If you're learning about toxic chemicals in consumer goods for the first time, you're probably feeling frustrated and confused. I get it. I've been there. But in writing The Honest Life, I had the chance to spend tons of time researching to come up with this master guide of toxic chemicals to avoid throughout your home and life.
There’s no pressure to memorize this list of confusing-sounding chemicals and other sciencey terms—but if you want to sound authoritative when you’re talking to friends and family about your new Honest Life, trotting out a couple of these will do the trick! Here are 23 toxic, greenwashed, or otherwise not-so-good-for-you things to avoid.
Found In: Baby shampoo, kids' bubble bath, regular shampoo, soap, and shower gel
What Is It? Sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate (SLS) and polyethylene glycol (PEG) are sudsing agents, so they make things foamy.
Why Is It Sketchy? When these chemicals are manufactured, they release a toxic by-product called 1,4-dioxane. This chemical easily penetrates our skin and may cause cancer and birth defects. It may also be toxic to our kidneys, neurological system, and respiratory system.
Avoid It: Beware of any ingredients that include the terms "-xynol," "ceteareath," and "oleth." Check Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database for safer options.
Found In: Anything that lists "fragrance" on the label, plus some nail polishes; also, vinyl flooring, windows, and plastics
What Is It? Plasticizers that do everything from making your nail polish stronger and flexible to making personal care products and air fresheners smell good. Phthalates typically turn up in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, too, including vinyl shower curtains.
Why Is It Sketchy: Twenty years of research suggests that phthalates can mess with our hormones and damage our reproductive health, so it's especially critical for pregnant women, babies, and young children to steer clear.
Avoid It: Look for non-vinyl alternatives whenever you're purchasing a traditionally vinyl item, use "fragrance-free" cleaning supplies and personal care products, and skip mani-pedis.
Found In: Concealer, mascara, sunless tanning lotion, and conditioner
What Is It? Triethanolamine (TEA) and diethanolamine (DEA) are proteins used to adjust the pH level of a product or as a wetting agent.
Why Is It Sketchy? When TEA is combined with certain preservatives, it can create cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines.
Avoid It: Check product labels and make it a point to avoid these ingredients.
Found In: Drinking water, anything made from vinyl (PVC)—children's toys, shower curtains, backpacks, raincoats, umbrellas, pacifiers, teething rings, children's face paint, lipstick, the paint on metal toys and jewelry.
What Is It? Lead and other heavy metals, such as cadmium and nickel, are contaminants (which naturally occur in some pigments). Detectable levels of lead were found in 400 lipsticks tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2010!
Why Is It Sketchy? There is no safe level of lead exposure: It's a known neurotoxin and can play a role in the development of learning delays, autism, and other neurological problems for babies and children. It's bad for adults, too.
It also can reach a developing fetus, so if you're pregnant or are thinking about it, you want to avoid lead, full stop.
• If you live in a home built before 1978, have your water and painted surfaces tested
for lead. Use filters, replace pipes, and have paint sealed (by pros!) if appropriate.
• Run your cold water for a minute every morning to flush out any lead that may have accumulated in the pipes overnight.
• Steer clear of vinyl or painted toys, jewelry, and other gear that was made in China
or other parts of Asia—these were the most likely to test positive for lead during
investigations over the past few years.
• When you eat seafood, be sure to choose kinds low in mercury.
Found in: Most dry-cleaning formulas
What Is It? A colorless, nonflammable solvent used to clean delicate fabrics
Why Is It Sketchy? Perc, or perchloroethylene, off-gasses when it's exposed to air, which means we can breathe it in. Short-term exposure can cause dizziness, fatigue, sweating, and headaches. Long-term exposure may cause liver and kidney damage, memory loss, and cancer.
Avoid It: Handwash or use the gentle cycle on your washing machine instead of dry-cleaning whenever possible. (It’s cheaper, too!) When you do dry-clean, ask them to take your clothes out of the bag before you bring them home. Let newly dry-cleaned clothes air out on your porch or in the garage for a day before you hang them in your closet.
