By: Kate Noonan for The New Knew
Kate Noonan, Molecular Biologist and Cosmetic Chemist, is a voted-in member of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, the Society for Investigative Dermatology and the American Society for Microbiology.
IN THIS POST:
A note from Lisa
This is a resource that I’ve wanted to make available to the TNK community for a long time now. To be honest, my hesitation in publishing a page like this was equal parts fear in taking on such a big project, as well as subscribing to fear-based messaging. My hope is that you use this list as a tool to make informed choices rather than inspire limitations, fear and additional stress. For this reason, we’ve abbreviated this list to just a few ingredients—ones we believe to be either the most prevalent and/or the most egregious.
In a perfect world, you would be able to pick up a label, see one of these and then be able to ask the right questions.
I also want to say thanks to molecular biologist and cosmetic chemist Kate Noonan. Kate has worked with TNK for several years now, reviewing posts and helping with research, so you will see her name on the blog here and there. When I approached Kate about putting this list together, she didn’t even hesitate. She is just as passionate about ethical beauty as we are and has so much insight into the world of formulating, regulation and the effect of ingredients on the body.
As part of our TNK Credo, we strive to avoid these ingredients in products we test and encourage you to say NO THANKS to them too.
One last thing…BOOKMARK THIS ISH! lol.
A note from Kate
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI), the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP), the State of California, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO, IARC), and expert university scientists have classified each of the following chemicals in U.S. beauty products as either confirmed human carcinogens, anticipated human carcinogens or toxicants. Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, Research Vice-Chair in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Langone Hospital, advises consumers to avoid these listed chemicals entirely. “The dose does not necessarily make the poison,” he says. “Each day we find new examples of chemicals that have the greatest effects at the lowest levels of exposure.”
Glossary of Terms
- ALARA Principle: “As low as reasonably achievable”
- DHHS: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- EU SCC: European Union’s Standard Contractual Clauses
- IARC: World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer
- NIH: U.S. National Institutes of Health
- NCI: U.S. National Cancer Institute
- NTP: U.S. National Toxicology Program
- PPM: Parts per million
- Prop 65: Proposition 65 of California
- WHO: World Health Organization
1,4-dioxane is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity,” according to the U.S. NTP. It’s present in ethoxylated ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), polysorbate 60 and polysorbate 80 at up to ~378 parts per million (ppm) (1, 2). Since 1,4-dioxane is in the most hazardous category of carcinogens, the in vivo-confirmed “genotoxic category,” and it can induce DNA mutations at very low levels, there is no acceptable level of exposure. The NIH and EFSA recommend following the ALARA Principle (as low as reasonably achievable), meaning one should avoid exposure to any dose.
Acetaldehyde is a carcinogenic petrochemical-derived perfume (fragrance note). Perfumes in the “aldehyde” scent category are higher in acetaldehyde concentration. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) says acetaldehyde is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity (3).”
Acetone is a neurotoxic and flammable solvent used in nail polish remover. If your eyes are burning at a nail salon, take that as a cue to leave because there is a risk of nerve damage based on evidence from human nerve conduction velocity tests (4).
Acetonitrile is a solvent found in cheap nail polish remover that turns into cyanide following skin absorption and inhalation. The EU SCC has banned its use in cosmetics and nail products due to toxicity and carcinogenicity experiments (5).
“Carbomer” and “Acrylate crosspolymer” are crosslinked polymers of acrylic acid with unreacted neurotoxic acrylic acid and residual benzene solvent. Products made with carbomer and acrylates regularly contain more than 2 ppm benzene, according to the FDA. “The maximum allowable amount of benzene in workroom air during an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek is 1 ppm,” according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). We would like to see companies show test results for the level of benzene in products that use carbomer and acrylates, since they’re required by the FDA to perform this test anyway.
