Are you trying to get rid of the chemicals in your life? Are you reading labels, buying more natural products, and cleaning out your home of potentially dangerous toxins?

You may be surprised to learn that the FDA does not have a definition for the term “organic” when it comes to cosmetics or personal hygiene products. The manufacturers of personal hygiene and cosmetic products are self-regulating, meaning that they set their own rules for what they label as “natural” or “organic.”

The chemicals in our self-care products are a problem because they are absorbed into the body, and can be stored in fatty tissue or organs such as the liver, kidney, reproductive organs and brain. Scientists are finding industrial plasticisers such as phthalates in urine, preservatives known as parabens in breast-tumour tissue, and antibacterials such as Triclosan and fragrance chemicals like the hormone-disrupting musk xylene in human breast milk. Medical research is proving that fragrances can trigger asthma; that the detergents in shampoos can damage eye tissue; and that hair-dye chemicals can cause bladder cancer and lymphoma. The cosmetics companies would have you believe it’s just hysteria and you have nothing to worry about. I don’t think so.

Remember, your skin is your largest organ. What you slather on, gets absorbed into your blood and it’s a faster route to your blood than actually eating these chemicals.

The United States hasn’t passed a federal law to regulate the ingredients used in personal care products for 7 decades.  Over the past 2 decades, the European Union has banned or restricted close to 1,400 ingredients, and the U.S. has only banned 11.  What alarmed me most is that these chemicals that are allowed in our lotions, cleansers and cosmetics have been linked to cancer, infertility and other reproductive health issues, learning disabilities, and a host of other health problems, including autoimmune disorders.

Make sure your products are free of toxic chemicals and if possible are USDA Certified Organic from the National Organic Program (NOP) which means products are produced without the use of synthetic preservatives, petrochemicals, ionizing radiation or pesticides. If a cosmetic, body care or personal care product contains or is made up of agricultural ingredients it can meet the USDA/NOP organic certification.

Try to avoid the following in your personal care products:

1. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)

BHT and BHA are found in thousands of products including eyeliners, eye shadows, lipsticks, lip gloss, blushes, foundations, perfumes, moisturizers, skin cleansers, Preparation H and even Diaper Cream. BHT and BHA are also used as food preservatives and are found in processed foods (chips, baked goods, sweets), butter, meats, sausage, poultry, cereals, chewing gum, active dry yeast, dry mixes for beverages, vegetable oils and beer. BHT and BHA are so prevalent in packaged foods and are classified as possible human carcinogens. Studies with animals have shown that BHT causes liver, kidney and thyroid problems and can act as a tumor promoter. Limited studies have shown evidence that BHA interferes with hormone function. BHA is banned in the EU as a fragrance ingredient.  What’s more, BHT and BHA have also been shown to be toxic to marine species

Look for natural vitamin E (tocopherol) and rosemary oil extract in your products in place of BHT and BHA. Avoid tocopheryl acetate which has been shown to cause cancer and synthetic vitamin E also called d-alpha-tocopherol.

2. Coal Tar Dyes

These dyes are artificial coloring agents made by combining various aromatic hydrocarbons like toluene, xylene, and benzene which are obtained from the distillation of bituminous coal. These     p-phenylenediamine and colors are listed as “CI” followed by a five-digit number on your labels. Look for these in hair dyes and in other products.  The color name may also be listed as “FD&C Blue No. 1″ or “Blue 1″, “D&C Red 22 or 27”. “F” means approved for food. “D” means approved for drugs. “C” means approved for cosmetics. In this system, for example, FD&C Blue #1 is a blue dye permitted in food, drugs, and cosmetics. Coal tar is a known carcinogen and It has potential to cause cancer, autoimmunity, and may be contaminated with heavy metals toxic to the brain. Found in shampoos and scalp treatments, soaps, hair dyes, and lotions.

3. DEA and DEA related ingredients

DEA functions as emulsifiers or foaming agent in cosmetics, or to adjust a product’s pH (acidity) such as moisturizers and shampoos. Ethanolamines are ammonia compounds used in cosmetics as emulsifiers. You’ll see these listed on the ingredient label as “MEA, DEA, & TEA,” abbreviations for monoethanolamine, diethanolamine, and triethanolamine. Cocamide DEA is a chemically-modified form of coconut oil. Coconut in all its natural forms might actually be pretty good for you but cocamide DEA is not a natural product of coconuts. Cocamide DEA is made by reacting diethanalomine with a mixture of fatty acids from coconut oils to create a diethanalomide. This liquid is then used by cosmetics and personal hygiene products manufacturers as a foaming agent and to create a creamy texture in soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and cosmetics. Because cocamide DEA is derived from coconuts, manufacturers and distributors can (and do) label products with this ingredient as “natural” or “organic.”  The most serious concern about these ingredients is that they may increase risk for cancer, especially with repeated and prolonged use.

4. Phthalates

Phthalates are used in cosmetics and personal care products as dibutyl phthalate in nail polish, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, and dimethyl phthalate in hair spray. They are known to be endocrine disruptors and have been linked to increased risk of Breast Cancer and are reproductive disruptors. Unfortunately, these are not disclosed on every product as it’s added to fragrances, a major loophole in the law. They are found in deodorants, perfumes/colognes, hair sprays and moisturizers.

5. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives

This chemical was deemed as a human carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC) and has been linked to cancers. It is known to cause allergic skin reactions and it may also be harmful to the immune system. Look for DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine and quarternium-15. Used in a variety of cosmetics. It can be found in nail polish, body washes, conditioners, shampoos, cleansers, eye shadows, and nail polish treatments.

6. Parabens

Parabens are widely used preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast in cosmetic products. They are suspected endocrine disrupters and may interfere with male reproductive functions. They possess estrogen-mimicking properties. They can be found in makeup, body washes, deodorants, shampoos and facial cleansers. You can also find them in food and pharmaceutical products.

7. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) / Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)

This surfactant can be found in more than 90 percent of personal care and cleaning products (think foaming products). SLS’s are known to be skin, lung, and eye irritants. A major concern about SLS is its potential to interact and combine with other chemicals to form nitrosamines, a carcinogen. They can be found in shampoo, body wash/cleanser, mascara and acne treatment.

8. Methylisothiazoline (often listed as MIT)

This ingredient is a powerful biocide. That means it’s a chemical substance that can control or kill harmful microorganisms. It works well as a preservative in products like shampoo and body care products, helping them to last a long time on the shelf and in your bathroom cabinets without becoming contaminated with unwanted bugs, bacteria, and fungi. MIT belongs to a group of similar compounds called “isothiazolinones,”   MIT has been shown to cause dermatitis, and brief exposure to MIT is toxic in low concentrations during neural development, increasing the risk of seizures and visual abnormalities. Lab studies on the brain cells of mammals also suggest that methylisothiazolinone may be neurotoxic.

9. Heavy Metals- Aluminum and Lead

Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, chromium and iron are found in a wide variety of personal care products including lipstick, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner and nail color. Some metals are intentionally added as ingredients, while others are contaminants. Exposure to metals has been linked to health concerns including reproductive, immune and nervous system toxicity.  Aluminum compounds have been found in Alzheimer’s patients, as well as, in breast cancer tissue.  These are common in deodorant and is a stabilizer in lipstick.

10. Triclosan

Triclosan and triclocarban are commonly used antimicrobial agents. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has identified triclosan in the urine of 75 percent people tested. Widespread use with few regulations has led to concerns regarding their effects on humans and the environment, such as endocrine disruption and the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibodies and antibacterial products. Found in antibacterial soaps and detergents, toothpaste and tooth whitening products, antiperspirants/deodorants, shaving products, creams, and color cosmetics.

11. Fragrance/Perfume

These are a catchall for hidden chemicals, such as phthalates. Some fragrance ingredients are not perfuming agents themselves but enhance the performance of perfuming agents. For example, diethyl phthalate (prounced tha-late), or DEP, is widely used in cosmetic fragrances to make the scent linger. Synthetic fragrance is connected to headaches, dizziness, asthma, and allergies.

12. PEG compounds

PEGs (polyethylene glycols) are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers. PEGs are commonly used as cosmetic cream bases. They are also used in pharmaceuticals as laxatives. Propylene glycol is a related chemical that, like PEGs, functions as a penetration enhancer and can allow harmful ingredients to be absorbed more readily through the skin. These are found in moisturizers, sunscreen, makeup products, conditioners, shampoo and hair sprays. PEG’s may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and  1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer. Ethylene oxide is a known human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane is a possible human carcinogen. Ethylene oxide can also harm the nervous system.

13. Petrolatum/Mineral Oil

These are used in some hair products for shine and as a moisture barrier in some lip balms, lip sticks and moisturizers. Petrolatum is mineral oil jelly (i.e. petroleum jelly). It is used as a barrier to lock moisture in the skin in a variety of moisturizers and also in hair care products to make your hair shine. Petroleum products can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which may cause cancer. Mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum that’s used in baby oil, moisturizers, and styling gels.

14. Talc

Talc is a mineral made up mainly of the elements magnesium, silicon, and 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. It is widely used in cosmetic products such as baby powder and adult body and facial powders, eye shadow, blush, deodorant, body and shower products, lotions, feminine hygiene products, foundation, lipstick, face masks, as well as, in a number of other consumer products.  Some talc may contain the known carcinogen asbestos, therefore it should be avoided in powders and other personal care products, unless it is known to be asbestos-free. Even asbestos-free talc should be avoided in the pelvic areas. It is linked to ovarian cancer and respiratory problems.

15. Toluene

Toluene, found naturally in crude oil and in the tolu tree, is added to gasoline and is used in the making of many products including paint thinners, adhesives, rubber and hair dyes. Toluene is a clear liquid with an aromatic odor. It is used in cosmetics, nail polish, nail treatments and hair color/bleaching products and personal care products. Exposure to toluene can result in temporary effects such as headaches, dizziness and cracked skin, as well as more serious effects such as reproductive damage and respiratory complications. It is known to disrupt the immune and endocrine systems and fetal development.

How toxic is your bathroom cabinet?

Find out at this safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products:

Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Reviews