Keeping an Eye on Irritating Ingredients

Ask the Expert

By Lisa Frost

Originally published in Skin Deep, August/September 2005.

Q: I've heard some ingredients in skin care products can be irritating and even toxic. Is this true?

A: According to the Food and Drug Administration's website, "The regulatory requirements governing the sale of cosmetics are not as stringent as those that apply to other FDA-regulated products. Manufacturers may use any ingredient or raw material, except for color additives and a few prohibited substances, to market a product without a government review or approval."

Some of these product ingredients, such as phthalates, acrylamide, formaldehyde, and ethylene oxide, are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of California as reproductive toxins or carcinogens. Other chemicals to watch for include the following:

• Propylene glycol is a cosmetic form of mineral oil that works as a humectant. It is also found in automatic brake and hydraulic fluid, and industrial antifreeze. The Material Safety Data Sheets warn against skin contact, which can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage.

• Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is an inexpensive detergent commonly used in cleansers, shampoo, shower gels, etc. A recent study at the University of Georgia Medical College indicates SLS can penetrate from the skin into vital organs, including the brain and liver. It can also cause mild irritation or allergic reaction on contact, and is moderately toxic by ingestion.

• Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is the alcohol form of SLS, both of which may react with other ingredients to form potentially carcinogenic nitrates and dioxins.

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to products containing potentially toxic ingredients. A wide range of personal care companies are creating products that contain only organic and natural substances. For more information, visit or

Lisa Frost is an esthetician at Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy in Boulder, Colo.