We should start this guide by saying that “chemical-free” is actually a misnomer. Everything is made up of chemicals, so it’s technically impossible to go “chemical-free”.
What we really mean by “chemical-free” is “free from harmful artificial chemicals”.
Many products we use on a daily basis contain artificial chemicals that can be harmful to our health.
These chemicals include preservatives, fragrances and additives used to give materials a particular texture.
Some of these chemicals can cause skin irritation, disrupt the endocrine system or even be carcinogenic in large doses.
When you start researching these chemicals, it can be overwhelming trying to make sense of them all.
It’s hard to know if you should avoid a particular chemical or not due to the following issues:
- Often there is a lack of scientific studies looking at the chemical.
- If there have been scientific studies, the results may be contradictory.
- Most chemicals are only harmful in large doses. How do you know if you are being exposed to a large enough dose?
Let’s look at which chemicals you might be exposed to from different products and activities, and where to look for chemical-free alternatives.
Health and Beauty
Health and beauty products that we apply directly to our bodies are some of the most obvious sources of artificial chemicals in our lives.
What chemicals are in skincare products?
Skincare products include eye cream, face cleanser, hand cream, lip balm, moisturiser, serum and sunscreen.
They can contain several potentially harmful, unhealthy and environmentally damaging ingredients, such as:
- Parabens – Parabens can affect the endocrine (hormone) system.
- PEG 100 Stearate – This ingredient could be harmful to damaged and broken skin.
- Phthalates – Like parabens, phthalates can also affect our hormones and fertility.
- Silicones – Silicones such as dimethicone coat the skin and may clog pores. They are also non-biodegradable, so they’re bad for the environment.
- Steareth-20 – This ingredient can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract.
Some chemicals sound harmful, but are actually considered to be safe and non-toxic, such as:
- Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride
- Cetyl Alcohol
- Retinol (retinol is another name for Vitamin A1)
- Tocopheryl Acetate
How to avoid harmful chemicals in skincare products
Many skincare products are unnecessary or not very effective, so the easiest way to reduce your exposure to chemicals through skincare is to simply use fewer products.
Lots of skincare products contain vitamin E and antioxidants since these ingredients are known to help slow aging. However, it might be more effective to focus on increasing our intake of vitamins and antioxidants through our diet rather than applying them topically (directly to the skin).
When choosing skincare products, look for products made primarily from natural ingredients. Some natural ingredients that can be good for the skin include oatmeal, green tea extract, tea tree oil, coconut oil and shea butter.
However, bear in mind that just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean it’s safe or good for the skin.
See some recommended chemical-free skincare products here:
- Best Paraben-Free Moisturisers
- Best Petroleum-Free Lip Balms
- Best Unrefined Raw Shea Butter
- Best Zinc Oxide and Mineral Sunscreens
Deodorants and perfume
What chemicals are in deodorants and perfume?
Antiperspirant, deodorant, aftershave and perfume can contain all kinds of potentially harmful chemicals, including:
- Aluminium – This naturally occurring metal is used in antiperspirants to block sweat ducts. Aluminium exposure has been linked to breast cancer, Alzheimer disease and Parkinson disease, though more research is needed.
- Triclosan – This chemical affects our hormones and has been linked to breast cancer. It’s also harmful to aquatic life, so will pollute water when you wash if off.
- Phthalates – These chemicals disrupt the endocrine (hormone) system.
- Parabens – Again, these chemicals are endocrine disruptors, and have been linked to breast cancer.
- Fragrance – The word ‘fragrance’ on ingredients lists can hide hundreds of different ingredients. Since you don’t know what’s in this ‘fragrance’, you can’t be certain it’s safe.
- Butane and isobutane – These gases are used in aerosol deodorants. Butane is banned from use in cosmetics in the EU. Both of these gases can irritate the noses, eyes, skin and throat.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in deodorants and perfume
When buying deodorant, aftershave or perfume, avoid products that list ‘fragrance’ on the packaging without saying what the fragrance contains.
You should also look to use a natural deodorant instead of an antiperspirant, which blocks your sweat ducts and stops your body working as it’s supposed to.
Body odour is caused by the interaction between bacteria and sweat rather than sweat itself, so you should try to treat the bacteria rather than blocking sweat production.
