Common Hazardous Ingredients in Personal Care Products (Page 3 of 4)

Copied with permission from:  Environmental Health Association, Nova Scotia

Feminine Hygiene


A U.S. government advisory panel says there is no need to douche. They blame “tradition, ignorance, and commercial advertising” for the practice. Dr. Samuel Epstein, chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition, cites a study which found that women who used douches more than once a week experienced a four-fold risk for cervical cancer. Douches containing phenol, sodium lauryl sulfate and citric acid, and the essential oils eucalyptol, menthol, methyl salicylate and chlorothymol, are particularly hazardous.

Home-made Alternatives

  • One teaspoon baking soda in 2 cups of water.
  • One and one-half teaspoons of vinegar mixed in 1 quart of water.

Tampons and other Menstrual Products

Feminine hygiene products can contain synthetic fragrances and dyes. Bleached paper in pads and tampons can contain dioxin, a carcinogen.

Hair Care


Most mainstream and many “natural” conditioners rely on quaternary compounds to produce thicker, tangle-free silky hair. These compounds – benzalkonium chloride, cetrimonium bromide, quaternium 15, quaternium 18 – can be irritating to eyes and skin. Other ingredients to avoid: carcinogenic coal tar colours (FC&C), propylene glycol, cinnamate sunscreens, and polysorbate 80 that may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen.

Home-made Alternatives

Pour 1 cup of warm beer over hair, then rinse with water.

Mayonnaise Conditioner: massage mayonnaise into hair, coating every strand. Cover hair with plastic bag for 15 minutes, then rinse with warm water.

Dry-Scalp Conditioner: Massage plain yoghourt into hair, especially the scalp. Cover with a plastic bag for 30 minutes. Rinse with warm water.

Henna Treatment: Pour 1/2 cup of boiling water over 1/4 cup of colourless henna and 2 teaspoons of honey. Let sit a few minutes to thicken. Coat each strand of hair, cover with a plastic bag and wrap with a warm towel. Shampoo after 1 hour.

Conditioner: Mix 1 egg yolk, 1 small container of yoghourt and 1 tablespoon of honey. Apply to hair, wrap in towel for 15 minutes, then rinse.

Hair Colouring (Permanent)

A study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Athens Medical Schools suggested that women who use hair dyes five or more times a year have twice the risk of developing ovarian cancer. Most permanent hair dyes contain potential irritants and carcinogens like formaldehyde and ammonia. Petroleum-based coal tar derivatives and phenylenediamine cause cancer. Products containing phenylenediamine can cause blindness if the solution drips into eyes. Dr. Samuel Epstein, chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition, says the use of hair dye places women at increased risk of certain cancers, especially leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s disease. He states there is strong evidence that the use of hair colouring products accounts for up to 20 percent of all non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cases in U.S. women, and that there is suggestive evidence these products increase breast cancer risk. Dark and black colours are particularly toxic.


True henna is a plant derived product which produces brown through red shades. Steer clear of so-called “black henna”. This is not a true henna, and contains PPD, a carcinogenic chemical additive contained in hair dyes. Black henna is also used to make temporary tattoos.

Hair Oils and Pomades

Oils, pomades, daily moisturizers, leave-in conditioner and creams will make the hair feel more soft and flexible. It is especially important to add them to permed or straightened hair which has been stripped of some of its ability to oil itself. Mineral oil and other petroleum based products can tend to clog pores. They are less easily absorbed into the hair and attract dust.

Home-made Alternatives

Hot oil hair treatment:
Combine 1 teaspoon soybean oil and 2 teaspoons castor oil. Warm on low heat. Massage mixture into scalp and hair. Wrap hair in a hot towel for 15 minutes. Shampoo & rinse.


Oils are best applied to wet hair to help hold in the moisture already there. Creams or leave-in conditioners can be used on days when you don’t wash or wet your hair. The type of oil or cream you use in your hair is going to depend on your hair type. It may take some experimenting to find what works best for you. The time of year and your hair’s exposure to the elements may vary your routine.

Hair Relaxers and Straighteners

Toxic ingredients: sodium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide, guanidine carbonate, guanidine hydroxide, thioglycolic acid, lithium hydroxide. A relaxer must be used with a neutralizing shampoo and conditioner whether applied at home or in a salon. Conventional shampoos and conditioners found in hair straightening kits contain the same ingredients found in conventional shampoos and conditioners, whose health effect are detailed in those sections.

Possible health effects of relaxers and activators are scalp irritation, skin burns, permanent scarring, deep ulcerations, skin drying and cracking, dermatitis, irreversible baldness, eye damage including blindness and weak, dry, broken and damaged hair.

Relaxers, whether with or without lye, have a very high pH (very near the top of the scale). In other words, they are caustic. Relaxers break the hair down. Relaxers work because they break the bonds that actually give strength to the hair. This causes the hair to straighten. Therefore, relaxed hair is, by definition, weaker than natural hair. Relaxers also deplete the hair of sebum (the oil your scalp secretes). Combine that with heat and you can really end up with a problem. Hair that has been straightened will be weaker than if it were natural and will be more prone to problems.

For years, the main chemical used has been sodium hydroxide – a powerful alkaline caustic otherwise known as lye. Sodium hydroxide is used in products like Draino to dissolve hair in drains. It’s also used in depilatories to dissolve hair.

Lately, new “no-lye” products have been introduced. While the chemicals in these products are not lye, they are very similar and have the same effect, chemically, on the hair. Advertising leads people to believe these chemicals are much safer when in fact they are only slighter better.

