As you’ll know if you’ve perused the Leaf Score site and read my methodology, I’m a pretty tenacious researcher and like to dig into technical reports and a company’s finances so I can sort the good from the bad. That said, shaving products are not easy to research, largely because regulators like the US Food and Drug Administration only require a bare minimum of information from manufacturers.
Why? Well, because shaving creams and oils are not ingested (hopefully), so they don’t fall under the same regulatory guidelines as foods or medicines. This should not be taken as an indication, however, that these products are harmless. After all, you’ve probably heard the joke that as you get older your skin ‘eats’ more cream than you do.
Chances are, you’ll use shaving products every day or every week for decades of your life. Even if it takes just two or three minutes to shave every day, this amounts to around a thousand hours of exposure to whatever chemicals are in those products or more if you use aftershave.
What follows is a brief overview of some of the chemicals commonly found in shaving products. The list of potential toxic chemicals can look pretty daunting. As a good rule of thumb, then, you’ll save time and effort by simply choosing products that only contain ingredients you can recognize without needing a biochemistry degree. Also, beware companies that make a song and dance about aloe vera or other natural ingredient on the front of a product, only to list it right at the bottom on the back label. The first five or so ingredients are key; if any of these are toxic, it really doesn’t matter if aloe or other natural substance is listed below.
Without further ado, here are some nasty chemicals you’ll want to avoid when choosing safe, non-toxic shaving products:
Alias names: sodium lauryl sulfate [SLS], sodium laureth sulfate [SLES], and ammonium lauryl sulfate [ALS]
These common surfactant ingredients are used in products intended to foam, such as shaving creams, toothpaste, shampoos, and soaps. Depending on how it is manufactured, SLES may be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, a known and suspected carcinogen, respectively. Ethylene oxide has been linked to serious nerve damage and cognitive impairment (R) and is classed by California’s Prop 65 program as a developmental toxin and harmful to reproductive health (R). 1,4-dioxane, meanwhile, is a persistent compound, meaning that it doesn’t break down readily and instead builds up in the environment (R). SLS, SLES, and similar compounds can also cause eye irritation, dry skin, rashes and dermatitis, and are toxic to aquatic organisms (R). Watch out for these and for other ingredients with ‘eth’ names; these may be ethoxylates that are also contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane (which shouldn’t be confused with dioxin, a known carcinogen).
The Environmental Working Group estimates that about 20 percent of all cosmetics (including shaving products) could be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane. They suggest avoiding any products containing any of the 56 ingredients that can contain the contaminant. These include SLES and those with “PEG,” “xynol,” “ceteareth,” and “oleth” in their name.
Alias names: Triethanolamine (TEA), diethanolamine (DEA) and monoethanolamine (MEA)
These three emulsifiers are common in toiletries as they help to keep oil and water from separating, making products easier to use. DEA (diethanolamine) and DEA compounds help make cosmetics creamy and sudsy and are usually found in moisturizers and sunscreens. Soaps, cleansers, and shampoos are more likely to feature cocamide and lauramide DEA, however.
These compounds are readily absorbed by the skin and cause mild to moderate skin and eye irritation (R). That’s not the worst of it, though. TEA, DEA, and MEA have been linked to hormone disruption and an increased risk of cancer, by forming carcinogenic nitrates and nitrosamines. Lab tests have found that exposure to high levels of these compounds can cause liver cancer and precancerous changes in skin and the thyroid gland (R, R).
Unsurprisingly, DEA is restricted in use in cosmetics in the European Union (R). Health Canada has also acknowledged the risks associated with DEA and related compounds, categorizing them as “moderate human health priorities” flagged for future assessment under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan. Nitrosamines themselves are prohibited by Health Canada for inclusion in cosmetics but are not restricted when present as a result of contaminants.
Cocamide DEA has been classed by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous to the environment because it is acutely toxic to aquatic organisms and has the potential for bioaccumulation (R).
