1,4-dioxane: An established carcinogen, this chemical is a byproduct of ethoxylation, a process used on various ingredients in cosmetics and cleaning products—of which sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is the most notorious. 1,4-dioxane is also an environmental pollutant and is suspected of being harmful to the kidneys, liver, and central nervous system. Skin Deep score: 10
aluminum starch octenylsuccinate: A modified starch used as an anti-caking agent in cream, deodorant, makeup, and sunscreen (including some intended for babies). EWG cites studies that show strong evidence of its neurotoxicity, and moderate evidence that it is a developmental/reproductive toxin. Skin Deep score: 9
antimony: Used in polyesters and as a flame retardant, antimony is present in many toys and mattresses and may be an endocrine disruptor. Prolonged exposure may cause eye, skin, and lung problems. Antimony poisoning resembles arsenic poisoning, and inhalation of antimony can be fatal due to cardiotoxicity. Antimony trioxide is a possible carcinogen. Skin Deep score: 10
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole): A preservative often included in makeup and moisturizers. Considered a probable human carcinogen. Skin Deep score: 10
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): A preservative used in a variety of cosmetics as well as food. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for this chemical states that it may be toxic to the liver, blood, and central nervous system. Skin Deep score: 6
BPA (bisphenol A): A dangerous chemical used to make plastic (but also found on everything fromdollar bills to the lining of aluminum cans). Animal studies link it to cancer and early puberty, and at least one epidemiological study shows that adults with higher levels of BPA in their urine are at an increased risk of various metabolic diseases (including diabetes and cardiovascular disease). Most baby bottles and toys now are BPA-free, and the FDA promises to take “reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply.”
borax (sodium borate): A salt of boric acid, borax is favored by makers of natural (and homemade) laundry detergents. Studies suggest borax may be a neurotoxin and hormone disruptor at high levels. Skin Deep score: 5-6, depending on usage.
boric acid: A chemical compound that is used as a pesticide (mainly as a roach killer), flame retardant, or antiseptic. Long-term exposure to boric acid causes kidney damage/failure and testicular atrophy. Boric acid is known to cause birth defects in rabbits, rats, and mice. Substances imported into the European Union that contain boric acid are required (as of 2010) to be labeled with the following language: “May impair fertility. May cause harm to the unborn child.” Skin Deep score: 8
carob: A caffeine-free chocolate substitute, carob is ground from the dried bean pods of an evergreen tree that grows in the Mediterranean. Carob is an excellent source of calcium, and also contains carotenoids, B vitamins, phosphorus, and iron. It is easier to digest than chocolate.
castor oil: Used as a conditioning agent in soaps and other cosmetics, castor oil is a penetration enhancer (meaning that it may cause enhanced skin absorption of other ingredients). Skin Deep score: 2
chia: A species of flowering plant native to Central America, which produces nutritional powerhouse seeds. Chia seeds are rich in fiber, protein, ALA oils, calcium, and other minerals. Studies show that chia seeds are possibly effective in treating or preventing major maladies such as cancer and heart disease, as well as common disorders like asthma and allergies.
chlorine: Used in everything from plastics (PVC), to swimming pools, to laundry detergents. According to Audubon, chlorine is a suspected cause of ozone depletion and a serious threat to the health of humans and wildlife (linked cancer to endocrine disruption). Skin Deep score: 7-9, depending on usage.
citral: Can be natural or synthetic, and is used as fragrance for a range of household cleaning products and as a flavoring in some foods and beverages. An established allergen and irritant. Skin Deep score: 6
citric acid: Found in a wide range of cosmetics and also used as a food preservative. There is a lack of recent studies on the safety of citric acid, but it’s generally considered nontoxic. Skin Deep score: 2-3, depending on usage.
cocamide DEA: Used to create lather in a range of soaps and shampoos, this chemically-modified coconut oil is a known immune system toxin and has been linked to cancer in female rats. Skin Deep score: 6
cocamidopropyl betaine: A synthetic surfactant found in shampoos and soaps, which is associated with allergic dermatitis. Skin Deep score: 5; EWG score: C
cocamidopropylamine oxide: A surfactant found in personal care and household cleaning products, which caused hemolytic anemia in rats when administered at high levels.
detergent: A very effective soap alternative, usually made from petrochemicals. Soap is cheap and biodegradable, but it often causes sewage backups and does not effectively rinse out of hard water. Petrochemical detergents are derived from crude oil, a nonrenewable resource.
diazolidinyl urea: Found in shampoos, facial cleansers, and moisturizers, this formaldehyde-releasing preservative is sometimes derived from the urine of animals, and is a known skin irritant. Skin Deep score: 5
diethylene glycol: Used in laundry detergents and rarely in cosmetics, the primary concern with this chemical is for the workers who handle it. There is also moderate evidence, according to the EWG, of it being neurotoxic to humans. Skin Deep score: 5
dihydroxyacetone (DHA): A skin-coloring agent commonly found in self-tanners, DHA leads to increased formation of free radicals. Skin Deep score: 2-5, depending on usage.