One option is to simply stop using deodorant and perfume altogether. If you wash regularly with warm water and a mildly fragranced natural soap this should prevent body odour.
Here are some natural deodorants to consider:
What chemicals are in hair products?
There’s a huge range of different hair products available to consumers, including shampoo, conditioner, hair gel/spray, hair oil and hair dye.
Here are a few of the potentially harmful or irritating chemicals you can find in hair products:
- Cocamidopropyl betaine – Can trigger eczema and psoriasis.
- DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (momoethanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine) – Can irritate the scalp.
- Mineral oil – Can irritate the scalp.
- Phthalates – These chemicals are endocrine disruptors.
- Silicones – Dull hair and weigh it down over time.
- Sulphates (SLS and SLES) – Can cause a dry, itchy scalp.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in hair products
Using natural hair products rather than chemical-laden mainstream hair products is a good way to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.
You can also limit your use of unnecessary products such as hair dye and hair gel.
Here are some natural hair products to consider:
- Best Natural Shampoos
- Best Low-Poo Shampoos (‘low-poo’ means free from sulphates and silicones)
- Best Silicone-Free Conditioners
- Best Chemical-Free Hair Dyes for Grey Hair
- Best Fragrance-Free Hair Products
- Best Argan Oil for Hair
- Best Natural Hair Oils
What chemicals are in toothpaste?
Here are some of the potentially harmful chemicals found in toothpaste:
- Fluoride – Fluoride is quite a controversial substance. Many health professionals say it’s essential for preventing cavities. However, it’s dangerous when consumed in large quantities, which could be a risk for kids who swallow toothpaste.
- SLS – Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) is linked to gum irritation and mouth ulcers.
- Triclosan – This antibacterial chemical could affect our hormones and encourage the development of antibiotic-resistant germs.
Of the chemicals listed above, triclosan has the most scientific evidence pointing towards it being dangerous.
You might want to avoid fluoride if you think you’re at risk of consuming too much, and you might want to avoid SLS if you get a lot of mouth ulcers.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in toothpaste
There are lots of natural toothpastes available on the market.
Here are some recommended products:
Tampons and pads
What chemicals are in tampons and pads?
Tampons and sanitary pads are made partly from plastic, which makes them both environmentally damaging as well as a potential health risk, as plastics tend to contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.
The average woman is estimated to use over 10,000 tampons in her lifetime. While each tampon may only contain tiny amounts of chemicals, this could amount to a lot of exposure over a lifetime.
Here are some of the chemicals found in tampons and sanitary pads:
- Carbon disulphide – This toxic chemical is used in the production of rayon (the material blended with cotton to make tampons). Some tests have found trace amounts of this chemical in tampons.
- Dioxins – Tampons usually contain small amounts of dioxins, a group of toxic pollutants. However, they are present in tampons levels thousands of times less than we consume in food (source).
- Glyphosate – Tampons can be contaminated with trace amounts of glyphosate, a herbicide used in growing cotton. However, levels of glyphosate in tampons are extremely low.
- Phthalates – These endocrine-disrupting chemicals are added to give paper tampon applicators a smooth finish. They are also found in sanitary pads.
- VOCs – The VOCs, or “volatile organic compounds” methylene chloride, toluene, and xylene have been identified in sanitary pads (source).
How to avoid harmful chemicals in tampons and pads
You can limit your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals by choosing organic all-cotton, unbleached tampons and pads.
You can also opt for more eco-friendly alternatives such as menstrual cups made from medical-grade silicone.
What chemicals are in toilet paper?
- BPA – This hormone-disrupting chemical has been found in recycled toilet paper.
- Dixoin – Dioxin is a by-product of chlorine, which is used to bleach paper.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in toilet paper
One way to be more eco-friendly and avoid chemicals in toilet paper is to use a bidet instead.
You can also look for unbleached toilet paper such as this toilet paper from Essential.
What chemicals are in makeup?
Makeup (including lipstick and nail polish) can contain all kinds of potentially harmful chemicals, including the following:
- 1,4-dioxane – This carcinogen is an unwanted by-product that contaminates lots of makeup products.
- Acrylates – Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to eye, skin and throat reactions.
- BHA – Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a preservative. It’s an endocrine disruptor.
- DEA – Diethanolamine (DEA) is a chemical that can affect human male reproductive health and has been linked to cancer in studies on mice.
- Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in some cosmetics. It is a carcinogen and can cause skin irritation. It has been banned from use in cosmetics in the EU.
- Fragrance – The word ‘fragrance’ on ingredients lists is often used to refer to an undisclosed list of scent chemicals, many of which can be dangerous (source).
- Homosalate – This chemical is used in some sunscreens. It is a potential endocrine disruptor that may affect our hormones.
- Lead and heavy metals – Lipsticks can be contaminated with lead, which is a neurotoxin and is dangerous even in small doses.
- Methylisothiazolinone – This hard-to-pronounce chemical can cause allergic reactions.
- Nitrosamines – Nitrosamines are impurities that can manifest themselves in lots of cosmetics ingredients, in particular DEA and TEA. They are carcinogenic.
- Octinoxate – This UV filter used in sunscreen can be absorbed by the skin and affect our hormones.
- Parabens – Parabens are a type of preservative that affect our hormones.
- Petrolatum – Petrolatum, or petroleum jelly, can be contaminated with other chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
- Phenoxyethanol – Phenoxyethanol is a preservative that can cause allergic-type reactions.
- Polyacrylamide – Polyacrylamide is made up of acrylamide, which is suspected of being a carcinogen. The EU has set limits to the amount of acrylamide allowed in cosmetics.
- Phthalates – Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that affect our hormones and reproductive health.
- Retinol – Retinol, or Vitamin A, is a common anti-aging ingredient that could increase sun cancer risk when combined with sun exposure (source).
- Talc – Talc can cause respiratory problems and can be contaminated with asbestos (source).
- Triclosan – Triclosan affects hormones and could contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in makeup
See the articles below for some recommended natural makeup:
- Best Methylisothiazolinone-Free Products in the UK (includes makeup)
- Best Natural Makeup Brands in the UK
- Best Organic & Natural Lipsticks
- Best Paraben-Free Makeup
- List of Paraben-Free Makeup Brands in the UK
What chemicals are in baby products?
Some of the chemicals that can be found in baby products include the following:
- 1,4-dioxane – This chemical is a by-product that can contribute to cancer.
- BPA – This chemical is an endocrine disruptor.
- Fragrance – The term ‘fragrance’ can disguise hundreds of undisclosed chemicals, many of which are harmful to our health.
- Mineral oil – Mineral oil doesn’t allow the skin to ‘breathe’.
- Parabens – These chemical preservatives affect the endocrine system.
- Talc – Talc has been linked to cancer, and can also affect the respiratory system.
- Triclosan – Triclosan affects hormones and could contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in baby products
Here are some natural and chemical-free baby products to consider:
Indoor air quality is worse than outdoor air quality, even in cities. This is because our homes contain lots of pollutants such as building materials, hygiene and cleaning products, air fresheners and furniture and plastic products that release gases.
What chemicals are in cleaning products?
- 2-butoxyethanol – This chemical can cause red blood cell damage and liver damage in animals (source).
- Ammonia – Ammonia irritates the respiratory tract.
- Chlorine – Chlorine can cause eye and skin irritation.
- Perchloroethylene – Perchloroethylene exposure can cause a range symptoms including dizziness, drowsiness and skin irritation.
- Phthalates – Phthalates are endocrine disruptor (they adversely affect our hormones).
- Triclosan – Triclosan affects hormones and could contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in cleaning products
Instead of using chemical cleaning products, you can use DIY recipes to make your own cleaning products using safe substances such as vinegar, lemon juice and essential oils.
Air freshener & home fragrance
What chemicals are in home fragrances?
Air freshener, incense and other home fragrance products can release harmful chemicals into the air. These include:
- VOCs – Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a group of chemicals chemicals that have low boiling points, allowing them to evaporate into the air room temperature. Health effects can include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and even liver, kidney and central nervous system damage.
- Semi-volatile organic compounds – These include phthalates, which disrupt our hormones.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in home fragrances
There are lots of DIY natural air fresheners you can make using safe natural ingredients.
However, it’s important to point out that natural air fresheners can still contain VOCs such as limonene.
Incense may seem like a natural alternative to air freshener, but it can produce more harmful chemicals than cigarettes. This doesn’t mean burning incense is worse than smoking, as incense isn’t inhaled directly into the lungs.
