Toxic Beauty: Do Your Patients Know What’s in Their Personal Care Products?

By Jill Carnahan, MD, ABFM, ABIHM, IFMCP

Recent studies have shown that we acquire more toxins through skin absorption and inhalation than we do from the foods we eat. This makes personal care products a big contender in overall health and well-being.

If your patients are eating healthy and taking the right supplements, but still lacking in energy or having health challenges, have them take a look in the bathroom to see what is in all those products that are used daily.


The skin is the body’s largest organ, so there’s substantial surface area through which synthetic, toxic chemicals can enter the body. The chemical compounds in personal care products can pass straight through the skin and enter the bloodstream within MINUTES!

Everyday, patients use products on their skin, assuming they are safe. The truth is that products are not always safe, and manufacturers don’t have to tell us so. The federal government does not require companies to provide full disclosure on what chemicals are used to make personal care products. In 1938, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted self-regulation to the cosmetic industry. This means personal care products can be marketed without government approval of ingredients, regardless of what tests show!

There are more than 80,000 chemicals used in our everyday skin products that have not been tested for long-term effects. Even fewer have been tested in combination with other chemicals. In a typical day, we might be exposed to hundreds of different chemicals, many of which are suspected of promoting cancer or disrupting hormones.

Petrochemicals are a toxic group of chemicals that are rampant in personal care products. Petrochemicals are derived from petroleum or natural gas. Some do not absorb into the skin very well, so they smother the skin and can keep it from functioning properly, while other petrochemicals can absorb straight through the skin and scalp directly into the bloodstream, weakening the body and promoting disease.


Common Personal Care Chemicals to Watch Out for:

Isopropyl alcohol: Isopropyl alcohol is found in hair color products, body lotions and perfumes, as well as shellac and antifreeze. What makes them think this is a good ingredient to add to items we put on our skin? It causes the skin to age more rapidly than it otherwise would, because it is a drying, irritating solvent that strips the skin of moisture, creating vulnerability to bacteria and viruses.

Propylene Glycol (PG) and Butylene Glycol: These are also found in anti-freeze. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers propylene glycol so toxic that workers are required to wear protective clothing when handling it, and it is disposed of by burying it in the ground. PG is found in a lot of food as well!

Mineral Oil: Found in products like body oil, bath oils, and baby oil, mineral oil is derived from crude oil. While it may seem to leave the skin initially soft and smooth, it coats it like plastic. This hinders your skin’s ability to breathe and eliminate toxins. Mineral oil also causes premature aging of skin.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate
: These are used in 90% of cosmetics that foam. This is the second most concentrated ingredient in shampoos. It’s also commonly found in shower gels, bubble baths and toothpastes. Among a host of other side effects, SLS can damage the immune system as well as cause separation of skin layers, causing inflammation to the skin.

Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA) and Triethanolamine (TEA)
: These are hormone disrupting chemicals that can form cancer-causing nitrates when combined with other chemicals. Found in shampoo, shaving cream, bubble baths and lotions for softening skin. They’ve been banned in Europe, and they’ve been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Phthalates: Found in hairsprays, lipstick and nail polish, these may not be listed on labels, since they can be hidden under the term “perfume” (just as food chemicals are hidden under the name “natural flavors”). Phthalates affect the lungs, liver and kidneys and have been linked to fertility issues. DEHP has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the EPA.

Triclosan: This ingredient has been used in almost all antibacterial soaps and products for a number of years. The EPA registers Triclosan as a pesticide, and it is suspected of causing cancer. In September of 2016, the FDA banned Triclosan and gave companies one year to get triclosan-containing hand soaps off the market, along with banning 18 other antibacterial ingredients that were allowed in soaps. While Triclosan is now banned from soaps, it is still allowed in a number of personal care products such as acne washes, body washes and toothpastes. Click here to view the EWG’s guide to Triclosan.

Ethanol: This petrochemical allows liquids to flow more easily, but when it is used in conjunction with other chemicals, studies show they may be carcinogenic.

DMDM and Imidazolidinyl (Urea): These are preservatives that often release formaldehyde and may cause many symptoms including joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches and chest pains.

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG): This carcinogenic petroleum ingredient leaves skin vulnerable to bacteria.

 Parabens are widely-used preservatives found in personal care and pharmaceutical products, with the most exposure coming from underarm deodorants and other cosmetics. These chemicals have been discovered in breast cancer tissue.

1,4- Dioxane: It’s found in ingredient lists under these names and suffixes:

  • myreth
  • oleth
  • laureth
  • ceteareth
  • any other eth
  • PEG
  • polyethylene
  • polyethylene glycol
  • polyoxyethylene
  • oxynol

1,4-dioxane is a chemical “known to the State of California to cause cancer.” It is also suspected to be toxic to the kidneys, respiratory system and nervous system.

The most frustrating part is that 1,4-Dioxane and all of its incarnations are not only showing up in conventional personal care products, but also in leading “natural” and “organic” branded products. They are readily available, so many people get tricked into thinking that these are better options. Remind your patients to check labels closely!


In general, I tell my patients to read the ingredient list of a health and beauty product as if each ingredient were something that you might eat. 

Ingredients that we would put in our mouths will have familiar names, not 30 letter words that we can’t pronounce. I admit, early on I was completely overwhelmed with the fact that I needed to not only change everything I eat, but my personal care products as well. It seemed a little overboard to me at first, until I started to dig deeper. As I was switching out all of my products, I was completely blown away by how toxic they were–conventional and “natural.” There is a good chance that your patients will be blown away as well.


The original blog by Dr. Jill Carnahan can be found here.



About Jill Carnahan, MD, ABFM, ABIHM, IFMCP

Dr. Jill Carnahan emphasizes an integrative holistic approach to wellness using both conventional medicine and evidence-based complementary therapies, taking into account the whole person (body, mind, and spirit), including all aspects of lifestyle. She emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between physician and patient and seeks to give her patients a full range of healing options with an emphasis on healthy living, nutrition, and disease prevention.


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