Popular Dirty Chemicals

Become a well-informed label-reader, and slowly eliminate these synthetics from entering your home and body.

  • 2-Butoxyethanol

    Also known as 2-butoxy-1-ethanol or ethelene glycol monobutylether, it is used in a wide range of household cleaning products, and is readily absorbed through skin. It is neurotoxic, damages blood - and the body's ability to make blood, the central nervous system, kidneys and liver.

  • Ammonia & Ammonium compounds

    Used in a wide range of household cleaning products like window cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet cleaners, bathroom cleaners, multisurface cleaners, glass cleaners, and stainless-steel cleaners, it is an inexpensive and effective cleaning chemical. It gives a sparkling, streak-free finish, removes soap scum and fungus and can disinfect household appliances while removing dirt and stains. However, mild exposure to ammonia and it's compounds may irritate and corrode the lungs, nose, mouth and eyes. Repeated or prolonged exposure to vapours may cause bronchitis and pneumonia.

  • BHAs

    Butylated hydroxyanisole (not to be confused with the anti-ageing BHAs and AHAs) is used as a preservative and anti-oxidant in personal care products. BHT’s are a toluene-based product also used as preservatives. Banned for use in cosmetics in the EU as a known endocrine disrupter, it can be reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen and a known reproductive and developmental toxin. Known to be most toxic to pregnant women and infants.

    Found in: Lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, antiperspirant/deodorant, fragrance, creams

    Read the label for: BHA and BHT

    Problems associated with it: Organ-system toxicity, irritation, allergies and immunotoxicity

  • Coal Tar Dyes

    These are complex chemicals created during the incomplete combustion of coal. They contain known carcinogens, such as toluene, benzene, naphthalene, anthracna and xylene that affect everybody from the elderly to babies. It is also a known skin irritant. Coal tar dyes are used in products to make darker shades.

    Found in: Dark hair dyes, shampoos and scalp treatments, soaps, lotions, eyeliner, mascara.

    Read the label for: “Coal tar solution, tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin [3,4]”
    Campaign For Safe Cosmetics

  • Ethanolamine - MEA/DEA/TEA

    These pH-stabilizers are used as emulsifiers and preservatives, in a host of personal care and household cleaning products. They have the ability to interact with nitrates in some products or the raw materils in products to form easily absorbably carcinogenic nitrosomes.

    Found in: All-purpose household cleaning products, spot removes and metal polishes, make-up and personal care products

    Read the label for: Mono-, di-, and tri-ethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate

    Problems associated with it: Carcinogenic, neurotoxicity, organ system toxicity, eye and skin irritant, 


  • Formaldehyde / Formaldehyde releasers

    Some cosmetics chemicals are designed to react with water in the bottle to generate a little formaldehyde, a preservative, to keep the product from growing mold and bacteria. But formaldehyde is a potent allergen which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization consider carcinogenic. Formaldehyde releasers include DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15. Where do you find them? Shampoos, conditioners, bubble bath and other personal care products. Even those intended for children. A 2010 study found that nearly one fifth of cosmetic products contained a formaldehyde releaser. Johnson & Johnson, a personal care products giant, is phasing out formaldehyde releasers under pressure from health advocates. We hope other cosmetics makers will follow.

  • Fragrance

    A loophole in US law allows companies to hide what constitutes a ‘fragrance’ on product labels. Required to self-regulate by volunteering information on possible toxicity in any its products, the same cosmetic companies are not required by the law to test their products before marketing it to consumers. By lumping a mixture of chemicals, some of which are known allergens and carcinogens, under the term ‘fragrance,’ the consumer is not allowed to make an informed puchase.