The safest thing may be to avoid fragrances as much as possible, and instead focus on ventilating your home well.
Carpets & flooring
You might not expect it, but carpets and floors can contain all kinds of toxic chemicals.
Carpets can also accumulate pollutants from shoes and pets. Laboratory tests on carpets have found them to be contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals and dangerous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
What chemicals are in carpets and flooring?
- Pesticides – These chemicals can be brought into the home via shoes and persist in carpets longer than they would outside.
- Heavy metals (lead, cadmium and mercury) – These dangerous chemicals have been found in carpets.
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – These chemicals irritate the eyes and lungs and can contribute to cancer.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – These chemicals irritate the nose, eyes, lungs and skin.
- VOCs – Laminate and vinyl flooring can contain volatile organic compounds that affect air quality.
- Formaldehyde binders – These are sometimes used in laminate floors and engineered wood. Formaldehyde can cause breathing problems.
- Isocyanates – These chemicals found in engineered wood can cause breathing problems and exacerbate asthma.
- Phthalate plasticizers – These chemicals found in laminate flooring can affect our hormones.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in carpets and flooring
Most types of flooring contain some harmful chemicals. The healthiest option is probably to avoid carpets altogether and choose natural linoleum flooring.
Furniture, mattresses and bedding
New sofas can give off an overwhelming chemical smell. This is because they are ‘off-gassing’ harmful chemicals that are being released into the air.
A lot of furniture is covered with flame retardants to help prevent fires, but the chemicals used in flame retardants can have negative health effects.
What chemicals are in furniture?
- Flame retardants – Flame retardants are added to sofas, mattresses and fabrics to prevent fires from spreading. According to Breast Cancer UK, some flame retardants are directly carcinogenic, while others can interfere with hormones such as oestrogen, potentially contributing to breast cancer.
- VOCs – New items of furniture, in particular sofas, ‘off-gas’ volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have a negative effect on indoor air quality. Exposure to VOCs can cause eye, throat and nose irritation, among other symptoms.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in furniture
A few companies offer furniture that is free from flame-retardants, such as Eco Sofa.
What chemicals are in laundry detergent?
Laundry detergent can contain a lot of potentially harmful or irritating chemicals, including the following:
- Formaldehyde – Some brands of laundry detergent contain this known carcinogen.
- Chlorine bleach – Products containing chlorine bleach can irritate the skin and eyes.
- 1,4-Dioxane – This chemical is thought to be a carcinogen in high doses.
- Fragrance – This catch-all term can include lots of harmful chemicals.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in laundry detergent
It’s possible to make an effective DIY laundry detergent using safe ingredients such as bicarbonate of soda and natural soap.
You can also see this roundup of eco-friendly laundry detergents.
Exercise and Outdoor Gear
Exercise is supposed to be good for our health, but unfortunately a lot of sports, exercise and camping equipment contains harmful chemicals.
What chemicals are in exercise and outdoor gear?
- Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) – These chemicals are often found in waterproof apparel, tents and sleeping bags.
- PVC – Yoga mats and camping airbeds can be made from PVC, which leaches harmful chemicals into the air.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in exercise and outdoor gear
One way to limit your exposure to the chemicals in exercise equipment is to exercise outdoors where possible. Indoor air quality can be quite poor in gyms, where there is a toxic combination of plastic exercise equipment, cleaning products and aerosol deodorants.
If you’re into yoga, check out these non-toxic yoga mats.
If you use an air mattress when camping, look for one that is PVC free (see some here).
What chemicals are in food?
- BPA – BPA is found in plastic packaging as well as cans. It is a hormone disruptor that can leach into food and drinks.
- Glyphosate – This herbicide is found in many foods, in particular oats.
- Phthalates – Phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals found in foods such as chicken, cheese and cream.
- Mercury – Mercury can damage the brain and nerves. It’s found in a lot of fish including tuna, cod and mackerel.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in food
Trying to buy groceries without plastic packaging where possible will reduce your exposure to the chemicals found in plastic packaging.
It might be a good idea to limit your intake of foods high in phthalates and glyphosate.
Some foods and drinks can help flush toxins out of our system. These include brown rice, green vegetables and green tea.
See these articles for some more information on avoiding harmful chemicals in your diet:
Clothing can be coated in harmful chemicals that we absorb through our skin and breathe in. These chemicals can enter textiles while they are washed, dyed or printed with logos.
