Dr Kassam Attention Ladies The Dirty Dozen of Cosmetics

Attention Ladies: The Dirty Dozen of Cosmetics

Written by: Dr. Saira Kassam, ND

     Skin is the largest organ of your body. It absorbs roughly 60% of everything you put on it. This should give you enough reason to be wary of the products you use on your face and other areas of the body. We are all aware of the dirty dozen of produce, but who knew there is also a dirty dozen for cosmetic and personal care ingredients!

Thanks to the David Suzuki Foundation, we now know that there are over 82,000 ingredients used to make personal care products. 1/8 of these are actually INDUSTRIAL CHEMICALS. *MOUTH DROP MOMENT*. These chemicals include carcinogens, reproductive toxins, pesticides and hormone/endocrine disruptors (interfere with the production and release of certain hormones). So basically, not only do we have to worry about exposure to these toxins and pollutants in our food and environment, but also in the products we chose to put on our bodies.

The “dirty dozen chemicals” are known as organic pollutants. These are a list of 12 chemicals that activists have identified as potentially harmful to our health. In 2010, the David Suzuki Foundation completed an online survey about toxic ingredients in cosmetics used by Canadians. They found that 80% of products contained at least one of the dirty dozen ingredients and more than half of all products contained multiple dirty dozen ingredients. These chemicals can be absorbed into your bodies and stored in your organs, accumulating over time, leading to toxic burden as referred to in my previous article.

Over the last couple years, a lot of research has gone into testing the short term and long term health effects of various ingredients. In Canada and the US, there are many chemicals that are incompletely tested for toxicity. A lot of studies are left “inconclusive” with “further testing required”. Unless it has proven to cause harm it is recognized as “safe”. 

So, my message to you is to look at all beauty products you chose to put on your skin the same way you look at food labels. Try to get familiar with the ingredients in your products. Do your research. Beware of the “all natural claim” on many products. Don’t blindly trust your labels – Look at the back!  Kiss my face and Burts Bees are some of my favourite brands that are great for various beauty products that are free of the dirty dozen chemicals.  Here is a list of those chemicals to avoid in your cosmetic products to make life easier for you. I have also listed their score out of 10 on how hazardous they are according to the EWG’s Cosmetic Database. A score of 10 is the most hazardous and a score of 1 is the least hazardous.

  1. BHA & BHT
  • Endocrine disruptor + possible carcinogen
  • Petroleum-derived
  • Used as preservatives in lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreens, deodorants, fragrance and creams (even diaper creams)
  • Score: 5-7 Moderate Hazard
  1. Coal Tar Dyes
  • Neurotoxin, human carcinogen
  • Look for: Pheyledediamine, Toluene, Hydroquinone, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, KC261, benzin B70, petroleum benzin
  • Coal tar is a mixture of many chemicals derived from petroleum
  • Will appear as “CI” followed by a 5 digit number
  • Found in hair dyes, shampoos and lotions
  • Colours may be contaminated with low levels of heavy metals which are toxic to the brain
  • It is prohibited in eye makeup in Canada but still used in other cosmetics
  • Score: 10 High Hazard
  • Associated with hormone disruption, allergies and immunotoxicity
  • Look for: Cocamide DEA, Cocamide MEA, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, DEA Oleth-3 Phosphate, Stearamide MEA, Triethanolamine, Nitrilotris, Trolamine
  • Ammonia compounds used in foaming products like moisturizers, sunscreens, soaps, cleansers, shampoos
  • Score: 5-6 Moderate Hazard
  1. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)
  • Carcinogen + endocrine disrupter + reproductive toxin that can cause changes in the testes, prostate and reduce sperm count
  • Look for: 1,2 Benzenedicarboxylic acid, Dibutyl ester, Benzendicarboxylate,
  • Used as a plasticizer in fragrances and coloured cosmetics
  • Prevent nail polishes from becoming brittle
  • It is banned in children’s toys as it may cause liver and kidney failure in children if they are sucked or chewed for long periods of time
  • Score: 10 High Hazard
  1. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
  • Human carcinogen, allergic skin reactions
  • Look for: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, DMDM hydantoin, dizolindynl urea, methenamine
  • It is a gas used for industrial applications like wood products, vinyl flooring, cabinet furniture and toilet bowl cleaners
  • Found in nail polish, hair products, baby shampoo, body soap, colour cosmetics
  • Health Canada allows for concentrations up to 5%
  • Score: 10 High Hazard
  1. Parabens
  • Endocrine disrupter mimics estrogens and associated with breast cancer
  • Look for: 4-hydroxy-methyl ester benzoic acid, methyl ester, methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ehtylparaben
  • 75-90% of cosmetics contain parabens as it is used as a preservative
  • Used in makeup, moisturizers, shaving products, hair care products
  • Score: 4 Moderate Hazard
  1. Parfum (fragrance)
  • Allergies, asthma and reproductive toxicity
  • Look for: Fragrance, perfume, parfum
  • Used in perfumes, laundry detergents and softeners, body wash, facial creams, skin toners, skin serums, exfoliating scrubs
  • Manufacturers are not required to disclose specific fragrance ingredients on the product label. They use terms like “parfum” which contains a mixture of potentially dangerous chemicals
  • Score: 8 High hazard
  1. PEG compounds (Polyethylene glycols)
  • Toxic to damaged skin
  • Look for PEG and ingredients with the letters “eth”
  • May contain many impurities like 1,4- dioxane, heavy metals (lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, cadmium and arsenic)
  • Commonly used in hair products, conditioners, moisturizers and deodorants
  • Score: 3 Moderate Hazard
  1. Petrolatum-based products, Mineral oils
  • Organ system toxicity
  • Look for: mineral grease, mineral jelly, petrolatum white, petroleum jelly
  • Used for shine in hair products and as a moisturizer in lip balms, lipsticks and shaving products
  • Score:  4 Moderate Hazard
  1. Siloxanes
  • Organ system toxicity
  • Look for ingredients ending in silixane or “anything ending in cone-like dimethicone
  • The Cyclomethicones, D5 and D6 have been marked as “safe” but D4 is still under review
  • Used in skin and hair products as moisturizers
  • Score: 3 Moderate Hazard
  1. Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Can be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane which are human carcinogens. These 2 ingredients are banned from Health Canada
  • At high levels, it can cause skin and eye irritation
  • Look for: Dodecyloxy, Lauryl Ether Sulfate, Polyethylene glycol
  • Used in foaming cosmetics, shampoos, cleansers and bubble baths
  • Score: 3 Moderate Hazard
  1. Triclosan
  • Endocrine disrupter + organ system toxicity + may contribute to antibiotic resistance
  • Look for: Triclosan, triclocarban, Trichloro hydroxyl diphenyl ether, Dichlorophenoxy phelol
  • Used as an anti-bacterial agent in laundry detergents, facial tissues, toothpaste and antiperspirants
  • Health Canada allows up to 0.3% in cosmetics
  • Score: 7 High Hazard


When thinking of pollution, most people don’t think about their personal care products like lipsticks, shampoos, lotions, moisturizers and/or soaps. Be sure to research the ingredients in everything you buy. Look for all natural chemical free products for both home and body use. Try and take small steps to reduce your toxic exposure.

Skin Deep Cosmetics database is a great resource to check each of your ingredients: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/#.Wed06BNSw6X.  As well, you can check out Health Canada’s site to see how they classify all of these toxins: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/consumer-product-safety/cosmetics/labelling/safety-ingredients.html.