cleaning products.

 Why Avoid Sodium Laureth Sulfate?

Sodium laureth sulfate is a known irritant to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract when used in cosmetics. It can even be toxic to aquatic organisms.[xx] Health Canada has categorized sodium laureth sulfate as a “moderate human health priority” and flagged it for future assessment under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan. Fortunately, it is not hard to find a SLS-free shampoo. Our natural health and beauty specialists can guide you to the product that is just right for you!

About the Author

Sara Bonham is the latest addition to our team here at Natures – our resident scientist and safe-ingredient specialist. She has degrees in food science and chemistry, with a Masters in Biological Engineering. Sara has spent several years developing renewable and sustainable packaging materials, and is passionate about innovation, health and helping people become their healthiest self by separating the good from the green wash.


[i]Epstein, S. with Fitzgerald, R. Toxic Beauty. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2009.

[ii]U.S. FDA. Parabens. http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety(last update Oct 31, 2007).

[iii]Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller, WR, Coldham NG, Sauer MJ, Pope G. 2004. Concentrations of Parabens inhuman Breast Tumours. J. Appl. Toxicol. 24, 5-13.

[iv] Environment Canada and Health Canada. _Screening Assessment for the Challenge
Octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane (D4)_. November 2008. http://www.ec.gc.ca/substances/ese/eng/challenge/batch2/batch2_556-67-2.cfm

[v] Environment Canada and Health Canada. Screening Assessment for the Challenge: Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (D5). November 2008. http://www.ec.gc.ca/substances/ese/eng/challenge/batch2/batch2_541-02-6.cfm

[vi]DHI Water and Environment. Study on Enhancing the Endocrine Disrupter Priority List with a Focus on Low Production Volume Chemicals. Revised Report to DG Environment. Hersholm, Denmark: DHI, 2007. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/endocrine/documents/final_report_2007.pdf

[vii] European Commission. Regulation (EC) 1272/2008 , Annex VI, Table 3.2. Sep 2009. http://ecb.jrc.ec.europa.eu/classification-labelling/

[viii]Janjua NR, “Systemic uptake of diethyl phthalate, dibutyl phthalate, and butyl paraben following whole-body topical application and reproductive and thyroid hormone levels in humans,” Environmental Science & Technology 4, no. 15 (2007): 5564-70.

[ix] European Commission, CLP Reg, Annex VI, Table 3.2.

[x]BKH. Towards the establishment of a priority list of substances for further evaluation of their role in endocrine disruption. Final Report to the European Commission DG ENV. Delft, Netherlands: BKH, 2000.http://ec.europa.eu/environment/docum/pdf/bkh_annex_13.pdf

[xi]European Commission. Regulation (EC) 1272/2008, Annex VI, Table 3.2. Sep 2009. http://ecb.jrc.ec.europa.eu/classification-labelling/

[xii]McGready R, Hamilton KA, Simpson JA, Cho T, Luxemburger C, Looareesuwan S, White NJ. Safety of the insect repellent N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide (DEET) in pregnancy. Am J Trop Med Hyg2001; 65: 285-289.

[xiii]McGready R, Hamilton KA, Simpson JA, Cho T, Luxemburger C, Looareesuwan S, White NJ. Safety of the insect repellent N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide (DEET) in pregnancy. Am J Trop Med Hyg2001; 65: 285-289.

[xiv] Thomas TL, Stewart PA. Mortality from lung cancer and respiratory disease among pottery workers exposed to silica and talc. Am J Epidemiol. 1987;125:35−43.

[xv] Mills PK, Riordan DG, Cress RD, Young HA. Perineal talc exposure and epithelial ovarian cancer risk in the Central Valley of California. Int J Cancer. 2004;112:458−464.

[xvi]Karageorgi S, Gates MA, Hankinson SE, De Vivo I. Perineal use of talcum powder and endometrial cancer risk. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2010;19:1269−1275.

[xvii] Rosenblatt KA, Weiss NS, Cushing-Haugen KL, Wicklund KG, Rossing MA. Genital powder exposure and the risk of epithelial ovarian cancer. Cancer Causes Control. 2011; 22:737−742.

[xviii] Health Canada. Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist — September 2009. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/person/cosmet/info-ind-prof/_hot-list-critique/hotlist-liste-eng.php

[xix] European Commission. Regulation (EC) 1272/2008, Annex VI, Table 3.2. Sep 2009. http://ecb.jrc.ec.europa.eu/classification-labelling/

[xx]WHO. ILO. International Chemical Safety Card for Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (ICSC 0502). Aug 1997. http://www.ilo.org/legacy/english/protection/safework/cis/products/icsc/dtasht/_icsc05/icsc0502.htm