Found In: Mascara, CFL lightbulbs, some seafood
What Is It? A preservative that prevents bacterial growth
Why Is It Sketchy? Mercury is a known neurotoxin that can also cause allergic reactions or skin irritation, plus it's easily absorbed through your skin and accumulates in your body.
As a result, it's one of the few cosmetic ingredients that the FDA does restrict—mercury can only be used in eye makeup in very small amounts and only "if no other safe and effective preservative can be found."
Avoid It: Eat smaller, fatty fish like sardines and anchovies instead of larger fish like tuna, Opt for LED lightbulbs, and avoid makeup that lists mercury or thimerosal as an ingredient.
Found In: Includes perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), brominated flame retardants (BFRs), and halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) found in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabric, foam cushions, mattresses, carpeting, paints, pizza boxes, fast-food containers, conventional cleaning products, roof treatments, kids' pajamas
What Is It? A group of chemicals that make things stain, water, and flame resistant
Why Is It Sketchy? PFCs, BFRs, and HFRs are endocrine disruptors: They interfere with healthy hormonal development and can lead to reproductive and developmental disorders. They're also associated with certain cancers.
Avoid It: Replace any old, scratched nonstick cookware with cast iron or stainless steel, don't buy fabrics that advertise as being water repellant, flame resistant, or stain resistant, and don't use products designed to increase a fabric's stain resistance.
Skip the fast food and take-out pizza, Switch to nontoxic cleaning products, use nontoxic paints, and invest in nontoxic mattresses and pillows.
Found In: Some pacifiers, baby toys (or any plastic labeled #7), cash register receipts
What Is It? A plasticizer that makes polycarbonate plastic clear and hard; used in lining of most canned foods
Why Is It Sketchy? BPA is an endocrine disruptor. It's associated with infertility, obesity, metabolic disorders, thyroid problems, and low birth weight.
Avoid It: Avoid fast food and canned goods, say "no receipt, thanks" at the cash register, avoid microwaving in plastic, cut back on bottled water and No. 7 plastics.
Found In: Most commercially raised animals—cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry
What Is It? Drugs formulated to kill microorganisms are fed to livestock to speed growth and prevent or treat diseases, particularly because animals that live in confined spaces tend to be more susceptible
Why Is It Sketchy? The practice of routinely feeding these drugs to animals contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which you definitely want to avoid (it increases the odds of picking up a foodborne illness—or worse, when people really get sick, of doctors not have drugs that work).
Avoid It: Choose organic whenever possible. The Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved labels also ban the use of antibiotics unless an animal is actually sick and needs the drugs.
Found In: Many foundations, lotions, cleansers, lipsticks, lip balms
What Is It: Moisturizers
Why Is It Sketchy? Using a lot of petroleum-filled products can cause breakouts because they block your pores; dermatologists recommend using an oil-free, water-based formulation if your skin is sensitive or acne prone (shea butter and jojoba are great plant-derived alternatives).
Long-term, we don't totally understand how petrochemicals in personal care products affect our health, but petroleum distillates may cause cancer—and anyway, this stuff is used in paint, antifreeze, and gasoline. Does that sound like something that should go on your face?
Avoid It: Look for "oil free" personal care products. Avoid products with ingredients like mineral oil, petroleum jelly, propylene glycol, and paraffin.
Found In: Water-based products, such as shampoos, conditioner, cleansers, shower gels, lotions—you name it
What Is It? Preservatives
Why Is It Sketchy? We can absorb parabens through our skin, blood, and digestive system, and they've even been found inside breast tumors (and, thus, are linked to cancer). They may also be toxic to our reproductive, immune, and neurological systems and can cause skin rashes.
Avoid It: Check labels and choose cleaner personal care products. (Visit the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to rate your products and find safer options.)
What Is It? Antimicrobial agents that kill bacteria and fungus and prevent odors
Why Is It Sketchy? This stuff gets absorbed and piles up in our bodies, where it may disrupt our hormones. And because we use so much of it, it's also helping to create dangerous bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
In 2005, the FDA found no evidence that antibacterial soaps are in any way superior to good old soap and water. So stick with that—and always lather hands for at least 20 seconds.
Avoid It: Use regular soap and water to wash your hands, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer when necessary.