    Found in: Personal care products, cosmetics, household cleaning products

    Read the label for: Fragrance, parfum, fragrance-free (which often means toxic chemicals have been used to mask the smell of other ingredients in the mix)

    Problems associated with it: Allergies, birth defects, cancer

  • Glycol Ethers

    A common solvent in paints, cleaning products, brake fluid and cosmetics, glycol ethers are known to shrink the testicles of rats exposed to it. Linked to the damage of fertility of unborn children, as well as reported cases of asthma and allergy in children exposed to it from the paint that coats their bedroom walls. Case studies conducted on painters have linked exposure of certain glycol ethers to blood abnormalities and lower sperm counts.

    Found in: Paints, household cleaners, cosmetics, perfumes

    Read the label for: 2-butoxyethanol, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether

    Problems associated with it: Impaired fertility, reproductive and developmental toxicity, possible human carcinogen


  • Hydrochloric Acid

    Used in some toilet bowl cleaners and deodorizers, this corrosive chemical is highly toxic if inhaled. Inhalation of vapours may cause severe irritation of the respiratory system, coughing and difficulty breathing. It can also be a skin, mucous membrane and eye irritant.

  • Hydroquinone

    One of the most toxic ingredients still used in cosmetics, hydroquinone is possibly a carcinogenic skin whitening agent. It is often lumped under the label ‘fragrance’ in personal care products - which is an unregulated area in the field of cosmetics. It is unsafe when used in products meant to be left on the skin.

    Found in: Skin lighteners, facial and skin cleansers, facial moisturizers, hair conditioners, nail glue, products that contain vitamin-E

    Read the label for: Hydroquinone, tocopheral acetate, tocopheral, tocopheral linoleate, other ingredients with the root “toco”

    Problems associated with it: Organ-system toxicity, cancer

  • Lead acetate in hair dye

    Lead acetate in some men's hair dyes, can increase the body's lead level. Because lead is a potent neurotoxin, lead acetate has been banned in Canada and the European Union. The government should develop tougher requirements for proving cosmetic chemicals are safe before coming to market. All too often, products are on the market for years before scientists catch up with possible hazards in their formulations. Ultimately, it's up to consumers to read labels, vote with their cash and force the market to change for the better.

  • Oxybenzone

    Last reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over 30 years ago oxybenzone is used in sunscreens to protect us from UV rays. Studies have shown its high penetrative capacity as well as our bodies ability to store it. This is potentially harmful since it is known to mimic estrogen in our body and has been linked to breast cancer.

    Found in: Sunscreens, lipstick, moisturizer and fragrance for women.

    Read the label for: Benzophenone-3, oxybenzone

    Problems associated with it: Hormone disruption, allergies, cell damage

  • Parabens

    An artificial preservative used in our personal care products, parabens are the reason our sunscreens, deodorants, shampoos and conditioners do not ‘spoil’. Research has shown that it takes 26 seconds for our skin to absorb parabens whole into our bloodstream. Looking for products with shorter shelf lives (6 month – 1year) is a good start if trying to avoid and reduce exposure to parabens. Pregnant women and young children are most vulnerable to this family of synthetics.

    Problems associated with it: Breast cancer, endocrine disrupter, allergies

    Read the label for: Ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, other ingredients ending in –paraben

  • PEG compounds

    Polyethylene glycol is a family of petroleum compounds widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, moisture-carriers, solvents and softeners. As a penetration enhancer, it allows other harmful compounds often found in PEGs to be absorbed by our skin. This includes 1,4-dioxane which is a known carcinogen, as well as heavy metals such as lead, cobalt, iron, arsenic and cadmium. PEGs are followed by a number correlating to the number of ethylene glycol units in it, as well as its absorbency rate. The lower the number the higher its ability to be absorbed by our skin.

    Problems associated with it: Systemic toxicity and if used on broken skin it can cause irritation 

    Found in: Cosmetics as cream bases

  • Petroleum Distillates

    A clear colourless liquid used to dissolve other liquids in personal care products, petroleum distillates are a suspected human carcinogen.

