woman applying lotion to her hands

In 2008, laboratory tests revealed that teenage girls were contaminated with potentially dangerous chemicals found in personal care and cosmetic products. Some of these chemicals have been labeled probable human carcinogens. Do products like hairspray, body wash, and blush contain ingredients that could actually endanger women's health?

Skin Can Absorb Potentially Dangerous Chemicals
Your skin may seem like a protective barrier for your body; however, the skin is not a closed organ, but is like a screen, with tiny openings called pores. Products applied to the skin could potentially penetrate all layers and enter the bloodstream, in the same way medication patches applied to the skin effectively deliver drugs directly into the blood. Water absorbed by the flesh of our fingers creates a prune-like appearance when we sit in the tub too long, due to swelling of the skin. Similarly, products like sunless tanning lotions penetrate the skin to alter its color.

Destructive Ingredients in Personal Care Products
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) evaluated 20 teenage girls, ages 14-19, for exposure to harmful toxins commonly found in cosmetic products. Every girl tested positive for parabens, preservatives linked to hormone disruption, and many tested positive for phthalates, associated with reproductive problems and liver cancer in animal studies. Scientists theorized that these chemicals came from personal care and makeup products the girls used daily.

This isn't the first study to associate chemicals in personal care products with health problems. Here are a few more examples:

  • Parabens are used extensively as preservatives in moisturizer, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, shave gel, and facial cleanser. A 2002 study reported in the Natural Medicine Journal found that parabens can act like estrogen at the strength necessary to cause breast cancer cells to grow.
  • Phthalates are used in nail polish, perfume, deodorant, and hairspray. They've been found to damage the reproductive system, kidneys, heart, and hormone function in animals. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that women of child-bearing age have up to 20 times greater exposure to dibutyl phthalate (DBP) than men. The DBP has been linked to cancer in animal studies. Scientists speculated that cosmetics could be the source.
  • Sulfates are used as foaming agents in shampoo, body wash, and facial cleanser. They can cause skin and eye irritation, and can also form carcinogenic nitrates when combined with other ingredients often found in these formulas. A study reported in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology found that sulfates could enter the body through the skin and build up in the heart, lungs, and brain. The same study also suggested that sulfates could be damaging to the immune system.

Could these ingredients and others like them really sabotage your health? More studies need to be done, but current evidence seems to indicate the possibility. What's even more concerning is that we're using more and more personal care products every year. According to the EWG, women and girls use an average of 12 personal care products a day. Multiply that by years or even decades, and it becomes clear how exposure to these chemicals could add up. If you used shampoo only once a week, for instance, you would experience a low exposure to these potentially dangerous parabens or sulfates.

Read Labels to Find Safer Products
Most women wouldn't choose to go without shampooing their hair or using makeup, so how can you reduce your exposure to these chemicals? Fortunately, in response to increasing market demand, many companies are now producing safer products that contain fewer potentially toxic ingredients. Just as you read the nutrition facts and ingredient list on food products, you should check the labels of personal care products. Choose brands that don't contain sulfates, parabens, or phthalates. Clear out the toxins in your daily routine and start enjoying cleansers and conditioners that are beneficial to your health.