Top Tips for Safer Products

products-to-avoidPublic health laws allow:

Almost any chemical as an ingredient in personal care products

Misleading and incomplete labeling of ingredients

Unsubstantiated claims about product benefits

No required safety testing of products or ingredients

What can you do?

Navigating store aisles can be difficult. Environmental Working Group researchers have evaluated hundreds of safety studies and thousands of ingredient labels to bring you our top recommendations for what not to buy.

Your body

Getting clean

No { triclocarban (bar soap) or triclosan (liquid soap) }

Yes { hand sanitizers with ethanol/ethyl alcohol }


No { retinyl palmitate or retinol in daytime skin products }

Your Teeth

No { triclosan in toothpaste }

Your Lips

No { retinyl palmitate or retinol }

Your skin + the sun

Very few sunscreens provide adequate sun protection and are free of harmful ingredients.


SPF above 50

Retinyl palmitate

Aerosol spray and powder sunscreen


Insect repellent


Hats and shade in mid-day sun.

Zinc or Titanium are the best active ingredients, otherwise Avobenzone at 3%

SPF 30 for intense sun

Use a lot and reapply frequently

Your hair



PEGs, ceteareths and polyethylene

Parabens: propyl, isopropyl, butyl, isobutyl

DMDM hydantoin

Your nails


Formaldehyde or formalin in polish, hardeners or other nail products.


Dibutyl phthalate (DBP).

Pregnant? Skip polish

Your kids

Kids are sensitive. Use few products and pick them carefully.

Diaper Cream

No Boric Acid

Baby Wipes

No 2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol)


LIMIT fluoride toothpaste for kids who might swallow it (none for kids under 2)

5 problem products:

Some categories of products have major safety concerns. Avoid them, particularly for children.

Hair straighteners : cancer, allergy, skin and scalp irritation, hair damage and hair loss

Loose powders: inhalation risk

Perfumes/fragrances: allergy concerns

Dark permanent hair dyes: linked to cancer

Skin lighteners: skin irritation and damage

Common ingredients with safety concerns:

“Fragrance“: This catch-all term can include hundreds of chemicals and trigger allergic reactions. Skip products that use the term “fragrance” in the list of ingredients and instead opt for those that list each fragrance ingredient.Ingredients can have harmful contaminants: Many common ingredients can contain impurities linked to cancer and other health concerns. Avoid these common ingredients where possible:

DMDM hydantoin,

Diazolidinyl urea,

Imidazolidinyl urea,


Polyethylene glycol and PEG

For a full list of ingredients with impurities concerns, check EWG’s Skin Deep database.

In depth: common ingredients to avoid

Benzalkonium chloride: Biocide, preservative and surfactant associated with severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation and allergies, benzalkonium chloride is a sensitizer especially dangerous for people with asthma or skin conditions like eczema. It is found in many household disinfectants and cleaning supplies. Regular use of products containing antimicrobials such as benzalkonium chloride could lead to development of resistant bacteria.

BHA: The National Toxicology Program classifies butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” It can cause skin depigmentation. In animal studies, BHA produces liver damage and causes stomach cancers such as papillomas and carcinomas and interferes with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels. The European Union considers it unsafe in fragrance. It is found in food, food packaging, and personal care products sold in the U.S.

Coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (including Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine): Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, is a known human carcinogen , according to the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Hair stylists and other professionals are exposed to these chemicals in hair dye almost daily. While FDA sanctions coal tar in specialty products such as dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, the long-term safety of these products has not been demonstrated.

DMDM hydantoin & bronopol (2-Bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol): Cosmetics preservatives that decompose and release formaldehyde , which the International Agency on Research on Cancer lists as a known human carcinogen. The preservatives and their decomposition products, including formaldehyde, can trigger allergic reactions. About one-fifth of U.S. cosmetics and personal care products contain a chemical that releases formaldehyde. Not surprisingly, more Americans develop contact allergies to these ingredients than Europeans.

Formaldehyde: A potent preservative considered a known human carcinogen by the International Agency on Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde, also an asthmagen, neurotoxicant and developmental toxicant, was once mixed into to many personal care products as antiseptic. This use has declined. But some hair straighteners are based on formaldehyde’s hair-stiffening action and release substantial amounts of the chemical. Many common preservatives also release formaldehyde into products (like DMDM hydantoin, quaternium, and urea compounds).