“People may think because it says ‘no lye’ that it’s not caustic,” says US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) biologist Lark Lambert. But both types of relaxers contain ingredients that work by breaking chemical bonds of the hair, and both can burn the scalp if used incorrectly. Lye relaxers contain sodium hydroxide as the active ingredient. With “no lye” relaxers, calcium hydroxide and guanidine carbonate are mixed to produce guanidine hydroxide.

Research has shown that this combination in “no lye” relaxers results in less scalp irritation than lye relaxers, but the same safety rules apply for both. They should be used properly, left on no longer than the prescribed time, carefully washed out with neutralizing shampoo, and followed up with regular conditioning. The FDA has received complaints about scalp irritation and hair breakage related to both lye and “no lye” relaxers.
Hair care experts recommend that if using a straightener, it be applied by a professional in a salon setting and that extra care be taken to keep straightened hair healthy.

Hair Styling

Aerosol and pump sprays produce fine droplets which can be inhaled deeply into lungs and transferred into your bloodstream. Inhalation of spray can also cause respiratory irritation and breathing difficulties. If you must use a spray, choose pump over aerosol as spray droplets are slightly larger. Hair setting lotions are a better choice.

Hair styling products can contain TEA, DEA, MEA, FD&C colours, BHA and palmidate-O, all carcinogens. Ethoxylated alcohols, PEG compounds, and polysorbate 60 or 80 may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen. Conventional hair sprays coat hair with polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP), a plasticizer.

Home-made Alternatives
Mix together 2 cups boiling water, and 1 teaspoon powdered gelatin in 1 teaspoon vinegar. Strain through coffee filter and put in sprayer bottle.

Lemon Hair Spray – Squeeze juice of 1 medium lemon into 2 cups of water. Slice up lemon peel and add. Boil slowly until reduced to 1 cup. Strain and pour into spray bottle. Keep in fridge. For extra hold use 1 1/2 lemons.

Flax Seed Gel – Boil 2 tablespoons of flax seed in 1/3 cup water for 10 minutes. Rub through hair, sparingly.

Permanent Waves

Chemicals in permanent waves can cause eye and skin irritations, swelling of legs and feet and swelling of eyelids. These products are suspected of causing low blood sugar. Hair can become damaged and weakened, resulting in hair more susceptible to chemical and ultraviolet damage. The main ingredient in permanent waves, thioglycolic acid, is also used in chemical hair straighteners. These solutions can result in first- and third-degree burns and even hair loss. Chemical straighteners contain allergens and skin irritants like TEA, polyethelene glycol and synthetic fragrance.


Shampoos cause the most number of adverse reactions of all hair care products. They frequently contain harsh detergents, chemical fragrances and numerous irritating and carcinogenic compounds including sodium lauryl sulfate/sodium laureth sulfate (irritant, can form carcinogenic nitrosamines), DEA, TEA, MEA (hormone disruptors, can release carcinogenic nitrosamines), quaternium-15, DMDM hydratoin (can release carcinogenic nitrosamines), polyethylene glycol (irritant), coal tar (carcinogenic), propylene glycol (neurotoxin, dermatitis, liver and kidney damage), and EDTA(irritant). Cleaning agents and water comprise about 93% of a shampoo. The cleaning agent itself is the most important ingredient.

Home-made Alternatives
Castille Soap Shampoo – Mix 1/2 cup of water with 1/2 cup of liquid castille soap (Nature Clean is one brand). To make an herbal shampoo, heat water before adding soap and steep herbs, then strain and add soap. Castille will leave a film on hair which can be removed by rinsing hair with 3 tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice mixed with 1 cup of water.

Egg Shampoo – Beat 2 large eggs and massage into scalp. Leave on a few minutes, then rinse with warm water. To cut film left by the eggs, rinse with vinegar (dark hair), or lemon Juice (light hair). Mix 3 tablespoons of vinegar or juice with 1 cup of water and pour through hair.

Baking soda mixed with water to a consistency that can be massaged through hair.

Hair Removal

For centuries, women in some cultures have used depilatories to remove unwanted hair. Old formulas made with arsenic and quicklime seem barbaric now, but even today’s depilatories can burn skin and eyes and cause severe allergic reactions and pustular outbreaks. Depilatories use high-pH chemicals to dissolve hair below the surface of the skin. An offensive smelling chemical, thioglycolic acid, is commonly used along with lye to boost the effectiveness of the concoction.

Waxes/Sugaring Compounds

Next to shaving, waxing is the most popular method of hair removal. Waxes can be made from petroleum (paraffin), rosin or beeswax. Hot wax is spread on the skin and covered in cloth strips which are ripped away when cool, taking the hair with them. Sugaring is a centuries-old technique for hair removal. A sugar and water gel is used as in waxing. Unlike wax, sugar does not adhere to skin so pulling off the cloth strips is less painful. Look for natural sugaring kits that contain only sugar, water and sometimes herbs. Laser treatment, while not a permanent solution, can reduce the amount and thickness of hair. Electrolysis, when administered by a dermatologist, will permanently remove hair, although it could take a number of visits.

Home-made Alternatives
Melt a small amount of beeswax in a small pan until very warm but still cool enough to touch. After dusting skin with body powder or cornstarch, apply warm wax with a wooden spatula. Allow mixture to cool for a few seconds, then remove quickly with a light tapping. Sooth with cream or aloe vera gel.

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