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.

218 Comments

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  1. I like the idea of eliminating soap, lotion, deo, and shampoo entirely except when it comes to washing hands. First, in many jobs it’s required and I’ve often had to work with bodily fluids working with kids and at homeless shelters. Even in restaurants.
    If I keep washing my hands is my skin still going to restore itself? Is using rubbing alcohol a good alternative? Are there any alternatives to washing hands with soap??

  2. I became aware of the toxins in my personal products and got busy changing my routine. I now use RAD Bath+Body products and I can see the difference in my skin. I received a bar of their vegan soap as a gift and now I am hooked. They use organic ingredients and appear to be all natural plant based products. Love the article, get the word out.

  3. As an allergist/immunologist with a specialty in the skin microbiome, I couldn’t agree more! In fact, I co-founded a biotech company (www.quoruminnovations.com) several years ago to create microbiome-derived probiotics specifically designed to benefit skin microbiome health.

    Did you know those expensive “probiotics” you are using today are foreign to your body? Derived from dirt, animals or food, those little bugs are not natural to us like our healthy microbiome bacteria, which Nature trained to be good for us through countless generations of peaceful co-existence on our bodies. Here at Quorum Innovations, we believe that better health is more likely to come by working with our own microbiome, rather than potentially working against it with foreign microbes.

    Our bodies are covered with beneficial bacteria, normally teeming with microbial life. Unfortunately, modern “hygienic” living, sanitizers, environmental pollutants, other skin care products, chemicals, antibiotics, even aging, can throw our microbiomes out of balance. Just like our gastrointestinal tracts or any other organ, our skin microbiome needs and deserves our daily support. So our research team set out to create the first skin care line in the world containing human microbiome probiotics, uniquely designed to support a healthy skin microbiome.

    We discovered a probiotic we call BellaCell, taken from the human microbiome. Unlike other skin care lines containing “probiotics” originally isolated from food, dirt or animals, our microbiome-derived probiotic BellaCell is 100% natural to the human body because it comes from it. Wouldn’t you rather use a probiotic Nature intended to be on our bodies, instead of foreign bacteria? Because BellaCell evolved in harmony with us and on us, it is designed by nature to be good for human health. Our research studies showed that BellaCell helps balance the skin microbiome, stimulate the skin immune system and promote skin strength, unlike the foreign “probiotics” we tested.

    We are now launching our own skin care line called BioEsse, containing a concentrated extract of BellaCell (www.bioesseprobiotics.com). Women in our clinical trial loved our products, which also leave out all the toxins – parabens, phthalates, gluten, silicones, petroleum products, artificial fragrances, MEA/TEA/DEA, formaldehyde releasers, polyethylene glycols – most skin “care” lines still contain. These toxins can impair not only our health, but the health of the skin microbiome. In our 4-week clinical study of BioEsse, complexions, fine lines, redness and problem skin improved as early as 2 weeks. Our ladies started noticing a new “glow” to their skin they hadn’t had in years.

    We are proud to say BioEsse is the only skin care line in the world containing a probiotic from the human microbiome. BioEsse is scientifically and clinically proven to be truly good for your skin’s whole ecosystem, from your skin cells to your good bacteria. Welcome to your microbiome!

    Eva A. Berkes, MD, Co-Founder, BioEsse

    • Are any of the product non comenogentic? I’m allergic to wheat,gluten/dairy/eggs…I have used many natural products but the problem is that a lot of the oils that are used are very comedogenic… olive oil, coconut oil, java oil ext. actually the only oils that I know of that are non-comedogenic would be oils like Argan, hemp seed,mango butter and Shea butter) means they will horribly clog your pores and my skin does not tolerate this… so I careen from rashes to acne. Help?

  4. I have found that copper and certain foods that contain coppers, I cannot have due to a genetic disorder called Wilson’s disease. My body does not expel copper at all. It causes rashes, blisters and many uncomfortable symptoms inside my body. This includes facial skin care and makeups that cause extreme visual side effects that cause me to look like a drug addict. I’m desperate to find products that will not cause these reactions so that I can feel and look as good as I possibly can…… no where am I able to find the answers I seek……

  5. I have not used soap in the shower for years now – though I do still use non-antibacterial soap to wash my hands as needed.I don’t use any lotions and never have.

    However I have not quite been able to give up shampoo. I wash my hair twice a week. I’ve experimented with more natural shampoos and none of them leave my hair the way I like it – full and glossy looking. I’ve tried doing without shampoo but after 4-6 weeks my hair felt and looked so disgusting I couldn’t stand myself – so I do still use conventional shampoos. Maybe if I had a buzz cut I could do without, LOL.