    Found in: mascara, perfume, foundation, lipstick and lip balm

    Problems associated with it: Neurotoxicity

  • Phosphates

    These inorganic compounds containing phosphorous, are used in detergents as a water softener. In personal care products they are used as a pH adjuster, corrosion inhibitor and chelating agent. Phosphates pollute water by encouraging algae growth in our lakes, streams and drinking-water reservoirs. If the colour of a waterbody is turning green and choking with plant growth it is a sure indicator of excessive phosphates in the water. They also consume vast quantities of oxygen affecting aquatic life severely.

    Problems associated with it when used in cleaning products over time: Rashes, dizziness, itchy throats

    Found in: Extensively used in household cleaning products, bath products, mouthwashes, shampoos, makeup and skin care products

    Read the label on cleaning products for: Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), Tetrapotassium pyrophosphate (TKPP) also known as Potassium pyrophosphate; Diphosphoric acid, tetrapotassium salt; and Tetrapotassium pyrophosphate

    Read the label on personal care products for: Sodium Phosphate, Disodium Phosphate and Trisodium Phosphate, monobasic sodium phosphate, dibasic sodium phosphate and tribasic sodium phosphate

  • Phthalates

    Pronounced 'thalates', they are salts or esters of phthalic acid. Phthalates are used in a variety of personal care products as fragrances - to make them linger.They are also used as a lubricant in cosmetics. Commonly found in plastic food and drink containers they are also present in our food and water (from pesticides sprayed on our food), in dairy products and meats, plastic toys and medical instruments amongst a host of other consumer products. Phthalates are thought to mimic, displace and disrupt our hormones, which subsequently lead to imbalances in our body. The two phthalates most extensively used in cosmetics are: Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) Diethyl phthalate (DEP). Also see Fragrance.

    Found in: Perfume, fragranced lotions, body washes and hair care products, talc, deodorant, nail polish and treatment as well as hair spray. Even products labeled “unscented” contain phthalates as a chemical scent masking agent.

    Read the label for: Products listed “fragrance-free” or “unscented”, phthalate, DEP, DBP, fragrance, parfum

    Problems associated with it: Birth defects in baby boys, reduced sperm count in men, endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, bioaccumulation, ovarian cancer

  • Polyethylene Compounds

    Polyethylene or polythene is a polymer used in personal care products and cosmetics.It is used to bond surfaces together increasing the thickness of the oil portion and keeping the oil and liquid parts of a product from separating. When used in the form of small beads to aid in skin exfoliating, smoothing and polishing products, it gets washed down the drain and end up in our waterways harming aquatic life. Not know to be toxic by itself, it can contain 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogenic by-product of the production process, unless otherwise stated by the manufacturer.

    Found in: Makeup, skin cleansers, facewash, detergents, shampoos

  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds

    Initially used as an anti-bacterial cleaning ingredient and fabric softener household laundry products, they are now used in our cosmetics as a surfactant, preservative and germicide. All “quats” are toxic depending on their dosage and concentration. When used on the skin and hair, allow for that feeling of softness, which over time strips the hair of its natural oils. They find their way into our rivers and streams and ultimately our drinking water.

    Found in: Laundry products, body wash, facial moisturizers, baby shampoo, conditioners, and detanglers

    Read the label for: alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC), benzalkonium chloride, and didecyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride. “Fragrance-free” products are also known to contain “quats”.

    Problems associated with it: Asthma, allergies, resistance to other germ killing chemicals

  • Retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid

    Retinoic acid is used in anti-aging skin creams. Retinyl palmitate, a related chemical, is added to roughly one-quarter of the sunscreens. Scientists have found that these chemicals speed the development of cancerous lesions on sun-exposed skin. The results suggest that people who go out in the sun while wearing retinyl palmitate creams and sunscreens may be at an increased risk for skin cancer. Instead of restricting these chemicals immediately, governmants have ordered additional testing. EWG recommends that you avoid products containing retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate.

  • Siloxanes

    D5 siloxanes, known to cause cancer in rats is the chemical of choice in dry cleaning shops. D4 and D5 siloxanes build up in the food chain and endures in the environment. 

