Parabens, Phthalates and Sulfates! Oh My!

Those of you who use our products are aware that we recently reformulated our skincare line with some strict standards on the types of ingredients we will and will not allow in our products.  The line was already pretty clean, but we wanted to make it even better!   Our statement about our dmSkincare formulation philosophy is:

At dmSkincare we are very particular about the ingredients we use in our skin care products.  All of our skin care products are paraben-, phthalate-, sulfate- and petroleum-free.  dmSkincare products do not contain harmful chemicals, preservatives, artificial fragrances or dyes.  Many active ingredients are obtained from botanicals and are blended to create highly effective anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and skin protective benefits.  We tap nature to bring your natural beauty to life!  This is not typical of “clinical” product lines available on the market.  We don’t sacrifice safety to achieve clinical activity in our products.

 So, what’s the big deal? Why should you worry about using products that contain the chemicals listed above?  The skin is a super-absorber of substances both good and bad, and the products you put on your skin end up in your body. On average, consumers use about 10 personal care products containing 126 ingredients per day. The government does not require health studies or pre-market testing for these products.  The FDA has a GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list, but almost every chemical is included in that list. They focus on the intended outcome the product delivers, like softness or wrinkle reduction, not the unintended consequences.  Of the 7,000 ingredients on the list, only 6 have been tested for long term safety. (1)  This means that consumers need to be extra vigilant about evaluating their skincare products for themselves since the government is not watching out for us.

Here we’ll discuss the top offenders and why you should avoid them.


Parabens are preservatives found in many skincare products.  You can spot them easily on the product label because they end with the word paraben.  Examples include: methylparaben, proplyparaben, isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, butylparaben, and sodium butylparaben. 

Although the FDA has determined that parabens are safe for inclusion in skincare products, many scientist and layperson alike agree that they are not a wise choice.  One reason has to do with the chemical structure of a paraben, which is close to that of estrogen and can fit into estrogen receptors at the cellular level.  This is not good because research suggests that when this happens, the delicate endocrine (hormone) system is disturbed and may eventually lead to breast and other forms of cancer. 

In 2004, a study by the University of Reading in the United Kingdom found concentrations of parabens, particularly methylparaben, in human breast tumors. The study examined only the presence of parabens in the tumors but did not determine that they were the cause of the tumors.(5)  A follow up study released in 2012 confirmed the presence of parabens in 99% of tested cancerous breast tissue, but did not make a direction connection to the cancer and the parabens. (6) There are numerous research studies like this which are mostly suggestive.  The suggestion is strong enough for me to avoid parabens until further research is done to tell me they are safe.

A 2006 study published in Toxicity showed an increase in skin cancer when, in vitro, methylparaben were exposed to UV radiation. (7) This study was never validated with a peer review clinical study, but again, I’d rather be safe than sorry and keep parabens out of our products until further studies convince me they are not going to do harm.


Phthalates are chemical compounds that are used as plasticizers – ingredients that give plastics their elasticity and change the texture and quality of skincare products.  The most widely used phthalates are di-2-ethyl hexyl phthalate (DEHP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), butylbenzyl phthalate (BBP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP),  diisononyl phthalate (DINP), and diethyl phthalate (DEP).  There are many other forms too.  Just check the ingredient label for words ending in phthalate.  Butyl ester and plasticizer are other words to watch for.

As with parabens, phthalates are considered estrogen disruptors and the cause of reproductive problems, especially in males.  They also have been indicated as causing fat-related health risks.

A University of Rochester Medical Center study connected common chemicals to rising obesity rates. The analysis found that several phthalate metabolites showed a positive correlation with abdominal obesity. Men with the highest levels of phthalates in their urine had more belly fat and insulin resistance. Researchers adjusted for other factors that could influence the results, such as the men’s age, race, food intake, physical activity levels and smoking. (8) Who wants their skincare products adding to the already difficult task of battling the bulge?


Ingredients to look for include: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Myreth Sulfate.  These ingredients generally act as detergents or foaming agents and are found in cleansers and shampoos.

