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Hidden Ingredients in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

Hidden Ingredients in Body ProductsIt turns out that reading personal care product ingredients is not enough to protect your health.  There are cancer-causing chemicals that do not appear on the list of ingredients.  Why are they not listed?  The reason is simple – they are not ingredients.  How do they end up in the products?  They are by-products of the listed ingredients or of a process involving listed ingredients; in other words, they are contaminants.  The Environmental Working Group (EWG) listed the 7 common hidden ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products:


  1. Hydroquinone
  2. Ethylene Dioxide
  3. 1,4-Dioxane
  4. Formaldehyde
  5. Nitrosamines
  6. PAHs
  7. Acrylamide


There are inexpensive ways to remove them from the final products and grassroots groups have been putting pressure on corporations to do so.  Sometimes, they are successful.  Please see the 1,4-Dioxane Reduction in Tide Detergent post.


Hidden Ingredients: Formaldehyde


First, let’s talk about formaldehyde, one of the seven hidden ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has recognized it as a carcinogen. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists has classified it as a “suspected human carcinogen.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer has defined formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans,” and the U.S. National Toxicology Program has described it as among those substances that are “reasonably anticipated to be carcinogens.” In addition, the State of California, pursuant to Proposition 65, has listed it as among “Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer.” The Environmental Working Group gives it the highest score for its negative health impact. Canada and the European Union restrict the use of formaldehyde; they are banned in Sweden and Japan.  However, in the US, EWG states, there are no restrictions on the levels of formaldehyde allowed in any body care products, no requirement to test products made with formaldehyde-releasing preservatives for levels of formaldehyde, and certainly no obligation to inform consumers that their products contain a cancer-causing chemical that is not on the list of ingredients.


The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics informs that it is a common ingredient in nail polish, nail glues, eyelash glues, hair gels, hair-smoothing products, and many others. Moreover, it is a hidden ingredient in personal care products, such as baby shampoo, baby soap, and body washes.  How does formaldehyde end up in baby products and other personal care products?  The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics explains that formaldehyde can be added to products as an ingredient or released from formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (e.g. quaternium-15). Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives release small amounts of formaldehyde over time.  This release-over-time feature allows for formaldehyde to remain at a low level in a product to decrease the risk of exposure to it.  However, even the low levels of formaldehyde are harmful.  The exposure to formaldehyde is associated with widespread allergic contact dermatitis.


Since there are no government regulations, the only way to protect yourself from the cancer-causing chemical is not to buy products that contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. The

The EWG provided the following list.

  1. Diazolidinyl Urea
  2. DMDM Hydantoin
  3. Imidazolidinyl urea
  4. Quaternium-15
  5. Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin
  6. Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  7. 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol)
  8. Polyoxymethylene Urea
  9. 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3 Dioxane
  10. Methenamine
  11. Glyoxal
  12. Benzylhemiformal


Hidden Ingredients: Nitrosamines


Another very harmful chemical that is not listed in the product ingredients is nitrosamines. Numerous studies and databases link nitrosamines to cancer. They are listed as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, “reasonably anticipated to be carcinogens“ by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, and they are included in the California EPA Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects.  In addition, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics states that there is some evidence of endocrine disruption at very low doses and notes that they have been banned from use in cosmetics by Canada and the European Union.  Unfortunately, there are no repercussions for US manufacturers contaminating their products with nitrosamines. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics cautions that due to the common nature of this impurity, nearly every kind of personal care products, including mascaras, concealers, conditioners, baby shampoos, pain relief salves and sunless tanning lotions, can contain nitrosamines as an impurity.


Where do they come from? Again, preservatives are to blame.  Various compounds break down over time and recombine into nitrosamines.  According to EWG, these are the ingredients that can be contaminated with nitrosamines.  The complete list of chemicals that may be contaminated with nitrosamines includes 55 chemicals.  Here are the most common ingredients that might be contaminated with nitrosamines:

  1. Triethanolamine (TEA)
  2. Cocamidopropyl betaine
  3. Lecithin
  4. Sodium PCA
  5. Cocamide MEA
  6. Stearalkonium hectorite
  7. Aminomethyl propanol
  8. Cocamide DEA
  9. Sodium lauroyl sarcosinate
  10.  Hydrogenated lecithin
  11. Lauramide DEA
  12. 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3 Dioxane

The most common suspects are TEAs and DEAs, if both are present in the same product. You can access the full list here.


Hidden Ingredients: Ethylene Oxide


Ethylene oxide is among the top seven hidden ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products.  The Breast Cancer Fund informs that ethylene oxide is found in fragrances and often used to produce popular brands of shampoo. EWG rates it 10 for the harmful health impact on a scale from 0 to 10 (with 10 being the most harmful). OSHA states that chronic exposure has been associated with the occurrence of cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified ethylene oxide into group 1, meaning it is a proven carcinogen.


