The hidden chemicals lurking in your toiletries

It was my birthday recently – and before you rush to FB to give a belated greeting, I only mention it because I got two gifts that I’m sure I will never use.

Bottles of body care and beauty productsThat may sound ungrateful, but in this ever-more heavily polluted and chemically laden environment we live in, I am an avid label reader.

My daughter says that I am a real pain to shop with – especially for food and household products – but having had hormone-receptive breast cancer and done a lot of research, I am always looking to see just what is going into and onto my body.

So what caught my attention on this occasion? Would you believe an expensive bottle of body wash?

At first glance, it seems to be the perfect gift. Everyone uses body wash, don’t they? Exfoliating, cleansing and moisturising is going to keep me healthy, isn’t it?

However, amongst the list of ingredients – at positions four and five out of 22 respectively – are Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLS).

Both of these chemicals have foaming properties and are known as surfactants. In other words, they reduce surface tension in water. Put into soaps, body washes, toothpastes, shampoos etc, they break up the natural oils found in our skin and hair, so it seems easier for us to get ourselves clean.

However, they are also known skin irritants.

One of the reasons I only ever use SLS-free washing up liquid is to avoid seeing large dry, sore patches on my husband’s hands.

In industry, SLS is used in products such as garage floor cleaners, engine degreasers and car wash soaps.

And guess what? SLS is actually used in clinical testing to irritate animal/human skin so that new creams to treat dryness and inflammation can be developed.

The scary bit is SLS is also in ‘no tears’ baby shampoos. The journal of the American College of Toxicology reports that it can penetrate and be retained in the eye, brain, heart and liver, with potentially harmful long-term effects.

I always ensure I buy toothpaste that has zero SLS content and only natural ingredients. No sodium fluoride either. After all, if sodium fluoride is one of the main components in rat poison, would I really want to put it in my mouth?

Sodium fluoride can be found in anaesthetic, hypnotic and psychiatric drugs. In fact, fluorides have been used throughout history to alter the behaviour of human beings.

Fluoride compounds were added to the drinking water of prisoners to keep them quiet and to hamper non-compliance with authority.

Interestingly, the toothpaste sample my dentist gave me recently was labelled as ‘not for children under 12 years of age.’ Not only did it contain sodium fluoride and SLS, but also triclosan.

Linked to hormone disruption, triclosan is an antimicrobial agent found in soaps, detergents, toothpaste and tooth whitening products, antiperspirants/deodorants, shaving products, creams and colour cosmetics.

Toiletries in the fridge?

hidden chemicalsEver wondered how our cosmetics last so long? Well, here’s a lovely list of ingredients: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben, frequently found on thousands of personal care products.

All preservatives. After all, who would put cosmetics in the fridge and trek up and down from bathroom to kitchen every morning and evening?

Seriously though, these preservatives are a problem. They have been linked to breast cancers, declining sperm counts and increasing rates of male breast cancer/ testicular cancer.  But the reason parabens are so widely used is that they are cheap and effective.

There are various herbs and spices that have preserving qualities, such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, goldenseal root, grapefruit seed extract or lavender oil in various combinations, but they don’t last as long as parabens.

Unfortunately, the European Commission has allowed parabens as safe for use as cosmetic preservatives.

So cheap and easy it is then.

What’s in your sunscreen?

The recent rise in skin cancer has led to research which has found that many sunscreens contain chemicals that are estrogenic, disrupt our hormone systems and can actually help develop cancer: the link is principally between sunscreen and breast cancer.

Octyl-methoxycinnamate, which is estrogenic and has thyroid hormone-disrupting effects, is found in over 800 sunscreens. Homosalate, a hormone-disrupting UVB blocker, is an ingredient in over 400 sunscreens.

What should we use instead? How about timed exposure and coconut oil which has a natural SPF of 4?

