Harmful Chemicals Resource Guide

Trying on lotion


It’s alarming to think that there could be harmful chemicals in shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, and other personal care products that you regularly use. However, many common products contain chemicals that can cause long-term, serious damage to your health. Learning how to identify harmful chemicals in your sunscreen, shampoo, household cleaners, and other products can help you make sound decisions to keep you and your family healthy. Here, we’ll explore what you need to know about harmful chemicals, including the chemicals that you need to look out for on product ingredient labels, the products you should double-check for health-harming components, and how you can protect your kids from harmful chemicals.

What are Harmful Chemicals?

When you look at an ingredient label for a personal care product, household cleaner, or beauty product, it can be tough to decipher the technical names of the chemicals on the list. We’ll break down what you need to know about harmful chemicals that may be lurking in your home in several categories.

Harmful Chemicals in Skin, Hair, and Other Self-Care Products

Some people are surprised to learn that personal care products can be harmful. However, companies have been sued not only for including harmful chemicals in products that people apply to their hair and skin, but for doing so knowingly.

According to the Environmental Working Group, “While other countries have taken action to protect their citizens from chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive harm, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t even require the basic safety testing of ingredients in personal care products before they’re used.” Some consumer products contain ingredients that have been proven harmful to human health, such as asbestos, lead, and formaldehyde.

Consumers need to educate themselves on what ingredients they’re putting on and in their bodies—a task that isn’t always easy when companies get creative with how they list product ingredients.

Harmful Chemicals in Shampoo and Other Hair Care Products

Understanding the lengthy list of chemicals on the back of the shampoo bottle and on the packaging of other hair care products can be tough, but it’s important, as some of the chemicals used in these products may be linked to cancer and other health issues.

Parabens are a common chemical found in many hair care products. These compounds are used as preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. Common names for parabens in hair care products include:

  • Butylparaben
  • Isobutylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Isopropylparaben
  • Methylparaben
  • Propylparaben

Researchers aren’t sure whether parabens are linked to cancer, but believe that there may be a connection because parabens have been found in cancerous tissue. According to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, “Several studies have shown that parabens can affect the mechanisms of normal breast cells and potentially influence their abnormal growth, leading to increased risk for breast cancer.” It’s possible that parabens are recognized by estrogen by the body, which can result in the growth of breast cells.

In a healthy body, cells go through a process called apoptosis, or death. This is a normal part of a cell’s life cycle. When apoptosis doesn’t happen, the body is not able to get rid of damaged cells, which can increase a person’s likelihood of developing cancer.

In addition to increasing the likelihood of developing cancer, exposure to parabens may also decrease the effectiveness of cancer treatments. Methylparaben may be linked to the inability of tamoxifen, a chemotherapy drug, to stop or slow down the effects of estrogen. This makes the drug less effective at fighting breast cancer.

A word of caution: it may seem like choosing paraben-free products is the answer to removing harmful shampoo and other hair care products from your shower shelf, but it’s not that simple. According to The Washington Post, “These formulations are potentially more harmful than their counterparts, because the preservatives used in place of the parabens are less studied and more likely to cause an allergic response or allow product contamination.”

Chemical hair straightening products have also been linked to reproductive cancers. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences conducted an 11-year study in which they followed the health of over 33,000 women in the United States. The study found that women who used chemical hair straightening products frequently had double the risk of uterine cancer as women who did not straighten their hair frequently (for purposes of the study, frequent use was defined as more than four times in the previous year).

Parabens in straighteners may be linked with reproductive cancers. Other chemicals, including metals, formaldehyde, and bisphenol A, may be linked to an increased likelihood of developing reproductive cancers as well. Researchers believe that chemicals in straightening products may be more likely to enter the body than chemicals in other personal care products, as the products can be absorbed through the scalp, and lesions or burns caused by chemicals and heat-producing tools (like hair straighteners, hair dryers, and curling irons) may make it easier for carcinogens to enter the body.