How does it end up in the products we use every day?  A lot of manufacturers use cheap harsh raw materials.  To make them less irritating to the skin, ethylene oxide is added to create a chemical reaction called ethoxylation.  The finished products may contain traces of unreacted ethylene oxide.  Here is a sample list of ingredients that might be contaminated with ethylene oxide.  The full list contains 1,813 ingredients and can be accessed here.

  1. Polysorbate-20
  2. Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  3. PEG-100 Stearate
  4. Ceteareth-20
  5. Polysorbate-60
  6. Laureth-7
  7. PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil
  8. Steareth-21
  9. Polysorbate-80
  10. Cetyl PEG/ PPG-10/ 1 Dimethicone

Again, because there are no regulations requiring testing products before selling them on the market, there is no way to know if they are contaminated with ethylene oxide.  The best way to protect yourself from possible exposure to ethylene oxide is read the latest testings performed by independent chemists or simply to avoid products listing these chemicals as their ingredients.  In summary, watch out for ingredients that contain the following:

  • PEG-
  • polyethylene
  • polyethylene glycol
  • polyoxyethylene
  • poly-
  • -eth
  • -oxynol
  • -ceteareth


Hidden Ingredients: 1,4-Dioxane


The ethoxylation process, where carcinogenic ethylene oxide added to make harsh ingredients milder, also produces 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct, another hidden ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products.  If a manufacturer does not test for 1,4-dioxane contamination and subsequently does not use vacuum-stripping method to remove it, the dangerous chemical remains in the final product.  Because testing of final products is not required by the US government, 1,4-dioxane is a common hidden ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products. 1,4-dioxane is found in products that create suds, like shampoo, liquid soap, and baby bubble bath. EWG’s analysis suggests that 97 percent of hair relaxers, 57 percent of baby soaps, and 22 percent of all products in Skin Deep database may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.


1,4-dioxane is rated 8 by EWG; the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it into group 2B, meaning that it is “possibly carcinogenic to humans;” and it has been included on the California Proposition 65 “Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer” list.


In 2010, a study conducted by the Organic Consumers Association found that conventional brands, such as Ivory Snow and Tide, had higher levels of 1,4-dioxide.  The “natural” brands were the obvious winners, as five of the seven brands tested free of 1,4-dioxane including:

  • Clorox Green Works laundry detergent
  • ECOS laundry detergent (Earth Friendly Products)
  • Life Tree laundry liquid
  • Method Squeaky Green laundry detergent
  • Seventh Generation Free & Clear laundry detergent


Hidden Ingredients: Acrylamide


Acrylamide is another carcinogenic hidden ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products.  It is also on the California Proposition 65 “Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer” list.  Moreover, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it into group 2A, meaning that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has conducted research studies on acrylamide found in food.  They define acrylamide as “a chemical that can form in some foods during high-temperature cooking processes, such as frying, roasting, and baking.”  However, the chemical is not found only in food but it may be a hidden ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products.  The EWG lists it as one of the top seven common impurities and gives it a rating of  7 for the negative health impact.  EWG warns consumers to watch out for the following ingredients that may be contaminated with acrylamide.

  1. Polyacrylamide
  2. Polyquaternium-7
  3. Polyacrylic Acid


Hidden Ingredients: Hydroquinone


Another top seven hidden ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products is hydroquinone, rated 9 by EWG.  Currently, it is not listed as a carcinogen.  However, there is emerging evidence of its carcinogenicity.  In Canada, it is restricted in cosmetics because of its organs toxicity. Hydroquinone is an allergen, skin toxicant, and causes the medical condition known as ochronosis in which the skin becomes dark and thick. The following ingredients may be associated with contamination by hydroquinone.

  1. Tocopheryl Acetate
  2. Tocopherol
  3. Tocopheryl Linoleate
  4. Potassium Ascorbyl Tocopheryl Phosphate
  5. Tocopheryl Nicotinate
  6. Tocophersolan


Hidden Ingredients: PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons)


The last ingredient, but obviously not the least, on the top list of top seven hidden ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products is PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons).  They are banned in the European Union and Canada. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists has classified PAHs as a “suspected human carcinogen” and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has put them into the “possibly carcinogenic to humans” group.  They have been included on the California Proposition 65 “Chemicals Known to the State to Cause Cancer” list.  The Breast Cancer Fund has PAHs as one of the top chemicals found in cosmetics and linked to breast cancer.  PAHs are a group of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline.


Some of the shampoos and cosmetics are made with them; thus, they contain PAHsEWG recommends avoiding petrolatum, commonly known as petroleum jelly, as it may be contaminated with PAHs.  Also, shampoos with coal tar should be avoided because coal tar is carcinogenic itself and in addition may be contaminated with one of the PAHs called benzo[a]pyrene. Hydrogenated Palm Oil is also a suspect for contamination with benzo[a]pyrene.


Until US government regulates the safety of cosmetics and personal care products, we, consumers, have to be knowledgeable and vigilant and read not only listed but also hidden ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products.  To be absolutely sure you are not exposed to these hidden ingredients is to avoid ingredients that may be contaminated with them.


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