Know what’s in self-care products

What we use on our bodies is just as important as what we put in our bodies. Dr Sumayya Ebrahim explains why.

How many of us open a jar of our favourite moisturiser, spray on deodorant every day, apply our lipstick multiple times and shampoo our hair without a second thought? 

Here are interesting facts about contaminants that are present in our lives daily. In the products we use for self-care. In the items that we think are keeping our bodies clean and beautiful. These chemicals can affect our health and even contribute towards formation of certain cancers. 

My intention is not to further enhance fears about getting cancer. Instead, it is to encourage an awareness of what we do every day, to empower us to lead healthier and more fulfilled lives. 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer

Worldwide, the laws governing what is allowed into cosmetics and personal care products is limited. This often means that certain carcinogens (a substance capable of causing cancer in living tissue) are legally allowed to  be in them. So, it is up to the consumer (that’s us) to make intelligent, informed choices.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do all the hard work. It has been done for us already. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is an intergovernmental agency and part of the World Health Organisation. 

IRAC’s mission is to enhance collaboration in cancer research internationally. IRAC reviews all the scientific evidence and has a classification system for chemicals, etc. that are harmful to humans. Of  the 113 agents listed as known human carcinogens, at least 11 are found in personal care products.

The list

These substances are essentially used as preservatives and stabilisers:

Formaldehyde found in keratin hair straighteners, nail polish, eye shadow, mascara, nail treatment, blush and shampoo.

Effect: carcinogen

Phenacetin found in facial hair bleach, hair color and hair removal creams.

Effect: carcinogen

Coal tar found in hair dyes, shampoos, dandruff/scalp treatment and redness/rosacea treatments.

Effect: carcinogen

Benzene found in hair conditioner and styling lotion.

Effect: carcinogen and endocrine disruptor

Mineral oils (untreated and mildly treated) found in eye shadow, moisturiser, lip gloss, lipstick, conditioner, hair color, bleach, facial treatments, styling lotion, blush and concealer.

Effect: carcinogen

Ethylene oxide used to sterilise medical equipment and ends up in cosmetics as an impurity.

Effect: carcinogen and endocrine disruptor

Heavy metals found in colourants in eye shadow, lip gloss, facial lotion, foundation and shampoo.

Effect: carcinogen

Cadmium and its compounds found in colourants in cosmetics. 

Effect: allergies, neurological disease and carcinogen

Arsenic found as a contaminant in cosmetic colourants and ingredients.

Effect: carcinogen, endocrine disruptor, vascular complications, and skin conditions, like hyperpigmentation

Chromium found in cosmetic colourant.

Effect: carcinogen 

Silica found in lipsticks, lip gloss, eye shadow, eye liner, foundation, sunscreen, lotion and shampoo.

Effects: carcinogen and allergies

What are xenoestrogens?


Naturally, all women have oestrogen. This hormone, one of many, is an integral part of our menstrual cycle, breast health and fertility. It is also important in influencing tissue growth and development. 

Too much of this hormone, however, causes problems like growths of fibroids, ovarian cysts, and oestrogen-dependent tumours, like breast- and uterine cancer, and melanoma. Too much of this hormone can also unbalance the    entire endocrine system of the body.

Xenoestrogens are foreign oestrogens that mimic our natural oestrogen. They enter our bodies when taken in from food, water or chemicals, and attach themselves to our cell’s oestrogen receptors. Thereby taking over or enhancing our cell’s natural oestrogen effects.

What are endocrine disruptors?

These are chemicals that can interfere with the normal hormonal (endocrine) systems of the body. These disruptions appear to be dose and timing related. The higher the dose, the worse the effect. Exposure to a developing foetus may have a different effect than if exposure occurs in an adult.

Disruptions caused by these chemicals can cause cancer, birth defects, and developmental disorders, like learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.

Scientific papers describe them as substances that “interfere with the synthesis, secretion, transport, binding, action, or elimination of natural hormones in the body that are responsible for development, behaviour, fertility, and maintenance of homeostasis (normal cell metabolism).”

What are parabens?

Parabens are the most widely used cosmetic preservative found in personal care products. They stop the growth of fungi and bacteria in products, especially in the warm, moist environment of a bathroom. These chemicals are cheap and have replaced formaldehyde in many products.

Parabens have been detected in research studies in many cancerous tissues, especially breast cancer cells. Research oncologists have argued that they may play a role as an endocrine disruptor or a xenoestrogen and so can be harmful to humans. However, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disagrees until more research is done, and have deemed parabens safe at current exposure levels.

However, researchers and organisations, such as the US Environmental Working Group (EWG), still argue that we must not just evaluate individual product content. It is the cumulative impact of many products over many years. Especially, since EWG’s surveys show the average adult consumer to use an average of nine personal care products a day.

It seems that manufacturers are aware of this controversy and ‘paraben-free’ labels are popping up frequently on new and older products. You decide!

What can we do to minimise risk?

Read labels. Minimise the use of products with harmful substances. While it may not be possible to always eliminate them altogether, we can reduce our exposure.

Check up on the products you currently use. Use a website called SKIN DEEP ( They have a database of over 25 000 tested products.

Choose products that you’ve researched. Many are available at local stores. Try online stores too.

Take action. Sign petitions to encourage manufacturers to make  safer products. Never underestimate the power of combined action. For current campaigns go to

Dr Sumayya Ebrahim is a gynaecologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is also a blogger. Check out her blog Vaginations by Dr E on

MEET OUR EXPERT – Dr Sumayya Ebrahim

Dr Sumayya Ebrahim is a gynaecologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is also a blogger. Check out her blog Vaginations by Dr E on