Fossil Fuels in Your Self-Care and Beauty Products

beauty brain cancer environment hair indoor air nails skin sustainability teeth textiles Jun 06, 2019

by Sophia Ruan Gushée


We use fossil fuels as coal, natural gas, and petroleum (sometimes called crude oil). These types of fossil fuels help us create not only energy (e.g. gasoline in cars), but also various household products—including those in your self-care and beauty routines!

This article highlights key things you should know about the ingredients in your self-care and beauty products that are made from fossil fuels.

If the idea of fossil fuels in your personal care products grosses you out, then the tips below will help you detox them from your daily routines.

If you are eco-conscious, you'll be glad to learn how you can detox your self-care and beauty products while also reducing environmental burdens.

If you are health-conscious, you'll find many opportunities to detox your health risks from conventional personal care products. Some petroleum-based ingredients are known to be harmful (like contribute to cancer or neurotoxicity). Some are suspected to pose health risks (like hyperactivity). Some may be fine. Most have not been studied enough for us to know if they are safe.

This article empowers you with key information and tips for your personal sustainability—your contributions to our environmental health as well as your personal wellbeing.


How risky are ingredients in our self-care and beauty products?

In short, there's a lot that we don't know. Among those informed about what relatively little is known, many are concerned. For example, fragrance is a risky ingredient as well as a popular one. More on fragrance further below. First...

Key things that we don't know

As with other products, federal laws protect proprietary information, so manufacturers don’t need to disclose all product ingredients. And product labels don’t inform us of possible health effects. (EWG 2013a)

Further, there is no unbiased oversight for product safety. The EWG estimates that 89 percent of the 10,500 chemicals used in personal care products have not been assessed by the US FDA (EWG 2007a). For perspective, the European Union responds to the data differently. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics(7):

The EU law bans 1,328 chemicals from cosmetics that are known or suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm or birth defects. In comparison, the U.S. FDA has only banned or restricted 11 chemicals from cosmetics. 

Historically, tests of personal care product safety—including those conducted by the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) safety panel— examined exposure to one chemical at a time (EWG 2015i). However, our typical morning routine exposes us to toxicants from a variety of products. For men, it may include toothpaste, soap, shampoo, hair conditioner, deodorant, body lotion, sunscreen, cologne/fragrance, and shaving products.

Women generally have the same list as men but with the addition of cosmetics and other hair products.

Each product can contain a dozen or more chemicals, of which the cumulative, long-term effects are unknown.

Some things that we do know

Of the 82,000+ chemicals that are registered with the EPA, one out of seven are used in personal care products (Houlihan 2015). However, it's hard to know the specific ingredients in our personal care products since Federal laws allow companies to keep some ingredients—like those in fragrance—confidential.

However, studies have found that fragrance can contain hundreds of chemicals that emit VOCs. One study detected 133 VOCs from 25 products, averaging 17 per product. Approximately 18 percent of those 133 VOCs are recognized as toxic or hazardous under US law, and every product emitted at least one of these compounds (Steineman et al. 2010). Emissions from “organic,” “green,” or “natural” products were not less harmful (Potera 2011).

In 1986, the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology reported fragrance as an ingredient of concern given the potential neurotoxic effects (Fuqua 1986).

Fragrance is a great example of the risks from our personal care products, even though it is still not fully understood.

We must notice, however, that we are exposed to dozens of ingredients from our daily routines. According to the EWG (2015q), the average person applies 126 unique ingredients onto the skin per day.

We also know that many ingredients in our self-care and beauty products are derived from fossil fuels.


Ingredients derived from fossil fuels

Many ingredients in our personal care products are derived from fossil fuels, like petroleum or natural gas. Some threaten our health and/or exacerbate environmental issues.

Alarmingly, unlike chemicals in food and water that are found at low levels (parts per million or even parts per billion), these fossil fuel-based ingredients are sometimes staple components of personal care products, like flour’s importance in a bread recipe. Fossil fuel-based ingredients are often in:

  • shampoos
  • conditioners
  • facial cleaners
  • body washes and other types of soaps
  • cosmetics
  • perfume/cologne
  • dental care products: toothbrushes, dental floss, toothpaste, and mouthwash



Have you heard of Microbeads?

They are microscopic pieces of plastic (generally less than one millimeter in their largest dimension) that used to be more prevalent in some personal care products, like toothpastes and facial cleansers. They also exist in other household products as well.

They can be made of petrochemicals (like polypropylene and polystyrene) or polyethylene, which is mainly obtained from petroleum or natural gas. 