What chemicals are in clothing?
- Phthalates – These chemicals affect our hormones. They are often present in clothes that have printed designs and logos.
- Per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) – These endocrine disruptors are often found in waterproof clothing.
- Lead – This harmful chemical is often used to dye fabrics.
- Formaldehyde – This chemical can be found in clothing that is designed to resist wrinkling and shrinkage.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in clothing
To avoid toxic chemicals in clothing, choose clothes made from organic natural fibres. If you can’t afford to replace your entire wardrobe, it makes sense to start with underwear and other garments that touch our skin directly.
The garden can be home to harmful chemicals found in insecticides, herbicides and garden hoses, among other things.
What chemicals are in garden products?
- Lead – Garden hose fittings can be made using brass, which can contain lead.
- BPA – This hormone-disrupting chemical can be found in garden hoses.
- Phthalates – Like BPA, phthalates are endocrine disruptors that are added to plastics in garden hoses.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in garden products
Instead of using environmentally damaging weed killers and insecticides, you can use natural alternatives such as salt, baking soda, mulch and boiling water.
Avoid using a garden hose unless it’s necessary, and don’t let children the water from it.
Smoking & Vaping
Everyone knows that cigarettes contain a large number of harmful chemicals. When cigarettes are burned, they produce over 7,000 chemicals, many of which can cause cancer (source).
Electronic cigarettes were introduced as a safe alternative to cigarettes, but there are now concerns about their long-term health effects.
What chemicals are in cigarettes and vape juice?
- Benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde – These chemicals found in cigarettes are all thought to be carcinogens.
- VOCs – E-cigarettes can contain harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as ethanol, acetonitrile, isopropyl alcohol, benzene, and toluene.
- Diacetyl , cinnamaldehyde and 2,3-pentanedione – These chemicals found in flavoured e-liquids could be harmful when inhaled.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in cigarettes and vape juice
The best way to avoid the harmful chemicals in cigarettes and vape juice is to simply give up smoking altogether.
Some vape flavours are thought to be more harmful than others—see this list.
Nicotine itself isn’t thought to be particularly harmful, so products such as nicotine gums may be safe ways to wean yourself off cigarettes and vaping.
According to the World Health Organization, 9 out of 10 people in the world breathe in air with a high level of pollutants.
Pollution levels are higher in the UK than in most other Western European countries, and about 8% of deaths in the UK are thought to be linked to pollution. This makes it the second biggest public health hazard after smoking.
What chemicals are in the air?
Some of the harmful chemicals in our air include the following:
- Nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone – These chemicals are bad for our respiratory system and can cause lung problems.
- Fine particles – These can worsen heart and lung diseases.
- Carbon monoxide – This can reduce the supply of oxygen to the heart.
How to avoid harmful chemicals in the air
Here are some other things you can do to protect yourself from air pollution:
- Check daily air pollution and limit time spent outside when it’s high
- Avoid exercising in highly polluted areas
- Consider wearing a pollution mask
- Get plenty of antioxidants in your diet. These can help protect you from free radicals.
Is It Worth Going “Chemical-Free”?
A lot of people dismiss “chemical-free” products as being a middle-class luxury or a form of superstition followed by hippies.
It’s true that a lot of “chemical-free” products offer few benefits over their alternatives, and this label can simply be a way of ‘greenwashing’ a product and justifying a higher price tag.
However, it’s undeniable that the world we live in is becoming increasingly toxic. We are exposed to low levels of harmful chemicals in almost all of the products we use, as well as in the food we eat and the air we breathe.
Legislation means that chemicals are usually only present in products in what is deemed to be a safe level, but when you add up the cumulative exposure to small levels of chemicals throughout our day-to-day lives, things start to get worrying.
Furthermore, what is deemed to be safe now may not always be considered safe. Remember that tobacco, mercury and radioactive water were all considered to be good for us at one time.
For most of us, it would be highly impractical to try to avoid all of the chemicals mentioned in this article. However, by becoming aware of where these chemicals are found we can make healthier choices when buying products.
It’s important not to get too paranoid about chemicals. Global life expectancy is higher than it ever has been, so the benefits of technological advancement appear to be outweighing the harm done by an increased exposure to certain chemicals.