Ecoholic’s Mean 15: Top body care ingredients to shelve for good

Here, ladies and gents, are the most common bad guys you’ll see on shelves. Sadly, there are so many blasted estrogen mimickers, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and water and wildlife polluters in our body care, it’s hard to narrow the list down. The Mean 15 include originals from my “top ten ingredients to avoid” from the first Ecoholic book, mixed with some suggestions by the godfather of green, Mr. Suzuki, as well as some growing eco-villains, such as palm oil. It’s certainly daunting to think that 12 of these are found in 80% of the over 12,000 products the David Suzuki Foundation surveyed, and the others (such as palm oil) are likely to be found in even more. But don’t worry, that still leaves a growing chunk of products that are in the clear. The following will spell those out for you, complete with product reviews and testing.
For a printable pocket-sized guide to the Mean 15, check out

#1 BHA and BHT: These preservatives are suspected endocrine disruptors, and in California, BHA has to come with a warning label about cancer. Both are bad news for aquatic life and have the potential to bioaccumulate, so we don’t want them going down the drain.

#2 DEA (diethanolamine): Reacts with preservatives in cosmetics to form nitrosamines, which may cause cancer. Why can’t we limit this contaminant the way Europe does? Avoid MEA (air pollutant in ammonia- free products) and TEA too, since both can be contaminated with DEA. Cocamide DEA is a coconut-oil sudsing allergen that contains diethanolamine.

#3 Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15 and Bronopol, a.k.a. 2-bromo-2-nitropro- pane-1,3-diol): You don’t need your cosmetics continually off-gassing low levels of known human carcinogen- and allergy-linked formaldehyde, do you? Restricted in Europe—but here? Nope.

#4 Oxybenzone (BP-3/ benzophe- none) and octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate): Two of the worst sunscreen chems. Oxybenzone, found in 97% of us, is a potential hormone disruptor tied to lower birth rates in baby girls as well as allergic reactions. Octinoxate is another suspected endocrine disruptor and mild estrogen mimicker linked to thyroid changes, so don’t be misled by mentions of it being derived from cinnamon. For more info, see Sunscreens, page 44.

#5 Palm oil (or anything with “palm”  or “palmate” in its name, like sodium palmate): This replace- ment for petrol-based ingredients isn’t a health concern as much as an ecological nightmare, tearing up the rainforests and savannas of Malaysia  and Indonesia.

#6 Parabens: This estrogen-mimicking family of preservatives raised questions when one preliminary study found it in breast cancer tissues. Several studies have found that various parabens may also interfere with male reproductive functions.  By early 2011, Denmark became the first EU country to take the precautionary approach and ban the biggest suspects, propyl- and butylparabens, from body care products for kids under three.

#7 Parfum/fragrance: Any synthetic fragrance will feature a whole host of unwanted chemicals, including several hormone disruptors, carcinogens, as well as allergy- and asthma-triggering ingredients (see Perfume, page 83). Some natural Euro brands with “parfums”  are made with natural essential oils (it should say so on the label), though these can still aggravate the scent sensitive.

#8 PEGs (polyethylene  glycol compounds, and anything with“-eth” in its name): These are often contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane, which is classified as a probable human carcinogen.

#9 Petrolatum/paraffin/mineral oil/petroleum distillates:  Who wants to smear their face/hair/lips  with a product that supports the climate-cooking, war-ravaging, ocean-spilling impacts of petroleum? Can be contaminated with carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In Europe, petrolatum  is restricted  in cosmetics unless the manufacturer provides a full refinery history to prove it’s not a carcinogen. Not here.

#10 PPD: Sorry, all permanent hair dyes, even the health store ones, contain cancer- and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma–linked phenylenediamine. Very toxic to fish. Can also be called p-Aminoaniline; 1,4-benzenediamine; p-benzenediamine  CI 76060; p-Diaminobenzene; 1,4-phenylenedia- mine; 1,4-diaminobenzene; 4-aminoaniline.

#11 Phthalates: You won’t spot these on most ingredient lists since they’re hidden behind the word “fragrance,” but you can and should look for the phrase “phthalate free.” Dibutyl phthalate  (DBP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) are two of the phthalates that have been banned from toys but are still found in cosmetics here. The European Union has restricted several phthalates from cosmetics.

#12 Retinyl palmitate: This one’s great for smoothing out skin as well as combating acne and wrinkles, but maybe not so great if you plan on combining it with something you’re exposed to every day—sunlight. Retinyl palmitate  seems to speed up the carcinogenic effect of UV rays in mice.  Not good when UV rays already increase your skin cancer risks. Stay out of the sun with this ingredient.

#13 Siloxanes: Pass on cyclo- ingredients that end in “-siloxane” or “-methicone.”  Cyclotetrasiloxane (D4) and cyclopentasiloxane (D5) are siloxanes (silicone-based polymers) that have been recognized as toxic to fish and aquatic life and stay in the environment for way too long. Cyclomethicone is a mixture of D4, D5 and D6 siloxanes. Environment Canada is in the process of restricting  them, but it could take years, so do your own screening.  Look for silicone/siloxane-free products.

#14 Sodium laureth sulphate: Foaming  agent  that,  like PEGs, is often contaminated with carcino- genic 1,4-Dioxane. Sodium lauryl sulphate used to get a lot of bad press, but it’s mostly just an irritant.

#15 Triclosan/triclocarban: This antibacterial bad boy is a suspected thyroid disruptor and may contribute to antibiotic resistance. It’s highly toxic to aquatic life and is turning up in dolphins at levels known to disrupt development in other animals.