Aluminum chlorohydrate (ACh, [Al2(OH)5Cl, 2H2O])
Found in antiperspirants, this form of aluminum is a DNA-reactive carcinogen and neurotoxicant with high transdermal skin absorption following shaving, chemical, or manual exfoliation (6, 7). Systemic absorption of aluminum salts from antiperspirants has led to hyperaluminemia, which causes bone pain and fatigue (8). The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) set a tolerable weekly intake (TWI) of 1 mg/kg body weight per week, which can be exceeded with dermal application and consumption of processed foods (9).
Aminomethyl Propanol (AMP)
Found in cleansers and toners, AMP causes the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines in cosmetics (including N-nitrosodimethylamine, N-nitrosodiethylamine, N-nitrosodi-n-propylamine, N-nitrosomorpholine, and N-nitrosopyrrolidine). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says nitrosamines formed by AMP are “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity (10).”
A main ingredient in chemical sunscreens, avobenzone is genotoxic, phototoxic, photoallergic, highly photo-unstable,and increases damaging free-radical production in skin (11, 12, 13).
Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC)
Some moisturizers and cleansers use this quaternary ammonium compound in their preservative system. Do not use products with BAC near the eyes after an eye procedure because long-term eye damage may occur (highly toxic to the corneal endothelial cells) (14).
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
BHA is a carcinogenic synthetic antioxidant found in personal care products and certain non-organic foods. The U.S. DHHS/NTP says it’s “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity (15).” Also Prop. 65 of California has it listed as “causing: cancer” (following IARC research) (16).
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), a carcinogen and tumor-promoter, is used in some cosmetics as a synthetic antioxidant for preservation (17). Proposition 65 of California does not have it listed, but evidence of carcinogenicity is noted with: positive result in the mouse lymphoma assay; and positive results in the “clastogenic and chromosomal aberration assays in mammalian cells—human embryonic lung cells (positive for anaphase chromosomes), CHO (positive) (18).”
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA in some skincare aluminum tube epoxy lining is a probable human carcinogen, tumor promoter, and it worsens cancer progression, based on extensive in vivo and epidemiological evidence. “Studies using in vitro cell lines, rodent models, and epidemiological analysis have convincingly shown the increasing susceptibility to cancer at doses below the oral reference dose set by the Environmental Protection Agency for BPA (19, 20, 21).”
The underlying mechanisms are: direct genotoxic ability to break double-strand DNA and activation of G-Protein-Coupled Estrogen Receptor (GPER), which, “promotes proliferation, invasion and migration of breast cancer cells by regulating the miR-124/CD151 pathway (22, 23, 24, 25).” Even at super low doses, BPA causes chemotherapy resistance to every drug used to treat cancer: “doxorubicin, cisplatin, carboplatin, tamoxifen (TAM), bevacizumab, PARP inhibitors, vinblastine and other drugs both in vitro and in vivo (23).”
Tufts University in Boston published a study saying, “Based on the definitions of ‘carcinogen’ put forth by the IARC and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), we propose that BPA may be reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen in the breast and prostate due to its tumor promoting properties (23).” Prop. 65 of California lists BPA as “causing: developmental toxicity, female reproductive toxicity (26).”
A fragrance ingredient that lends a “sweet” note, but causes abnormal red blood cell count when exposure is routine. Lower exposure in cosmetics causes skin irritation, while low occupational exposure (2.91 mg/m3 or 0.59 ppm), for fragrance industry and beverage packaging/printing workers is much more damaging (27, 28).
Ceresin is a petroleum wax derived from ozokerite and extracted with gasoline or propane, which leaves behind carcinogens benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)(119, 120). Cosmetic products on the market containing ceresin have tested for unacceptable levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (121, 122).
Chloroxylenol is an antiseptic ingredient that is genotoxic and causes cancer in a few types of animals (105, 106, 107). It’s in Toxicity Category I for severe eye irritation. Dioxin impurities can be created during chloroxylenol synthesis. Chloroxylenol also causes the transfer of antibiotic resistance genes between bacteria (108). Allergic contact dermatitis caused by chloroxylenol can be accompanied by lasting and severe uneven pigmentation (109, 110, 111, 112).
