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The Hidden Chemicals in Self-Care Products

Last Updated on September 17, 2022 by Carol Gillette

Hidden Chemicals in Self-Care Products

Alternative to Meds Editorial Team
Medically Reviewed by Dr Samuel Lee MD

Self-care is an essential part of clean living, but how can you be sure that the personal care products you are using are good for you?

It is important to keep choosing the right products to keep dangerous chemicals out of your daily routines.

There are several red flags to look out for in common, daily-use products that will help you keep your self-care routine clean and chemical-free.

Harmful Chemicals in Personal Care Products?

It is essential to pay attention to your personal care products. These are products you use every day, and the more harmful chemicals they have in them, the more you put your body on the line. It can be time-saving and convenient to just grab your self-care product off the shelf and not pay attention to the chemicals being used, but in the long run, it can cost you. The short answer to the question is that there are harmful chemicals in many of the personal care products you use every day. Some of these harmful chemicals can cause severe issues with your endocrine system, and even lead to cancer.1

Personal care products range from soaps and hygiene products, sunscreens, and tanning lotions, to perfumes and cosmetics. The sheer number of personal care products people use on a daily basis is part of what makes the toxic chemicals a problem. A single use of a product with toxic chemicals is not going to do any lasting damage, but with personal care products being used daily over a long period of time, there can be several issues that develop.

In addition to the bodily harm that can come from the use of self-care products, these products can also be harmful to the environment. The residual chemicals that wash down the drain during your shower or after washing your hands have a lasting negative impact on waterways and the natural habitats that the contaminated water drains into. 2

What Chemicals Are in Personal Care Products?

What Chemicals Are in Personal Care Products?

There are several chemicals frequently found in personal care and cosmetic products. While a lot of chemicals are regulated by the government, only a small percentage of the chemicals are tested for product safety. For that reason, it is good to know what chemicals are actually in your personal care products, and how harmful those chemicals are.

Common Chemicals With Lower Health Risks

There are some common chemicals in personal care products that have less of a harmful impact on your body. These chemicals can often pose a health risk in excessive amounts but are often chemicals you come in contact with every day through your normal routines, even outside of the self-care routine you have3.


Nickel is found nearly everywhere in nature and is mostly harmless in small amounts. Significant contact with nickel can pose a health risk, depending on the type of nickel. However, nickel is listed as a possible carcinogen, and some people can have severe allergic reactions to the metal.


Also known as mineral oil jelly, petrolatum acts as a moisture retainer. It is often used in hair products to help produce a shiny finish. Petrolatum itself is not toxic, but it can contain PAHs, which are found to be carcinogenic. The PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, can also cause an allergic reaction or rash.


Fragrance is a significant ingredient in almost all personal care products. Fragrance can be listed just as that and can be produced by any combination of artificial chemicals, natural scents, and essential oils. Even fragrance-free products can contain chemicals to mask the normal scent of the product.
Since there are so many forms of fragrances, it’s hard to determine if there are specific health risk factors to consider. The main issues with fragrances come down to potential allergic reactions and depending on the scent, possible triggering of headaches or asthmatic symptoms. While these side effects can be distressing, they are not considered toxic.

Common Chemicals With Severe Health Risks

While there are several chemicals that go into your personal care products, there are a few that do pose significant health risks. These health risks can range from cancer to kidney failure, and problems with your hormones. Any one of these risks can significantly damage your quality of life, just because you used the wrong personal care products.

Highly toxic chemicals to avoid include
  • Mercury, lead, other heavy metals
  • Formaldehyde
  • Parabens
  • Siloxanes
  • 1,4-Dioxane

Common Chemicals With Severe Health Risks

Heavy Metals Like Mercury and Lead

Heavy metals can be found in a few different types of personal care products. Mercury is found in the preservative known as thimerosal. Mercury, like most heavy metals, builds up in your system over time and can cause severe brain damage. Lead can sometimes be found as a contaminant in hydrated silica, and the chemical lead acetate can be found in some hair dyes. Lead, like mercury, is a heavy metal and is also considered neurotoxic.


Formaldehyde is a chemical that can have a severe impact on your body, causing things like immune-system toxicity and cancer. It is commonly found in cosmetic adhesives, like nail or eyelash glue, in dyes and nail polish, and sometimes even in hygiene products like baby soap.


Parabens (in several forms) can be found in almost every personal care product on the shelf. Parabens are dangerous because they can be absorbed through the skin, disrupt your normal hormone production and even cause your fertility levels to decline. Some parabens have been linked to premature skin aging as well. Other personal health impacts from parabens include cancer and neurotoxicity.


