Toxic Skincare Products: Soap, Shampoo, and Lotion
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Are Your Skincare Products Toxic? Shampoo, Soap, and Lotion

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Are everyday products like soap, shampoo, and lotion exposing you to harmful chemicals? Learn why what you put on your skin may be an even greater risk for toxin exposure than what you put in your mouth.

toxic ingredients in bath products
When removing toxins from your home, consider the toxic ingredients in your bath products. Christopher Nuzzaco/Hemera/Thinkstock

We talk a lot about minimizing exposure to toxins from food, whether by choosing organic, avoiding certain ingredients, or even changing your cookware.

But what you put on your skin might be an even greater risk for toxin exposure than what you put in your mouth.

I’m sure many of you have used a drug or supplement that needs to be absorbed through the skin, whether that’s hormone replacement cream, magnesium oil, or something else. But think about all the other stuff you put on your skin that you might not want to be absorbed – soap, sunscreen, make-up, deodorant, lotion…the list goes on. You wouldn’t eat this stuff, so why would you put it on your skin?

What you put on your skin might be more toxic than what you put in your mouth.

In this series, I’ll take a look at some of the various skin care products we use, why they might be cause for concern, and the products you can use instead. We’ll start with the chemicals in some of the most commonly used personal care products: soap, shampoo, and lotion.

Triclosan

Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent often added to soap, shampoo, and other personal care products. It can be absorbed through the skin, and has been detected in human urine, serum, and breast milk. (1)

With the recent focus on the importance of our microbiome and the growing threat of superbugs, people are beginning to question its widespread use, especially in antibacterial soap. Studies as early as 2006 have expressed concern over bacterial resistance to triclosan, as well as the greater fear of triclosan-induced resistance to clinically important antimicrobial drugs. (2)

Triclosan came under fire back in November when a study was released linking triclosan exposure to liver cancer in mice. (3) In the study, triclosan acted as a cancer promoter, which means it didn’t cause cancer on its own, but it increased susceptibility to cancer and accelerated tumor formation after long-term exposure.

Triclosan has also been suspected as an endocrine disruptor, although a recent review of the literature concludes that triclosan exposure through the use of personal care products is unlikely to adversely affect endocrine function in humans. (4) Unfortunately, this review was funded by the Colgate-Palmolive Company, and although there’s limited or no evidence that triclosan exposure through personal care products has harmful effects in humans, several studies have shown triclosan to adversely affect thyroid and reproductive function in rats.

To top it all off, triclosan-containing soaps don’t appear to provide any benefit over regular soap for preventing the spread of disease, so there’s really no reason to use it. (5) I suggest avoiding tricolsan completely.

Phthalates and Parabens

Like triclosan, phthalates and parabens are found in a variety of personal care products, although phthalates are more common in lotions because they act as moisturizers and enhance skin penetration of other compounds. (6) Parabens can be absorbed intact through the skin, and both chemicals have been detected in breast milk, urine, and plasma. (7)

A big concern over phthalates and parabens is increased risk for breast cancer. One study found that an increased concentration of phthalate metabolites in the urine was associated with an increased risk for breast cancer, and intact parabens have been detected in breast cancer tissue. (8, 9) Phthalates have also been implicated in reproductive and endocrine disruption, although like triclosan, the evidence is preliminary and may not be relevant in humans at normal levels of exposure. (10)

And although personal care products represent only a small portion of total environmental exposure to phthalates, they are the main mode of exposure for parabens, indicating significant levels of absorption through the skin. (11, 12)

Sulfates, Propylene Glycols, and Fragrances

Other chemicals you’ll find in soaps and lotions include sulfates, such as sodium laurel sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate, fragrances, and petroleum by-products such as propylene glycol.

Propylene glycol isn’t absorbed through the skin in large amounts, and the only reports of toxicity in humans have been in cases of extreme exposure through IV medication or through repeated application to second- and third-degree burns over a large area of the skin. (13, 14) Sodium lauryl sulfate, however, does penetrate the skin, at least in rat models, and can cause skin irritation. (15, 16)

The category of “fragrances” is so vast and non-specific that it’s difficult to evaluate them, but they’re a common cause of contact dermatitis. (17) One big problem with “fragrances” is that they’re poorly regulated, and “fragrance” on an ingredient label could mean just about anything. For this reason, it’s best to avoid them.

Further, there could be more chemicals in skin care products than those actually listed on the bottle. Analysis of shampoo and similar products has found contamination by 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen, and phthalates have been detected in products that don’t have them listed as ingredients. (18, 19)

Like many of the chemicals we’re exposed to from food and our environment, most of the chemicals allowed in our skin care products don’t show overt toxicity in humans, but may have concerning preliminary evidence linking them to cancer or endocrine disruption. Apparently this doesn’t warrant removing these chemicals from products, but considering how easy it is to switch to more natural products, there is reason enough to avoid using them.