dimethicone (polydimethylsiloxane): A type of silicone oil used in contact lenses, haircare products, and moisturizers (as well as silicone breast implants). After decades of use, this is generally considered nontoxic, but safety data is lacking. Skin Deep score: 3
dioxins: The toxic byproduct of chemical-bleaching processes as well as the manufacturing of pesticides. Dioxins are established carcinogens and implicated in various other disorders, including endocrine disruption and liver damage. Skin Deep score: 10
emulsifying wax: Present in a wide variety of cosmetics, and made of either plant- or petroleum-derived ingredients, which generally are not specified. Safety studies are entirely lacking. Skin Deep score: 4
endocrine disruptors: Chemicals that alter parts of the endocrine system (including the pancreas, testes, ovaries, and thyroid gland, among others). Endocrine disruption can cause adverse neurological, developmental, immune, and reproductive effects, including cancer.
ethanol: Otherwise known as grain alcohol, ethanol is used as a solvent in laundry and dish detergents, hand sanitizers, and various cosmetics. Among other concerns, ethanol is shown to enhance the penetration of other chemicals. It is also made from corn, which is a heavily sprayed crop. Skin Deep Score: 5
ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA): This plastic substitute is BPA-free and does not require plasticizers (meaning no phthalates). All available literature reiterates EVA’s safety, but more research is needed.
fragrance: Sometimes called “parfum,” and found in most yummy-smelling cosmetics and cleaning products, even those that are labeled “natural.” Generally, phthalates are added to fragrance to help the scent last longer, and companies are NOT required to disclose the presence of phthalates. See “phthalates” for more info. Essential oils are a safe ingredient that lends a scent to cosmetics, and such products will often be labeled as phthalate free.
free radicals: Molecules that cause tissue degeneration and disease—some occur naturally as a result of aging, but others are formed after exposure to environmental toxins. Suspected to play a role in cancer and cardiovascular disease.
geraniol: Present in some diaper cream, as well as moisturizer, shower gel, and perfume. Although it is a natural fragrance found in several essential oils, it is nevertheless linked to cancer and is a known immune system toxin, according to EWG. Skin Deep score: 6
glucose syrup solids: When you see this on a label it typically means corn syrup, although glucose syrup could technically be made from other starches as well. Corn syrup and its solids are on the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s “Cut Back” list. Glucose syrup solids are used as a cheaper, non-crystalizing substitute for sugar in processed foods and drinks. The oft-repudiated high fructose corn syrup is a variant of glucose syrup.
glycerin: Of either animal or vegetable origin, glycerin is a lubricant commonly used in soaps. The EWG references “limited evidence of renal toxicity,” but I have not found any studies to support this. Skin Deep score: 1
lactic acid: An alpha hydroxy acid found in a range of skincare and cleaning products and which is in violation of industry recommendations, according to the EWG. Skin Deep score: 4-5, depending on usage.
lanolin: Oil produced by sebaceous glands of sheep, and found in nipple creams, lip balms, and lotions. Wool is treated with a heavy dose of pesticides before the lanolin is scoured out of it, and thus lanolin is considered an immunotoxin by EWG. It is undoubtedly, however, an effective treatment for nipple trauma, as demonstrated by several studies. Skin Deep score: 4
latex: Natural latex is made from rubber trees, and synthetic latex comes from petrochemicals/plastic. Skin Deep score (for natural latex): 4. I suspect this score is so high because of the allergenic properties of latex. I can’t find any specific studies or evidence of other adverse health effects. I also can’t find any studies about adverse health effects from synthetic latex.
lecithins: Emulsifying agents used in a variety of processed foods and typically made from soybeans or sunflower seeds. Hexane (a petroleum-based neurotoxin and air pollutant that carries a Skin Deep score of 9) is commonly used to separate vegetable oil from seeds including soybeans, canola, sunflower, and olive. Lecithins of all kinds should be avoided unless they are organic, which means they are entirely free of hexane residue.
limonene: An orange-scented compound found in various cosmetics and laundry and dish detergent, many of which are natural and organic. EWG considers limonene a definite skin and respiratory irritant, with potential carcinogenic properties. Skin Deep score: 6
maltodextrin: A food additive manufactured from starch (typically corn or potato), maltodextrin is used to improve texture and stability and is found in soda, candy, beer, and conventional baby food purees, as well as various snack foods. Although it is naturally derived, maltodextrin is a highly processed simple carbohydrate.
methylene chloride: A hazardous emission that occurs during the production of polyurethane, such as the kind used in conventional foam mattresses. Associated with everything from carbon monoxide poisoning to cancers of the liver, pancreas, and lungs.