Siloxanes are commonly used in stick deodorants and moisturizers. These chemicals are used for their drying effect, usually to make lotion or deodorant feel dry to the touch. Siloxanes are one of the many chemicals that can impact the environment, as they can accumulate in aquatic animals like fish. This, along with the hormone disruption and potential fertility impairment, makes siloxanes a significant hazard.

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What Chemicals Should You Avoid in Cosmetics?

There are so many chemicals in your personal care products, and so many different names for the same chemicals, so how can you know what to avoid? The simple answer is to focus on purchasing personal care products with all-natural ingredients, in short – anything that goes on your skin should be something you could eat without harming your body. If you cannot successfully avoid all chemicals, whether due to financial constraints or another reason, there are some specific chemicals to look out for.4


Parabens are one of the most common ingredients in the cosmetics and personal care products you use every day. However, they are not always listed as ‘parabens.’ They can be listed with any one of these prefixes; methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, butyl-, and isobutyl-. In addition to the bodily harm caused by parabens, they are one of the more common chemicals found in polluting water. As a pollutant of the body and the environment, parabens should be avoided.


Another notably harmful chemical is 1, 4-Dioxane. This chemical is a known toxin that causes genotoxicity in the human body and can be linked to several forms of cancer. 1, 4-Dioxane is not listed as an ingredient in personal care products because its presence is a byproduct of the production of other chemicals. Trace amounts of 1, 4-Dioxane can be found in any self-care products that contain the ingredients polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, and polyethylene. Those chemicals are most commonly found in toothpaste, shower gels, shampoos, and lotions.


Much like 1, 4-Dioxane, formaldehyde is not likely to be listed as an ingredient in your personal care products. Instead, there are other chemicals associated with the presence of formaldehyde in your self-care products. As a stabilizing agent, formaldehyde and the chemicals associated with it are likely to be found in a range of products, including liquid soaps and lotions. The preservatives to look out for are formalin or oxymethylene.


Most Toxic Beauty Products

As a common chemical found in moisturizers and facial treatments, siloxanes can be absorbed through the skin and wreak havoc with your hormonal balance. They aren’t always easy to identify in your personal care products, so you should look for any chemical with the word ‘siloxane’ in it. The most commonly used siloxanes are called cyclotetrasiloxane and cyclopentasiloxane. With long, difficult-to-read chemical names, it is easy to miss the more harmful chemicals.

What Are the Most Toxic Beauty Products?

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration, more commonly referred to as the FDA, is in charge of ensuring the safety of personal care products. With this responsibility, the FDA tests personal care products and determines their safety by noting the levels of certain chemicals. 5 This means there is a level of harmful chemicals the FDA deems safe. While this is one stopgap for significant levels of harmful chemicals, several harmful chemicals are allowed as long as the product contains a low enough level.

There are a lot of harmful chemicals in personal care products, and a lot of products you should avoid. However, arguably, the most harmful beauty product on the market is hair dye. Hair dye does not fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction as far as product safety goes. That allows for several chemicals to be used in hair dye that would not be allowed in other personal care products. The lack of regulation on hair dye products poses a health risk, as there is often no disclosure of ingredients on hair dyes, and therefore there are several unknowns that could cause you harm.

Hair dye aside, there are other personal care products that have been shown to have more harmful chemicals. Those products include skin lightening products and sunscreen. Skin lightening products contain chemicals that can damage your skin on a DNA level and are highly carcinogenic. Sunscreens often contain chemicals that cause cancer and disrupt your natural hormone balance. These two products have prolonged contact with your skin and can allow for more absorption of the harmful chemicals they contain.

Do Your Due Diligence

Do Your Due Diligence

The harmful chemicals in your personal care products can be linked to many health problems including cancer. Even in small amounts, these chemicals are polluting your body and the environment. It is essential to understand the impact that the products you use will have on your body. Without that understanding, you could end up poisoning yourself with harmful hidden chemicals and toxins.


1. Naveed, N. (2014). The perils of cosmetics. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, 6(10), 338. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from

2. JTernes, T. A., Joss, A., & Siegrist, H. (2004). Peer reviewed: scrutinizing pharmaceuticals and personal care products in wastewater treatment. Environmental science & technology, 38(20), 392A-399A.

3. Khan, A. D., & Alam, M. N. (2019). Cosmetics and their associated adverse effects: A review. Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, 1-6.

4. Bilal, M., Mehmood, S., & Iqbal, H. M. N. (2020). The Beast of Beauty: Environmental and Health Concerns of Toxic Components in Cosmetics. Cosmetics, 7(1), 13.

5. Gerhard J. Nohynek, Eric Antignac, Thomas Re, Herve Toutain, (2010). Safety assessment of personal care products/cosmetics and their ingredients. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 243(2), 239-59.

This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.

Dr. Samuel Lee

Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente.  He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

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