    • I use the shampoo bar from Primal Life Organics followed by a vinegar rinse (1 part apple cider vinegar to 2 part water). It leaves my hair feeling full and glossy and also my dandruff completely cleared up. The bar is not too expensive (~$10) and lasts me about four months; however, I do have very short hair. Might be worth your giving it a try and seeing if it works for you!

  6. It’s so hard to find natural products that are not over priced. I buy lotion and all purpose cleaners that are green but everything else is harder to buy.

  7. Thanks for the article Chris. I became aware of all the different harmful chemicals that are in everyday products when I went to a presentation a few years ago. It is amazing how here in North America these chemicals, known to be toxic, are still allowed to be used. European standards are the safest in the world. There are almost 1200 banned ingredients in Europe, but of those, only 10 are banned here in North America!!

    Arbonne is a company that has been formulating personal care products for 35 years and it’s products are originally formulated in Switzerland. It’s products are Vegan certified, Gluten free, GMO free and are Pure, Safe & Beneficial. There have skin care, hair care, toothpaste, deodorant, nutritional and spa products.

    To have a look at the products and company go to http://www.kellydexter.arbonne.com. I would be happy to answer any questions.

  8. There are natural methods that don’t work for me as well. Salt or baking soda irritate my skin just as severely as commercial deoderant. The only deoderant I could tolerate was Almay, but I wanted something that would be less harmful to lymph nodes. I use straight cold pressed virgin coconut oil, the same stuff I eat. It absorbs well and doesn’t stain my clothes, which surprised me. Also, it took a few weeks of re-applying, but now I have no armpit odor. The real test was the first summer. I took Almay with me on vacation, but didn’t need it.

    I also tried the no-poo and couldn’t live with the heavy hair texture, so I’m looking for shampoo that doesn’t irritate–again. 🙂 I wil re-read this whole comment thread again for suggestions when I have time.

    Thank you all!

  9. Does anyone else here have bacterially based skin problems? When I don’t shower using soap or some other cleaning agent on my skin and hair at least every other day, I start to get problems. I have seborrheic dermatitis, and recurrent boils and my skin just gets incredibly itchy and greasy without washing. I am a naturally lazy person, so believe me, I have tried going for many many days without showering or washing with soap, and every time it is a complete disaster and my skin peels and crusts and itches. The only area of my skin that is usually okay with only using water is my face, although I have to use a cleanser on my ears because of the seborrheic dermatitis. Occasionally I will have to use a cleanser on my face when I have an acne flareup.

    My dermatologist recommends using antibacterial products on my skin, and while I hate using them, for all the reasons people have mentioned already, they are the only things that seem to help my skin. I have tried many all-natural commercial products as well as homemade products to no avail. Also, using simple products like lemon juice or baking soda for underarm odor is a joke for me and as I said before, believe me, I have tried using no deodorants for many days at a time. The only natural products which even work passably well are Crystal stick deodorant or Kiss my Face roll-on, both of which contain aluminum (“alum”). Thank God my husband has no sense of smell.

    Clearly I know I have a systemic problem with bacteria, because when I had to go on oral antibiotics for another problem, my skin got considerably better. I have tried many different combinations of probiotics in my diet and I try to eat cleanly and remove as many toxins as possible from my environment. I also am familiar with doing cleanses, acupuncture, alternative medicine.

    But despite this, we don’t live in a perfect world and for some reason I am not able to fix whatever imbalance (either external or internal) is causing the skin problems. I find it frustrating because so many people seem to assume that what works for them must necessarily work for everyone else. I’m glad it works for some people to almost never use soap or shampoo and to just shower with water. I guess what I’m asking is, is there anyone else here with a similar problem? Anyone else who wants to use a natural approach and has tried, but has found that conventional products just work better for them?

    The same is true for me with alternative and Western medicine. I have tried both, and over and over again, the results from alternative medicine are just not enough. I know that alternative medicine and practices are not a Band-Aid fix and take time, and that the healing is supposed to come more subtly and organically. But I have a lot of problems, and Western medicine just seems to help more. I hate this, as I want to live a more natural life! Any sympathizers out there?

    • Mette, I feel for you. I don’t have the same issues you do and I don’t have the Magic bullet for you.

      There are two things you didn’t mention trying. I’m curious if they might help you (more naturally than harsh chemicals and antibiotics do).