A synthetic preservative that is very toxic to eye cells, a strong irritant and a common cosmetic allergen (29, 30). College and professional athletes must avoid using cosmetics with chlorphenesin at all costs, otherwise they will fail their drug tests because chlorphenesin breaks down into banned muscle relaxant 4-CPA in the body (31). The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency determined that, “when the team of scientists applied sunscreen to themselves, urine samples contained a 4-CPA level of 1,400 ng/ml after just one use (32).”
A cancer-causing substance on California’s Prop. 65 list (33). This ingredient tests positive for mutagenicity in toxicology tests. Cocamide MEA (and relatedly, triethanolamine and diethanolamine) cause the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines including N-Ni- trosodiethanolamine (NDELA), the most commonly found nitrosamine in cosmetics (34).
A formaldehyde-releasing cosmetic preservative. Formaldehyde is one of the most documented human carcinogens and it is unsafe at any exposure level. The official classification of formaldehyde as a human carcinogen was made after 26 leading scientists at universities in 10 countries reported their findings to the WHO’s IARC (35). Formaldehyde in cosmetics often exceeds legally accepted limits due to the use of cheaper, less sensitive testing methods, over those that measure both free and bound formaldehyde (36).
A formaldehyde-releasing cosmetic preservative. Formaldehyde is one of the most well documented human carcinogens and it is unsafe at any exposure level. The official classification of formaldehyde as a human carcinogen was made after 26 leading scientists at universities in 10 countries reported their findings to the WHO’s IARC (35). Formaldehyde in cosmetics often exceeds legally accepted limits due to the use of cheaper, less sensitive testing methods, over those that measure both free and bound formaldehyde (36).
Diethylhexyl Phthalate (DHEP)
A carcinogenic chemical use to make perfumes last longer on the skin (37). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says, “DEHP is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity” and it is also a reproductive toxicant, endocrine toxicant, nephrotoxicant and neurotoxicant (38).
A carcinogen that remains in cosmetic ingredients it yields: polysorbate 20, polysorbate 60, polysorbate 80, phenoxyethanol, SLS and PEG compounds. US DHHS NTP says, “Ethylene oxide is known to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans, including epi- demiological studies and studies on mechanisms of carcinogenesis (39).”
Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is a chelating agent added to cosmetics for preservativation and foaming performance. Mutagenicity studies have found that “EDTA enhances mutagen-induced aberration frequencies. Furthermore, the chelating agent is able to increase the incidence of meiotic crossing-over” and “EDTA interferes with DNA repair processes that take place after exposure to mutagens (40).”
The secretive “fragrance/parfum” ingredient often includes hidden carcinogens and toxicants including acetaldehyde, nitro-musks and butoxyethanol (41). Companies can claim “fragrance” ingredients are a trade secret, which is protected by Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 701.3(a), FDA.gov (42, 43).
Lead, mercury and chromium are mutagenic and carcinogenic contaminants or intentionally added ingredients in cosmetics. Lead is a contaminant in some cosmetic ingredients like chlorphenesin and pigments, with some lipsticks testing at a risky 20 ppm of lead (44). There is no safe level of lead exposure because it is a cumulative toxicant that is stored in the brain, teeth and bones (45).
Mercury is illegally added to some skin-lightening cosmetics to whiten skin, while chromium is intentionally added to some green (chromium oxide), yellow (lead chromate) and lead in (lead chromate oxide) pigments (46).
Homosalate is a genotoxic chemical sunscreen agent that induces oxidative stress in cells, and damages mitochondrial membranes (47, 48). Pregnant women are advised to avoid homosalate because it damages the placental cells that nourish the embryo (48).
HQ is a carcinogenic skin-lightening ingredient and metabolite of carcinogen benzene (49, 50). Although it lightens skin, it can cause ochronosis, a severe darkening of the skin (51, 52).
Methylisothiazolinone and Methylchloroisothiazolinone
Methylisothiazolinone and Methylchloroisothiazolinone are neurotoxic cosmetic preservatives with fast dermal absorption (53, 54).