Non-Toxic Alternatives to Conventional Soap, Shampoo, and Lotion

The great thing about soap is that it’s incredibly easy to find a natural alternative. Dr. Bronner’s castile soap is a popular choice, but there are tons of other options. Just look for soap that only contains oils and other recognizable ingredients. If you want to get a little fancier, here’s an easy recipe for non-toxic foaming hand soap.

Lotion is another easy one. Oils like coconut, jojoba, and even olive oil are great for your skin and widely available. And unlike petroleum-based lotions, they’ll actually moisturize your skin instead of drying it out! If you want something that feels more like “normal” lotion, Tropical Traditions sells lotions that are made from coconut and palm oils (they sell soap, too).

Shampoo can be a little harder to replace, but there are tons of resources online if you want to forgo traditional shampoo. Simple ingredients such as bentonite clay, apple cider vinegar, and even honey can clean and condition hair without the chemicals. This post has lots of helpful links and recipes to get you started.

Another option would be to forgo soap, shampoo, and lotion entirely. I know this might sound radical, but recent research has shown that our skin has a microbiome (much like our gut) which acts as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune-booster. The chemicals in skin care products can disrupt this microbiome, so going without them may restore your skin’s ability to take care of itself.

In fact, new companies like AOBiome now offer a product that contains Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria that was once commonly found on our skin—before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo. The idea is that these bacteria will help restore our skin’s natural protective, moisturizing and cleansing abilities, thus reducing or eliminating the need for skin care products.

I only use soap once every couple of weeks. Shampoo has been a little harder for me to eliminate; I do still use it about twice a week, but I use a brand with no harmful chemicals. And lest you think I’m crazy, there are many other people engaged in similar experiments. Check out this article in the New York Times for a good summary.

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  1. I started making my own lotions about 9 years ago when my infant son developed eczema and the doctor prescribed a topical corticosteroid cream. I refused to put it on him and just used some oil at the time. The eczema cleared up and I started researching more to find some commercially available lotions without all these chemicals. I could find none, so I started making my own using beeswax to create an emulation between oil and water. Now, I make my own soaps and shampoos that are all natural, no preservatives, no toxic chemicals. I only use natural essential oils as fragrance, preservative, and for their medicinal properties. I am also an acupuncturist and I sell them to my patients at my clinic and they love it. Chris, if you send me your mailing address to my email, I’d love to send you some of my all natural soaps and lotions.

  2. Soap nuts from India (not a nut but a berry) are used widely for laundry and they’re so mild they can be used in place of soap and shampoo. Don’t forget laundry products that saturate your clothes with chemicals and fragrances that end up next to your skin can cause all sorts of problems for sensitive folk.

  3. Don’t forget the environment! Palm oil (how can you know if it’s really sustainable) use is deforesting land in countries such as Indonesia. By not choosing palm oil products it further reduces commercial choices, so then it’s back to olive, coconut, etc…

  4. AOBiome – the spray-on bacteria is amazing – surprised Chris or Robb Wolf, Sean Croxton et al have not given this more attention.
    Completely removes the need for any soap or shampoo – their founder has not touched soap of any kind for 12 years.
    Def. makes my skin feel & look much softer after using…one downside is any swimming in chlorinated water immediately kills the protective shield from using the spray

  5. Good article, Chris, so many people are obsessing over their diets but still paying $20 a bottle for toxic shampoo! For the record, I’m a girl with long hair and I wash my hair with Dr. Bronner’s bar soap. I just use the suds from scrubbing and squeeze them over my hair and lather them like shampoo – I see no reason why short haired folks can’t use the exact same method! Helps simplify my shower, too. My everyday conditioner is vinegar water, which just restores the pH of my hair after the soap, plus I use a natural conditioner maybe once a week. I tried baking soda and baking soda water but they didn’t work for my hair type.

    I’d say also that women face a lot more threat from these products because we have to slather 50 different things on our faces in order to be beautiful and acceptable to society. I quit using foundation makeup as well, I like to let my skin have ‘rest days’ as the makeup gurus put it, all the time. The more shit you put on your face, the more shit you NEED to put on your face, is how I see it.

    • Grace – I agree completely about what you put on your face. I don’t wear any makeup on my skin and it looks healthy on its own. Not completely perfect, but then again who really needs perfection? It glows and looks healthy and a blemish or two on occasion is no big deal.

