A few posts ago we talked about the FDA’s lax regulation of ingredients found in our health and beauty products.  If you haven’t read that post, it’s a must read before you tackle this post.

Thousands of products on the US market contain ingredients that are potentially unsafe.  It’s time to bust out your magnifying glass and get ready to read the diminutive details of your products’ ingredient labels.  Which ingredients should you keep an eye out for? Read on to learn about the Dirty Dozen+ ingredients…First, the list, then the lowdown.  It may seem lengthy, but I want you to be in the know about what these ingredients do, how they may be listed on a label, and why they are questionable.

  1. Formaldehyde Releasers
  2. Phthalates
  3. Fragrance
  4. Triclosan
  5. Propylene Glycol
  6. Parabens
  7. Mineral Oil
  8. Diethanolamine (DEA)
  9. Coal Tar/Coal Tar Dyes
  10. Hydroquinone
  11. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  12. Diazolidinyl Urea and Imidazolidinyl Urea
  13. Mercury


WHAT THEY ARE: The byproduct of these ingredients is the release of formaldehyde.

A.K.A.: Look for formaldehyde releasers under the following names on labels:  DMDM hydantoin, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate and quarternium-15.

EFFECT ON THE BODY: Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. These ingredients are also known to trigger allergic reactions.

CHECK YOUR… Makeup, soap, body wash, shampoo



WHAT THEY ARE: Phthalates (pronounced “thal-ates”) are plasticizers which are added to plastics to increase flexibility and durability.  Phthalates are added to makeup to help pigment stay longer, incorporated in lotion to facilitate its spread, and included in fragrance to maximize a scent’s staying power.  Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) is added to nail polish to prevent it from drying up.  In 2008, the US banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys.  However, companies are still not required to report phthalates on their product ingredient lists.  For more information, have a read of this 60 Minutes piece.

A.K.A.: Essentially anything ending with “phthalate”: Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Benzylbutyl Phthalate (BzBP), Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP), Diethyl Phthalate (DEP); mono-(2-ethyl-5-hydroxhexyl),  mono-(2-ethyl-5-oxohexyl)

Any listing of fragrance or parfum on your product may contain phthalates.

EFFECT ON THE BODY: Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors in that they mimic hormones and may cause reproductive and neurological harm.  Those of you with children should take a look at this journal published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

CHECK YOUR… Cosmetics, all types of hair products, lotions, diaper creams, baby powder, cosmetics, lip products, fragrance, perfume, shaving products, nail polish, insect repellant, scented candles



WHAT IT IS: A little fact for ya: fragrance formulations are protected by trade secret laws, meaning companies are not required to disclose what ingredients make up their proprietary fragrance blends.  There are thousands of chemicals which may be present in fragrances and perfumes, making them a mine field for potentially unsafe ingredients.

A.K.A.: fragrance, parfum

EFFECT ON THE BODY: Most fragrances and perfumes contain phthalates (listed above).  In addition, fragrance ingredients can trigger allergic reactions, asthma attacks, skin irritations, headaches, and migranes.  Worse, chemicals in fragrance may be neurotoxic and carcinogenic.

CHECK YOUR… Any product with a scent.  Perfume, hair products, soap, body wash, children’s products, cosmetics, candles, lotions, shaving products



WHAT IT IS: Triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical additive that reduces or prevents bacterial contamination in products.  

A.K.A.: 2,4,4’-Trichloro-2’-hydroxydiphenyl ether. CAS#3380-34-5, Microban, Irgasan DP-300, Lexol 300, Ster-Zac, Cloxifenolum, Biofresh

EFFECT ON THE BODY:  Triclosan can lower response to antibiotics and make us more susceptible to “super bugs”.  Studies have linked triclosan to hormone disruption, skin irritation, allergies and hayfever.  It’s been found in human milk, proof that triclosan does get absorbed by the body.  Triclosan also has a chemical reaction when it is combined with chlorine.  This chemical reaction results in the formation of chloroform, a probable carcinogen.  98% of Americans use municipal water treated with chlorine, so think about how often this chemical reaction occurs.  Triclosan also releases toxic dioxins and wrecks havoc on our aquatic friends and plant life.  Who knew soap could be so dirty?

CHECK YOUR… Soaps, antibacterial gels, toothpaste, cosmetics, deodorant, mouthwash, first aid products, children’s toys



WHAT IT IS:“Glycols” are humectants which are added to products to maintain their moisture content and increase absorption of ingredients into the skin.  They are derived from petroleum and can also act as a solvent and surfactant.

 A.K.A.: PG, 1-2 propanediol, Ethylene Glycol (EG)and Butylene Glycol (BG); related to Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Polypropylene Glycol (PPG)

EFFECT ON THE BODY: PG has been linked to rashes, irritation, allergies, and respiratory infections.  While PG may not present as a health risk in isolation, it may help increase the absorption of other questionable ingredients into your system.