Found In: Shampoos, body washes, nail polishes, polish removers, keratin hair straighteners, hair gels, and eyelash glues, as well as kitchen cabinets, carpeting, and mattresses; includes formaldehyde-releasing preservatives like DMDM hydantoin, imidazolindinyl urea, and quaternium-15
What Is It? A preservative (or sometimes, a by-product released by other preservatives) that prevents bacteria growth and (weirdly) makes your hair silky smooth
Why Is It Sketchy? Formaldehyde can cause cancer after chronic, long-term exposure, plus it can trigger allergic reactions, rashes, nosebleeds, asthma, and other respiratory issues.
Avoid It: Skip mani-pedis and opt for a massage instead, avoid any kind of keratin hair-straightening treatment, shop for safer mattresses, let new furniture, carpets, and other home goods off-gas on the back porch for several days, or even look for used furniture which is likely to have already off-gassed. Avoid DMDM hydantoin, imidazolindinyl urea, and quaternium-15 ingredients in personal care products.
Found In: Cleaning supplies, air fresheners, pesticides, building materials, paints, furnishings—anything with a strong scent
What Is It? Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), an umbrella term for a huge group of chemicals that release fumes and gases
Why Is It Sketchy? Some VOCs can cause serious health issues, ranging from respiratory illness to cancer, in addition to others that are pretty benign. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't know that much yet about what health effects occur from typical household VOC levels—although it's known that indoor levels are typically much higher than outdoor levels.
Avoid It: Avoid painting or home renovations during your pregnancy, opt for no-VOC paints, use only nontoxic cleaning supplies, invest in nontoxic carpets and furnishings, or buy older pieces that had more time to finish off-gassing.
Found In: Bathroom corners, dank basements, and under kitchen sinks and fridges
What Is It? Tiny spores that require only moisture and oxygen to grow—and grow
Why Is It Sketchy? A mold infestation can trigger asthma and allergies, or, in more concentrated doses, dizziness and flulike symptoms.
Avoid It: Keep moisture under control with good ventilation. Any mold growth that covers an area larger than 10 square feet, or has spread inside the ducts of your central air system, should be handled by a professional, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Scrub the mold off of hard surfaces with a mixture of detergent and hot water, then fix the source of the water damage. (Throw out infested porous materials like carpets or ceiling tiles.)
Found In: Laundry products
What Is It? Optical brighteners are dyes that absorb UV light to make your whites whiter and other clothes brighter by removing yellow tones; chlorine bleach is used to make whites whiter and kill bacteria.
Why Is It Sketchy? Optical brighteners bind to the skin and may cause rashes and allergic reactions; they may also be hormone disruptors—and we just don't know whether they're safe to use over long periods of time. Another bummer: They're toxic to fish. Bleach is harmful if inhaled and powerfully irritating to eyes, noses, and throats. It also wears your clothes out faster!
Avoid It: I use our
Look for "oxy" stain removers made from sodium percarbonate (a solid form of hydrogen peroxide bonded with natural soda ash) and sodium carbonate. If you must bleach, make sure the label says "nonchlorinated."
Found In: Hot dogs, bacon, other cured meats, some smoked fish
What Is It? A meat preservative
Why Is It Sketchy? Can trigger migraines, may be linked to cancer
Avoid It: Skip smoked and cured meats, or when you do indulge, choose only nitrate-free versions. (But do so sparingly.)
Found In: Canola, soybeans, and corn. (These are main ingredients in nonorganic animal feed, processed foods, and vegetable oils.
What Is It? Genetically modified organisms are often engineered to survive heavy applications of toxic chemicals.
Why Is It Sketchy? Some GMO food ingredients contain 'extreme' levels of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup and go-to chemical used in GMO farming. The World Health Organization recently dubbed it a probable human carcinogen.
Avoid It: The health consequences of GMOs are largely unknown, but they've been banned throughout Europe. GMOs are not allowed in organic food, so if you're eating mostly organic, you're already limiting your exposure.
She shares strategies for maintaining a clean diet (with favorite family-friendly recipes) and embraces nontoxic choices at home and provides eco-friendly decor tips to fit any budget.