We love our body lotions: They’re not as greasy as oils, they absorb quickly, and they do the job of keeping your skin soft and smooth. And most of them smell pretty nice, too. But before you reach for that bottle on your bathroom shelf, know that what’s inside may not be as innocent as it looks. There are dozens of ingredients currently being used in top-brand body lotions that range from questionable to potentially hazardous. Watch out for these six toxic ingredients when scanning body lotion labels. And if you spot one or more on the bottle, don’t buy it.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
BHA is a food preservative and stabilizer that routinely shows up in body lotions, as well as everything from lipstick to yeast infection treatments. But beware—it’s an endocrine disruptor and “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the National Toxicology Program.
This mysterious-sounding ingredient is a type of formaldehyde-releasing preservative used in a host of personal care items, including body lotion. (Formaldehyde releasers are used in 20 percent of all cosmetics and personal care products, according to the Environmental Working Group). It’s an irritant for eyes and skin, and while there’s no evidence that DMDM hydantoin itself is a carcinogen, formaldehyde definitely is. And if there’s an impurity in the DMDM Hydantoin used in your moisturizer, there’s a chance that formaldehyde is present.
Fragrance + Parfum
You may think it’s nice that your lotion smells like strawberries and cream, but there’s no way that scent is natural. When you see “fragrance” or “parfum” on a label, read “a toxic mix of chemicals the manufacturer doesn’t want to tell you about.” Most notably, this includes diethyl phthalate, according to the Environmental Working Group. You may have already heard of phthalates since they’re used in just about everything from cosmetics to insecticides to wood finishes—and they’re known to be endocrine disruptors and toxic to organ systems. Synthetic fragrances like the ones used in lotions also emit harmful VOCs, which pollute indoor air quality and cause reparatory allergies and asthma.
You’ll find parabens in practically all popular commercial body lotions (just look for butylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, or ethylparaben on the label). They prevent bacteria and fungus from growing in your favorite bottle of moisturizer, which would be great if they weren’t linked to hormone disruption and breast cancer. Luckily, manufacturers of organic lotions have found safer ways to keep their products fungus-free, like using vitamin E and citric acid, though these products tend to have a shorter shelf life than those that contain parabens.
Retinyl palmitate, the most controversial form of vitamin A, is a vitamin A derivative that you’ll see in some sunscreens, as well as lotions and creams advertised to have anti-aging properties. A study published by the National Toxicology Program found that mice exposed to retinyl palmitate developed a frightening number of tumors after exposure to sunlight. If you’re going to use lotions that contain retinyl palmitate, do so at night.
This mouthful of an ingredient is a highly alkaline substance that’s used to balance the pH in various body lotions and cosmetics (especially mascara). Despite its widespread use, it is considered moderately dangerous and should never be used long-term, according to the Dermatology Review, since it is a skin and respiratory irritant and toxicant to the immune system. It’s also been linked to cancer in animal studies. Though triethanolamine is considered biodegradable and nontoxic to animals and organisms, wastewater releases from manufacturing plants containing large amounts of triethanolamine can significantly alter the pH of rivers and streams, resulting in toxic shock to marine life.