Another problem is that all this ‘sun scaremongering’ has led to deficiencies in vitamin D. Factor in (sorry!) the knowledge that many of our cosmetics now contain an SPF rating and we are just not absorbing enough sunlight. Hello, rickets?

Smelling sweet?

Sanitary towels and tampons“Fragrance” is a disarming little word  on my list as well. It hides a multitude of chemicals, including hormone-disrupting phthalates. Choose a product that discloses every ingredient.

The opposite of fragrance is ‘odour neutraliser’, a phrase that is used to make products more appealing. Tampons and pads with odour neutralisers and other artificial fragrances are nothing short of a chemical soup laced with artificial colours, polyester, adhesives, polyethylene (PET), polypropylene, and propylene glycol (PEG).

Try burning a sanitary towel: the black smoke it gives off is an indicator that it probably contains dioxins, synthetic fibres and petrochemical additives.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that the average sanitary towel contains the equivalent of four plastic bags – but nicely bleached with chlorine and prettily packaged, who would know?

And the other present I won’t use? A fancy diffuser full of ‘fragrance’. I’ll just open my windows instead.

Find out more…

Jacqueline Seddon

About Jacqueline Seddon

I was born in Oxford, have lived in 36 houses (not all in the UK) and I suppose you could say I’ve learned a lot in the university of life - although Janey Lee Grace once told me that that was not a very original thing to say. Now I’m settled in Nottingham – until the next move? - where I work as a therapist. See my website for more details about what I do.

  • Great article! One of the big advantages of going plastic free is that you stop using plastic packaged skin “care” products. Can mostly get away with soap, water, apple vinegar and coconut oil. If I need something more I make it. It is really easy to do. It not only cuts chemicals and plastic but palm oil too.

    You can see my fave recipes here

  • Thanks for the beauty recipes Kate. Jacqueline’s told us all about coconut oil too! Great stuff and 100% organic.
    Not tried apple vinegar…

  • Steve Barton

    Jacqui – your concerns around “hidden chemicals” is understandable given the amount of mis-information in the media. Add to this a lack of context and it is easy to construct the piece you have written.
    No “chemicals” are hidden – you found them yourself on the ingredient list.
    You fail to mention the most common “chemical” used is water (yes – believe it or not this is a chemical!).

    As someone who knows exactly what goes into all personal care products – and I don’t just mean all the “chemicals” you mention – let me assure you about a couple of things.
    The individual INGREDIENTS you focus on are used in PRODUCTS. (forgive the capital letters – I am not shouting; there is no facility to underline or bolden the font!)
    These INGREDIENTS are independently assessed by evaluating the full scientific literature (not just a few chosen articles) on their safety to regulate permitted ingredients used at permitted levels in cosmetics PRODUCTS. Hence the EU has (fortunately) allowed the use certain parabens to be continued as well as restricting the use levels of others.
    Yes there are alternatives; un-preserved products do exist and the plant extracts you mention do indeed have some anti-microbial benefits. But consider that unpreserved products risk potentially fatal consequences and plants extracts themselves are a common source of skin sensitisation – you pays your money & takes your choice!

    But that is not all – ingredients are put into PRODUCTS. This involves a “hidden chemical” you have not mentioned – the human brain; full of chemicals reacting in amazing complexity to make us what we are.
    Every personal care manufacturer employs trained toxicologists and safety assessors who work long hours to satisfy themselves that the combination of INGREDIENTS in the PRODUCT are safe. They even commission additional testing to provide additional evidence. Many such companies will go the extra mile to consult with independent experts to make doubly sure that the products they make pose no threat to human health. As a result all the PRODUCTS placed on the market are safe – this is the law!

    I respect your right to have an opinion on the value or otherwise of personal care products – many people eschew many social practices for philosophical, religious and ethical reasons. But please do not denigrate all personal care products on the basis of that they contain nasty “chemicals” ; they do not.
    I’ve added some links to help you assess two of the issues you address in your article. I doubt I will convince you but maybe others reading this thread will find this helpful.


    “Hormone disruption”