There has been regulation of Microbeads in the U.S. of "rinse-off products" to protect our water supply because our water treatment facilities were not designed to filter Microbeads and they are accumulating in water and being ingested by wildlife, including fish. For fish-eaters, the Microbeads can become part of your diet too.

We were polluting our ecosystems at an alarming rate. A 2018 January 9 NY Times article by Des Shoe titled "The U.K. Has Banned Microbeads. Why?", reported:

A single shower can flush as many as 100,000 microbeads, according to a 2016 report by the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons in Britain.

The U.S. law affects solid plastic particles that are 5 millimeters or less in size, and rinse-off products—like toothpaste, exfoliation products, and cleansers. The FDA website reports:

The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 prohibits the manufacturing, packaging, and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads.

This new law also applies to products that are both cosmetics and non-prescription (also called “over-the-counter" or "OTC") drugs, such as toothpastes.

Whether you have Microbeads in your bathroom is complex though. For example, manufacturing of rinse-off products with Microbeads was banned as of July 1, 2017. Halting the introduction of these products into interstate commerce was banned as of July 1, 2018.

Rinse-off products that are also "non-prescription drugs," like toothpaste, have an extra year for the above manufacturing and transport restrictions.

However, inventory of these products could still be sold or be in your bathroom.

Other countries—including Canada, New Zealand, and parts of the European Union—have been regulating Microbeads as well. However, we each have to do our part to support regulation and avoid buying products with Microbeads. The same NY Times article quoted Tisha Brown, a campaigner for Greenpeace in Britain:

Microbeads linger — the ones in our oceans will be there for centuries, and they’re still permitted in products other than rinse-off cosmetics

The video below explains further.


Tips to avoid ingredients derived from fossil fuels

With more personal care products available to us than ever, you can greatly reduce your toxic exposures by avoiding fossil fuels in your household products! At the same time, you'll be helping our environment.

You can see the popular petroleum-based ingredients below on product labels. This is not a comprehensive list and it simplifies the complex topic of safe personal care products. But the list below provides an excellent start to detox your self-care and beauty products.

1) Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)

SLS is used for various useful properties, like for its ability to foam, rinse-off, or suspend certain types of ingredients. Those with eczema or dry skin should be aware that SLS removes moisture from the skin, thereby potentially compromising skin health further. SLS is easy to avoid by just reading product labels. It is generally considered safe, but it has been associated with the unintentional presence of the "possible human carcinogen" 1,4 dioxane(6).

2) Synthetic colors

While approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, artificial dyes often contain petroleum or coal tar ingredients, like D&C Yellow #10, D&C Red #30, and FD&C Blue #1. Artificial colors may contribute to cancer, allergies, hyperactivity in children, and other health issues.(4,5)

You can read product labels to avoid artificial colors, such as those made from coal tar. The common colorants FD&C Blue 1, Green 3, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6.

You can also notice with your eyes: if certain products (like mouthwash, toothpaste, or liquid cold/flu/allergy/etc medications) are blue, purple, pink, or yellow, then there's a decent chance that it's colored with petroleum-based ingredients, or other types of ingredients, that may pose health risks. 

3) Fragrance

Most ingredients in fragrance are estimated to be from petroleum. As described above, fragrance can pose health risks, depending on the formula. You can reduce your exposures by reading product labels and choosing fragrance-free options, or fragrance that is made of 100% pure essential oils and other natural ingredients.

4) Phthalates

Phthalates help product performance in several ways. They:

  • suspend and mix ingredients in lotions, creams, and cleansers
  • encourage nail polish to be chip-resistant
  • allow fragrance to last longer
  • give products a silky feel
  • aid lotions in penetrating and softening skin

There are over two dozen types of phthalates in consumer and industrial products (Freinkel 2011). Some have attracted studies because they have been found in humans. A CDC study found seven types of phthalates in the bodies of 289 average Americans. Every person tested had DBP in his or her body (Blount et al. 2000).

  • In one study, men who used cologne or aftershave had more than twice as much DEP (a type of phthalate) in their urine samples as non-users did. Levels increased by 33 percent for each additional type of personal care product used (Duty et al. 2005).
  • CDC researchers reported that women ages 20 to 40 appear to have the highest amounts of DBP (another type of phthalate) in their bodies (Blount et al. 2000).
  • Research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that high amounts of DBP in men was correlated with lower sperm quality and motility (Hauser et al. 2006). Harvard researchers also found links between DEP and DNA damage in sperm, which can contribute to infertility and miscarriage (Hauser et al. 2007).

