What’s in Your Toiletry Bag?
If rounds of chemotherapy have left your skin dry and itchy, it's time to pamper yourself, but are your go-to skin-care products doing more harm than good?

Self-care is essential for all cancer warriors. Taking time for yourself lends a beneficial boost to both your mental and physical health. Research published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine reveals that self-care practices can reduce the intensity of certain chemotherapy-related symptoms as well as feelings of anxiety.

Keeping up with beauty routines helps you retain a sense of normalcy, boosts your self-esteem, and promotes healing of your skin, but the limited amount of products marketed specifically toward men are often full of nasty carcinogens. For example, certain ingredients in moisturizers (such as parabens) are endocrine disruptors, which can interfere with the body’s hormone systems. However, moisturizer is essential for addressing the skin issues often associated with chemotherapy, like dryness, cracking, and peeling.

It’s a catch-22: Ignoring itchy dry skin isn’t ideal, but neither is covering your face in endocrine disruptors! The good news is that not all moisturizers are bad. Shea butter, for instance, can soothe dry skin without the use of carcinogenic ingredients. It’s time to give your toiletry bag a makeover. By making these substitutions you can prevent further irritation and promote healing.

What to Avoid (and Smart Substitutions)

Propylene glycol

According to the Environmental Working Group, propylene glycol is used as a humectant (a moisturizing agent) in skin-care products, but it is also a petroleum derivative that can enter into your bloodstream and linger for 48 hours.

Neronha notes skin-care products containing propylene glycol are particularly troublesome for individuals taking “cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs, [since] the skin is already extremely compromised.” Cytotoxic chemotherapy targets all cells, both healthy and cancerous alike. As a result, it’s not uncommon for patients to experience dry skin, rashes, tender cracks, and hyperpigmentation when the healthy skin cells cannot divide normally. Propylene glycol can make matters worse by triggering hives or contact dermatitis on already sensitive, inflamed skin.

The solution: Look for natural deodorants without propylene glycol. Consider swapping gel-based deodorants for a stick. If you’re in a pinch, make your own: A blend of coconut oil, aluminum-free baking powder, and arrowroot powder functions well as a natural deodorant.


As an antimicrobial, triclosan is most often used in hand sanitizers due to its ability to kill microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, or fungi. It’s tempting to grab products with antimicrobials to boost one’s immune system, but triclosan is a known endocrine disruptor.

The solution: Use plain soap and water to wash your hands, or if you’re on-the-go, look for hand sanitizers that use natural botanicals—like leaves, flowers, roots, stems, or fruits—instead of triclosan.


One of the single most important products in your toiletry bag is your sunscreen. Not only does sunscreen keep sunburns at bay, it can also prevent signs of sun damage and skin cancer.

However, not all sunscreens are created equally. Oxybenzone is a chemical that reflects U.V. rays, but it’s not without risks. Oxybenzone can change your tissues at the cellular level, according to the Environmental Working Group, and it has been linked to reproductive organ toxicity as well as endocrine disruption.

The solution: Instead of a chemical-based sunscreen, look for a physical sunscreen, which contains zinc oxide, a mineral that physically blocks the U.V. rays from harming your skin.


“Fragrance” is a catch-all term, and according to Laurie Neronha, a licensed esthetician and owner of Viriditas Beautiful Skin Therapies, “We don’t really know what’s in them.” Artificial fragrances can include harmful ingredients like phthalates, hydroquinone, and even ethyl acetate.

Phthalates can increase your risk of metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that increase things like heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes), and the Environmental Protection Agency lists hydroquinone as a “known human respiratory toxicant.” Using scented products can damage your body, especially with repeated daily use.

The solution: Choose an unscented product, or if you like scents, look for products scented with essential oils.


Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is one of the many ingredients often slipped into the generic term “fragrance.” Unfortunately, according to research published in Critical Reviews & Toxicology, BHT has been linked to bladder tumors in mice. Another study published in Toxicology found BHT enhanced both liver and colon tumor development in male mice.

The solution: Look for organic colognes that derive their scents by distilling plants or flowers. Because natural colognes are not made with chemicals, you will need to reapply your scent throughout the day, but that’s a small price to pay. BHT can also show up in food, so check food labels for this preservative.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate

If you’ve ever brushed your teeth and got that frothy, bubbly lather, you can thank sodium laureth sulfate. It’s useful for creating lathers in shaving soaps and body washes too. Unfortunately, this ingredient has been classified as a “moderate hazard” by the EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetic safety database. SLS has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, skin irritation, and endocrine disruption.

The solution: SLS-free toothpaste will work just as well as one that contains sodium laureth sulfate. And if you prefer a liquid body wash, consider using castile soap. Simply place castile soap (in a 2-1 ratio with water) into a foaming pump dispenser for an instant lather.


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