Alias names: mineral oil, liquidum paraffinum, paraffin oil, paraffin wax, petrolatum, mineral oil jelly, liquid vaseline, paraffinum, liquidum, baby oil
It sounds innocuous, and even natural, but mineral oil is a petroleum byproduct and something you want to avoid putting on your skin. Manufacturers include mineral oil in shaving products because it can lock in moisture, helping to avoid skin dryness. However, mineral oil can also block pores and is comedogenic, meaning it can cause acne and skin irritation and infection.
Petroleum products can also be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Exposure to PAHs, including through the skin, has been associated with skin irritation, allergies, and cancer, leading the European Union to classify petrolatum as a carcinogen (R, R, R).
Alias names: di-butyl-phthalate [DBP], di-ethylphthalate [DEP], dimethylphthalate [DMP], benzylbutylphthalate [BZBP]
Used widely in toiletries as stabilizers, phthalates help to make products smooth and extend the life of fragrances. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and have been associated with increased risks of miscarriage, reduced sperm count and prostate enlargement, cancer, insulin resistance in men, early onset puberty in girls, and liver and kidney damage in young children, among other undesirable effects on health (R, R, R).
Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is banned in cosmetics in the EU (it is recognized as an endocrine disruptor) and is also banned in some children’s products in Canada (R). DBP is absorbed through the skin and can enhance the adverse effects of other chemicals, including increasing the risk of genetic mutations (R, R). In the lab, DBP caused developmental defects, reduced sperm counts, and changes in the testes and prostate (R, R). DBP is also very toxic to aquatic organisms and under the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, DBP is listed as a Chemical for Priority Action (R, R). Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is listed as a Priority and Toxic Pollutant under the U.S. Clean Water Act, because it can be toxic to wildlife and the environment (R).
In the US, companies can use the term ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ to hide all manner of sins. Designed to allow companies to protect trade secrets, this term is now a convenient catch-all for almost any chemical a company would rather not specify on the label. Typically, that means something synthetic and undesirable.
‘Fragrance’ could mean any mix of around 3000 chemicals, including those known to irritate skin and cause rashes as well as respiratory problems, headaches, and allergies (R). ‘Fragrance’ has even been linked to endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, and cancer (R, R).
If a product is naturally perfumed, with orange essential oil or coconut oil, for example, most companies will list such ingredients. So, if you see the word ‘fragrance’ on a label, it’s probably best to avoid the product. And, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by products that declare themselves to be ‘fragrance-free’ or ‘unscented’; some of these products may actually contain fragrance with a masking agent added that stops your brain from perceiving the odor (R).
Alias names: propylene glycol, butylene glycol and ethylene glycol
Glycols are useful chemicals for dissolving other ingredients so as to create a solution that spreads evenly. They are also humectants and may help skin to retain moisture, which is why they are included in some shaving products. Glycols have, however, been linked to skin irritation, dryness, rashes and dermatitis. If used regularly, glycols may contribute to kidney problems and blood disorders. Propylene glycol, for instance, has been shown to cause liver and kidney damage, to inhibit skin cell growth and cause dermatitis, and can cause nervous system problems and gastrointestinal issues if ingested. Propylene glycol may also be listed as 1,2-Propanediol.
Alias names: formalin, formal and methyl aldehyde, DMDM hydantoin, urea-imidazolidinyl
Formaldehyde is used in toiletries as a preservative and disinfectant. It is absorbed by the skin and is an irritant to the skin, eyes, nose, and throat even at low doses (R). It may cause respiratory difficulties and is also a carcinogen. Health Canada and Environment Canada categorized menthenamine and quaternium-15 (formaldehyde releasing chemicals) as “moderate human health priorities” and possibly persistent in the environment (R).
Isopentane is a solvent, like glycols, that helps dissolve ingredients to form an even solution. It can also cause skin problems as well as dizziness and headaches, and irritation to the membranes in the nose, throat, and respiratory tract.