CHECK YOUR… Lotions, creams, soaps, any hair product, baby wipes, shaving cream, cosmetics, processed foods, sunscreen, laundry detergent, mouthwash, perfume



WHAT THEY ARE: Parabens are the most widely used preservative in health and beauty products.

A.K.A.: Methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, benzylparaben, hydroxybenzoic acid

EFFECT ON THE BODY: Parabens are a potential skin irritant and can cause flare ups in those with dermatitis and rosacea.  Parabens are a proven endocrine disruptor in that they mimic estrogen and possibly interfere with the male reproductive system.  Estrogen mimicking is also of concern due to the roles estrogen plays in breast cancer and in the increase of early onset puberty in our young girls.  Studies have proven that at least a proportion of the parabens present in cosmetic, food and pharmaceutical products can be absorbed and retained in human body tissue. Parabens have been detected in breast cancer tumors.  A recent study’s results justify the need for further investigation into a potential link between parabens and breast carcinogenesis.  It has also been reported that that certain parabens applied on the skin may react with UVB rays. This reaction could lead to DNA damage and premature skin aging.

CHECK YOUR… Whole arsenal.  Lotions, creams, soaps, body wash, all baby products, baby wipes, makeup, facial wash, all hair products, shaving cream, sunscreen, toothpaste



WHAT IT IS: Mineral oil is an inexpensive and widely used ingredient in body products and cosmetics.  Its many functions include sealing moisture into the skin (think baby oil!), use as an in-depth cleanser (think makeup and temporary tattoo removal), and provide a glossy finish to the skin (Think more baby oil! And all of your lip glosses and balms).

A.K.A: Petroleum, paraffin, white oil

EFFECT ON THE BODY:  People get very heated over this mineral oil issue.  Some say it’s an indispensible, age-old, and completely safe panacea for all things beauty and otherwise (eh-hem…constipation).  Others will bellow at you in a Moses-warning-the-Pharaoh manner that you are truly suffocating your skin with this unsustainable substance.  The concerns regarding mineral oil are as follows.  Mineral oil is the liquid by-product from the purification of crude oil for gasoline and petroleum production.  During the process in which mineral oil is derived, it may be contaminated with cancer-causing Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs).  The European Union has banned mineral oil from use in products.  The only exception being “if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.”

CHECK YOUR… Lip balm, gloss, and sticks, lotions, creams, baby products, body oils, makeup, facial cleansers, hair products



WHAT IT IS: DEA is used in products as a surfactant and emulsifier.  Essentially, it provides the lather and creaminess in our products that we’ve grown accustomed to and expect from our products.

A.K.A.: Cocamide DEA or Cocamide Diethanolamine, DEA Lauryl Sulfate or Diethanolamine Lauryl Sulfate, Lauramide DEA or Lauramide Diethanolamine,
Linoleamide DEA or Linoleamide Diethanolamine, Oleamide DEA or Oleamide, Diethanolamine; related to Triethanolamine (TEA) and Monoethanolamide (MEA).

Basically, look for DEA, TEA, or MEA.

EFFECT ON THE BODY: On its own, DEA can cause skin irritation.  Here’s the story though: once you open and start using a product containing chemical preservatives, those preservatives experience a chemical reaction when exposed to air.  The result of this chemical reaction is nitrite production.  The concern arises when DEA comes in contact with nitrites.  DEA + Nitrates =  the formation of Nitrosamines , a suspected carcinogen.  The results of a study by the National Toxicology Program indicate an association between DEA and cancer in laboratory animals. DEA has also been found to be hazardous to aquatic life.

CHECK YOUR… Shampoo, conditioner, soap, cleansers, moisturizer, body wash, sunscreen, hair color


9) COAL TAR and COAL TAR DYES (synthetic color)

WHAT IT IS: Coal tar is a staple ingredient in many products which target dandruff, eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis, and other skin conditions.  Coal tar decreases skin dryness, scaling, and itchiness.  Cold tar dyes are derived from coal tar and are added to cosmetics and dyes to impart color.

A.K.A.: Coal tar solution;  coal tar dye may be labeled as P-phenylenediamine; colors identified by “FD&C” followed by a color name or number (e.g., FD&C red #40)

EFFECT ON THE BODY: While coal tar has been proven effective in addressing skin afflictions, it can also induce rash and irritation.  Coal tar is a known carcinogen, but there are no studies that link coal tar in shampoos with cancer.  The jury is out but the consensus is that more research is warranted.  Concerning coal tar dyes, many are also contaminated with metals, making them even more worrisome.  Coal tar and coal tar dyes are banned in many countries but not in the U.S.

CHECK YOUR… Shampoos designated for skin conditions, hair dyes, cosmetics, any product with color



WHAT IT IS: Hydroquinone works as an effective skin lightener.  It can be found in many products which promise lightening and brightening of the skin.  It is used in both over-the-counter and prescription skincare products.

