How to banish toxins from your bathroom cabinet

-Dec 20, Dr Sara Palmer Hussey, PhD, Beauty -

If you're worried that your bathroom might be harbouring skincare that is laden with toxins then here's our guide for which ones to look out for and avoid.
Since the microbeads ban in the United States, clean, or at least “conscious” skincare is in with a vengeance. And rightly so; what goes on your body goes in your body – and our skin is our largest organ.


In recent years, we have all suddenly realised that the inexpensive scrub or shower gel we’ve been buying at the supermarket might be packed with all kinds of chemical nasties. If you’re worried that your bathroom might be harbouring skincare that is laden with toxins then it’s worth spending an hour or so looking over the labels on all your lotions and potions and throwing away anything that you’re not sure about or which you haven’t used in a long time.

As is the case with food, check the labels: The obvious ingredients to avoid are parabens (linked to breast cancer), talc (a carcinogen often contaminated with asbestos), lead acetate (a neurotoxin and a carcinogen) and coal tar (a carcinogen that increases skin sensitivity), but there’s other ingredients that you might want to avoid:


1. PHTHALATES (check the label for: polyethylene, polythene, PE, polybutylane terephthalate, diethyl phthalate, dimethicone copolyol phthalate, butyl benzyl phthalate….). These chemicals are plasticisers used to give a product better consistency and pourability. They have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive issues. They are especially sneaky as they can hide within the seemingly innocuous term fragrance (see point 8).

2. TRICLOSAN An antibacterial chemical, triclosan has been linked to thyroid and reproductive issues and hormonal disruption. As a member of the chlorophenol class of chemicals, it is also a known carcinogen. Levels of triclosan in skincare products are usually below toxicity levels, but continued exposure can allow it to accumulate in body tissues and increase its toxic potential.  

3. SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (Sodium caprylic sulphate, Sodium capric sulphate, Sodium oleic sulphate, Sodium stearyl sulphate, Sodium myreth sulphate, Sodium dodecanesulfate, Sodium monododecyl sulphate) are used as surfactants or foaming agents in skincare products. They react with other chemicals to form carcinogens, and yes, this is still the case even if “from coconut oil”. In a British Journal of Dermatology (2010) study, scientists found that a widely prescribed cream for eczema containing sodium lauryl sulphate actually thinned the skin by more than 10% over a four-week period and increased water loss by 20%, considerably worsening the condition in patients.

4. PEGs (polyethylene glycol) Used to dissolve grease, this ingredient can strip the skin of its protective sebum and render it more vulnerable to irritation, allergies and pathogens. This synthetic polymer may contain potentially toxic manufacturing impurities such as 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen that penetrates the skin very easily.

5. PETROLEUM DERIVATIVES (mineral oil, eg. Baby oil, petrolatum, propylene glycol, liquid paraffin, petroleum jelly, eg. Vaseline, propanediol, isopropyl alcohol, toluene and methylbenzene). These chemicals coat the skin like cling film and prevent it from absorbing and eliminating. The aim is to trap water in the skin in order to achieve improved hydration. However, by the same mechanism they prevent the skin from eliminating and clog pores. Due to a high incidence of contaminants, they may also contain carcinogens, affect the respiratory system, cause nausea and irritate skin.

6. FORMALDEHYDE Formaldehyde is the preservative morticians use to conserve corpses. It is considered a carcinogen and is linked to low immunity, allergies, chest pain, chronic fatigue and asthma. The following ingredients are derived from formaldehyde, may release formaldehyde or may break down into formaldehyde: 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol, Diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium 15, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.

7. DEA (Diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine), TEA (Triethanolamine). Principally used as emulsifiers, these ingredients make a product creamier and adjust the pH for use on the skin. They are irritants and potentially hormone-disrupting. They have been linked to organ toxicity (mainly liver and kidney) and can provoke allergies and respiratory issues. They can also react with nitrites in products to form nitrosamines, which are potentially carcinogenic.  

8. FRAGRANCE This one entry can refer to almost 4,000 different ingredients many of which are toxic. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory issues and potential effects on the reproductive system. Although companies are required by law to list the ingredients that make up their products, the “Fragrance” is considered a trade secret, and so companies are not legally bound to disclose the chemicals it contains.

9. VITAMIN A COMPOUNDS These include retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate and retinol. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient, but its use on the skin may not be advisable – it is an irritant and can provoke inflammation. Exposure to sunlight breaks down these compounds and increases their toxicity. When applied to sun-exposed skin these compounds can increase skin sensitivity. Furthermore sunlight breaks down vitamin A to produce toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and hasten ageing, skin lesions and abnormalities.

10. CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS have a lot of ingredients to avoid, such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, benzophenone, PABA, homosalate, ethoxycinnmate and octinoxate. These chemicals are often applied all over the body several times a day during the summer and thus expose us to higher levels of toxicity. They are known to penetrate into body tissues and cause cellular damage, cancer and hormonal disruption.


If you’re looking at buying a product online be careful that it’s from a reputable vendor; and only ever buy items that show all their ingredients on the label. It’s worth noting that some fragrance companies don’t list their ingredients so if in doubt, don’t buy.

And, do your research before slathering it all over your precious skin and letting toxins invade your beautiful body.

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