June 27, 2020 – Carcinogens

What carcinogens should I be looking for in my skin care products?

For those of us still at the beginning of our clean journey (this includes me, I am ALWAYS learning something new): what ingredients really matter?

I have told you that the US bans 30 ingredients, Canada bans 600, the the EU bans 1,400, and Beautycounter bans 1,800. That’s A LOT of ingredients. Carcinogens, allergens, endocrine disruptors… it’s overwhelming. You can plug all of your ingredients into EWG (I do that) or I will give you a place to start.

I began looking at my children’s products first. (Of course, because that’s what mother’s do. When the airline reminds you, on every flight, that in case of emergency- put your own air mask on FIRST, there is a reason. A mom will take care of her kids first.)

Here is a beginner’s list of carcinogens in skin care products. I want to arm you with information, because knowledge is power. And in this country, you MUST look out for yourself, and your children, when it comes to carcinogens in your skin care products. (Someday this will change. I want to be a part of that change.)

We know that a small amount is not going to give us cancer. But we also know that the skin absorbs these ingredients and consistent use matters. We also know that a small amount of these carcinogens (such as formaldehyde) are released into the air when we apply a product, causing it to be inhaled. Lastly, we know that the effects are compounded by all of the other exposures we have to these chemicals.


Formaldehyde is a very effective preservative. According to data from the FDA, nearly 1 in 5 cosmetic products contains a substance that generates formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. You will NOT find formaldehyde on the ingredient list for any of your products. That’s because companies take a round-about way of adding formaldehyde and use some of the following “formaldehyde releasers”:

  • DMDM Hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Quaternium-15
  • Bronopol (2bromo2nitropropane1,3-diol )
  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Hydroxymethylglycinate

Polyethylene Glycols (PEGs):

These are problematic because they are often contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, known human carcinogens.


These have been detected in human breast cancer tissue. It has been estimated that women are exposed to 50 mg per day of parabens from cosmetics. There are currently no restrictions on parabens in the US or Canada (there are restrictions in place in the EU.) Any company who is attempting to go “clean” will usually begin by eliminating parabens, so this is a decent indication if the company is even trying. (Whole Foods Market bans all four of the parabens below as part of its premium body care standard.) The “parabens” you should look for on an ingredient label:

  • Propylparaben
  • Isopropylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Isobutylparaben


Johnson & Johnson just voluntarily pulled this ingredient off the shelves (after a horrible lawsuit that you probably read about in the news.) I say voluntarily because the FDA does not have the authority to require it. But you can still find it in thousands of products here in the US. Why is Talc so terrible? It is routinely contaminated with asbestos, a known human carcinogen, according to testing by the FDA.

*I saved the worst for last.

Fragrance: The word fragrance means that you actually have no idea what ingredients are in your product. If I see this listed as an “ingredient”, I immediately remove this product because it means the company can legally add over 3,000 chemicals, none of which have to be declared. Why? Because the focus is on protecting the formulation of a product and calling it “proprietary” (even though this technique of hiding is obsolete, because modern technology allows for the reverse engineering of every ingredient inside the bottle.) So when a company refuses to be 100% transparent about their ingredients, I refuse to trust that product on my family.

Banned in California

I’ve mentioned before how my time in San Francisco was eye opening. California is leading the country when it comes to keeping it’s citizens safe from toxins in skin care. On June 11th, the California Assembly passed the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act by a resounding bipartisan vote of 54-0. If enacted, the law will be the first in the nation to ban 12 toxic ingredients, including formaldehyde releasers and parabens, from the beauty and personal care products Californians use every day. 

Bathtime should be carcinogen free.

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