A.K.A.: Benzene-1,4-diol, Quinol

EFFECT ON THE BODY:  Hydroquinone leaves the skin more vulnerable to UVA and UVB rays, thus more prone to skin cancer.  The chemical itself has been found to cause malignant tumors in laboratory animals.  While studies have not directly connected hydroquinone to tumor development in humans, the research was enough for the FDA to classify it as a potential carcinogen.  Despite the FDA’s 2006 proposed ban of over-the-counter cosmetic products containing hydroquinone, sales of products containing this ingredient are still permitted in the United States.  Hydroquinone is also linked to ochronosis, a skin disfigurement in which the skin becomes dark and thick.  In addition, it can increase mercury levels in the body.

CHECK YOUR… Facial products which claim to lighten and brighten the skin.



WHAT THEY ARE: Both SLS and SLES are surfactants that acts as a detergent, foaming agent and emulsifying agent.  We have become so used to this chemical that when a product doesn’t bubble or foam, we feel its not effectively cleansing our body.  Remember, just because a product doesn’t foam up doesn’t mean it’s not doing it’s job.  What’s the difference between SLS and SLES?  SLES is SLS with ethylene oxide added to make it less irritating.

A.K.A.: Anhydrous sodium lauryl sulfate; Irium,; Ammonium lauryl sulfate, ALS

EFFECT ON THE BODY: SLS is harsh on the skin and can cause rash and irritation, especially for those who have sensitive and/or a skin condition.  It is an allergen and can cause skin and respiratory reactions in those with allergies and asthma.  It is very drying and can be damaging to your skin’s version of an immune system.  In the process of adding ethylene oxide, SLES can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which has been deemed a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

CHECK YOUR… Soaps, toothpaste, facial cleanser, body wash, shampoo, hand soap, dish soap, laundry detergent



WHAT THEY ARE: These ingredients are used as preservatives in many types of health and beauty products.  They prevent the growth of mold, bacteria, and yeast.

A.K.A.: Germaben, Imidure

EFFECT ON THE BODY: Both ingredients are known allergens and skin irritants.  The CIR and FDA have deemed diazolidinyl urea and imidazolidinyl urea to be safe ingredients.  However, that is based on testing these ingredients in isolation and prior to their inclusion in products.  Once they are added to products, they slowly release formaldehyde.  These ingredients were listed earlier under formaldehyde releasers, but since they are such common ingredients, I am also assigning them their own spot in the Dirty Dozen.

CHECK YOUR… Everything, as they are widely used product preservatives.



WHAT IT IS: Apparently, it’s not just in old-school thermometers.  Mercury is used as a preservative in eye makeup.

A.K.A.: Thimerosal, Merthiolate

EFFECT ON THE BODY: According to the FDA, “Mercury compounds are readily absorbed through the skin on topical application and tend to accumulate in the body. They may cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, or neurotoxic manifestations.  The use of mercury compounds as cosmetic ingredients is limited to eye area cosmetics at concentrations not exceeding 65 parts per million … and is permitted only if no other effective and safe preservative is available for use.”  In this day and age, I’m sure they can come up with something better than mercury in our mascara.

CHECK YOUR… Mascara, eyeliner, eye brow cosmetics


In addition to Europe, Canada seems to be ahead of the US in product and safety awareness.  Check out The David Suzuki Foundation and download his wallet-sized cheat sheet or the mobile version of the Dirty Dozen.  These are perfect for whipping out at the beauty counters but will likely confuse and/or piss off the sales associates.  Another resource to check out is the Environmental Working Group.  Some say the EWG is overly alarmist, but I say do your reading and make your own informed decisions.

Your assignment: read the labels on your products this week.  Do you see any of the above ingredients listed?  Remember to also look for ingredient names listed under A.K.A. What are your findings? Share them here and share this post with the other product users in your life.

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  1. This is INCREDIBLE information to have all in one place. You should do skincare consulting Verde Versace! Now, excuse me while I go scrutinize my products!

  2. Pingback: Five major ingredients to avoid when buying baby items:

    • Hi Carly, I thank you for your compliment and am thrilled to be featured on your blog! I also look forward to checking out your online store. Hopefully I will behave myself. Or not:).

  3. This is a great write up! We’ve started a new feature on our blog where we link to our favorite posts from the week. You’ll be featured Monday!

  4. Pingback: Beauty Roundup: Dirty Dozen Edition - Charleston Naturally Blog | Charleston Naturally Blog

  5. I am aware of all this, but have hard time finding “green” products that are safe for us and I am more worried about the little ones here. Do you have a list of products that are free of all these bad stuff at a reasonable price? I am looking for things like shampoo, soap/bubble bath and sunblock for my two little babies since we use them more often

    • Hi Christiane! I will be doing a post on green goods for the kiddies soon. Hopefully I will have some good suggestions to offer you. Do your kids have any skin conditions I could research and include in that post? Thanks for posting!

      • Oh… I can’t wait for the post! Yes, my oldest has eczema. We tried the Aveeno Baby Soothing Bath Treatment and ended up with a really bad allergy reaction *sigh*. His skin is really very sensitive. Thanks for such a great blog! Loving it!

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