We would not think of slathering petroleum on our faces, yet that is what most people unbeknownst to them do. Hidden in all manner of cosmetic and skincare products, petroleum derivatives are full of dangerous contaminants and can not only clog pores but also cause allergies and cancer. A 1986 report by the National Academy of Sciences noted that 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum.
Mineral oil, petroleum jelly (petrolatum), paraffin
Mineral oil and petroleum jelly (aka Vaseline) coat the skin, clogging pores and creating a barrier that prevents the elimination of toxins. They also block the ability of the skin to moisturize itself, perpetuating dry and chapped skin conditions. These petroleum by-products also cause skin to age faster by slowing down cell turnover, and may cause photosensitivity (sensitivity to the sun).
However, the biggest danger posed by these chemicals is that they can be contaminated with toxic substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Studies suggest that exposure to PAHs — including skin contact over extended periods of time — is associated with cancer. For this reason the European Union classifies petrolatum as a carcinogen and allows its use in cosmetics only when the manufacturer can show that there’s no contamination present. Environment Canada classifies the substance as a possible carcinogen, possible mutagen and suspected environmental toxin. Furthermore, UCLA studies link high levels of exposure to mineral oils to increased mortality and incidence of lung cancer.
Danger: Contaminants are never part of the ingredient list so you need to avoid potential sources such as these.
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)
You will see this family of chemicals listed by their entire name or the abbreviation PEG (e.g. PEG-4, PEG-100, etc.) The lower the number, the easier it is absorbed into the skin.
These chemicals are irritants and cause allergic reaction on sun exposure. They are also penetration enhancers, meaning that any other nasty chemicals in a product that contains PEG will be much more likely to be absorbed into the skin. This includes many of the contaminants that accompany PEGs which include ethylene oxide, 1,4 dioxane, polycyclic aromatic compounds (mentioned above) and heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane as a possible human carcinogen. Ethylene oxide can also harm the nervous system and the California Environmental Protection Agency has classified it as a developmental toxicant based on evidence that it may interfere with human development.
Danger: Watch out, PEGs can be found in many natural formulas!
Volatile solvents (benzene, toluene)
Used in fragrance (not listed), nail polish, nail polish remover, and hair color, as well as the manufacture of nylon, artificial leather, and detergents. These are harmful chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders and allergic reactions. Benzene is a known bone marrow poison and has been banned in cosmetics by the European Union.
Danger: State investigators in California found that 50% of 3-free nail polish brands they tested still contained toluene. Stick to 5-free brands such as Kure Bazaar which rates a low 3 in the EWG Skin Deep data base.
PVP/VA copolymer and isobutane/methylpropane
Used mostly in hair styling products. Both are harmful when inhaled so watch out for hair spray, but otherwise neither one has been shown to be toxic.