Fragrance: It may help sell products from face cream to laundry detergent, but do you know what’s in it? Fragrances are in everything from shampoo to deodorant to lotion. Federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. Recent research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products, none of them listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top 5 allergens in the world. Our advice? Buy fragrance free.

Hydroquinone: A skin bleaching chemical that can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, with blue-black lesions that in the worst cases become permanent black caviar-size bumps. In animal studies, hydroquinone has caused tumor development. The National Toxicology Program is conducting reproductive toxicity and dermal carcinogenicity studies of this chemical.

Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone: Preservatives, commonly used together in personal care products, among the most common irritants, sensitizers and causes of contact allergy Lab studies on mammalian brain cells suggest that methylisothiazolinone may be neurotoxic.

Oxybenzone: Sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber, found in nearly all Americans , according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In human epidemiological studies, oxybenzone has been linked to irritation, sensitization and allergies. A study of 404 New York City women in the third trimester of pregnancy associated higher maternal concentration of oxybenzone with a decreased birth weight among newborn baby girls but with greater birth weight in newborn boys. Studies on cells and laboratory animals indicate that oxybenzone and its metabolites may disrupt the hormone system.

Parabens (Propyl, Isopropyl, Butyl, and Isobutylparabens): Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives, found in breast cancer tumors of 19 of 20 women studied. The CDC has detected parabens in virtually all Americans surveyed. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl paraben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutylparabens, may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders.

PEG/Ceteareth/Polyethylene compounds: These synthetic chemicals are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. government considers a probably human carcinogen and which readily penetrates the skin. Cosmetics makers could easily remove 1,4-dioxane from ingredients, but tests documenting its common presence in products show that they often don’t.

Petroleum distillates: Petroleum-extracted cosmetics ingredients, commonly found in mascara. They may cause contact dermatitis and are often contaminated with cancer-causing impurities. They are produced in oil refineries at the same time as automobile fuel, heating oil and chemical feedstocks.

Phthalates: A growing number of studies link this chemical to male reproductive system disorders. Pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phathalate. Everyone should avoid products with “fragrance” indicating a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates.

Resorcinol: Common ingredient in hair color and bleaching products; skin irritant, toxic to the immune system and frequent cause of hair dye allergy. In animal studies, resorcinol can disrupt normal thyroid function. The federal government regulates exposures to resorcinol in the workplace, but its use is not restricted in personal care products.

Retinyl palmitate and retinol (Vitamin A): Vitamin A is an essential nutrient, but excessive amounts can cause severe birth defects if women are exposed during pregnancy New evidence shows that when applied to sun-exposed skin, for instance, in sunscreens, lip products and daytime moisturizers, these compounds can break down and produce toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and cause skin cancer. Recent date from the federal Food and Drug Administration indicate that when retinyl palmitate is applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, it speeds the development of skin tumors and lesions.

Toluene: Volatile petrochemical solvent and paint thinner and potent neurotoxicant that acts as an irritant, impairs breathing and causes nausea A pregnant woman’s exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may impair fetal development. In human epidemiological and animal studies, toluene has been associated with toxicity to the immune system. Some evidence suggests a link to malignant lymphoma.

Triclosan & Triclocarban: Antimicrobial pesticides in liquid soap (triclosan) or soap bars (triclocarban), very toxic to the aquatic environment. often found as contaminants in people due to widespread use of antimicrobial cleaning products. Triclosan disrupts thyroid function and reproductive hormones. American Medical Association and the American Academy of Microbiology say that soap and water serves just as well to prevent spread of infections and reduce bacteria on the skin. Overuse may promote the development of bacterial resistance.

For babies and young children

Every day, children are exposed to an average of 27 personal care product ingredients that have not been found safe for developing bodies, according to an EWG national survey. An EWG review has found that 77 percent of ingredients in 1,700 children’s products have not been assessed for safety.

Children are not little adults. Pound for pound, kids are exposed to more contaminants in air, water, food, and personal care products than adults. Immature organ systems are often less capable of fending off chemical assaults. Subtle damage to developing bodies may lead to disease later in life.