5) Microbeads

The list below shares some ingredients that have been found to contain Microbead-ingredients, according to the website of 

  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • Nylon (PA)
  • Polyurethane
  • Acrylates Copolymer

Please note that this list is not comprehensive and that Microbeads exist in other products as well (like chewing gum, cleaning products, and synthetic textiles). Since Microbeads contaminate our environment, water, and food supply, remember that you can avoid Microbeads beyond your personal care products.

6) Others

Below are more ingredients that are fossil fuel-based. In addition, some of the ingredients on this page are associated with unintentional toxicants. For example, the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane is unintentionally present in many personal care products. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database reports that it was detected in "46% of personal care products tested"(6). Per the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, ingredients that 1,4 dioxane has been associated with include:

  • POLYSORBATE-20 (3,506 products)
  • SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE (3,394 products)
  • PEG-100 STEARATE (3,062 products)
  • POLYSORBATE-60 (2,094 products)
  • CETYL PEG/ PPG-10/ 1 DIMETHICONE (1,763 products) 
  • CETEARETH-20 (1,564 products)
  • LAURETH-7 (1,417 products)
  • PEG-40 HYDROGENATED CASTOR OIL (1,305 products)
  • PEG/ PPG-18/ 18 DIMETHICONE (1,130 products)
  • POLYSORBATE-80 (1,106 products)

Other ingredients that are made of fossil fuels include:

  • Parabens. Often listed as methyl-, butyl-, and propyl-paraben on the ingredient list.

  • Parafin wax

  • Mineral oil

  • Toluene

  • Benzene

  • Anything with PEG (polyethylene glycol)

  • Anything with DEA (diethanolamine) or MEA (ethanolamine)

  • Butanol and any word with butyl: butyl alcohol, butylparaben, butylene glycol

  • EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid)

  • Any word with propyl—isopropyl alcohol, propylene glycol, propyl alcohol, cocamidopropyl betaine



In simplifying this complex topic, I was not able to include all the key issues. Regardless, if you are trying to make eco-friendly choices that are also healthier for human health, then avoiding products that contain the ingredients above will help.

You can read about my approach to skin care by clicking here: Sophia's Practical Nontoxic Skincare Strategy. For some parts of my self-care and beauty routines, I prefer ultra-pure beauty products (like, coconut oil that's safe enough to eat). Organic coconut oil simplifies my process of finding a body moisturizer that is truly safe, and it is useful in other ways too. For example, I use organic coconut oil to also remove my eye makeup, in addition to moisturizing my body, hands, and lips.

Many other examples of this type of simple solution exist.

This month, try to identify one product you won't mind detoxing. Register here for the newsletter to receive detox tips in your inbox.




Most of the article above was adapted from excerpts of A to Z of D-Toxing (2015). Additional references used are below.

(1) US FDA. "The Microbead-Free Waters Act: FAQs."

(2) The Story of Stuff, 2018. "Plastic Microbeads:  Ban The Bead!"

(3) US FDA, 2017. "Color Additives History."

(4) Doctor Oz. "Food Dyes: Are They Safe?"

(5) Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2010. "CSPI Says Food Dyes Pose Rainbow of Risks."

(6) EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. "1,4-DIOXANE"

(7) Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "International Law."

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About Ruan Living

Ruan Living simplifies a nontoxic lifestyle through its Practical Nontoxic Living podcast, free detox workshops, online D-Tox Academy, and transformative 40-Day Home Detox. It aims to help you avoid toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from what you buy, own, and do— without compromising your joy and convenience. Ruan was founded by Sophia Ruan Gushée, author of the bestselling critically acclaimed book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Your Toxic Exposures and several detox workbooks. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia Business School, Sophia has served on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and Well+Good Council. A popular nontoxic living speaker, consultant, and teacher, Sophia lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters. Her passion for empowering others to enjoy nontoxic living began with the birth of her first daughter in 2007. Everything she creates is a love letter to her children and for the healthiest, brightest future possible. You can learn more here: Sophia’s Impact.


This article is for informational purposes only. This information is provided “as is” without warranty.

It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. We do not offer medical advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or any other opinion on your conditions or treatment options. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Ruan Living.

In no event will Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living be liable for any damages or loss of any kind resulting from the use of this website. Anyone relying upon or making use of the information on this website does so at his or her own risk.

Some of the services and products recommended on this website provide compensation to Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living. All recommendations are based foremost upon an honest belief that the product, service, or site will benefit our site visitors in some way.  

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