How Our Skin Absorbs Toxic Chemicals And How You Can Avoid It

A blog by Smita of Simply Smita

Take a moment to ask yourself how many products you use in a typical day. Cream, lotion, deodorant, soap, perfume, makeup, lip balm? Now ask yourself how many ingredients are in those products. According to a survey conducted by the Environmental Working Group, the average person uses 9 products daily, which contain 126 unique ingredients. This wouldn’t be so concerning if the ingredients in our cosmetics were actually regulated. You heard me: safety tests are not required for the cosmetic industry!

Even more disturbing is the fact that many companies continue to use toxic chemicals in our products simply because they aren't banned yet, not to mention they are much cheaper to use than organic ingredients. While the EU has banned over 1300 chemicals, the FDA has only banned 8 and restricted 3. That’s quite a large discrepancy if you ask me!

Which makes me pause to ask, just how much of that toxic gunk is entering our skin? We have 2 million holes across our skin. 2 million! And unlike food, which has an opportunity to filter out the things that don’t belong through our digestive system, our skin doesn’t quite work in the same way.   



Some of you have may have heard that 60% of what we put onto our skin is directly absorbed into our bloodstream? Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Our skin is the largest and most permeable organ in our bodies. The three layers that make up our skin are called the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous fat. While our skin serves as our protective armor helping to keep us in and the rest of the world out, despite these 3 layers, substances can still be absorbed if they are small enough. Unfortunately, many of these substances are found in everyday lotions and sunscreens, some of which are even filled with nanoparticles that are designed to easily penetrate our skin’s walls.

The amount of a product or chemical absorbed by our skin depends on a variety of factors, including:

●      Chemical Size: Large chemicals often cannot pass through our skin’s protective barriers; however, certain chemicals are just small enough to squeeze through, while others are developed to penetrate the skin quickly as in medicinal patches.

●      Skin Temperature: Higher skin temperature is correlated with increased absorption.

●      Skin Integrity: Is the skin damaged or intact? Damaged skin absorbs more quickly and allows larger particles to sneak through.

●      Chemical Concentration: How much of the chemical, or combination of chemicals, is being applied? The larger the amount or number of chemical combinations, the greater the risk.

●      Exposure Length: How long is the chemical in contact with the skin? The longer the exposure, the greater the risk.

●      Area of Skin Exposed: Scalp? Face? Arms? Different areas of the body absorb more than others, depending on the thickness and temperature of the skin.

There are also a few different pathways chemicals can travel to enter our skin. Some chemicals, phthalates and fragrances, can also enter our bloodstream by being inhaled through our lungs, while others are ingested through lip balms and lipsticks. Though some may argue that it takes large concentrations of chemicals to produce toxicity or safety concerns, small amounts of chemical combinations can have severe implications. For instance, sodium benzoate on its own is potentially harmless but when mixed with citric acid (AKA vitamin C) it creates a cancer-causing compound called benzene. And, once a chemical passes through the superficial layers of the skin, it is more likely to be absorbed by our bloodstream or lymphatic system.


Once most chemicals make their way into our bodies, they tend to accumulate over time. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to help reduce our chemical exposure. Here are some tips to help get you started!

1. Start Small: It can be impossible (and completely overwhelming!) to remove so many products from your routine overnight so start small by eliminating those that pose the most risk, such as:

●      Products You Use Often: Daily or multiple times a day.

●      Products You Leave on the Longest: Cream, lotion, sunscreen, etc.

●      Products Used on Babies + Children: Babies have thinner skin so they are at a greater risk for absorption.

●      Shampoos + Conditioners: These tend to absorb into the skin due to the increased absorption rate of the scalp and also wash over the rest of our bodies.

●      Antibacterial Anything: While some situations call for antibacterial soaps or hand sanitizers, they can cause more harm than good when overused, as they also kill good bacteria

2. Take Advantage of Free Resources: NonToxic Revolution offers a variety of resources to help educate you on ingredients to watch out for and safer product alternatives. There’s also the EWG’s Skin Deep Database where you can search thousands of products by category or brand name to read their safety ratings. For a breakdown of ingredients to avoid in particular products, check out Safe Cosmetics.

3. If You Don't Recognize It, Don't Buy It: Just because a product is labeled natural or organic, doesn’t mean that it’s free of harmful ingredients. Always read the full ingredient lists of products before buying. If you don’t recognize or understand an ingredient, I recommend not using it.

4. Shop Local: Know where your products are coming from and support companies that you believe in. Check out your local farmer's markets and craft fairs and get to know the makers of your goods!

5. Wear a Base Layer: If there's a potentially harmful product that you love and just can't let go of, try wearing a base coat of coconut oil on your body or organic lip balm on your lips to help create an extra layer between the product and your skin.



If you only have time to scan your items for a few ingredients, here are the ones to avoid the most:

●      Phthalates: Helps products stick to skin and improves the stability of fragrances. Continue to build up in our bodies over time causing endocrine disruption, which can be toxic to our reproductive glands. 

●      Parabens (Methyl, Ethyl, Propyl, Iso, Benzyl, Etc.): Used as a preservative. Hormone disruptor that mimics estrogen in the body. Currently being studied for links to breast cancer, especially when applied near the underarms.

●      Fragrances: Not only harmful to the environment but may also cause skin irritation, allergies and organ system toxicity. Not to mention that the chemical ingredients in scents are concealed and protected by trade law so we have no idea what may really be in them.

●      TEA + DEA (Triethanolamine and Diethanolamine): Considered so harmful, both are banned from products in Europe as they are known carcinogens.

●      Triclosan/Triclocarbon: Chemicals that kill bacteria. Banned by the FDA in soaps yet still common in deodorants and cosmetics. One of the worst endocrine disruptors that encourages resistance to antibiotics. So overly used in products that 75% of people have detectable levels of it in their bloodstream.

●      PEGs/Ceteareth/Polyethylene Compounds: Synthetic chemicals frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is a carcinogen that easily penetrates the skin.

●      Vitamin A Compounds (Retinyl Palmitate, Retinyl Acetate, Retinol): Widely used in sunscreens, lotions, and makeup. Sunlight causes Vitamin A to break down, producing free radicals that can damage DNA and increase skin sensitivity.

●      Sulfates: Creates the foam in our products. Found in toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, shaving cream, etc. Often derived from petroleum and not sustainable for the environment. Increases skin sensitivity.

●      EDTA: Made from coal tar and often seen as Disodium EDTA and Tetrasodium EDTA. Penetration enhancers that increase absorption of harmful ingredients into the skin. Also linked to brain damage in animals. Not biodegradable and pollute the environment.

●      Aluminum (Also Seen as Potassium or Ammonium Alum): Blocks sweat glands to reduce the amount of sweat you secrete. Easily absorbed by the skin and can accumulate over time in the brain, potentially causing Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer and other neurological conditions.

●      Aloe Vera or Water: Though both are generally harmless ingredients, their presence typically means there’s a synthetic preservative hiding inside to keep them from spoiling, so just keep your eye out ;)

While it can seem daunting to remove so many products from your routine, it's important to be aware of what's in them so you can make more informed purchasing decisions. For some, this may mean using less of your favorite product; for others, it may be removing it completely. For me, it came down to making the things I use most often on my own. Regardless of what path you choose, take the steps to inform yourself of what you’re feeding your skin so you can make the choices that work best for you.

Love + Light,

~ Smita :)

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