Parents can make healthy choices by using fewer personal care products for their children, ignoring ad hype and following these tips:

Baby wipes

Avoid { 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (or Bronopol), DMDM hydantoin, fragrance }

Diaper cream

Avoid { BHA, boric acid, sodium borate, fragrance }

Sunscreen Infants under 6 months don’t belong in the sun and they shouldn’t wear sunscreen. For older babies and children, use protective clothing and sunscreen that provides good UVA and UVB protection. Use enough and reapply often. See general sunscreen guidelines and our sunscreen report for more information.

Toothpaste Use small amounts of fluoride-free toothpaste for children under 2, as recommended by the American Dental Association. See general toothpaste guidelines for more information.

Baby powder Skip it! Just like auto exhaust or secondhand smoke, tiny airborne particles can damage baby’s delicate, developing lungs.

Play makeup and nail polish Avoid when possible. A little goes a long way. Children should play dress-up with small amounts of safer products and not every day.

For teens

Teens use cosmetics. Sometimes lots of them. From hair gels and straighteners to eye make-up, body wash and lotions. And then some! Knowing which ones are healthy – and which ones aren’t – is important. Why? EWG found that adolescent girls’ bodies are contaminated with chemicals commonly used in cosmetics and body care products. In fact, we detected 16 potentially toxic chemicals ­ phthalates, triclosan, parabens, and musks­ in blood and urine samples from 20 teen girls []. Studies link these chemicals to potential health effects including cancer and hormone disruption.

To make matters worse, teens may be particularly sensitive to exposures to hormone-disrupting chemicals, given the complex role they play during puberty — precisely when girls typically experiment with an increasing number and variety of body care products. When we surveyed them, our teen study participants reported using an average of 17 personal care products each day, 40 percent more than an adult woman.

Teens can easily make safer choices by reducing the number of body care products they use, viewing marketing claims with skepticism, always checking the ingredients for toxics (a good lifelong habit!), and following EWG guidelines to select safer products:

Acne products

Avoid { Fragrance, parabens, PEG/ceteareth/polyethylene, Tricolosan }

Perfume, cologne, and body spray

Avoid { Diethyl phthalate, Fragrance (on the list of ingredients), oxybenzone }

Sunscreen Use sunscreens with UVA and UVB protection and reapply often. See general sunscreen guidelines and our sunscreen report for more information.

Avoid tanning beds. Tanning booths expose the skin to 15 times more UV sun. The use of tanning beds before age 30 can cause a 75 percent increase in melanoma.

For women

The average woman uses 12 products containing 168 different ingredients daily. Many cosmetic chemicals are designed to penetrate into the skin’s inner layers, and they do. Consequently, some common cosmetic ingredients turn up in people’s bodies. Among them: industrial plasticizers called phthalates; parabens, which are preservatives; and persistent fragrance components like musk xylene.

Are levels found in our bodies causing biological damage? Only more research can say. Several studies have linked feminization of American baby boys to a common fragrance chemical called diethyl phthalate.

Product Type Buying Guidelines

Anti-aging products Avoid

alpha and beta hydroxy acids

lactic acid

glycolic acid

FDA-sponsored studies find UV-caused skin damage doubles for users of products with alpha hydroxy acid. Regular sunscreen application is the best way to avoid sun-damaged skin.

Hair dye

Minimize use of dark, permanent hair dyes. Many contain coal tar ingredients, including aminophenol, diaminobenzene, and phenylenediamine, linked to cancer.

Skin lighteners Avoid skin lighteners with hydroquinone. FDA warns that this skin-bleaching chemical can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, with “disfiguring and irreversible” blue-black lesions that in the worst cases become permanent, intensively black bumps the size of caviar all over the skin.

For men

The average man uses 6 products daily with 85 unique ingredients. Some ingredients are hormonally active; some of these are specifically linked to male reproductive system disorders. For instance, phthalates have been associated with altered hormone levels in men and boys and sperm damage.

Product Type Buying Guidelines

After shave Avoid





Shaving cream Avoid

DMDM hydantoin




Sunscreen Wear sunscreen. Surveys show just 34 percent of men wear sun protection, compared to 78 percent of women. Men should wear sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection and reapply often. See general sunscreen guidelines and our sunscreen report for more information.

