By: Dr. John Bagnulo, Director of Nutrition

What you put onto your body is just as important as what you put into it. Too often, consumers look at topically applied products as somehow separate from the biological matrix. We tend to watch what we eat, drink, and hopefully what we breathe, but compartmentalize the body as internal vs. external when it comes to soaps, shampoos, and anything that we rub on.

Skincare, sunscreens and cosmetic products are major sources of compounds that enter the body transdermally, or through the skin. The skin is an incredibly absorptive surface. This is why Epsom salts improve magnesium levels in the blood in as little as 10 minutes. It explains why applying garlic to the bottoms of your feet can produce garlic breath in 15 to 20 minutes, and is why rubbing olive oil on your skin generates an increase in serum oleic acid (a monounsaturated fatty acid) levels in less than an hour.

If these examples illustrate just how rapidly moderate exposure to a healthy ingredient can produce measurable changes, shouldn't we stop to consider the long-term effects of chemical cocktails? Most skin- and body-care products are manufactured with ingredients that are in toxicological uncharted territory: We just don't know what they do.

The labs and factories of chemical companies create fragrances, stabilizers, emulsifiers, UV inhibitors, and plasticizers that are unquestioned by the average consumer. Many people assume that if these ingredients weren't proven safe, our government regulatory agencies wouldn’t allow them to be in use. Think again.

An incredibly long list of chemicals have shown adverse health effects in either animal or human investigations — in some cases, both. We have chosen to highlight the eight most harmful, most widely used eight ingredients. Eliminating these will tend to, by virtue of association, eliminate many others that are also potentially harmful.

Here are "The Usual Suspects," with other "aliases" used by the cosmetic industry to hide their true identity:

  1. Ethanolamine (aka cocamide DEA, oceamide DEA, myristamide DEA, diethanolamine, triethanolamine, and any chemical name that ends with the suffix DEA, MEA, or TEA). This commonly used emulsifier is in almost anything that manufacturers want to have a uniform texture and want to be easily driven into deeper layers of the skin (so that we can no longer see it on the surface). Unfortunately, these chemicals also facilitate delivery of an endocrine disruptor — a substance that negatively affects the hormone system, potentially causing tumors, birth defects and other disorders. Endocrine disruptors can also bio-accumulate (increase with repeated exposure) in the bloodstream.

  2. Octinoxate or Parsol (aka parsol, parsol MCX, parsol MOX, esalalol, or methoxycinnamate). These are UV filters used in sunscreens and lotions. It is an endocrine disruptor and is carcinogenic.

  3. Oxybenzone (aka benzophenone or sulisobenzone). Another UV filter to avoid like the plague. Has also shown endocrine disruption and carcinogenic effects.

  4. Parabens (aka butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, isobutyl paraben, isopropylparaben, and propylparaben). This family of chemicals is a mainstay used to control microbial growth and to act as an antibiotic in creams and lotions. They, too, enter the bloodstream with endocrine disruption, and also kill essential bacteria on the surface of the skin that help it heal, generate sulfation, and protect itself against the environment. Thankfully, after years of research, consumers are getting smarter about this one.

  5. PABA (aka para-aminobenzoic acid, padimate, and p-carboxyaniline). A longtime "staple" in sunscreens and sunblocks, PABA and its relatives are UV-B filters that can cause skin irritation and inflammation. There is endocrine disruption related to PABA in animal studies.

  6. PTFE (aka Teflon® or polytetrafluoroethylene). People are often dismayed to discover that Teflon® is in so many lotions and cosmetics! Believe it or not, the industry aims to produce slick, sleek, shimmering skin effects at apparently any cost. Teflon® has been an ingredient of choice for meeting these objectives for more than two decades. PTFE is a known endocrine disruptor and is carcinogenic.

  7. Phthalates (aka FRAGRANCE! also DBP, DEP, DEHP). Think about how often you see "fragrance" on ingredient lists! This is a plasticizer in shower curtains and a variety of other products. It helps products "stay on" better and adhere with extended perspiration or exposure to water. Phthalates also help scents and perfumes linger, as many are more volatile substances. These are known endocrine disruptors and suspected carcinogens, but do we really want to put a plasticizer on our skin anyway? Remember, just as "natural flavors" are almost always very unnatural, the word "fragrance" should also raise red flags.

  8. Polyacrylamide (aka polyacrylate or polyquaternium acrylate). This anti-foaming agent keeps tiny bubbles from forming in lotions when we rub them on. More importantly, it degrades into the carcinogen acrylamide fairly rapidly. Acrylamide has been recognized as a carcinogen by the European Community for more than a decade.

If this information seems overwhelming, here are some companies that avoid the "Usual Suspects" and have very healthy products overall:

  • Suki
  • Dr. Hauschka
  • Weleda
  • Badger Company
  • Jason

Dr. John Bagnulo is the Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies and leads nutrition research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.