Body lotions, cleaning fluids and other commonly used products contain toxic chemicals, study finds

These chemicals enter the surrounding environment as gases and can cause a host of health issues, including cancer.


Body lotions, shampoos, cleaners and other everyday household products are safe to use, right? That’s what many of us assume, but a new study from the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and the Silent Spring Institute reveals that these products actually contain toxic chemicals that could be harmful to our health.

Many of these common products contain what are known as toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chemicals enter the surrounding environment as gases and can cause a host of health issues, including cancer.

“We found that many household products like shampoos, body lotions, cleaners and mothballs release toxic volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, into indoor air,” the authors of the study wrote in The Conversation. “In addition, we identified toxic VOCs that are prevalent in products heavily used by workers on the job, such as cleaning fluids, adhesives, paint removers and nail polish. However, gaps in laws that govern ingredient disclosure mean that neither consumers nor workers generally know what is in the products they use.”

The study, “Identifying Toxic Consumer Products: A Novel Data Set Reveals Air Emissions of Potent Carcinogens, Reproductive Toxicants, and Developmental Toxicants,” was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“This study is the first to reveal the extent to which toxic VOCs are used in everyday products of all types that could lead to serious health problems,” said lead author Kristin Knox, a scientist at Silent Spring Institute, as reported. “Making this information public could incentivize manufacturers to reformulate their products and use safer ingredients.”

According to the study, more than 5,000 tons of chemicals known to cause cancer were released inside California homes and workplaces by consumer products in 2020.

For the study, the researchers looked at California Air Resources Board (CARB) data gathered on consumer product VOCs released into the atmosphere with the aim of lowering smog levels, reported The Conversation.

The researchers found that more than 100 consumer products contained 33 toxic VOCs listed under California Proposition 65, the state’s right-to-know measure. The 1986 law requires that California residents be notified by businesses concerning significant exposure to chemicals known to cause reproductive harm or cancer.

Of the products and chemicals in the findings, the researchers identified 11 chemicals in 30 types of products they deemed “high priorities” for regulatory action or being remade with safer alternatives due to widespread use and high levels of toxicity of the chemicals.

Additionally, the researchers discovered that there is a high probability people are exposed to many of the dangerous chemicals through mixtures of products.

“For example, janitors might use a combination of general cleaners, degreasers, detergents and other maintenance products. This could expose them to more than 20 different Prop 65-listed VOCs,” the study authors wrote in The Conversation.

One chemical, diethanolamine, turned up in 40 separate product categories. It is banned for use in cosmetics in Canada and the European Union due to the fact that, when mixed with other ingredients, it can react to form chemicals that may be cancer causing.

Some of the chemicals listed under Proposition 65 cause developmental and reproductive harm, but are used in many personal care products and art supplies used by children and people who are pregnant.

The authors said that because many hazardous chemicals like PFAS, lead and bisphenol A (BPA) don’t convert from liquid to gas at room temperature, reporting them to the Air Resources Board is not required.

“This study shows how much work remains for product manufacturers and regulators nationwide, because the products in CARB’s database are sold throughout the U.S.,” said co-author Claudia Polsky, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, as reported.

According to previous research, women are more likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals through personal care, cosmetic and cleaning products than men because they use more of them. 

Additionally, workplace exposure by people working in places like hair and nail salons is of special concern because many different products are often used and each of them is likely to be made with at least one toxic chemical, and often many more.

“The same thing goes for auto and construction workers. All these exposures add up and might cause serious harm,” said co-author Meg Schwarzman, a physician and environmental health scientist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, according to “At the most basic level, workers deserve to know what they’re exposed to. But, ultimately, they deserve safer products and this study should compel manufacturers to make significant changes to protect workers’ health.”


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