Over-the-counter drugs and personal care products

Certain personal care products fall under FDA definitions of both cosmetics and drugs. Examples include anti-dandruff shampoos, deodorants that are also antiperspirants, and moisturizers and makeup marketed with sun-protection claims. Some active ingredients in over-the-counter (OTC) products raise concerns for cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity. However, unlike non-drug cosmetics ingredients, OTC drugs generally must receive FDA authorization and offer a therapeutic benefit that would off-set potential toxicity risks. Some OTCs currently on the market were introduced before FDA initiated an OTC Drug Review in 1972; thus, they did not receive a specific approval from FDA.

Dandruff shampoos: Most of the active ingredients approved by the FDA for use in dandruff shampoos have significant safety concerns. Common dandruff control ingredients— selenium sulfide, ketoconazole, salicylic acid, and coal tar — are identified on the European or Californian list of carcinogens and/or reproductive toxicants. They can also cause minor to significant skin effects, including irritation, inflammation and photosensitivity. These products should sparingly and only be used as directed. Avoid using dandruff shampoo on children, especially to treat benign conditions like cradle cap and normal scalp flaking.

Antibiotic creams: Some topical antibiotics, such as neomycin sulfate may not be safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women or children. In research studies, certain antibiotics have been shown to cross the placenta, where they could pose a risk of adverse developmental defects to the fetus. Read label instructions and consult your physician to see if suitable alternatives are available for your antibiotic needs.

Antibacterial products (soaps, antiperspirants, toothpaste): Triclosan is one of the most common OTC antibacterial chemicals found in personal care products such as antibacterial soaps. However, triclosan-containing soaps are no more effective than plain soap and water. Triclosan is also very toxic to the environment and may disrupt hormonal function in people and other mammals.

Buyer beware

Several chemicals that occasionally crop up in personal care products have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, and a host of other health effects. Among them:

Lead: A neurotoxin in popular hair dye Grecian Formula 16 and other black hair dyes for men. Lead from hair dyes travels from hair to doorknobs, cabinets and other household items, where children can ingest it.

Methyl cellosolve (or methoxyethanol): Fragrance ingredient and solvent that is an irritant, neurotoxin, possible mutagen (may cause DNA mutations that could lead to cancer) and developmental toxicant. It should be barred from personal care products.

Mercury and mercury compounds: Mercury damages brain function. It is occasionally found in cosmetics as an impurity or even as an intentionally added ingredient. Over-the-counter drugs like ear and eye drops may contain mercury.

Nanoparticles: Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles appear to be among the safer and more effective active ingredients in U.S.-marketed sunscreen creams because they do not penetrate the skin. Sprays and powders containing these nanoparticles should be avoided. Many other nanoparticles have received very little testing, yet they readily penetrate the skin and contaminate the body. Cosmetics manufacturers are not required to disclose the presence of nanoparticles in products. EWG analysis has found that one-third of all personal care products on the market contain ingredients now commercially available in nano forms.

Nitromethane: Anticorrosive agent found in a few aerosol hair sprays. The U.S. government considers it a probable human carcinogen.

Phenacetin: Component of some face and arm hair bleaching agents, a probable human carcinogen, according to the U.S. government.

Phenolphthalein: A few shampoos and texturizing products contain this chemical, a probable human carcinogen, according to the U.S. government.

Phthalates: A growing number of studies link this chemical to male reproductive system disorders. Pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phathalate. Everyone should avoid products with “fragrance” indicating a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates.

Placenta/Progesterone: Extracts from human and cow placenta are advertised as conditioning agents for skin and hair. Placental extracts in cosmetics may contain enough hormones to spur breast growth in toddlers, according to recent studies.

Ingredients derived from animals

Many consumers are asking manufacturers tough questions about ethical sourcing of their ingredients. Vegetarians, vegans, and people concerned about animal welfare frequently seek to avoid ingredients derived from animals. A number of animal-based substances are found in cosmetics. Some are fat-based and described as “tallow,” rendered beef or mutton fat. Mink oil and emu oil are rendered from those animals’ fat.

Courtesy of EWG.

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