It might sound bizarre, but the same chemical used to make non-stick cookware coatings such as Teflon is also found in some shaving gels. This chemical, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) has been linked to all manner of health problems, mostly due to the toxic fumes released when PTFE is heated. Likely less harmful when applied topically, PTFE is still a cause for concern and is best avoided across the board.
Alias names: Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
BHA and BHT are closely related synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in cosmetics and foods. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is based on toluene, a chemical which, once listed at 37, is currently listed at 74 in the list of priority substances by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (R). Rather than toluene having become less toxic, this simply means some other toxic chemicals have become a higher priority for the agency. And, unfortunately, you’ll likely find toluene in some form or other in shaving gel, nail polish and remover, perfumes, and other toiletries.
Toluene is a very volatile organic compound (VOC) and has been linked to irritation of the skin, eyes, and lungs, while both BHA and BHT can cause allergic reactions in the skin (R). BHT has also been associated with hormone disruption, cancer, birth defects, blood coagulation problems, and liver, kidney, brain, thyroid, and bone damage (R, R, R, R). And BHA is recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible human carcinogen (R) and by the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function (R).
Benzyl alcohol is included in many toiletries as part of the ‘fragrance’ component or as a preservative and can also make creams feel lighter and help other ingredients penetrate the skin. Benzyl alcohol can also act as an anesthetic, so you might find it in shaving products that claim to relieve itching.
Ironically, then, benzyl alcohol can cause contact skin allergies in some sensitive individuals. Typically, there is not enough of this chemical in shaving products to cause harm in healthy adults, but it can be harmful to children, especially young infants, and safety assessments don’t consider the repeated exposure to this chemical, potentially from multiple products every day (R). In the European Union, benzyl alcohol is subject to restrictions, but no such restrictions exist in the US. In general, then, this one is worth avoiding.
Benzene is a solvent and a Volatile Organic Compound that is classified as a carcinogen (R). At levels in shaving products, with minimal exposure, the chance of side effects is very low. However, high levels of exposure can, in the short term, lead to nervous system problems and tremors, dizziness, breathing problems, convulsions and coma (R). Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene can affect the immune system and red blood cells and may lead to anemia and, in severe cases, leukemia (R).
Dimethiconol and dimethicone
Dimethicone (also known as polymethylsiloxane) is one of many polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) silicone polymers which are produced from D4 and contain residual amounts of D4 and D5 (siloxanes; see below). Dimethiconol is a synthetic hydroxylated silicone oil that resembles dimethicone. These chemicals act as emollients or lubricants, have an anti-foaming action, and are non-greasy. They coat the skin in a layer of silicone to enable razors to glide more easily. While this may help reduce skin irritation for some users, for others the polymer can cause skin irritation and/or eye irritation and allergic reactions.
Two of the most common siloxanes around are cyclotetrasiloxane (D4) and cylcopentasiloxane (D5). These have been recognized as being toxic and persistent, with the potential to bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms (R, R). In the European Union, D4 is classified as an endocrine disruptor and possible reproductive toxin (R). In lab studies, high levels of D5 caused uterine tumors and other reproductive and immune system problems, and D5 also affects the nervous system by altering neurotransmitter activity (R).
D6 (cyclohexasiloxane) is similar to D4 and D5 and is also persistent and has the potential to bioaccumulate. Cyclomethicone is a mixture of the siloxanes D4, D5, and D6. These two chemicals are less common in shaving products and other toiletries but also raise concerns for human and environmental health.
Alias names: Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben
An estimated 75-90% of cosmetics contain parabens, which are easily absorbed and are known endocrine disruptors (they mimic estrogen (R). Parabens are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer and various reproductive health issues and it is recommended that anyone trying to conceive or who is pregnant avoid products containing parabens (R). Parabens are present in some shaving products as preservatives to help prevent bacterial growth. Intriguingly, research suggests that methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with ultraviolet light, increasing skin ageing and damage to DNA (R).