Fatty acids from petroleum that are absorbed through human skin, stored in adipose tissue and not completely excreted. Mineral oil snuck into food and cosmetics has led to mineral oil being the largest contaminant in human tissue (55).
Musk (Synthetic musks have replaced threatened musk deers’ animal musk)
Synthetic nitro-musks, musk ketone, musk ambrette and musk xylene, are carcinogenic (56, 57, 58). Polycyclic musks tonalide and galaxolide interfere with human serum albumin (HSA), which regulates our blood pressure and transports essential compounds in our bloodstream (59).
Octocrylene is a chemical sunscreen agent that causes considerable DNA-damaging free-radical singlet oxygen production, enhances UVA-induced cell damage, and contains carcinogen benzophenone (60, 61, 62).
Oxybenzone is a genotoxic chemical sunscreen agent that induces chromosomal aberrations, passes easily through human skin and accumulates in the bloodstream 339-419 times higher than the FDA limit after a single use (62, 63, 64). Oxybenzone is also a phototoxicant and America’s and Europe’s most common cause of phototoxicity and photoallergic contact dermatitis (PACD) (65, 66).
Parabens are a category of cosmetic preservatives that are genotoxic xenoestrogens: butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben and ethylparaben (67). They are absorbed locally and systemically following topical application in cosmetics and persist in human tissue and placenta when they routinely escape the enzymes that break them down (68, 69).
Extensive research has shown that parabens activate mTOR and c-Myc, which cause tumorigenesis (70, 71, 72). Butylparaben induced ‘paraben intoxication’ can be measured following topical application in cosmetics by quantifying pro-inflammatory cytokines and brain oxidative stress biomarkers and methylparaben is stored in human brain hypothalamic tissue (73, 74, 75).
PEG compounds are emulsifiers including PEG-200 dilaurate, PEG-20 glyceryl triisostearate, PEG-10 isostearate and PEG-16 lanolin that contain carcinogens 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide (EtO) (76). PEG-400 has the ability to boost the genotoxic effect of trimethylolpropane triacrylate compared to control (77).
Pentaerythrityl Tetra-di-t-butyl Hydroxyhydrocinnamate
Pentaerythrityl Tetra-di-t-butyl Hydroxyhydrocinnamate contains an endocrine disrupting contaminant called 3-(3,5-Di-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyphenyl)propionate that is accumulating in the environment (94, 95).
Petrolatum, Paraffin and Mineral Oil
Petrolatum, paraffin and mineral oil are skin moisturizers in cosmetics that elicit an immune response in human tissue following topical application and are considered a factor in the development of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) (78, 79). Petrolatum is contaminated with numerous PAHs that are known human carcinogens. “Benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) and dibenzo[a,h]anthracene (DBA), both are classified as the most carcinogenic,” and there is indication that novel PAHs remain in even USP (white petroleum jelly) petrolatum (80).
P-phenylenediamine (PPD), p-aminophenol, m-aminophenol and o-aminophenol, 4-aminoazobenzene
These hair dye ingredients are carcinogenic and genotoxic (81, 82).
Cosmetic grade phenoxyethanol regularly has too high a concentration of unreacted phenol (carbolic acid) for use in baby products because babies are sensitive to its neurotoxicity in much smaller amounts than adults (83). The EU requires that all phenoxyethanol is pharmaceutical grade with less than 10 ppm phenol under EC 1223/2009 and less than 1% phenoxyethanol per product, but the U.S. does not require this (81). Phenoxyethanol also has residual carcinogen ethylene oxide (EtO) and phenol from manufacturing (84).
Phthalates (in “fragrance” or “parfum” listing, see DHEP entry)
Phthalates are carcinogenic chemicals used to make perfume and hairspray last longer on the skin and hair (37). U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services says, “DEHP is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity” and it is also a reproductive toxicant, endocrine toxicant, nephrotoxicant and neurotoxicant (38).