    Found in: Home cleaning products, body lotions, hair-care products, soaps, lipstick

    Read the label for: Perchloroethylene under any of its names (perc, PCE, tetrachloroethylene), siloxane and hydrocarbon solvents

    Problems associated with it: Uterine tumors, damage to the female reproductive system


    A surfactant, emulsifier and detergent, SLS, is the bubble and foaming agent in your shampoo, face-wash and dish washing soap. Part water and oil-soluble this chemical allows water and oil to mix, allowing it to attach itself to the oil based dirt, and remove it. This is what gives our hair the clean, fresh-hair feel along with the shine we are now used to. SLS can get contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane - proven carcinogens, while being manufactured. Sodium Laurly Sulphate (SLES) is derived from SLS and is considered milder than its cousin. The ‘E’ in this comes from the addition of Ethylene Oxide to make SLS milder. Cumulative effects of both these chemicals in small amounts over extended periods of time along with the combinations in which they occur, is cause for concern. No long-term studies have been made to understand these multiple interactions and its effect on the human body.

    Found in: Dish soap, liquid laundry detergents, cleaning towelettes, and toilet bowl cleaners, as well as any synthetic cosmetics that produce foam upon use.

    Read the label for: “To avoid 1,4-dioxane, read ingredient labels and avoid any of the 56 cosmetic ingredients that can contain the contaminant, including "sodium laureth sulfate" and ingredients that include the clauses "PEG," "xynol," "ceteareth," and "oleth." - www.ewg.org

    Problems associated with it (SLS): • A skin, eye and respiratory tract irritant, organ toxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicology, proven toxic to aquatic organisms, biochemical or cellular changes


  • Sodium Hydroxide

    This is a highly corrosive eye, skin and respiratory irritant that is used in high concentration in drain openers.

  • Sodium Hypochlorite (bleach)

    This chemical is especially hazardous to people with heart conditions or asthma. It is also corrosive, and an eye, skin and respiratory irritant. It is also a sensitizer and used in a wide range of household cleaners.

  • Toluene

    This colourless liquid with a benzene-like odour is used as a solvent in cosmetics and cleaning solutions. Known to pose the highest risk in pregnant and breast-feeding women, exposure to this known allergen is through the air and contaminated drinking water.

    Found in: Nail polish, synthetic fragrances amongst many other consumer products.

    Read the label for: Toluene, methylbenzene, phenylmethane, methacide

    Problems associated with it: Nervous system disorders such as spasms, tremors, speech impairment, and memory, hearing, vision and coordination loss, liver and kidney damage, skeletal muscle disease, altered reproductive hormone levels, decreased sperm counts. Airborne exposure can cause fatigue, sleepiness, headaches, and nausea.

  • Triclosan

    Triclosan and triclocarban are chlorinated aromatic compounds highly soluble in water. Registered as a pesticide with the Environmental Protection Agency since 1969, it is used in personal care products and detergents, to name a few, as a means to slow down or stop the growth of bacteria, fungi and mildew. Research proves that this active agent is highly toxic to aquatic life. A study in young male rats proves that it disrupts thyroid functioning in low dosage levels. Ongoing research is being conducted on its effect on human beings. We do however know that extensive use of this chemical as an anti-bacterial allows bacteria to become resistant to it making antibiotics meant to cure related diseases completely ineffective. Research has proven that plain soap and water to clean and wash do the job as well as one that claims anti-bacterial action, making this an unnecessary ingredient in our personal care products.

    Found in: Soaps, toothpastes, hair products, underarm deodorants, mouthwashes and household sanitising products

    Read the label for: “Active ingredient”, “anti-bacterial” and “odour-fighting” 

    Problems associated with it: Liver and inhalation toxicity, hypothyroidism, estrogen dominance/excess estrogen , endocrine disrupter (chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in both humans and wildlife), hormonal disorders in children, reduced immunity, allergies