Cosmetic toxicants to avoid when selecting hair care products

Artificial Fragrance

Most shampoos, conditioners, and styling products contain a combination of fragrant ingredients to mask odors or add scent to cosmetics. This single ingredient may contain hundreds of chemicals including sensitizers, allergens, respiratory irritants, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic chemicals, and environmental toxicants. Without knowing what is in a fragrance, it is impossible for consumers to make educated choices and avoid problematic ingredients. To be safe, it's best choose products that do not contain “parfum ” or “fragrance”.

Ethanolamine Compounds 

Ethanolamine Compounds are synthetic surfactants used in soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, creams, eyeliners, mascara, fragrances and sunscreens. Diethanolamine (DEA) is used as an emulsifier in shampoos, cleaners, and detergents. Triethanolamine (TEA) is used as a fragrance, pH adjuster and emulsifying agent. When ethanolamines are combined with nitrogen releasing preservatives, they can form nitrosamines. DEA and nitrosamines known carcinogens listed in the Prop 65 database. Ingredients to avoid include: DEA, MEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.

Formaldehyde releasing preservatives

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing preservatives are often used in water-based skin and hair products, especially those that coat the hair. Formaldehyde has been linked to cancer and allergic reactions of the skin, eyes and lungs. Formaldehyde releasing preservatives include: Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, Methyl-chloroisothiazolinone and Methyl-isothiazolinone, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, carbamide-formaldehyde copolymer, urea adduct, polyoxylin, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, arisen FS017, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.


Parabens are very common in personal care products that contain significant amounts of water such as shampoos, conditioners, lotions and facial and shower cleansers because they discourage the growth of microbes. Parabens are easily absorbed by the skin and have been linked to breast and skin cancers, endocrine disruption, and reproductive and developmental toxicity. Look for: ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben.

PEG compounds

Synthetic detergents used as binders, solvents, emollients, plasticizers, bases, carriers, emulsifiers and dispersants. They make it easier for chemicals to penetrate the skin, may cause allergic reactions and may contain the carcinogenic contaminant, Dioxane. 


Pesticides such as DDT, dieldrin, and lindane are frequently found in cosmetic-grade plant-based ingredients; this is why I choose products made with organically grown ingredients.


Pronounced THAL-ates, these synthetic plant glycols are used to add flexibility and dissolve other ingredients. They are easily absorbed through the skin or inhaled and have been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer. They have been banned from cosmetics in the EU, but still remain prevalent in U.S. products.  

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds

A variety of Quaternary Ammonium Compounds including Quaternium-15 are used in cosmetics, especially hair conditioners. Initially, they give hair a soft feel and stabilize the emulsion, but in the long run they dry the hair and scalp and strip the acid mantel, making the hair brittle and weak. Quaternium-15 is a known toxicant, allergen, eye irritant, and formaldehyde-releasing preservative.


Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are common surfactants used in the manufacture of soaps, shampoos, detergents, and creams. These sulfates are sensitizers that can cause skin and eye irritation and dryness and are harmful to marine life and the environment.