On balance, it’s best to avoid products containing any of the chemicals listed above. Two other chemicals often included in discussions about toxic chemicals in toiletries, but that don’t (yet) make it into the ‘dirty dozen’ lists, include:
Pentasodium pentetate is a chemical you may find in many toiletries, but it has not been properly assessed for toxicity and safety. It is a suspected eye and skin irritant but does not seem to sensitize skin to allergic reactions (R). It is highly water-soluble and, as such, likely doesn’t penetrate the skin to any great degree (R). This chemical is included in shaving products as one of several possible chelating agents to help remove calcium and magnesium cations which would otherwise reduce foaming and could cause clear gels to look hazy. As ingredients go, this one may not be as bad as some of the others listed here. However, given the lack of safety data, it’s better to choose a product made only with ingredients shown to be safe.
When inhaled or ingested, titanium dioxide (a white pigment) is a suspected endocrine disruptor, may cause asthma, and is a known carcinogen, according to California’s Prop 65 chemical list and others. Used externally, however, it is a popular ingredient in natural sunscreens for its ability to block ultraviolet radiation. Its inclusion in shaving creams is largely for whitening purposes as these are not intended to be left on the skin. As such, there is no serious cause for concern if you spot titanium dioxide in non-aerosolized topical shaving products. Just be sure not to ingest any shaving foam and keep these products out of reach of children.
If you’re curious about other chemicals you’ve seen listed in shaving creams and gels, consider searching for it in the European Commission’s Cosmetics Database. If it falls under the banned or restricted categories (Annex II and Annex III), it’s best to avoid the product even if it’s not banned or restricted in the US.
What about aerosol shaving foam?
Compared to recent decades, shaving cream in aerosol cans is much less popular… for shaving, but much more popular for making slime! While this is good news for adults, it could be bad news for kids getting their hands covered in shaving foam and other chemicals day after day.
Shaving foam is also terrible for the environment as these products typically contain unpleasant chemicals and the cans end up in landfill. To create shaving foam in a can, manufacturers use chemicals called surfactants and propellants. Such chemicals make for a convenient product but are hard on the skin as they reduce the skin’s ability to retain moisture. Shaving foam in a can may contain propylene glycol, a chemical found in antifreeze and brake fluid, which we mentioned above as one to avoid.
What you can do to stay safe
Given the vast number of potentially toxic chemicals lurking in shaving creams, gels, and foams, it might seem impossible to find a safe, non-toxic, effective shaving solution. Some good news: Many of the shaving products featuring the dubious chemicals discussed above aren’t terribly effective anyway, and some even make hair stiffer and make shaving harder! In contrast, a good natural, non-toxic shaving cream can help soften hair and make for an easier shave, which helps reduce the risk of razor burn, bumps, nicks, and skin infection.
Good quality, non-toxic, natural shaving creams and gels can also reduce dryness and skin irritation that may make fine lines and wrinkles more visible. In contrast, toxic products can worsen visible signs of aging.
Looking at these concerns, it makes sense, then, when choosing shaving products, to ask the following questions:
- Does the product contain synthetic and toxic chemicals that may have adverse effects on your health and the environment?
- Does the product actively damage skin? Does it support skin health?
- Are any toxic chemicals or undesirable practices used in the manufacture of the product which could lead to contamination of the product and/or detrimental effects on the environment and workers making the product?
- Has a company demonstrated a good faith effort to be transparent with customers about potentially harmful chemicals in their products?
By asking these questions, we can make better informed choices for ourselves and the environment. And, if enough of us switch to eco-friendly shaving products, the impact would be significant.
So, what next? If you’re ready to find out about some good ways to get rid of hair, check out this round up of Alternatives to Toxic Shaving Products. If you want to know what to look for on labels, head on over to Certifications for Non-Toxic Shaving Products. And, if you want to get straight to the goods, check out Companies to Consider for Non-Toxic Shaving Products or reviews for Razors, Shaving Brushes, Shaving Cream, and Shaving Oil.