Chemicals to Avoid

Cetyl alcohol
What it’s used for: emulsifier, emollient, foam booster, stabilizer, thickener
Avoid it because: Possible eye, lung, and skin irritant
What it’s made from: The spermaceti of whales or dolphins.  Can also be derived from coconut.  
Steph weighs in: A long time ago I ordered a bucket of cetyl alcohol to experiment with.  The warning labels were a bit off-putting.  “Do not get in contact with skin”  “Do not get in contact with eyes.” “Do not breathe dust.”  So…a product that’s usually in lotions shouldn’t be in contact with skin???  Yes, it gets diluted, but wouldn’t you rather use a moisturizer that has ingredients you don’t have to worry about? I played around with it for a little bit.  When it was heated it smelled absolutely horrendous.  I was thinking “That can’t be good.”

Cyclopentasiloxane / Cyclomethicone
What it’s used for: Used in moisturizers, foundations and deodorants as a fragrance carrier and gives sprays and body mists a “dry” feeling.  
Avoid it because:  It has bioaccumulative properties.  It is a polluting toxin in wildlife.  Studies have shown it to be a skin irritant at moderate doses.  It is a synthetic silicon based product.  It will actually break down PVC based bottles, releasing toxins and possible carcinogens.   
What it’s made from: Silicon
Steph weighs in: This is a cheap alternative to vegetable glycerin and other actually beneficial ingredients.  I know of at least one lotion that’s marketed as “organic” that contains this chemical. 

What it’s used for: Skin conditioning agent, anti-foaming agent, emollient 
Avoid it because: This chemical has been restricted by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Assessments Board.  It can not be used over a certain concentration for safety concerns.  Because it’s a product made from silicone, it should be avoided.  Researchers have investigated silicon materials/compounds in association with several different illnesses: lupus, scleroderma, A.D.D. and cancer. Some researchers speculate that silicon may be linked to allergies, fibrocysts and irritable bowel syndrome.
What it’s made from:  It’s a synthetic chemical of the silicone family.  They are created using petrochemically-derived methanol, a toxic alcohol.  The processing of dimethicone can create environmental hazards such as hydrochloric acid.  
Steph weighs in: See my article about silicone products here.

Diazolidinyl Urea
What it’s used for: Preservative
Avoid it because: A known skin and immune system toxin, at least one study has shown it to show “positive mutation effects.” In other words, it created cancer in studies, studies have shown endocrine disruption, brain and nervous system effects at high doses.  Has also been shown to effect metabolism in high doses.  
What it’s made from: Cannot be derived from a vegetable source.  Either synthetically produced or extracted from animal urine or other bodily fluids.  
Steph weighs in: Some of the big “organic” brands will put a big “paraben-free” label on their products, using Diazolidinyl Urea instead as their preservative.  Nice.

Ethylhexylglycerin / Ethylhexylglycerine
What it’s used for: Deodorant agent, skin conditioning agent, preservative booster
Avoid it because:  It is a known skin irritant, can possibly damage and irritate eyes, and is known to cause dermatitis.
What it’s made from: Derived from vegetable glycerin.
Steph weighs in: Don’t let the fact that it’s derived from vegetable glycerin (a safe, natural ingredient) fool you.  So is propylene glycol! (see below) Many of the "natural" and "organic" companies use this as an alternative to parabens as a preservative. No matter what their label claims, it is not a natural preservative.

What it’s used for: Antioxidant, skin bleaching agent, fragrance ingredient, hair dye
Avoid it because: It’s a known human immune system toxicant and a skin toxin.  There are strict regulations on its use; any product with the ingredient has to be rinsed off immediately.  There is strong evidence it’s a neurotoxin, an eye irritant, and a respiratory irritant, and a nervous system toxin.   Three studies have suggested that it’s a possible carcinogen and it’s even been banned in some European countries.  It’s a common component of weed killer and it is restricted in the EU because it is a fish and wildlife pollutant.  
What it’s made from: Produced synthetically
Steph weighs in: Need I say more???

See article.