      1. The AOBiome stuff. The theory being you in innoculate your skin with inocuous bacteria, crowding out the worst stuff.
      2. Oil cleansing (massage oil onto skin, remove excess with warm water and washcloth). The theory being that you dissolve the dirty oils on your skin with clean oils, and then remove the excess oil, taking with it some of the gunk that’s been trapped in your skin like from the surrounding environment. Your skin senses “aha, I still have oil on me, I don’t need to ramp up oil production, maybe I can even cut back some.” If you try this method, try jojoba oil or hemp oil which are both very noncomedogenic (or find another noncomedogenic oil). Coconut oil and olive oil, for all their supposed wonders, are actually both pretty highly comedogenic, far more likely to plug up your pores and cause even more problems.

      Best of luck on your quest to take good care of your skin & planet. I hope you stumble upon a method soon that helps!

    • Dear Mette
      (MARCH 5, 2015 AT 12:17 PM)…I believe you and more or less ALL the folk on this site have a common problem. DIET or rather Bad-eating life-style. Leave ALL animal products, All animal bi products, All of anything that has a mama or papa and leave basically ALL oils except a little olive oil. do not eat deep fried anything. Eat only fruit, veggies simply raw, nuts and grains and within a few weeks basically ALL your problems will be at an end. then go for GREEN soaps and shampoos. Success guaranteed; oh and you will become trim and beautiful as in your youth. Go Well. A

  10. So much great information in your post, Chris, and I love the comments from my fellow readers. It shows we just don’t trust what we are being sold as safe anymore, or in the case of triclosan soap, even effective. It’s good that we are taking back the responsibility for our own health and becoming better informed.

    I also loved the resources that other readers shared. Thanks everybody.

  11. I bought a deodorant labeled organic. (Everyday Organics brand) The first ingredient is organic ethanol. Would this be considered harmful?

  12. Great guideline. It is always very important to avoid using toxic skin care products. It is because it can be very harmful to our skin. Today, most skin care products available in the market contain chemicals which can be very harmful to our skin and health.

  13. Trader Joe’s Coconut Body Butter has been wonderful for me. Even use it as a face moisturizer and lip balm. Tried just coconut oil and did not like the result.
    Trader Joe’s Nourish Spa Shampoo has been nice. Sometimes I water it down a little too. My best trick is to just use a nice glob, work it in, then rinse out. Just once. Does not strip the oil from my hair.
    For hand washing, I use Dr Bonner’s Peppermint Soap in the dispensers, watered down.
    For toothpaste, I put a small bit of baking soda and xylitol on a wet toothbrush, and add a drop of Dr Bonner’s Peppermint Soap.

  14. I make my own soap. I tried no poo for a while, but it didn’t work well when our water softener stopped working. But, that transition allows me to wash my hair only once a week.

  15. I, too, use either Bronner’s castile or similar soap. I use it in place of shampoo as well. I use organic coconut oil for skin moisturizing and Kiss My Face deodorant to avoid the antiperspirant chemicals. I use Xyli white toothpaste to avoid fluoride. It contains essential oils that fight oral bacteria as well.

    I am searching for more natural make up and cosmetics. If anyone can refer me to a particular brand, I would appreciate it.

  16. How about washing your hands after using the toilet? Do people that mention they don’t wash don’t do that either? Isn’t that part of why human beings don’t get ill and spread diseases the way we did 100+ years ago?

    • Yeah exactly Rasmus. These people who use only water when they shower. Yikes! I do not even want to imagine how much fecal matter resides on their legs and towel and wherever else. Yuck!!

    • It’s still important to wash after using the toilet. Just don’t use the antibacterial stuff, which kills good bacteria as well as bad. The hand washing that helped to eliminate old diseases did not include the antibacterial soap we have today. That is a very recent introduction to the market that plays on people’s irrational fear of dirt.

      • Thanks Erin. Could you point me to a soap that is not antibacterial, please? I don’t know any. Thank you 🙂

        • I chuckled at your response, I assume you are saying ALL soap is antibacterial and the issue is we don’t need to add antibacterial agents to soap. Warm water and soap, a good scrub will do! I personally use Kiss My Face olive oil soap for my body and seventh generation in the kitchen. I agree with soap being drying but I am not up for the no soap campaign, I will stick with natural soap please!

  17. A La Maison liquid soap changed how my skin felt and looked in just a few days. For a lotion there is nothing that can compare to The Cream. Scent of Samadhi is my deoderant and people always comment on how great I smell… even after hot yoga!

    • Can you include a link for the lotion you mentioned? I can’t find “The Cream” as a brand online. Thanks!

  18. Hi. Thanks everyone for the great info! My “issue” is that I”m allergic to coconut. Can anyone recommend a replacement for making your own soap/shampoo without it?

    • Yeah Kellye, you could try Babassu oil. It has almost the same fatty acid profile of coconut oil except it’s not comedogenic like coconut oil. It is also a solid at room temp. and melts on contact with skin. It’s also not as greasy feeling.