Environmentalists call these 12 chemicals the Dirty Dozen. Here's why.
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Seventh Generation

You may have heard of the Dirty Dozen — 12 chemicals that activists have identified as potentially harmful that we regularly come in contact with in our home, health, and beauty products.

Over the past decade, a lot of science and research has gone into figuring out the long- and short-term health effects of products we use in our homes and on our bodies. The jury is still out on most of them, but some of the findings are worth a closer look.

In 2010, Canada's David Suzuki Foundation did a study on the 12 chemicals and compounds they felt consumers should try to avoid. Since the study was published, some governments have banned some of the chemicals and some companies are reformulating their products so they don't contain them.


Are the Dirty Dozen hanging out in your home somewhere? Here's why these ingredients are on the list:

1. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)

These two preservatives can be found in moisturizers and cream makeups. Image via iStock.

These two synthetic antioxidants are often used as preservatives in cosmetics (mostly lipsticks and moisturizers) and as food preservatives. They're also potentially allergenic, particularly on the skin.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies BHA and BHT as possible human carcinogens, and the European Commission on Endocrine Disruptors lists BHA as a Category 1 priority substance, citing evidence that it interferes with hormone function in mice and rats.

Neither BHA nor BHT are restricted in the United States. California includes BHA on its list of chemicals that must be listed on product ingredient labels as potentially cancer-causing.

2. Coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colors listed as "CI" followed by a five-digit number

Coal tar (shown above) is a petroleum byproduct mixed with other chemicals. Image via iStock.

Coal tar dyes (chemical name p-phenylenediamine) are very popular in the cosmetic industry — particularly in hair dye — because they provide rich, long-lasting color. But, like a lot of petroleum-based products, some researchers and activists fear there may be health risks from exposure to them.

Research has linked coal tar dyes to tumors in laboratory mice, and other researchers may have found a connection between long-term use of hair dyes and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is unconvinced; it's waiting to see more research before making a firm decision on how to classify coal tar dyes.

The European Union (EU), by comparison, has taken a precautionary approach and classifies coal tar dyes as moderately toxic to humans.

Helpful hint: If you're looking at labels, you can tell if a coal tar dye is used in a product by looking for the the name p-phenylenediamine or the abbreviations FD&C or D&C followed by a five-digit color index number.

3. Diethanolamine (DEA), cocamide DEA, and lauramide DEA


Some shampoos get an extra kick from DEA. Image via iStock.

Consumers love creamy or sudsy personal care products. DEA helps with that. For personal care products, it's most common in moisturizers, sunscreens, and shampoos. As a cleaning product additive, it can be found in soaps and cleansers looking for an added bubbly kick.

Activists became concerned about DEA after some research found that DEA can cause skin and eye irritation, and some high doses have caused liver cancers in to laboratory animals. There are no restrictions on the use of DEA in the United States, but the EU does not allow its use in cosmetics, citing the risk of long-term exposure.

4. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

Some "no-chip" nail polishes may get their staying power from DBP. Image via iStock.

Dibutyl phthalate has lots of uses. It can keep nail polishes from chipping, help keep PVC flexible, and be a solvent for dyes or fragrances. The reason activists put it on the list of ingredients to keep an eye on is because in a laboratory study, researchers found it absorbs through the skin and can "enhance the capacity of other chemicals to cause mutations." Other research found it interfered with hormone function, maybe even for pregnant women. There's still a lot of research to be done, so the U.S. hasn't put any restrictions on DBP; the EU, though, does not allow it in cosmetic products.

5. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives

These are medical sutures stored in formaldehyde, but lots of beauty and personal care products use chemicals that may release formaldehyde over time. Image via iStock.

Formaldehyde has a lot of uses in personal care, cleaning products, and industrial construction. It is found as a preservative in cosmetics and an active ingredient in some toilet bowl cleaners. It can also be released from a wide range of industrial products including some permanent-press fabrics and vinyl and wood-laminate flooring.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits the amount of formaldehyde in some construction materials because on its own, formaldehyde is a carcinogen and is toxic to humans if ingested.

When personal care products or cosmetics are said to contain formaldehyde, what they usually contain are actually formaldehyde-releasers. It's unclear whether they are harmful; the FDA doesn't restrict the use of them in cosmetics or personal care products, preferring to require disclosure on ingredient labels instead. The EU has strongly restricted the use of formaldehyde in industrial and consumer products since 2014, citing its carcinogenic risk.

6. Parabens

Parabens help some cosmetics stay pretty longer. They may also be dangerous. Image via iStock.