methylchloroisothiazolinone: A widely used preservative found in shampoo. Up to three percent of the population may be allergic to this chemical, and may experience eczema-like rashes, which can last for weeks even after exposure has ceased. Skin Deep score: 6; EWG score: D
methylisothiazolinone: A preservative found in dish soaps, shampoos, and other cleaners and cosmetics. A suspected neurotoxin. Skin Deep score: 6; EWG score: D
nanoparticle: A solid particle between 1 and 100 nanometers (billionths of a meter). Nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are often used in sunscreen to prevent an unsightly white sheen on the skin. Unfortunately, evidence links nanoparticles to the creation of free radicals.
octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate): A popular UVB absorber used in many chemical sunscreens. According to the EWG, octinoxate enhances the penetration of other chemicals and is an endocrine disruptor. One study showed that mouse cells died when exposed to less octinoxate than is typically found in sunscreens. Skin Deep score: 6
optical brighteners: Used in laundry detergent to make clothing look brighter (and thus cleaner). Many optical brighteners are derived from benzene, a well established carcinogen. Because optical brighteners poison marine life, they are a big environmental no-no.
outgassing (or off-gassing): The process of removing (or releasing) gases that are absorbed, obstructed or accumulated in a solid. Products that may outgas chemicals include mattresses, car seats, foam play mats, furniture, and more. When purchasing these items new, they should be left to outgas outside for several days before bringing them inside.
oxybenzone: Often found in sunscreen and highly penetrative. According to EWG, linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, as well as endocrine disruption. Skin Deep score: 9
parabens: These notorious and ubiquitous preservatives are found in nearly every type of cosmetic. Parabens mimic estrogen and are implicated in breast cancer, though no causal relationship has been established. Parabens will show up on labels as benzylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, methylparaben, and/or propylparaben. Skin Deep Score: 5-6, depending on the paraben.
PEG-40: A polymer used as a surfactant, an emulsifying and skin-conditioning agent, and cleansing aid. According to Scorecard and GoodGuide, PEG-40 is linked with cancer and developmental toxicity. Skin Deep score is 4-6, depending on usage.
PEG-100 stearate: A dissolving and cleansing agent commonly used in moisturizers and sunless tanning products. Sometimes contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which has high rates of carcinogenesis. Skin Deep score: 3-6, depending on usage.
petrochemicals: Chemicals made from natural gas and petroleum (nonrenewable resources), which includes materials such as polyurethane foam and plastics or vinyls (like PVCs), as well as personal care ingredients like paraffin and petrolatum.
phenol: Found in laundry detergents as well as lip balms. Phenol vapors are extremely irritating to the eyes, throat, and lungs, and can cause third-degree burns with extended skin exposure. Phenol also is toxic to the central nervous system and the heart, and linked to coma and seizures. Skin Deep score: 9
phenoxyethanol: A preservative found in nearly every type of cosmetic and various cleaning products. Proven organ system toxin in animals (even at low doses), and suspected to be carcinogenic. Skin Deep score: 4; EWG score: C
phosphates: Used in conventional laundry and dishwasher detergents to battle the buildup of soap scum (which causes a ring around the collar, for instance), phosphates accumulate in waterways and have deleterious environmental effects.
phthalates: Chemicals primarily used in plastics, and also many cosmetics, where they act as lubricators. Linked to early puberty, autism, obesity, and birth defects. Due to the growing collection of alarming studies, phthalates are being phased out of many children’s toys and products in the U.S., and their use has been heavily restricted in Europe since 1999 (for toys only). You won’t see phthalates on a label–most often they are included in “fragrance” or “parfum.”
polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs): Chemical compounds that are used as flame retardants in many products, including mattresses, foam, plastics, furniture, and cars. Studies show that children in the United States, Norway, Australia, and the Faroe Islands have higher levels of PBDEs than adults do. PBDEs are associated with hormone disruption, hyperactivity, and neurodevelopmental delays, including lowered IQ . The European Union has banned the use of PBDEs in electronic devices.
polyethelyne: A food-grade, petroleum-based material used in mattresses and toys, polyethelyne is considered nontoxic. One of the main problems of polyethelyne is that without special treatment it is not biodegradable. It can be “bio-derived,” meaning it’s made from beets or wheat.
polypropylene: A popular BPA- and phthalate-free plastic used in food packaging (including sippy cups and bottles), toys, diapers, carpeting, and furniture. The Environmental Working Group considers polypropylene a probable immune system toxicant if aerosolized. Polypropylene is recyclable (#5). While generally regarded as safe, polypropylene contains additives that have been shown to leach, raising safety concerns. Skin Deep score: 1-3, depending on usage.
