You are on page 1of 7

Bad for the ocean, bad for you…

(Compiled by HTO Research Associate Katherine Engel)

Heal the Ocean’s California Ocean Wastewater Discharge Report and Inventory contains a list of
Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) – chemicals – that escape wastewater treatment and end up
in the ocean. Please consult that list to reconsider the use of plastic containers, certain canned goods,
detergents, pesticides and so forth. Not buying these things in the first place is called “source control.”

The list below is only about personal care products, which comprise a large CEC group that not only
escape wastewater treatment when you flush or wash them down the drain, but may be harmful for you
to use over a long time period and in tandem with other products that have co-reactive chemical
properties. Personal care products are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and
although some of the toxins below are banned in other countries, the U.S. still allows them – and
consumers must look out for themselves. This is by no means an exhaustive list! The best way to avoid
personal care products that contain these toxins is to buy products made with natural, non-toxic
ingredients. In general, look for products with as few ingredients as possible, those that have simple,
non-chemical names. Read labels, avoid the following ingredients in personal care products:

1. Triclosan and triclocarban: Antibacterial agents, technically pesticides, widely used in

toothpaste, soaps, hand sanitizers, face cleansers, and deodorants. Some plastics impregnated
with triclosan for anti-bacterial properties include shoes, children’s toys, combs, fabrics, cutting
boards, and household appliances. Suspected of increasing antibacterial resistance, found in
tissue samples of humans (breast milk included) and sea life. Shown to weaken the immune
system, disrupt hormones, bioaccumulate in fatty tissues, and convert to carcinogenic
compounds like dioxin and chloroform (dioxin can form as a result of the degradation of
triclosan by sunlight, and chloroform can result from triclosan’s contact with chlorinated tap
water. Extremely persistent and highly toxic in the marine environment. Liberally used in the
U.S., restricted Japan and Canada for use in cosmetics. Studies have found that washing with
regular soap and warm water is just as effective at killing bacteria, no link has been established
between antimicrobial products and lower rates of disease.

2. Parabens: Methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, butyl- and isobutyl-parabens are preservatives used in
cosmetics to inhibit microbial growth. Known skin irritants, may cause cancer, may interfere
with gene expression, and disrupt hormones. Weak estrogenic properties, but can be easily
absorbed through the skin and have been found in breast cancer cells. European Union has
banned many forms for cosmetic application Found in so many types of cosmetics, concern has
been raised about additive exposure to humans from multiple sources.

3. Fragrance: “Fragrance” or “parfum” on can mask hundreds of unknown chemical ingredients,

and U.S. law protects companies from giving away trade secrets. Known to cause allergic
reactions, skin irritation, headaches, dizziness, rashes, hyper-pigmentation, coughing, vomiting.
Synthetic musks and phthalates (see below) can cause serious health effects – synthetic musks
have carcinogenic properties, tend to accumulate in the environment, human tissues, and have
been detected in breast milk. Phthalates can disrupt hormones and cause birth defects in male
reproductive organs. Linked with obesity. Consumers wanting a scent can choose products with
essential-oil fragrances as a safe alternative.
4. Pthalates: A component of fragrance in personal care products, also found in nail polish under
the name dibutyl phthalate. Although not found on most product labels, a study by the
Environmental Working Group found three-quarters of personal care products tested contain
phthalates. Used to extend the scent of fragrances, readily absorbed through the skin, and once
penetrated into the body can cause negative effects including obesity and damage to the liver,
kidneys, lungs and reproductive system. Reproductive problems may manifest in infertility,
birth defects in male sex organs, and sperm damage. Pthalates should be avoided especially by
women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

5. FD&C Colors and Coal Tar: Used in synthetic colors, may contain heavy metals, and when
applied to the skin, can cause irritation and sensitivity. Known carcinogens and respiratory
toxicants, can lead to developmental or reproductive toxicity. Not usually on product labels.
Many are banned in the European Union and Canada, though only a few are banned within the
U.S. Coal tar dyes used for making some toothpaste blue and mouthwash green, also found in
hair dyes, eye makeup, some dandruff shampoo and anti-itch creams. Suspected of being
persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment, especially if containing heavy metals.