If you drink fruit juices or use cosmetics or fragrance products, you likely have encountered parabens, an extremely popular preservative.

Some activists are concerned by parabens, citing research that it potentially has adverse health risks when it's absorbed through the skin. Some studies have shown that parabens can mimic the effects of estrogen, the female sex hormone which could lead to a possible increase to breast cancer risk or potentially interfere with male reproductive function. Despite activists' concerns, more definitive research is needed.

7. Parfum (aka fragrance)

Lots of products use the catch-all terms parfum and fragrance for the proprietary mix of chemicals that make up their signature scents. Image via iStock.

Since there are no regulations requiring companies to disclose the ingredient lists of their signature scents, many of them simply say parfum or fragrance on the label. This can be misleading because the smells that make up a fragrance can come from any number of essential oils or chemical compounds.

For people with chemical sensitivities, these unlisted ingredients can trigger allergic reactions, migraines, or cause asthma. Environment Canada has also found that some synthetic musks used in fragrances can build up in the fatty tissue of fish and other water-bound organisms. Other fragrance additives, like DEP (see #4 above) help scents stay in the air longer, but have been shown in laboratory environments to potentially interrupt hormone functions.

Unfortunately, it is hard to know whether a specific fragrance or parfum contains potentially unsafe ingredients. If companies say their product fragrance is a trade secret, they aren't required to list what's in it on the ingredient label.

8. Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

PEG compounds can be found in some cosmetic cream bases — and laxatives. Image via iStock.

Polyethylene glycols are petroleum compounds most often found helping makeup and face creams deliver moisture. If perfectly pure, they are considered generally safe, though they're not recommended for use on broken skin. In rare cases, polyethylene glycol compounds can become contaminated with ethylene oxide, and that's when activists get concerned. Ethylene oxide is a known carcinogen that has also been shown in some research environments to cause developmental problems. All of this considered, the Environmental Working Group rates the overall hazard of using polyethylene glycols as "low."

9. Petrolatum (aka petroleum jelly or Vaseline)

Some glossy lipsticks get their shine from petrolatum. Image via iStock.

Tyra Banks swears by mineral oil jelly as her holy grail makeup product. It's an excellent moisture barrier to keep skin hydrated and is often added to skin care and hair care products.

But, because it is petroleum-based, there's a risk it could be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Research has shown a link between long-term exposure to these petroleum byproducts and cancer. Based on that evidence, the EU classifies petrolatum as a carcinogen and only allows its use "if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen." There are no such restrictions in the United States at the moment.

10. Siloxanes

Siloxanes are a group of chemical compounds based on silicone, a popular additive in many cosmetics and personal care products. Image via iStock.

If you like a clean windshield, dry underarms, or a smooth makeup base, you've probably used products containing siloxane. Two siloxanes in particular, cyclotetrasiloxane (D4) and cylcopentasiloxane (D5), have been studied by researchers in Canada and the EU extensively.

Environment Canada concluded that both D4 and D5 may build up in fish or other aquatic organisms but did not pose a threat to human health. The European study reached a similar conclusion, rating the chemicals as "high concern" but of no risk to human health.

11. Sodium laureth sulfate

Sodium laureth sulfate helps some shampoos stay foamier for longer. Image via iStock.

If you like lots of bubbles when you wash dishes or use shampoo, you may have sodium laureth sulfate to thank. It's a common foaming agent used in dish soaps, cleansers, and foamy beauty products. But, like polyethylene glycol (#8 on this list), sodium laureth sulfate can — on rare occasions — become contaminated with the known carcinogen ethylene oxide. Fortunately that's very unlikely to happen, so the Environmental Working Group rates the overall hazard of sodium laureth sulfate as "low."

12. Triclosan

Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical sometimes found in alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Image via iStock.

Triclosan is a very effective anti-bacterial chemical found in lots of common consumer products, including toothpaste, hand sanitizers, laundry detergent, and facial tissues, among others.

As we've written before, research has shown that triclosan sticks around in the environment long after we've finished using it, killing helpful algaes and even accumulating in the bodies of other organisms.

Triclosan was banned in personal care products ibanned in personal care products in the EU earlier this year. The EPA currently has it under review, and the FDA is reserving judgment until further research is done.

For a lot of these products, the research into their possible health impacts is still very new. Much is still to be done, and the definitive answers for what's safe and what's not may not be known for years — maybe even decades.

Until there is a scientific consensus, the smartest thing you can do for your health is what you're probably already doing: reading product labels, following warnings, and learning what companies are required to say (and sometimes don't say).

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."