Resources on Harmful Chemicals in Hair Products

Harmful Chemicals in Beauty Products

According to the Environmental Working Group, federal laws regarding beauty product safety are more than 80 years old. According to WebMD, the average woman in America uses 12 cosmetic products each day—resulting in exposure to nearly 170 chemicals.

Since cosmetics are typically washed off at the end of each day, some consumers are not aware of the lasting effects that cosmetics can have on health. Metals and other substances used in the formulation of beauty products may be absorbed by the skin. Over time, these metals can accumulate in the body and create cancer and other problems that can cause harm or death.

Sadly, the Food and Drug Administration does not pre-approve personal care products like makeup and lotions unless there’s a color additive. The FDA investigates complaints made by customers, but this often occurs after many people have already suffered negative health effects as a result of using a product.

It’s important to keep an eye out for many chemicals in personal care products that may be linked to harmful health effects, including:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Diethanolamine (DEA)
  • Formaldehyde (may be labeled as formalin or methylene glycol)
  • Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (may be labeled as DMDM hydantoin, polyoxymethylene urea, bronopol, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, glyoxal, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and quaternium-15)
  • Parabens
  • Fragrances (companies do not have to disclose ingredients in fragrances, making it difficult for consumers to discern whether a scented product contains harmful ingredients)
  • Polyethylene glycols (PEGs)
  • Petrolatum
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Siloxanes
  • Silicones
  • Sodium laureth sulfate (SLS)
  • Triclosan

It can be hard to know exactly how much of a chemical is enough to cause a negative effect. Researchers recommend being aware of the ingredients in your beauty products, and taking steps to shift to a healthier self-care routine. After you’re aware of the chemicals you’re using that could cause harm to your health, researching similar, healthier products can be a smart step in the right direction.

You may want to consider how long certain products are in contact with your skin. For example, a product that rinses off right away (like a face mask that you only leave on for a few minutes) may provide a smaller exposure to chemicals than a moisturizer or foundation that stays on all day. You may also save products that contain higher levels of chemicals for special occasions, rather than for everyday use.

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Harmful Chemicals in Sunscreen

Most consumers think of safety when they think of sunscreen, but unfortunately, some sunscreens have the ability to do damage while also protecting the skin from dangerous UV rays. In addition to exposing the body to dangerous chemicals, some sunscreens also exaggerate their ability to protect the skin from the sun, causing consumers to believe they’re protected.

Sunscreen safety is especially a concern for children. While adults can weigh the benefits and risks of products when deciding what’s the right choice for them, children are often slathered in sunscreen, creating a potential buildup of toxic chemicals before they hit kindergarten.

According to Breastcancer.org, certain chemicals in sunscreen are known to disrupt hormones. Using sunscreen that contains hormone disruptors may cause the body to process hormones differently. Estrogen can make certain types of breast cancers grow, and some women may choose to limit or eliminate products that contain chemicals that act like estrogen.

It can be hard to decide whether to use sunscreen, as it’s been shown to effectively lower the risk of developing skin cancer over time. If you choose to forgo sunscreen when you’re outdoors, it’s smart to keep your skin as covered as possible, wear a hat, and choose a sunscreen that uses minerals rather than chemicals to protect your skin.

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Harmful Chemical in Cleaners and Other Household Products

You know that there are dangerous chemicals in cleaning products, but it can be tough to figure out what’s ok to use around your home and what you should toss in the trash. It can be hard to find cleaners that are both effective and safe, but doing so can make a difference to the health of your family.

Spot removers, dry cleaning solutions, and carpet cleaners can contain a chemical called perchlorethylene (PERC). This chemical is a neurotoxin, meaning it can affect the way the brain works. It’s also been classified as a possible carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s likely that you’ve experienced the scent of the chemical at least once: it’s hard to miss when you walk by a dry cleaning business. Most people who are exposed to PERC inhale the chemical, either through their clothes that have been dry cleaned or by inhaling fumes that remain after their carpets or furniture have been cleaned.