6. Heavy Metals: Not usually listed on labels, but possibly present as a colorant, i.e., mascara,
eyeliner, whitening toothpaste, sunscreen, hair dyes, and eye drops. Can accumulate in the
body and manifested in large doses as heavy metal poisoning. Lead and mercury are toxic for
the brain, reproductive organs, immune and respiratory systems. Mercury may be listed as
thimerosal, a preservative found in some mascaras and eye drops. Persistent and
bioaccumulative in the environment and humans, can cause neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption,
and biochemical or cellular changes. Banned in Japan and restricted in the U.S., Canada, and the
European Union. Lead may be listed as lead acetate, can most commonly be found in black hair
dyes for men, is a neurotoxin that may also appear as a contaminant of hydrated silica, an
ingredient in toothpaste. Especially harmful to the developing brains of children, lead can also
cause enhanced skin absorption and organ system toxicity, is highly persistent and
bioaccumulative. Found unsafe in cosmetics in the European Union and Canada. In the U.S. it
has been banned from use in gasoline and house paint – but not personal care products.

7. 1,4-Dioxane: Usually not listed on packaging but often found as a contaminant in ethoxylated
foaming agents like Sodium Laureth Sulfate, emulsifiers, antibacterial ingredients such as
triclosan, and ingredients containing the terms “PEG,” “-xynol,” “ceteareth,” “oleth” and most
other ethoxylated “eth” ingredients. A known immune system and respiratory toxicant, a likely
carcinogen and a possible developmental and reproductive toxicant. Manufacturers can remove
dioxane through vacuum stripping, however low concentrations usually remain. The FDA
monitors products for this contaminant, though no safe exposure limit has been recommended,
manufacturers are encouraged to remove 1,4-dioxane, but federal law has no requirements.
Found unsafe for use in cosmetics in Canada and the European Union, but used in children’s
bath products (a 2007 survey by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics showed that most children’s bath
products contain 10 parts per million or less, despite the fact that toxic effects can manifest
even in the much lower parts per trillion range. Dioxane is suspected to be persistent and
bioaccumulative in the environment.

8. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): Lathering agents found in 90%
of personal care products that foam, including shampoo and toothpaste. Used also in car
washes, garage floor cleaners, and engine degreasers. Known skin irritants, can cause layers of
skin to separate, inflame and age especially insidious in personal care products left on the skin,
like lotions. Chronic skin hypersensitivity can be made worse with SLS and SLES which also
makes skin more easily penetrated by other chemicals in other personal care products. Known
to cause eye irritation, skin rash, hair loss, scalp scurf, and allergic reactions. SLS in toothpaste
may increase the incidence of aphthous ulcers, or canker sores (those prone to canker sores
should avoid this ingredient), suspected liver toxins. 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide are also
concerning contaminants. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen, skin, respiratory, and immune
system toxicant. SLS and SLES are environmental toxins, accumulating and persisting over time.

9. Polyethylene glycol (PEG): Polyethylene glycol and other “-eth-“ ingredients (for example
ceteareth compounds) found in cleansers, moisturizers, and creams comprise a class of
ethylene glycol polymers that moisturize, increase the stability of the personal care product, and
enhance other ingredients’ ability to penetrate the skin (including toxins). Corresponding
numbers accompanying the acronym PEG indicates the number of units of ethylene glycol used
(i.e. PEG-4 or PEG-100). The lower the number, the more easily this ingredient is absorbed into
the skin. Though PEGs are only mild irritants, they are likely contaminated by 1,4-dioxane,
ethylene oxide, heavy metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (some of which are

10. Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), and possibly Monoethanolamine (MEA):