polysorbate 20: Sometimes called a “fragrance dispersant” in dish soaps and cosmetics, this ingredient is also found in mouth drops and breath sprays. It lacks good safety data, and may be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane. Skin Deep score: 3
polysorbate 60: Commonly used in fragrance, this emulsifying and solubilizing agent is one of several varieties of polysorbates, which some experts claim are reproductive toxins. Skin Deep score: 3-6, depending on usage.
polyurethane: Used in a wide range of baby care products (mattresses, carseats, changing table pads, etc.), polyurethane is made from petroleum, and sometimes includes extra catalysts and toxic additives. It also contains VOCs, which are associated with a wide range of medical problems, from asthma to cancer. See also: methylene chloride and volatile organic compounds.
polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl): Used in toys and teethers, clothing, flooring, mattresses, and more, this ubiquitous plastic is often softened with phthalates and is linked with cancer. PVC is also an established environmental toxin, and many argue that it should be banned from all packaging.
potassium sorbate: Primarily used as a food preservative, but also found in a host of cosmetics, including baby wipes. Not a lot of studies have been conducted, but it is generally considered safe. Skin Deep score: 1
propane: A liquefied petroleum gas used as a propellant in hair spray, shaving cream, shampoo, mousse, and air fresheners. Exposure to very high levels of propane can be fatal beucase propane is an asphyxiant, meaning it will eventually cut off oxygen. According to the NIH, lower levels of propane can damage lungs, nervous system, and vision, and causes fatigue, vomiting, weight loss, and nosebleeds.
retinyl palmitate: Found in makeup, soap, high-SPF sunscreen, shampoo, and moisturizer, this chemical has been shown to generate free radicals when exposed to sunlight—and thus it’s suspected that it contributes to cancer. Other sources claim the link between free radicals and retinyl palmitate is bogus. Skin Deep score: 5
SAP (Super Absorbent Polymer): A gel made of molecules that can hold many more times their own weight in liquid. Commonly used in disposable diapers and sanitary napkins, SAP’s use in tampons was banned in the 80’s because it was linked with an increased risk of toxic shock syndrome.
sodium laureth sulfate (SLES): SLS’s cousin, sodium laureth sulfate is often contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen. Skin Deep score: 4
sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): A highly controversial synthetic detergent (often cited as a carcinogen), found in everything from toothpaste to dish soap. According to Seventh Generation, the anti-SLS campaign is an internet myth, and there is no evidence that SLS is a carcinogen. SLS can hide in products as “coconut-derived surfactants.” Skin Deep score: 3; EWG score: D
tocopherol: Also known as vitamin E, tocopherol was shown to cause tumor growth when combined with soya oil and injected into mice. Skin Deep score: 2
trans fat: Found in a variety of packaged and fried foods, trans fat will often appear on a label as “partially hydrogenated oil” (vegetable, soybean, cottonseed, etc.). Partially hydrogenated oils are much cheaper than butter and other semi-solid fats (e.g., palm oil) and they greatly extend a food’s shelf life. Trans fats raise the risk of heart disease by raising LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and lowering HDL (“good cholesterol”). Human milk contains trans fat if the breastfeeding mother consumes it; the more she eats, the higher the concentration of trans fat in her milk and in her baby’s blood. Trans fat is implicated in cancers of the breast and prostate, diabetes, infertility, Alzheimer’s, obesity (even with similar caloric intake), depression, and other maladies. Partially hydrogenated oils have been banned in several countries (such as Denmark and Switzerland), states (California), and cities (Calgary, New York City, and others).
triclosan: The most popular antibacterial ingredient. Found in hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps, toothpaste, and other cosmetics. When combined with water that contains trace amounts of chlorine,triclosan may form chloroform, a known carcinogen. There is also concern that triclosan’s widespread use will result in the development of resistant bacterial strains. Triclosan can react with chlorine and then sunlight to create dioxins, known endocrine disruptors. Even low-level exposure to triclosan has been showed to alter thyroid function in rats. Skin Deep score: 7
vitamin A palmitate: Either animal-based or produced synthetically, this form of vitamin A is also known as retinyl palmitate. Found in skincare products as well as some baby foods, including Earth’s Best. Skin Deep score: 8
volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Chemicals with low boiling points that turn to vapors or gases at room temperature, and therefore can be inhaled. VOCs can be either natural or man-made, and short-term exposure to man-made VOCs—which are commonly found in paints and solvents, cleaning products, adhesives, mattresses, dry cleaning chemicals, furniture, copy machines, and much more—may cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, fatigue, loss of coordination, allergic skin reactions, nausea, and memory impairment. Chronic exposure to man-made VOCs may pose such health risks as damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. VOCs are associated with respiratory, allergic, and immune effects in children, and many VOCs are known to cause cancer in animals. Skin Deep score: Depends on the specific VOC. Formaldehyde, for instance, is rated a 10.