A glossary of toxins you should try to avoid

Have you ever experienced this toxin nightmare?

You’re eating something delish and then you discover that it has loads of off-putting ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, food colouring, or preservatives.

It’s infuriating and scary! Because here you are enjoying something that you think is safe to eat when really it’s diminishing your health by spiking your blood sugar and carrying unwanted toxins into your body.

Well, that’s also how it feels to find out that the cleaning, skin care, and baby care products you’ve been using are actually filled to the brim with harmful carcinogens, hormone-mimicking substances, and highly toxic chemicals.

Oh, and that the use of these nasties is not regulated by our government.

Yup, most conventional household brands (think: the ones you find at your local supermarket) are formulated with ingredients that can—over time—harm your family and the planet. Ugh, right?

Before you race over to your cupboard to scream and toss out all of the cleaners, lotions, shampoos, nappies, wipes, and things you’ve been using for years, it will help to have a list of the toxic stuff you should avoid on hand so that you can decipher the bad from the good.

Stay away from these nasties and you can rest easy knowing your loved ones aren’t being exposed to harmful toxins in your everyday essentials.

A glossary of 28 toxins

1. SLS

One of the most commonly used detergents and emulsifiers in cosmetics and personal hygiene products, SLS is the ingredient that creates lather. It’s been proven to cause both skin and eye irritation. Not to mention, when it’s manufactured, it gets contaminated with two carcinogens: 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide.


When you see “fragrance” as an ingredient on a shampoo bottle, it’s actually a catchall term for up to 4,000 other fragrance-forming ingredients, most of which are synthetics, preservatives, and potentially allergy-provoking substances. In fact, exposure to synthetic fragrances has been linked to the skin conditions like dermatitis and eczema, as well as more severe conditions like cancer, asthma, and kidney damage.


Butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben are chemical preservatives that inhibit the growth of bacteria. While that might sound like a good thing, parabens have been shown to mimic the female hormone estrogen when ingested or absorbed into the body. ‘Estrogen disruption’ is now being linked to cancer growth, specifically breast cancer.


These chemicals make plastics more flexible and are used to waterproof the outer layer of nappies. While a chemical on the outer layer may not seem worrisome, phthalates are not chemically bound and are continually released through rubbing or touch and can then be inhaled or ingested. Studies suggest that these chemicals mimic hormones and can cause developmental disorders like ADHD and reproductive toxicity.


Found in many conventional products with “antibacterial” on the label, triclosan is an aggressive antibacterial agent that can promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. That means overusing antibacterial gels and washes can actually make us sicker not healthier. In fact, studies have shown that people with chronic illness who use antibacterial or antibiotic soaps actually get even more ill. Some bacteria is a good thing, especially for a baby’s budding immune system.


Found in polishing agents, glass cleaner, and more, ammonia is the chemical that prevents streaks from forming on shiny surfaces. It’s a powerful irritant that has been known to trigger asthma, lung issues, and breathing problems.


Found in toilet cleaners, mildew removers, and laundry whiteners, chlorine is what gives everything that bleached white look. However, indirect or direct inhalation has been linked to respiratory issues and thyroid hormone disruption.


Found in fabric softener liquid as well as most household cleaners with “antibacterial” on the label, QUATs are also a type of antimicrobial that has been linked to the skin condition dermatitis and respiratory issues like asthma.


This is a gel that’s added to the inner pad of disposable nappies to increase absorbency. While it sounds innocent enough, it absorbs vital oils from your baby’s skin causing irritation and nappy rash. It’s also been linked to urinary tract infections in girls and staph infections.


This is a by-product of the chlorine used to bleach nappy material and has been classified as carcinogenic. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States lists it as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals. Not only that, but exposure to it has also been connected to birth defects, skin disease, and decreased immunity.


Used in the hard, shiny plastics to make products like baby bottles, sport bottles, and sippy cups, BPA is a chemical that has also been categorised as a hormone disruptor linked to brain and behaviour changes, cancer, and reproductive issues. Exposure is worst when foods and beverages come in contact with it. Think: water sitting in a water bottle, food being stored in plastic containers, or worst of all microwaving food in a plastic container. Foetuses and infants are most susceptible to the toxic impacts.


Widely known the most toxic plastic, PVC has been categorised as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. It’s usually present in play mats, shower curtains, inflatable toys, rubber duckies, air mattresses, and more. Just like phthalates and BPA, PVC has also been confirmed as an endocrine disruptor, which can negatively impact the development of a child’s healthy reproductive and hormone system. Exposure is most often through inhalation or ingestion.


Present in almost every skin care or household cleaning product, petrochemicals are chemicals derived from petroleum—the substance we use to fuel our motorised vehicles. You can usually identify them on the ingredient list as one of the following: propylene, ethylene, butadiene, benzene, or xylene, and they are used to prolong shelf life. However, regular contact with them can disrupt the balance of healthy skin and has been linked to cancer.


Found in most skin care products as well, PEG is a chemical compound that is used as an emollient, emulsifier, or vehicle to deliver key ingredients deeper into the skin. And while this might sound okay, the real issue lies in the fact that PEGs contain harmful impurities like lead, iron, and arsenic. The US Government has identified them as a probable carcinogen that can also lead to kidney and liver damage.


Ranked the third most toxic substance by the US Government Agency of Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, mercury is a metal not only found in our food supply, but it’s also present in our skin care products, specifically anti-aging and acne treatments and skin lighteners. Regular exposure can cause gastrointestinal problems, kidney damage, and build up in the brain causing harm to the central nervous system.