Ethanolamine compounds used in cosmetics as emulsifiers and foaming agents. Contain
ammonia compounds, can form carcinogenic nitrosamines in the presence of nitrates (especially
in the liver and kidneys). Can lead to allergic reactions, eye irritation, dryness of hair and skin,
prolonged use can lead to toxic levels of absorption through the skin, where they can
accumulate in the body with other chemicals to produce toxicity to the skin, brain, respiratory,
and nervous system. Possible endocrine disruptors and asthma triggers. TEA can deplete the
body of the essential nutrient choline, which may impair brain development in fetuses and
increase incidences of tumor formation in the liver. Toxic to the environment, having the
potential to cause acute, sub-chronic and chronic toxicities in aquatic species.

11. DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Quaternium Compounds and other
formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: Widely used antimicrobial preservatives found in
shampoo, conditioner, hair dye, nail polish, skin products, and other personal care products.
Though formaldehyde is usually not an ingredient, it is often a byproduct that does not have to
be removed before sold to consumers. It forms with the breakdown of DMDM Hydantoin,
Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea, and Quaternium compounds, and can be a contaminant
in bath soaps, shampoo, conditioner, nail polish, hair dyes, and many other personal care
products. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, linked to lung cancer, immune system toxicity,
skin irritation and sensitivity, respiratory irritation, joint pain, depression, headaches, chest pain,
ear infections, aggravation of coughs and colds, chronic fatigue, dizziness, loss of sleep, heart
palpitations, and asthma. Enhance skin absorption of other chemicals. American Academy of
Dermatology finds urea compounds to be primary cause of contact dermatitis by the. DMDM
Hydantoin has been banned in Japan.

12. P-Phenylenediamine, 1,4 Benzenediamine, Diaminobenzene, and other similar compounds:

Controversial class of chemicals, contained in some hair-dyes, linked to cancer and birth defects,
proven toxic for the skin, nervous, respiratory and immune systems. Can also cause severe
allergic reactions, voted Allergen of the Year in 2006 by the American Contact Dermatitis
Society. Leads to toxicity in wildlife and the environment.

13. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)/ Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA): Found in some body
lotions, aftershaves, moisturizers and eye makeup as a preservative of color. BHT is linked to
cancer as well as immune system toxicity. Dr. Benjamin Feingold M.D. found it increased
hyperactivity in children in the 1970s. Many manufacturers have voluntarily removed BHT,
replacing it with the less-studied BHA, a known immune system toxicant and possible
carcinogen that causes skin depigmentation. Banned in the European Union for use in
cosmetics, both are persistent and bioaccumulative in wildlife and the environment. However,
these chemicals do have medical benefits, particularly their anti-viral and anti-microbial
properties, and research is under way to determine whether BHT, especially, is an effective
treatment for herpes and AIDS.

14. Sunscreen chemicals, including Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Benzphenone, Ethoxycinnamate,

and PABA: Found in sunscreen, moisturizers, and lip balms, linked to allergies, hormone
disruption, cardiovascular disease, and low birth weight in baby girls. Known to generate free
radicals, believed to damage cells and DNA. Highly bioaccumulative and persistent, especially in
wildlife and the environment., most notable for damaging coral reefs by activating algal viruses
that lead to bleaching. These ingredients also accumulate in the human body, in 2008, 97% of
Americans were found to be contaminated with oxybenzone. Better alternatives for sunscreens
are those containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as long as they don’t contain nanoparticles.

15. Nanoparticles: Widely untested, found in makeup, sunscreens (as nano metals), and skin creams
(as buckeyballs). Nano metals are very small metal particles, buckeyballs are microscopic wire
cages, they can penetrate the skin, become absorbed directly into the bloodstream, where they
make their way up the optic nerve to damage brain cells. Though zinc oxide and titanium
dioxide are always the best sunscreens, try to avoid those containing nanoparticles which make
them transparent. There are medical successes in the use of nanoparticles – nanospheres have
been found to effectively reduce cancer cells and repair spinal cord injuries.

