• Anne Huang

The Dirty Dozen: common chemicals in cosmetics to avoid.

Thanks for voting for this post Instagram friends! To warn you this entry is going to be long and hefty with a lot of information to take in, so make yourself a cup of tea and curl up in a comfy spot. Please note a lot of this research has not been conducted on human participants - the bottom line is we simply do not know what the long term effects of certain chemical use has on our bodies. This blog entry is not meant to scare you or guilt you, rather explain the possible effects on our bodies these chemicals have so you can make your own informed choices and decisions.

I've listed all the potentially harmful ingredients at the end of the post in a long list, which you can print out and take with you to the store as a handy guide.

Are the Dirty Dozen hiding in your bathroom?

Disclaimer: I'm not a chemist but I am interested in clean living especially food & cosmetics. All of the information below is based on research by the David Suzuki Foundation.

Background on the Dirty Dozen:

Just like Dirty Dozen food list there is a Dirty Dozen list of common chemicals to avoid in cosmetics. The list that you’re about to read may cause a number of conditions or ailments including asthma, contain hormone disruptors, carcinogens and are harmful to the environment and are present in around 80% of cosmetics. The David Suzuki Foundation has very detailed reading materials on their research into the Dirty Dozen if you would like to delve deeper.

As reported by the Foundation; “U.S. researchers report that one in eight of the 82,000 ingredients used in personal care products are industrial chemicals… Many products include plasticizers (chemicals that keep concrete soft), degreasers (used to get grime off auto parts), and surfactants (they reduce surface tension in water, like in paint and inks).”

I don’t know about you but I don’t want those on my skin.

The Dirty Dozen:


BHA and BHT are industrial antioxidants used as preservatives. These are found mostly in lipsticks and moisturizers (as well as food), and are classified as possible carcinogens. Long-term exposure to these ingredients has been linked to liver, thyroid, and kidney problems in mice under lab conditions. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has listed these as possible human carcinogens. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has also listed BHA as a ‘Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function’.

Environmentally, under the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, BHA is listed as a chemical of potential concern, due to its toxicity to aquatic species (source: David Sukuzi Foundation).


On ingredients lists, these will show up as “P-phenylenediamine” or “CI” followed by a number. P-phenylenediamine is a coal tar dye found in hair dyes, while CI (or Color Index) numbers are used to identify coal tar dyes in a variety of pigmented cosmetics like lipstick. Derived from petroleum and composed of many different chemicals, coal tar dyes are recognized as a human carcinogen and have been linked to brain damage. In lab studies it has also been linked to tumours.

With a lot of industrial chemicals there are conflicting schools of thought. The International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that personal use of hair dyes is currently “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity in humans.” However a study showed that women who used hair dye with coal tar had higher chances of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The European Union classifies p-phenylenediamine as toxic (in contact with skin, by inhalation, or if swallowed), and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, noting that it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment (source: David Sukuzi Foundation).


This ingredient helps make cosmetic products creamy or sudsy and can be found in products like facial cleansers, shampoos, soaps and moisturizers. In the short term, DEA can cause moderate skin and eye irritation, while sustained exposure has been linked to liver, skin, and thyroid cancers. The European Union classifies DEA as a danger of serious damage to health from prolonged exposure. DEA compounds can also react with nitrites in cosmetics to form nitrosamines, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a possible carcinogen. However the use of DEA in North America is unregulated unlike the EU where it restricts the uses of DEA.


Dibutyl phthalate is a plasticizer commonly used to prevent nail polish from becoming brittle. Phthalates are also used as fragrance ingredients, but consumers won’t find these listed on the label as manufacturers are alarmingly not required to disclose fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients. You’ll find these just labelled as ‘fragrance’ on labels. Consistent use of DBP has been linked to hormonal disruptions and developmental defects in foetuses, as well as liver and kidney failure in children who chewed and sucked consistently on products containing DBPs, according to Health Canada.


Look for ingredients like DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. These preservatives are used to increase the shelf life of a variety of cosmetics and they work by continuously releasing small amounts of formaldehyde – a known human carcinogen according to the International Agency for Cancer Research. They’re found in resins used in wood products, vinyl flooring and other plastics, permanent-press fabric, and toilet bowl cleaners.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation research, Formaldehyde is a restricted ingredient in cosmetics in Canada. It cannot be added in concentrations greater than 0.2 per cent in most products. However, there is no restriction on the low-levels of formaldehyde released by DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quarternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, nor on the use of these ingredients themselves.