16. LEAD

Another toxic heavy metal, lead has long been a substance we’ve known to avoid in paint and pipes. However, in recent years the FDA in the US found that many cosmetic products tested positive for high levels of lead! This includes lipsticks, lip glosses, eye shadow, blush, and mineral foundations. Continued exposure raises the risk of kidney problems, cardiovascular disease, reproductive disorders, and other health issues.


Naturally found in crude oil and in the tolu tree, toluene is substance often used in the making of paint thinners, adhesives, rubber, nail polish, and hair dyes to help ensure a smooth finish. Exposure via inhalation or oral consumption has been linked to organ system toxicity, neurobehavioral changes, respiratory irritation, nausea, weakness, and hearing damage. Pregnant women need to be especially wary about this one because inhalation can impair foetal development.


Found in many of the household items and products we use every day, VOCs are gasses emitted while those products are in use. This includes household cleaners, disinfectants, paints and varnishes, dry cleaned clothes, spot removers, air fresheners, mothballs, upholstered furniture and carpets, perfumes, nail polish remover, and hairsprays. Exposure can lead to light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, eye and respiratory irritation, as well as damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.


A VOC worth calling out. Found in dry-cleaning solutions, stain removers, and carpet and furniture cleaners, PERC is a neurotoxin that has been classified as a possible carcinogen. Overexposure has been linked to symptoms of dizziness and loss of coordination.


A fungus that grows in moist environments, mould is harmful substance that you’d likely never consider a factor when it comes to personal care products or baby toys. However, where there is moisture, there is a way. So it’s essential to thoroughly inspect your baby wipes, creams, teethers, and more for expiration dates and hints of mould, especially where there are holes and gaps for mould to find a happy home. Exposure to mould spores is particularly harmful to children’s developing immune systems, and has been linked to respiratory issues like asthma and allergic reactions like red eyes, sneezing, and rashes.


Synthetic surfactants, APEs are most often found in detergents, cleaning products, pesticides, lubricants, hair dyes, and hair care products. What’s most alarming about these toxins is that once they enter a living organism, they accumulate in tissues over time. APEs are suspected endocrine disruptors that also mimic estrogen, and have been linked to the development of breast cancer cells. The easiest way to identify them on ingredient labels is to look for the suffix “—phenol ethoxylate.”


A known human carcinogen, benzene is highly volatile chemical has been directly linked to the development of leukaemia. It’s found in many personal care products including nail polish removers and hair sprays. Infrequent exposure can cause headaches, tremors, dizziness, or loss of consciousness. Chronic exposure can reduce the production of both red and white blood cells from blood cells causing anaemia, as well as reproductive abnormalities in sperm.


Ammonia compounds used as emulsifiers or foaming agents in cosmetics, ethanolamines come in three forms — monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and triethanolamine (TEA) — and are also what allow oil-soluble and water-soluble ingredients to blend together. They’re primarily found in products like bubble baths, body washes, shampoos, soaps, and cleansers, as well as everyday cosmetics like mascara, sunscreens, hair products, eye shadows, blusher, and foundations. Studies are showing that prolonged exposure can lead to liver, kidney, and nervous system damage. They’ve also shown a tendency to promote the development of tumors, cancers, and abnormalities in foetuses.


Classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer, formaldehyde (or a formaldehyde releaser) is found on average in 1 of 5 cosmetics products in order to prolong shelf life. While product labels will never list it, you can identify the culprit as one of the following: DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolindinyl urea, quanternuim-15, bronopol, 5-bromo-5-nitro 1,3 dioxane, hydroxymethylglycinate. It’s most dangerous when inhaled, but absorption into the skin isn’t any better.


Derived from petroleum, mineral oil is most commonly found in baby oil and Vaseline. Researchers have said that it clogs pores and interferes with the skin’s ability to eliminate toxins increasing chances of acne and skin conditions. It’s also be classified as an immune and respiratory toxicant by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).


Used in lip and baby products, petrolatum is made from mineral oil jelly and has been known to cause sensitivity to light, dehydrate skin, and interfere with the body’s natural oil production. Not only that, but petrolatum is also xenoestrogenic which is an endocrine disruptor and has been linked to breast cancer.


A combination of phosphorous, hydrogen, and oxygen, phosphates are naturally occurring compounds used to balance the PH of cleaning products and helps them cut through things like soap scum, oil, and grease. While that may sound innocent enough, overexposure through inhalation has been linked to rashes, dizziness, and scratchy throats, and little ones are the most susceptible.


A common ingredient in hair dyes, lotions, peels, and products that treat acne and eczema, resorcinol has been classified by the EWG as a skin irritant that is toxic to the immune system. Studies have shown that frequent exposure can be disruptive to thyroid hormones and cause the development of goitres. While it’s a chemical restricted in US federal government buildings, it isn’t restricted in skin care products!

Ann MarieSafe CosmeticsEnvironmental Working GroupConnecticut CollegeMilacronThe SpruceBeauty TruthEnvironmental Working GroupEnvironmental Working GroupWorld Health OrganisationNational Cancer InstituteEnvironmental Working GroupHealthy ChildCenters for Disease Control and PreventionMoms AwareEnvironmental Protection AgencySafe CosmeticsIndependent Vital LifeFDA US Food & Drug AdministrationForbesNew BeautyFDA US Food & Drug AdministrationConsumer ReportsUS National Library of Medicine National Institutes of HealthForce of NatureTruth in AgingNew York TimesBotanik BoutiqueRespectCaregivers.org
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Blair Badenhop

Blair is a wellness copywriter and the host of the Brand Yourself podcast. She’s passionate about living a healthy and conscious lifestyle - taking care of her body, mind and heart; practicing kindness and compassion; and being mindful of her impact on people’s lives and the planet.

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