16. Hydroquinone: A skin lightener, can cause ochronosis, a skin disease which creates “disfiguring
and irreversible” blue-black lesions (according to FDA warning). A known neurotoxin, immune
system and respiratory toxicant, a likely nervous system toxicant also highly toxic to wildlife and
the environment. Not required to be included on lotion labels, may occur as an impurity.

17. Nonoxynol-9: Used in various cleaning products and cosmetics, also a spermicidal in condoms,
diaphragms, and spermicidal lubes, gels, and foams. Recent findings are that this ingredient can
form tiny lesions on the skin, increasing the likelihood of contracting STDs. A study sponsored
by the United Nations revealed that in Africa sex workers are 50% more likely to be infected
with HIV if using products containing Nonoxynol-9.

18. Petrolatum, Paraffin, and other Petroleum Distillates: Petrolatum, or petroleum jelly, as well as
other petroleum distillates, used as emollients in cosmetics and creams, promoted to help
dryness and chapping, but can interfere with the body's own natural moisturizing mechanism,
leading to the same problems supposedly alleviated. Extremely inexpensive, derived from crude
oil, can aggravate acne and cause premature aging by slowing down cell turnover. Also cause
photosensitivity, which promotes sun damage. Most distillates, especially petrolatum, are
commonly contaminated by carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and
1,4-dioxane, PAHs have most recently been linked to breast cancer. Banned for use in cosmetics
in the European Union, but common in personal care products in the U.S. and unregulated.

19. Propylene Glycol (PG): A cosmetic preservative, wetting agent and solvent also used in anti-
freeze. Usually a petroleum product, although a natural version is made from vegetable glycerin
and grain alcohol. Easily absorbed by the human body, side effects include allergic reactions,
hives, eczema, and irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs). Can also cause brain, kidney, liver, heart, and
nervous system damage. An environmental toxin, especially in aquatic environments, where its
decomposition consumes large quantities of dissolved oxygen. Related to other synthetics like
polyethylene glycol (PEG) and polypropylene glycol (PPG) and also the less studied Butylene

20. Selenium Sulfide: Contained in shampoo, conditioner, and other hair products (especially those
that treat dandruff), can cause skin irritation, dry skin and hair loss. A possible carcinogen and
developmental toxin, likely neurotoxin, and a known respiratory nervous system toxin. Banned
for use in cosmetics in the European Union and Japan, this chemical is persistent and
bioaccumulative in wildlife and the environment.

21. Benzalkonium Chloride: Found in conditioners, facial cleansers, moisturizers, eye drops, contact
lens solutions, nose spray, mouthwash, spermicidal creams, sanitizers, and disinfectants. In the
U.S., only permitted in low concentrations as it is highly toxic, but even at low doses, is a known
allergen, immune, reproductive and skin toxicant. Though usually contained in contact lens
solution at only 0.002-0.01%, above 0.02%, can cause irreversible eye damage. In nose sprays,
can also cause rebound nasal congestion, the condition it is meant to treat. Many
manufacturers have removed or replaced this preservative in their products; its use is banned in
cosmetics in Japan and Canada. In the U.S., there are fairly strict restrictions on benzalkonium
chloride, though its use at all is frequently questioned. It escapes wastewater treatment, where
it is released into the environment. Highly toxic to birds, fish, and aquatic invertebrates.

22. Phenoxyethanol and Chlorphenesin: Ingredients in nipple cream for nursing mothers to help
soothe and heal dry or cracked nipples. Phenoxyethanol is toxic to nursing infants, as it may
depress the central nervous system and cause vomiting and diarrhea. FDA has issued warnings
about avoiding this preservative in nipple cream, a classified irritant restricted for use in Japan.
Chlorphenesin can depress the central nervous system and cause respiratory distress.

23. Cyclomethicone and cyclopentasiloxane (and other ingredients that include “siloxane”): Highly
accumulative in humans and organisms high on the food chain, may be carcinogenic and lead to
reproductive toxicity.

