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Published February 22 2013

8 chemicals to know

One in 8 of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal-care products are industrial chemicals, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins and hormone disruptors, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Various cosmetic databases and research agencies call attention to certain chemicals. We compiled a list of common substances (in no particular order) based on that information to take the guesswork out of ingredient labels.

1. Coal tar dyes

(colors listed as “CI” followed by a five-digit number or color names like “Blue 1” might be listed).

Used in: hair dye, dandruff shampoo and makeup that uses artificial coloring

Info: Potential to cause cancer; may be contaminated with heavy metals that are toxic to the brain.

Listed as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Banned in the EU.

What Dr. Ahmed Abdullah of Fargo says: While long-term exposure to concentrated solutions of coal tar in industrial settings has been associated with skin cancer, the FDA considers coal tar safe for topical use.

2. Phthalates

Used in: nail-care products, perfume, hair spray, deodorant and other products

Info: Suspected endocrine disrupter and reproductive toxicant.

Phthalates are banned by the EU.

What Abdullah says: Some studies have demonstrated that phthalates are suspected endocrine disruptors and may lead to reproductive and/or developmental disorders.

However, these studies are based on high-dose animal testing. Long-term studies into the effects of low-level phthalate exposure on humans haven’t been completed.

It has been noted in scientific literature that children are most susceptible to phthalate exposure via baby lotions, shampoos and powders.

I suggest that products containing phthalates not be used on children.

3. Formaldehyde

(look for chemical names ending in


Used in: a variety of cosmetics such as eyeliner, moisturizer, lightening gel, conditioner and body wash.

Info: It can slowly release small amounts of formaldehyde, which may cause cancer.

Listed as a known human carcinogen by the IARC.

4. Parabens

Used in: a variety of cosmetics as preservatives like shampoos, lotions and foundation.

Info: Suspected endocrine disrupters; may interfere with reproductive functions.

What Abdullah says: Parabens are a preservative category that has been used safely in skin-care products for more than 80 years – we won’t know if parabens warrant concern until far more research is done.

5. Fragrance

Used in: a wide variety of cosmetics – even in some products marketed as unscented.

Info: Some are linked to cancer and neurotoxicity.

6. Petrolatum/Petroleum

Used in: hair products, lip balm, lipstick, mascara and moisturizer.

Info: Can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which may cause cancer.

Banned in the EU.

7. Sodium laureth sulfate

(also look for related chemical sodium lauryl sulfate and other ingredients with -eth)

Used in: foaming cosmetics, such as shampoo, cleanser and bubble bath.

Info: Can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen, according to the IARC.

8. Lead and other heavy metals

(arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, chromium and iron)

Used in: lipstick, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner, nail color, deodorant, foundation, sunscreen and other cosmetics and personal-care products

Info: Could cause organ system toxicity.

Lead, mercury and chromium are banned in the EU.

To learn more about your beauty products, visit the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database at www.ewg.org/skindeep.

Compiled using “The Dirty Dozen of Cosmetics” by the David Suzuki Foundation and information from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, American Cancer Society and International Agency for Research on Cancer