      I am grateful to hear from someone with long hair. That is what I was looking for in the comments! I also have long hair and I am hooked on Tres Semme because so many of the organic shampoos I have tried dry out my hair. I wash 1-2x per week. ACV and baking soda left it soft but also dry. For fear of having to cut it off again, I have more or less given up. If shampoo and conditioner are the only products in my bathroom that are toxic, how bad could it be anyway…? Yet it bothers me. I have used Dr. Bronners before on my hair but not the bar soap. Perhaps your approach of using just the suds is a better one. Perhaps I should just rinse with water and add coconut oil. Don’t know – all I know is I have spent a lot of money on organic healthcare and as much as I want it to moisturize my hair, it has not.

    • After going paleo, I was able to ditch the foundation (or basically any other make-up, unless it’s a special occasion)! What a blessing! I don’t even have to wash my face anymore!

      • I know what you mean. When I went Paleo, my skin looked better. Now I basically wear makeup on Sunday and on special occasion. I do still have signs of Roscea, so I have to watch that. But Paleo has been the best thing I’ve done for my body and health in years.

  6. Hi, I have a dilemma. I’m a nurse and have to use those alcohol based hand rubs and I scrub for surgery as well. I have changed to using the iodine scrub only. How harmful are these products? It’s very difficult to find any info on this. We are about to start a new product, skinman. It’s an alcohol based surgical rub. Also, do the gloves and abhr products interact, as with the print out receipt at the check out. Do gloves have BPA in them? I feel more and more how I put myself at risk while caring for other people as a nurse!

    • Nicolette,

      My sister is a nurse who is very holistic and says she walks a fine line to help her patients without getting “in trouble” by the conventional “standard of care”. I have great respect for any nurse like yourself who follows Chris Kresser and the like.

      Regarding your safety, if you let your hands DRY COMPLETELY after using hand rubs before putting on surgical gloves or touching receipts you are avoiding the super high levels of plastic chemical absorption we have seen in the news/ research.

      Do gloves have BPA in them? It probably doesn’t matter because BPA-Free contains BPS an equally or worse chemical.

      The research said cashiers who touch receipts all day have higher levels of BPA in their bodies so I assume wearing gloves all day would increase absorption. We ALL have our own unavoidable toxins… I would just increase your overall health measures to make up for it.

  7. Rad soaps are great. I also love Badger products. 100% Pure for cosmetics and shampoo. I make my own toothpaste using coconut oil, baking soda, peppermint oil, and stevia. It also doubles as a facial scrub. I also use activated charcoal to whiten my teeth. I love coconut oil for hair and skin but it unfortunately does not work well as a moisturizer for me during winter.

  8. I use bicarb soda in water to wash my hair and ACV in water to condition it. I rub a small amount of argan oil in to the ends if they get a bit dry.

  9. I’ve recently switched to using Aqueous cream BP for just cleaning the sweatiest parts of me as this product was recommended by my doctor to clear up eczema on my 17 month old – it has worked a treat for both him and myself (no more eczema!) – I have read it contains a sulfate should this be a cause for concern? We no longer use any other soap (except what is left on the anti bac for the kitchen and washing hands)

  10. re: The category of “fragrances” is so vast and non-specific …

    The word “fragrances” is to topicals what the phrase “natural flavorings” is to edibles – an officially-sanctioned weasel word that is just as likely to be hiding serious toxins as protecting trade secrets.

    If you are avoiding processed foods containing “natural flavorings”, you probably need to be avoiding topicals with “fragrances”.

    When checking the chemistry set list on the container, a useful resource is the Dirty Thirty list:
    http://www.teensturninggreen.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/dirtythirty-10-11-10.pdf

    • Very true! I’ve thought about it for food but illogically/naively/ wistfully wanted to assume the ‘natural’ product that has fragrances in it will somehow be, well, natural!

  11. How do you feel about swimming as a sport? Do you know of any studies that have looked at the long term effects of constant chlorine exposure?

    • Chlorine zaps energy stores. Before my friend had a water filtration system installed in his home, he was taking 1 hour soaking baths in very smelly chlorine water. It was ruining his health. He became lethargic, exhausted, etc. Once he got the system installed that removed chlorine, he could still take his hour long baths and his health turned around rapidly. More energy, seemed happier than before… Chlorine is very toxic. My niece used to pass out from just taking a shower from the smell of chlorine and having it become absorbed through her skin. Salt water pools, IMHO, are less toxic.

  12. Chris, could you please post the brand of the shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, etc. that you use? One of the most frustrating parts of these types of articles is that we find out how bad these things are without an easy to use alternative. I, like most people, have no interest in making homemade shampoo, deodorant or toothpaste. So, it would be very helpful to have brand names. The brand name for the soap was great, but it would also be helpful to have other easy to purchase brand names. Thanks so much.

    • How about taking the initiative yourself? Go to the store and read the labels. It isn’t really fair to expect CK to do your homework for you.