What it isThere are many kinds of PEGs.  PEG stands for polyethylene glycol.  It is a group of chemicals that can be used as thickeners, detergents, and surfactants.  PEG is usually followed by a number (for instance, PEG-30).  The number refers to its molecular weight.  PEG-8000 actually holds promise as a preventative supplement against colorectal cancer.  It’s not typically used in cosmetics, however.  The most common PEGs range from a molecular weight of 10 to 300.
Avoid it because: PEGs have a number of side effects, depending on their molecular number.  Common concerns include: reproductive disorders, carcinogen contamination, proven cancer risk, endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, and skin irritation.
What it’s made from: Produced synthetically
Steph weighs in: It's hard to say just one thing about PEGs because there are so many of them. Look out for them because many "natural" companies will list them as a "natural thickener" or "vegetable based." Don't believe them!

Propelyne Glycol
What it’s used for: Thickener, filler, 
Avoid it because:  It has just about every side effect: the risk of caner, reproductive toxicity, usage restrictions, allergies and immune system toxicity, skin and eye irritations, organ system toxicity, endocrine disruption, and neurotoxicity. It also is a penetration enhancer, meaning it penetrates skin cells, getting right into the bloodstream, carrying other chemicals with it.  
What it’s made from: Derived from glycerin.
Steph weighs in: If you’re using a supposedly “natural” deodorant, the odds are it contains propylene glycol.  Many of the natural companies sell “paraben-free” and “aluminum-free” deodorants, but they still contain propylene glycol because it’s a cheap ingredient that makes a clear and thick deodorant bar. The other day I was buying my dogs some treats—and one of the ingredients on the package I picked up was propylene glycol!  Nasty. I put those back on the shelf. Check out my article on glycols here.

See article.

Sorbitan Oleate
What it's used for:
 An emulsifier, able to combine water and oil.
What it's made from:
Derived form the sugar alcohol sorbitol.
Steph weighs in:
 Some animal studies have shown it to keep DNA from repairing itself when damaged when ingested in high amounts. I previously had this listed as a possible mutagen, however, new information has shown that it doesn't pose a large risk and is a pretty inert ingredient. (Source)

Stearyl Alcohol
What it’s used for: emulsifier, emollient, foam booster, stabilizer, thickener
Avoid it because: A known eye and skin irritant.  Has also been shown in more than one animal study to cause tumors in high doses.  
What it’s made from: Can be animal-produced from sperm whale oil.  Also can be produced from vegetable sources.  
Chemical Derivaties: Stearamine Oxide, Stearyl Acetate, Stearyl Caprylate, Stearyl Citrate, Stearyldimethyl Amine, Stearyl Glycyrrhetinate, Stearyl Heptanoate, Stearyl Octanoate, Stearyl Stearate.
Steph weighs in: I was surprised (mildly) to find this possible cancer-causing ingredient is in many of the “organic” companies’ lotions. 

Tocopheryl Acetate (Often listed as Vitamin E Acetate)
What it’s used for: Anti-oxidant agent, labeling appeal
Avoid it because: There is much evidence that it’s toxic on skin and other organs.  The biggest concern is that it can be contaminated in the manufacturing process by hydroquinone, a highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical.  
What it’s made from: Made by combining natural Vitamin E with acetic acid.
Steph weighs in: Companies will frequently use this ingredient to actually make the ingredients label look appealing.  “Now with Vitamin E!” sounds great.  This form of Vitamin E has a longer shelf life and it’s cheaper than natural Vitamin E so companies use it.  What they’re not telling you is that it has risks for contamination and that it’s a skin irritant and toxin.  Some companies even try to play this nasty chemical off as a “natural” ingredient.

Triethanolamine (TEA)
What it’s used for: Surfactant, emulsifier, pH adjuster, 
Avoid it because: It’s a known human immune system toxicant, there is strong evidence that it’s an immune and respiratory toxicant, a skin toxin, and there is some evidence to suggest that it’s a carcinogen.  Has the potential to create nitrosamines, which are carcinogens.  Causes severe irritation and burns on skin and in eyes.
What it’s made from: A product of the Dow chemical company, and is made by reacting three ethylene oxide molecules with each ammonia molecule.  
Steph weighs in:  Look it up in the wikipedia: it can be used in the manufacture of nitrogen mustards!

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