Tests show that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can penetrate into the eyes as well as systemic tissues (brain, heart, liver, etc.) and show long-term retention in those tissues, especially when used in soaps and shampoos. This is especially important in infants, where considerable growth is occurring and because a much greater uptake occurs in the tissue of younger eyes. SLS also changes the amounts of some proteins in cells in eye tissue of all ages. (2)

SLS forms nitrates. When SLS is used in shampoos and cleansers containing nitrogen-based ingredients, it can form carcinogenic nitrates that can enter the blood stream in large numbers. They can cause eye irritations, skin rashes, hair loss, scalp scurf similar to dandruff, and allergic reactions. [3]

SLS produces nitrosamines, potent carcinogens that cause the body to absorb nitrates at higher levels than eating nitrate-contaminated food like hot dogs or lunch meat.   Dr. David H. Fine, the chemist who uncovered NDELA contamination in cosmetics, estimates that a person would be applying 50 to 100 micrograms of nitrosamine to the skin each time he or she used a nitrosamine-contaminated cosmetic. By comparison, a person consuming sodium nitrate-preserved bacon is exposed to less than one microgram of nitrosamine. (4)

SLS and all its varieties are very harsh detergents that strip the skin’s moisture barrier, which is linked to immunity and disruption of skin health, in addition to associated dry, itchy skin.  In animal testing, it causes serious health problems.  One rule of thumb to remember — if it foams, it may not be your friend.


Petroleum is used by many skincare companies because it’s a cheap ingredient that can be used as a moisturizing agent.  In many European countries it is banned as an ingredient in skincare products.  Petroleum can contain known carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals).  Additionally, these products block moisture from escaping the skin, and clog pores.  The offer a false sense of hydration, when actually they prevent the action of your skin’s natural fats to act to provide a moisture barrier. 

Artificial colors and fragrances

Fragrances in lotions, shampoos, and many other cosmetic products are composed of aromatic hydrocarbons. Perfumes and products containing fragrance can contain many hundreds of chemicals to produce a distinct scent. A significant number of these aromas are derived from petroleum.   These chemicals have been associated with allergic reactions and hormone disruption.  Some fragrance chemicals have not been assessed for safety. Until all fragrance ingredients are disclosed on the label, consumers cannot know what is in a particular fragrance, therefore it’s best to avoid synthetic fragrances altogether.

Certain artificial colors and dyes can cause allergic reactions.  It takes up to 25 chemicals to create the synthetic color purple for example.  That’s a lot of chemicals just to add some visual appeal to a product! (If you think purple cream is attractive that is…)  This puts a great deal of stress on the body’s detoxification system.  There’s simply no need to add artificial colors to skincare products.

At dmSkincare our products derive their scent and color from the botanical ingredients we use in our formulations.  They have a pleasant and natural look and scent and will not add toxic burden to your body. As we state in our dmSkincare Philosophy, there’s no need to sacrifice safety for clinical efficacy.   There are safe alternatives to the ingredients discussed here, and even though it may cost us a little more and require some more thoughtful formulation, we are proud to make the right choice for our customers.

This is a lot of information.  I hope you found it useful. Be sure to read those labels before choosing your personal care products.  Limit yourself to those you really need, and give your body a break from the barrage of chemicals it has to deal with on a daily basis.




  1.  Accessed February 26, 2012
  2. Green, Dr. Keith. Detergent Penetration into Young and Adult Eyes. Department of Ophthalmology Medical College of GA, Augusta GA.
  3. Hampton, Aubrey. Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. Organica Press Metarasso, or Hampton, Aubrey. Natural Organic Hair and Skin Care. Organica Press, Tampa FL
  4. ibid
  5. Aljarrah A, Miller W R, Coldham N G, Sauer M J, and Pope G S. Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours. Journal of Applied Toxicology. Vol 24, 2004, p. 5-13
  6. L. Barr,a G. Metaxas,a C. A. J. Harbach,b L. A. Savoyc and P. D. Darbred, J. Measurement of paraben concentrations inhuman breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum Appl. Toxicol. 2012; 32: 219–232
  7. Handa O, et. al, Methylparaben potentiates UV-induced damage of skin keratinocytes, Toxicology. 2006 Oct 3;227(1-2):62-72.
  8. Richard W. Stahlhut,Edwin van Wijngaarden, Timothy D. Dye, Stephen Cook,and Shanna H. Swan. Concentrations of Urinary Phthalate Metabolites Are Associated with Increased Waist Circumference and Insulin Resistance in Adult U.S. Males. Environ Health Perspect. 2007 June; 115(6): 876–882