The Dirty Dozen of Cosmetics (Ultimate Guide)

The Dirty Dozen of Cosmetics (Ultimate Guide)

The ‘dirty dozen’ is a list of the top 12 fruits and veggies that are known to contain the highest amount of pesticides. It is advised to purchase these 12 fruits and veggies in organic forms. What if I told you the same is true for cosmetics (The dirty dozen of cosmetics) would you second guess what you choose to put on your skin? According to an online survey of 6,243 people and 12,550 products, the Suzuki foundation concluded that 80% of beauty products contained at least one of the “Dirty Dozen for cosmetics” ingredients.

For a moment, just think about everything we choose to put on our skin everyday: soap, toner, moisturizer, creams, exfoliators, shampoo, lipsticks and this list could go on. There are over 80,000 ingredients that are used to make these cosmetics and other personal care products. Such ingredients include, carcinogens, pesticides and reproductive toxins. The skin is the largest organ in our body and acts as a sponge, just soaking in everything it comes into contact with. Once these chemicals are absorbed into the body they can be stored in fatty tissue or organs like the liver, kidney, reproductive organs and brain.  Do we really want these toxins circulating in our bodies? PROBABLY NOT....
What makes these toxins so harmful is not the one time use of a polluted lipstick, rather the continued use along with the cumulative factor. This means that these harmful chemicals are found in multiple products and are being used multiple times a day. For example, think about phthalates. They are found in conditioners, deodorants, moisturizers and so many more places. Single exposure to any one of these is unlikely to cause any permanent damage. The issue arises when we are using multiple of these products on a daily basis. Exposure adds up causing long-term bodily harm. 
The first step to a toxic-free beauty regimen begins with reading the ingredient labels of your current personal hygiene products from your shampoos to sunscreens to nail polish to make-up products. Most of us have learned to read our food labels in so much detail which helps to avoid all added ingredients. It is with this scrutiny we need to also read the labels of ALL personal care products we are using on a daily basis.  
Let’s take a closer look at the “Dirty Dozen of Cosmetics”. I have listed their score out of 10 on how hazardous they are according to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Cosmetic Database. A score of 10 is the most hazardous and a score of 1 is the least hazardous.

The Dirty Dozen of Cosmetics

1. BHA and BHT (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)

  • Endocrine disruptor, possible carcinogen
  • Petroleum derived
  • Used as preservatives in lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreens, deodorants, fragrances and creams (even diaper creams, YIKES!)

Score: 5-7 (Moderate hazard)

2. Coal Tar Dyes

  • Neurotoxinuman carcinogen
  • Coal tar is a mixture of many chemicals derived from petroleum
  • Look for: Pheyledediamine, Toluene, Hydroquinone, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, KC261, benzin B70, petroleum benzin
  • Will appear as “CI” followed by a 5 digit number
  • Found in hair dyes, shampoos and lotions
  • It is prohibited in eye make up in Canada but still used in other cosmetics

Score: 10 (High hazard)

3. DEA (Diethanolamine)

  • 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
  • Used to make cosmetics creamy
  • Mainly found in foaming products like moisturizers, sunscreens, soaps, cleansers, shampoos

Score: 5-6 (Moderate hazard)

4. DBP (Dibutyl phthalate)

  • 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
  • DBP is commonly used in polyvinyl plastic (PVC) to make it flexible
  • Used as a plasticizer in fragrances and coloured cosmetics
  • It can prevent nail polishes from becoming brittle
  • It is banned for 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)

5. 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, color cosmetics
  • Health Canada allows for concentrations up to 5%

Score: 10 (High hazard)

6. Parabens

  • Endocrine disruptor, 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) 

7. Parfum (Fragrance)

  • Associated with 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)

8. 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 to enhance penetration of the product in the skin

Score: 3 (Mild hazard)

9. Petrolatum

  • Linked to 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, lip sticks and shaving products

Score:  4 (Moderate hazard)

10. Siloxanes

  • Linked to organ system toxicity
  • Look for ingredients ending in silixane or anything ending in “cone” like dimethicone or cyclomethicone
  • Used in skin and hair products as moisturizers

Score: 3 (Mild hazard)

11. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS)

  • 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 cosmetics as a detergent and also to make products bubble and foam like, cosmetics, shampoos, cleansers and bubble baths

Score: 3 (Mild hazard)

12. Triclosan

  • Endocrine disrupter, linked to organ system toxicity, may contribute to antibiotic resistance
  • Look for: Triclosan, triclocarban, Trichloro hydroxyl diphenyl ether,
  • Dichlorophenoxy phenol
  • Used as an antibacterial agent in laundry detergents, facial tissues, toothpastes and antiperspirants
  • Health Canada allows up to 0.3% in cosmetics

Score: 7 (High hazard)

I hope that everyone's eyes are a bit more open after reading more about these 12 chemicals! Skincare does not need to be this dirty. Get familiar with the ingredients in your products, don’t blindly trust the labels! Use sites like to check the ingredients or the Think Dirty App to rate the products you use. 
Go through all your personal care products today and count how many of these 12 toxic chemicals are found in EACH of them. Work to minimize exposure to these chemicals by reducing the number of conventional personal care products you use on a daily basis. Now, getting rid of all your personal care products at once is quite a daunting task. The best way to start going more natural in terms of cosmetics is to do it slowly over time and focus on one product at a time. So, once a cosmetic product is finished, replace it with a more natural alternative and continue along this path until all your cosmetics have been switched over!
There are so many wonderful certified organic skincare products on the market that are free of all these harmful ingredients. Ideally, you want to look for products that have ingredients you can recognize and have a small ingredient list. Some of my favourite clean personal care brands include, AlaffiaMineral FusionGreen BeaverJasonWeledaDerma E and Andalou. Just like you make smarter choices in terms of produce and pesticide exposure make smart choices with what you choose to put on your skin. 
Written By: Dr. Saira Kassam, ND 2019

**Disclaimer**: The advice is in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the care of a Naturopathic physician. 


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