    • Robb,

      I’m with you on wanting high-performing, non-toxic products and I’ve found a line of beauty and cosmetic products that works great. There are also men’s products. I used to make products myself but I found homemade stuff to be lackluster, at best. You can click on my name, above, to learn more on my website.

      Maureen

  13. Really good information in this article. The thing I always wonder is how the future will characterize this time in humanity’s existence. Will they say “Oh how we were using all the wrong chemicals on our bodies back then,” or will they talk about all the “horrible things we once thought were healthy.” If history is any indication of the future, then the latter is more likely, but who knows. Maybe we just need better antimicrobials.

  14. Absolutely. Once you understand the gut-bacteria issue, protecting your skin bacteria is the obvious next step. It makes sense to use (non-antibacterial!) soap on those body parts that pose a risk of spreading disease (hands & privates); but to routinely use soap on the rest of your body is just nuts.

    For the hair, I find that hot water alone works just fine, and then towel-drying it will certainly remove any small amount of greasiness that might remain after the shower.

    Of course shower frequency probably plays a role too; I doubt that showering every single day is good for your skin. And obviously your diet will affect how you smell and how oily your skin is…

  15. Dr. Bronner’s soap — even their “Baby-Mild” version — is for dishes or washing your clothes while backpacking. The pH is entirely too high to use as a body soap. It’s a great way to get a vaginal yeast infection.

    • I had really big issues with the build up of Dr. Bronner’s too. I used to mix half vinegar and half dish soap in a spray bottle to spray in my dishwasher as a rinse aid. It works amazingly. However, when I switched to Dr. Bronner’s the build up in the dishwasher was so disgusting.

    • Bar soaps and liquid soaps like Dr. Bronners (made with saponified oils) are really not good for our skin and hair. The pH is way too high and our skin and hair is negatively charged and prefers a slightly acidic environment (i.e. below pH 7 which is neutral).
      If anyone has used these on their hair and it felt like a wet, matted, dirty carpet it’s because every hair follicle has little overlapping shingles that run down the length of the shaft. High pH products cause the shingles to raise up, which exposes the cortex. This can be very bad indeed because then your cortex is exposed and can cause more damage and loss of moisture from the inside of the hair shaft. Rinsing with vinegar will not reverse that. That is just basic chemistry.
      Don’t get me wrong, I love certain bar soaps that are handcrafted. I buy from http://www.chagrinvalleysoapandsalve.com and also http://www.soaptopia.com but I do not use these all the time because of the high pH.

  16. re: … triclosan-containing soaps don’t appear to provide any benefit over regular soap for preventing the spread of disease …

    Even if they are effective, then they are breeding resistant bacteria.

    That aside, any studies or trials looking at the health effects of topical and oral (toothpaste) antibiotics need to look at the entire spectrum of possible systemic effects, and I suspect no study has looked at gut biome impact.

    We only just got around to investigating our skin care products. The trash cans are starting to fill up.

  17. I have washed and bathed without soap or shampoo for several years by now. Well, I do use soap for my hands, and especially while cooking. I also do wash my hair with shampoo once in a while, maybe once a month when it gets way too oily. But mostly I just let plain water do the work.

    All my life I have had very itchy skin and serious dandruff. Since stopping the use of soaps, my skin itchiness and dandruff have decreased a great deal – not completely gone, but much, much better.

    My original reason for going soapless was simple – the oils on your skin are (I have read) an important factor in preventing infections and other problems from minor scratches. So it seemed like a good idea to try to leave the oils in place, and that meant no soap. I also knew that the mix of bacteria would be different if you washed with vs without soap. I didn’t think of that as being too much of a factor for my skin, but I hoped it would be for my scalp.

    I’m happy with the results and will keep on this way. True, I rarely have squeaky clean hair (and I do like that feeling after a shower), but I don’t have much dandruff either.

    • Same here! I kept having a problem with thrush while nursing my baby. One day I realized that maybe I was washing all the protective bacteria away and that is what was allowing the yeast to return. So I stopped using soap and shampoo. Sure enough, the thrush never came back. I shower twice a week with water only and use cocoa/shea butter as a moisturizer, which is rarely needed now that I’m not stripping all the moisture away with soap. I use a clay based shampoo twice a week. The best part is I no longer need deodorant! Once I stopped using soap, the odor causing bacteria disappeared.

      • You’ve inspired me to use less soap. My skin is so dry from taking showers all day long. I have MCS do I’m constantly in the shower.

      • When you say you’d get thrush what exactly do you mean. I’m not a nursing mom but I battle with thrush when I’m stressed. I already am aware of the candida issues related but was curious about your comment.
        Thanks-

  18. P2 Probiotic Power (.com) has many products for topical use as well as cleaning products. We’ve been pleased with them so far.