Ingredients to Avoid

Although there are hundreds of ingredients used in conventional products we recommend avoiding due to their known and unknown negative health effects, below are some of the most common and frightening ones to look out for:

1. BHA and BHT

BHA and BHT are chemical preservatives manly used in moisturizers and makeup, which are shown to be endocrine disruptors and may cause cancer (BHA) according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Moreover; some evidence suggests that high doses of BHT exposure can mimic estrogen (female sex hormone) and block the expression of male sex hormones, leading to adverse reproductive issues. Despite the fact that BHA is categorized as a “high human health priority” by Health Canada, the use of it in cosmetics is unrestricted in Canada.


2. Coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colours listed as "CI" followed by a five digit number

Coal tar is a combination of many chemicals derived from petroleum, which are used extensively in cosmetics and normally can be identified by a five-digit color Index (C.I) number. Recognized as a carcinogen, these colours are often contaminated with low levels of heavy metals such as lead and aluminum, which are toxic to the brain. While many of these chemicals are not approved for use in food, they are often found in cosmetics such as lipstick, which is ingested.

3. DEA-related ingredients

DEA is a chemical used in creamy and foaming products, such as moisturizers and shampoos. It can react with nitrites to form nitrosamines, which may cause cancer. Lab experiments have demonstrated that exposure to high doses of DEA related ingredients causes liver cancers and precancerous changes in thyroid and skin. Although Health Canada categorizes DEA ingredients as a “moderate health priority” the use of them is unrestricted in personal care products.

4. Dibutyl phthalate

Dibutyl phthalate is found in most nail care products as a plasticizer as well as a fragrance ingredient in many other cosmetics. However because fragrance recipes are considered trade ingredients the phthalates used as fragrance chemicals are not required to be disclosed on the list of ingredients. Laboratory experiments have shown Dibutyl phthalate to cause developmental defects, reduce sperm count and mobility, and promote changes in the testes and prostate of men exposed to it - as well as promote diabetes, obesity and thyroid irregularities. Moreover, the chemical has been classified as a suspected endocrine disrupter as it interferes with hormone function, and may impair infertility as well as cause harm to fetuses.

5. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives

Identified by either DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine and quarternium-15, these preservatives used in a variety of cosmetics gradually release small amounts of formaldehyde, which causes cancer. Furthermore; formaldehyde may off-gas from cosmetics containing these ingredients and be inhaled (most of the cancer research on formaldehyde has focused on risks from inhalation).

6. Parabens

Parabens are used as preservatives and can be found in an estimated 75-90% of cosmetics; exposing the average women to approximately 50 mg of parabens daily. They are suspected endocrine disrupters and therefore may interfere with male reproductive functions. Listed as Category 1 priority substances by the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption, parabens easily penetrate the skin and have been detected in human breast cancer tissues as they mimic estrogen. Further, a form of paraben – methylparaben – when applied to the skin is able to react with UVB; resulting in DNA damage and increased skin aging.

7. Parfum (a.k.a. fragrance)

Parfum refers to any mixture of ingredients used as fragrance in personal care products including, but not limited to, perfumes, colognes, deodorants and body lotions. Due to the fact that the term “fragrance” or “parfum” generally represents a combination of several chemicals used in these products, most have not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination. However, some have been shown to trigger allergies, asthma (exposure to perfume has been shown to trigger attacks in nearly three out of four individuals with asthma), and migraines, while others are linked to cancer and neurotoxicity. Moreover, fragrances have been linked to the development of multiple chemical sensitivities as well as other environmentally linked illnesses.

8. PEG compounds

PEG (polyethylene glycols) compounds are petroleum-based ingredients used in many personal care products largely as thickeners, solvents, softeners and moisture-carriers, and can be contaminated with suspected cancer causing and nervous system disrupting chemicals 1,4 dioxane and ethylene oxide.

9. Petrolatum

Petrolatum is a petroleum product and is used in a variety of moisturizers and hair care products as a barrier to lock moisture into the skin and make hair shine. Petrolatum is often contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, prolonged exposure to which is associated with cancer. So much so that the European Union has classified petrolatum as a carcinogen and heavily restricts its use in personal care products.

10. Siloxanes

Siloxanes are often listed as ingredients ending -siloxane" or "-methicone. And are used in many personal care products to soften, smooth and moisten. The European Union has classified them as suspected endocrine disrupters as they have shown to interfere with human hormone function. Furthermore, exposure to high doses of some siloxanes has demonstrated to cause uterine tumors, and harm reproductive and immune systems in laboratory experiments.

11. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), and Ammonium Laurel Sulfate (ALS)

Sodium lauryl sulfate is used in a variety of personal care products as a detergent, surfactant and emulsifier; including shampoos, cleansers and shower gels. SLS originates from coconuts, however the chemical is anything but natural. The issue is that during the manufacturing process (ethoxylation) of SLS results in SLS/ being contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogenic by-product. Further, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database SLS has shown links to organ toxicity, irritation of the skin and eyes, reproductive toxicity, cellular changes and neurotoxicity.

12. Triclosan

Triclosan is mainly used in antiperspirants, toothpastes, cleansers and hand sanitizers as an antibacterial agent. With the ability to pass through the skin, it is a suspected endocrine disruptor interfering with normal hormone function and can contribute to antibiotic resistant with prolonged use. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study, which showed that triclosan was detected in the urine of nearly 75% of those tested. Moreover, the Canadian Medical Associated has called for a ban on antibacterial personal care products such as those containing triclosan out of fears of endocrine disruption and anti-biotic resistance.

- David Suzuki Foundation