baby_HandsWhatever we put on our skin is readily absorbed into our bloodstream where it can potentially cause some serious damage to our bodies. We all know how important it is to wash our hands, but does anyone ever really think about soap ingredients? Or think that they could be dangerous to our health? Doesn’t it make sense to use only the purest soap, especially for children? I’ve pulled some information together to make it easier for you to learn about the toxic ingredients in common hand soaps and hand sanitizers, and to learn some safer alternatives.

Don’t Use Antibacterial Soap

People have been told that regular soap isn’t good enough and that antibacterial soap is necessary to lower the risk of infection. Thus, antibacterial soaps have become so prevalent in households; it is estimated that 72% of liquid soap sold in the United States contains antibacterial ingredients. And it’s not just soap; it’s in toothpastes, laundry detergents, and dish soaps, too.

While it is very important to wash our hands regularly, chemical-free natural soap and water works just fine. In fact, the use of antibacterial soap is not only unnecessary but may cause more harm than good:

  • Overuse of antibacterial soaps could promote the growth of drug-resistant “superbugs” that might otherwise be kept in check with little more than a vigorous scrub
  • Triclosan, active ingredient in most antibacterial soap, not only kills bacteria, it has also been shown to kill human cells.
  • When common bacteria are wiped out by antibacterial soap, children aren’t exposed to them and some exposure to bacteria in early childhood can strengthen their immune systems. Without exposure, children may be prone to allergies and asthma.

Chemicals to Avoid in Hand Soaps and Hand Sanitizers

The following is a list of some toxic ingredients common in hand soap, hand sanitizer, and other personal care products. This is not a complete list of all toxic ingredients, but will give you a start when you look at ingredient labels.

1. Triclosan

Here are a few more reasons to avoid products containing triclosan:

2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a common ingredient in shampoos, liquid soaps, and toothpaste; it is in approximately 90% of personal care products that foam.

  • SLS is the active ingredient in garage floor cleaners, engine degreasers, and industrial strength soaps.
  • It can damage cell membranes and possibly cause hair loss.
  • It is also linked to skin and eye irritation, organ toxicity, developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicological, and biochemical or cellular changes, and possible mutations and cancer, as reported by the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.

3. Parabens

Parabens are in so many skin care products; they preserve other ingredients and extend a product’s shelf life. There are many types of parabens: methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben, etc. They are also dangerous and something I avoid completely:

  • Parabens have have hormone-disrupting effects.
  • Parabens can cause diminished muscle mass and extra fat storing.
  • Topical parabens have been detected in human breast tumors. This is concerning because parabens have been shown to mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen, which can encourage the growth of human breast tumors.

4. Ureas

Formerly known as Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl, DMDM hydantoin, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, these chemicals are hard to pronounce and have several concerns associated with them:

  • Ureas can release formaldehyde and cause joint pain, heart irregularities, and a weakened immune system.
  • Ureas are a primary cause of contact dermatitis.

5. Synthetic Colors

Synthetic colors are made from coal tar. They contain heavy metal salts that may deposit toxins onto the skin, causing skin sensitivity and irritation. Animal studies have shown almost all of them to be carcinogenic. They will be labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number.

6. Diethanolamine (DEA)

Diethanolamine (DEA) is used as a wetting agent in shampoos, lotions, creams, bubble bath, and other cosmetics. It is linked to cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, allergies/immunotoxicity, and organ system toxicity.

7. Propylene Glycol, Propylene Oxide, Polyethylene Glycol

Propylene glycol is the main ingredient in anti freeze and is listed on the FDA government website as a known carcinogen.

  • It is found in hand sanitizers, moisturizers, shaving creams, deodorants, and baby products.
  • Propylene glycol weakens skin cells.
  • It is linked to cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, allergies/immunotoxicity, and organ system toxicity.

8. Synthetic Fragrance

Synthetic fragrances often contain phthalates, which are endocrine disrupters that mimic hormones and may alter genital development. Avoid products that list ‘fragrance‘ as an ingredient unless the label states that it’s derived from essentials oils, or look for a phthalate-free label on the packaging.

9. 1,4-Dioxane

1,4-Dioxane is considered a chemical “known to the State of California to cause cancer”, yet you won’t see it listed on an ingredient label on a product.

  • It is considered a ‘contaminant’ or ‘by-product’ of the ethoxylation process, rather than an ingredient.
  • Avoid synthetic ethoxylated ingredients, including those with myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth, any other “eth,” PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, or oxynol, in their names.

10. Ethyl Alcohol (Ethanol)

Ethyl alcohol is a common ingredient in hand sanitizer. It is linked to cancer, birth defects, developmental/reproductive toxicity, and organ system toxicity.

11. Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC)

BAC is used in hand sanitizers and belongs to a group of germicides knows as “quats“. It is linked to cancer, allergies/immunotoxicity, and organ system toxicity.

Always Read Labels – Even For ‘Natural’ or ‘Organic’ Products

After reading about all those toxic ingredients, you may decide to switch to a product labeled “natural” or “organic”. But you need to be aware that many toxic ingredients are still in products mislabeled natural or organic. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) released a study of personal care products claiming to be “natural” or “organic” and some of the leading brands were found to contain 1,4-dioxane. Products certified under the USDA National Organic Program did not contain this toxin.

No matter what brand you buy, you need to read the ingredient labels. Just because a product is “more natural” or “better” doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) created a huge database of cosmetics chemicals and ranked them, giving them a hazard score. On their site, you can:

  • Enter specific chemical names to find information.
  • Look up a specific product and see its ingredients.

So go grab your bottles of soap and hand sanitizers – and any other personal care items you have. Then go to the cosmetics database website and look up the ingredients and see for yourself their hazard score. It’s especially scary to read the ingredient labels for some of the children’s soap.

So What Products Can I Use?

After you’ve looked at the ingredients in your soaps and sanitizers, you are probably feeling hopeless. Those toxic chemicals are everywhere! But there are safer options for cleaning your hands. Here are a few things we use:

  • Hand Sanitizer: We like the CleanWell cleanwellhand sanitizer. The active ingredient is thyme oil, a natural antimicrobial. Having a small child, it was especially important to us that we find a hand sanitizer safe for kids; it is free of toxic chemicals like triclosan, alcohol, and Benzalkonium Chloride.
  • Hand Soap: The best liquid hand soap I can find is Dr. Bronner’s. We pour their Organic Fair Trade Shikakai Soap into our “fancy” soap dispenser. For the rest of our house, handsoapwe pour their liquid castile soap into self-foaming dispensers and add some water. Dr. Bronner’s also makes bar soap.

Where Do I Start?

This week, take the time to read the ingredient labels on your soaps and hand sanitizers. Look up their information in EWG’s Cosmetics Database. And then consider finding safer, non-toxic ways to clean your family’s hands. Come back and share with us what you do by leaving a comment!

Wendy –

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(Two hands photo courtesy of demordian.)