Ammonia—another common chemical with a telltale smell—is common in many household cleaners. Many consumers find that ammonia-based products are irritating to the eyes, throat, and lungs, but products that contain the chemical can also create lasting health problems. People who have asthma and senior citizens are especially likely to experience health issues due to ammonia use. People who work around ammonia regularly (such as people who clean professionally) are more likely to develop breathing issues like bronchitis and asthma than people who do not work around the substance often.

Consumers also need to keep an eye out for chlorine in household cleaning products. Chlorine is, unfortunately, abundant and can be found in everything from drinking water to laundry whiteners. Acute health issues occur for some people following chlorine exposure, while others experience chronic effects. Research shows that chlorine may disrupt thyroid function, affecting a number of processes in the body.

Resources on Harmful Chemicals in Cleaning Products

Harmful Chemicals in Food

Keeping an eye on the ingredient labels of your food—and understanding what types of packaging can allow chemicals to leach into the items in your pantry and fridge—is a key part of protecting your family’s health.

Bisphenols, or BPA, is a component of some food packages that can be harmful to health. In order to discover whether your food packaging contains BPA, you’ll need to take a look at the bottom of your products. Plastics that are labeled with a number 3 or 7 contain BPA. The chemical can also be found in the lining of soda and food cans, plastic baby bottles, and kids’ skippy cups. BPA has been shown to increase body fat levels, cause nervous system problems, interfere with the body’s natural immune function, and interfere with hormones by acting like estrogen, potentially causing hormonal and reproductive issues.

Phthalates, much like BPA, can also act like hormones in the body, creating developing issues for males. These chemicals are also linked to heart disease and obesity. Like BPA, phthalates can also be found in plastic packaging. Garden hoses, plastic toys, and personal care products (like lotions, fragrances, and nail polish) can also contain phthalates.

Many parents notice that heavily processed foods affect behavior in children. Research shows that artificial food colorings can make it difficult for children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to effectively manage their symptoms. It can be tough for parents to keep food dyes out of kids’ diets, as these chemicals are commonly found in products (like fruit snacks and cereals) that are marketed to little ones.

Resources on Harmful Chemicals in Food

Tips for Protecting Your Family

Developing a few simple practices can help you protect your family from harmful household chemicals.

  • Knowledge is key when it comes to keeping your family safe from harmful chemicals in food, household products, and personal care products. The research in the field is constantly expanding as scientists learn more, so it’s smart to stay on top of the latest developments in scientific research to ensure that the products you choose for your family are as safe as possible.
  • It can feel overwhelming to learn that many of the items in your home contain ingredients that could cause harm to your family’s health. Rather than doing a complete overhaul of the products in your home, it can be helpful to swap out a few products at a time. 
  • When you finish a food or a product that you know contains chemicals you’d rather not have in your home, take an opportunity to choose a different option the next time you’re at the store. Consider first swapping products you use regularly (like lunchbox staples and daily use personal care products), and swapping products you use less frequently (like food colorings and fragrances) over time.
  • If you’re particularly concerned about using a specific product due to family health history, talk to your physician about steps that you can take to lower your risk. For example, if your family has a history of hormone-related cancers, make it a priority to talk to your doctor about whether it’s ok for you to use products that can mimic estrogen and other hormones in the body.

The bottom line: knowledge is power, and taking small steps to make changes in your home can go a long way in positively affecting the health of your family.

Learning More

It’s important to stay on top of the latest research on harmful chemicals in order to keep your family safe. Check out these trusted organizations to keep learning.

  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: Check this website to learn about product recalls due to safety concerns.
  • Think Dirty: Unsure about whether the personal care products you’re using contain chemicals that could be harmful to your health? Think Dirty offers consumers the opportunity to explore personal care products and ingredients, learning more about both proven and potential connections to health problems.
  • Centers for Disease Control: Stay on top of the latest news from the CDC to learn more about risk factors and treatments for illnesses that may be affected by common household products.
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