International regulations are stronger. In the European Union formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in cosmetics must be identified on the product label with the notice, “contains formaldehyde” if the concentration of formaldehyde in the product exceeds 0.05 per cent.


An estimated 75-90% of cosmetics contain parabens, making them the most widely used preservative in makeup and skincare products, such as primers, pore fillers and smoothing foundations. They are also used in fragrances but consumers will only see ‘fragrance’ as the listed ingredient. Parabens easily penetrate the skin and the ‘European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed parabens as Category 1 priority substances, based on evidence that they interfere with hormone function’. How parabens do this is they can mimic estrogen, and’ have been detected in human breast cancer tissues, suggesting a possible association between parabens in cosmetics and cancer’(source: David Suzuki Foundation). Alarmingly there are no restrictions in the use of parabens in Canada.


About 3,000 different ingredients are used in fragrances, though these will show up as one word on ingredient lists – “fragrance” or “parfum”. Used in more than just perfumes, these smell-enhancing substances can be found in almost every type of cosmetic product. Many unlisted ingredients in fragrances have been linked to health problems like asthma, especially the development of asthma in children, allergies, and even cancer. Of the thousands of chemicals used in fragrances, most have not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination.


Common in cream-based cosmetics, PEG compounds are used as thickeners, solvents and moisture-carriers. Depending on how they are manufactured, these ingredients can become contaminated with carcinogenic substances like ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane (identified as a known human carcinogen). Even when not contaminated, PEG compounds have been shown to cause skin irritation. Environmentally, dioxane does not easily degrade and can be present in our environment for a long time. In a study of personal care products marketed as “natural” or “organic”, U.S. researchers found 1,4-dioxane as a contaminant in 46 of 100 products analyzed.


Petrolatum is a petroleum jelly that is used in hair products to add shine and in lip balms, lip sticks, and moisturizers as a moisture barrier. The ingredient is often contaminated with PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), a known carcinogen, and can cause skin irritation and allergies in smaller doses. In the E U, petrolatum can only be used in cosmetics “if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen.” There is no parallel restriction in Canada. Petrolatum has been flagged for future assessment under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan.


Look for ingredients ending in “-siloxane” or “-methicone”, which are found most commonly in hair products and deodorants. Siloxanes can also be found in medical implants, water-repelling windshield coatings, building sealants and lubricants. Many of these ingredients have been found to impair fertility and cause hormonal disruptions. In lab experiments, exposure to high doses has been shown to cause uterine tumours and harm to the reproductive and immune systems. Environmentally, they tend to bioaccumulate in marine species.


This foaming agent can be found in cosmetics like cleansers, bubble bath, dish soap and shampoo- in short it’s found in most things that foam or bubble. Many commercial varieties are contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane – known carcinogens and can interfere with human development. Health Canada has categorized sodium laureth sulfate as a “moderate human health priority” and flagged it for future assessment under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a related detergent used in cosmetics, is a skin, eye and respiratory tract irritant and toxic to aquatic organisms.


Triclosan is used mainly in antiperspirants and hand sanitizers as a preservative/ anti-bacterial agent. In addition to cosmetics, triclosan is also used as an antibacterial agent in laundry detergent, facial tissues and antiseptics for wounds, as well as a preservative to resist bacteria, fungus, mildew and other household products that are sometimes advertized as “anti-bacterial.” Triclosan can pass through skin and is suspected of interfering with hormone function. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists detected triclosan in the urine of nearly 75 per cent of those tested (2,517 people ages six years and older). The European Union classifies triclosan as irritating to the skin and eyes, and as very toxic to aquatic organisms, noting that it may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.

Many industrial chemicals are used in skincare and cosmetics



COAL TAR DYES (P-phenylenediamine” or “CI” followed by a number)


DBP (DIBUTYL PHTHALATE) listed as ‘fragrance’

FORMALDEHYDE-RELEASING PRESERVATIVES (DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate)



PEG COMPOUNDS (ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane)

PETROLATUM (petroleum jelly)

SILOXANES (Look for ingredients ending in “-siloxane” or “-methicone)




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