Polyethylene is a non-biodegradable nanoplastic that releases toxicants harmful to human health, including benzene and plasticizers, and accumulates in the environment (96, 97, 98, 99). Benzene ends up in polyethylene wax during its synthesis: ethylene is polymerized with a metal catalyst, which is removed with propane that contains benzene (100). There is no safe level of benzene exposure, according to the WHO and the IARC, by dermal, inhalation, or ingestion routes, because it is a human carcinogen (101, 102).
Since polyethylene particles are ubiquitous in tap water, action is warranted before levels become even more alarming. In model organisms used to toxicologically assess chemicals’ effects on humans, polyethylene caused DNA damage and birth defects (103, 104).
Polysorbate 20, 60 or 80
Contain unacceptable levels of ethylene oxide, one of the most confirmed human carcinogens (39).
PVP readily diffuses into skin and since the body cannot break it down, tissue swelling, PVP pseudotumors and papules can form in “polyvinylpyrrolidone storage disease.” (113, 114, 115, 116). Some cosmetics use PVP at up to a 35% concentration. Contaminants in PVP include human carcinogen acetaldehyde (117, 118).
An ingredient in cosmetics and hair care that releases formaldehyde, a confirmed human carcinogen (86).
A highly toxic skin-lightening dihydroxybenzene compound (87). Dermatology has largely abandoned using resorcinol due to its toxicity and causing abnormal thyroid enlargement in even small amounts (88).
Even very low levels of this highly genotoxic hair dye and nail polish ingredient cause DNA damage and mutations in humans so it should be avoided (89, 90).
Triclosan and Triclocarban
Carcinogenic and toxic antimicrobials that were used in hand soap and other personal care products (91). Triclosan and triclocarban induce breast cell cancer and exposure to carcinogens should be strictly limited because, “More than 85% of breast cancers are sporadic and attributable to long-term exposure to environmental carcinogens and co-carcinogens (92).”
Tromethamine is only checked for the absence of carcinogenic nitrosamines when it’s certified USP Tromethamine. We see regular and not USP Tromethamine here (123 and 124).
Xylene and Methoxyethanol
Highly toxic and carcinogenic nail polish ingredients (90, 93).
National Toxicology Program:
1. Department of Health and Human Services; National Toxicology Program (2014); 1,4-Dioxane; Report on Carcinogens, Fifteenth Edition; https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles//dioxane.pdf
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3. Department of Health and Human Services; National Toxicology Program (2014); Acetaldehyde; Report on Carcinogens, Fifteenth Edition; https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/acetaldehyde.pdf
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8. Guillard O.; Fauconneau B.; Olichon D.; Dedieu G.; Deloncle R.; Hyperaluminemia in a woman using an aluminum-containing antiperspirant for 4 years; The American journal of medicine, 2004 Dec 15;117(12):956-9; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15629736/
9. Tolerable Upper Intake Levels for Vitamins and Minerals; Scientific Committee on Food; Scientific Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies; https://www.efsa.europa.eu/sites/default/files/efsa_rep/blobserver_assets/ndatolerableuil.pdf
10. Department of Health and Human Services; National Toxicology Program (2014); Aminomethyl Propanol; Report on Carcinogens, Fifteenth Edition; Retrieved from https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles//nitrosamines.pdf
11. Yazar, S.; Assessment of in vitro genotoxic effect of homosalate in cosmetics; https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Selma-Yazar/publication/322887211_Assessment_of_in_vitro_genotoxic_effect_of_homosalate_in_cosmetics/links/5cd26dd392851c4eab8991d3/Assessment-of-in-vitro-genotoxic-effect-of-homosalate-in-cosmetics.pdf
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16. California Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. List of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Retrieved November 9, 2018, from oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/proposition-65-list
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26. California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment; Bisphenol A (BPA); https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/chemicals/bisphenol-bpa
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33. Proposition 65; Cocamide Diethanolamine (Cocamide DEA); https://www.p65warnings.ca.gov/fact-sheets/cocamide-diethanolamine-cocamide-dea-coconut-oil-diethanolamine-condensate
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