24. Placenta: Extracts from both human and cow placenta used as skin and hair conditioners.
Contain progesterone and estrogen, and can inundate the body with hormones, which may
especially be toxic for developing fetuses and babies. Known to cause breast growth in toddlers.

25. Acne Medications: Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid are common acne products, both
restricted in Canada and Japan “Penetration enhancers” that increase skin absorption, more
toxic when exposure comes from multiple, additive sources. Eye, skin, and respiratory irritants.
Benzoyl Peroxide is a possible tumor promoter and has been shown to lead to skin cancer. Both
of these ingredients are persistent and bioaccumulative in humans and the environment.

26. Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate: A human and likely immune system toxicant, is also suspected to
be an environmental toxin. Information on its safety is limited.

27. Methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone: Known immune system and skin

toxicants, restricted for use in Canada and Japan. Much more potent in products when left on
the skin. Research is limited.

Conclusion: If you find you no longer want to use certain products you have in your house, please do
not flush! A good rule to remember: the toilet/sink is not a trash can.

The following items can obstruct or damage sewer lines and equipment. They may cause toxic or
explosive episodes at pump lift stations and wastewater treatment facilities. Many chemicals can upset
treatment plant biological processes, especially at high concentrations and volumes. Use a hazardous
waste disposal facility to safely dispose of items that are toxic, and for items that are not hazardous but
should not be flushed, properly dispose of these in your garbage.

Please do NOT flush the following:

• Any type of medication – prescription and over-the-counter (return these to your
pharmacist for proper disposal);
• Cooking fat, oil, and grease or industrial grease emulsifiers;
• Hair;
• Cigarette butts;
• Metals and metal compounds including mercury and lead (especially broken thermometers that
contain mercury);
• Rags, towels, baby diapers, washcloths, tissues, paper towels, “disposable” wipes and cleaning
• Any kind of plastic, including sanitary products and applicators, condoms, toys, cotton swabs,
floss, hypodermic needles;
• Paint, stains, and paint cleaning products (mineral and latex paints);
• Flammable liquids, including paint thinners and other solvents, glue, sealants, acetone, gasoline,
diesel fuel, heating oil, lighter fluid, and machine oil;
• Anti-freeze or coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid and other automotive chemicals;
• Cleaning products such as unused bleach and multi-purpose cleaners (including those with “eco”
labels, and any type of caustic or acidic solution in greater than ½ gallon amounts (these may be
highly corrosive);
• Detergents with high levels of phosphate;
• Swimming pool and hot tub water and chemicals, without the approval of your sanitary district;
• Rainwater, storm water, and water from a “sump pump” that gathers water under a house;
• Packing (Styrofoam) “peanuts”;
• Fertilizers, copper-based root killers and other herbicides, pesticides and insecticides.

The best source control is to reduce your waste!

1. Buy only items you need in the amounts you need;
2. Use up hazardous products completely, following instructions on the label;
3. Use non-toxic or less toxic products, especially natural and naturally derived alternatives;
4. Use multi-purpose cleaners rather than a whole arsenal of different cleaning products;
5. Buy cleaners in concentrates with appropriate handling safeguards;
6. Use reusable, reduced, or recyclable packaging to reduce packaging waste and transportation
7. Be careful in interpreting vague or generic claims such as "environmentally friendly," "eco safe,"
8. Compost items such as food scraps and leaves.

For more on these topics visit:

The Dirty Dozen Chemicals in Cosmetics

"The Toxic 12" Beauty Ingredients

Know Your Cosmetics Ingredients: Top Five Ingredients to Avoid

US EPA’s Green Purchasing Guides

Seven Cosmetic Ingredients to Watch-Out For

Femme Toxic’s “Toxic Twenty” List of Chemicals to Avoid

Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency’s Household Hazardous Waste Chart

Planet Green’s List of Common Items Not to Flush

Orange Water and Sewer Authority’s Down the Drain? Out With the Trash?