Product Profile: Hand Soap

Toxic Chemicals in Hand Soaps

Hand soap: You use it every day, but have you ever turned the bottle around and wondered what’s in there? Or perhaps, the better question to ask is, what shouldn’t be in there? Take a look at a few of the common ingredients added into liquid hand soap formulations to learn what to avoid. 

Ingredients of Concern

To help you navigate the chemical confusion, we’re identifying a few of the top ingredient offenders: 


Ethoxylated Ingredients – Through a process called ethoxylation, a chemical associated with multiple kinds of cancer[1] called ethylene oxide is added to other ingredients for the purpose of making them less harsh. Oftentimes, surfactant ingredients used in hand soaps are ethoxylated. A common example of an ethoxylated surfactant is sodium laureth sulfate. When chemical names contain “eth” in their names, it can clue you in to the fact that they underwent ethoxylation. Ethoxylated ingredients can also be contaminated with PEGs, residual ethylene oxide, and 1,4 dioxane.


Isothiazolinone preservatives – A common group of chemicals used in a range of products – included many hand soaps -- for their preservative and antimicrobial capabilities. Isothiazolinone preservatives, like methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone, are linked to contact allergies[2] and contact dermatitis[3]. They are known irritants[4] and methylisothiazolinone, in particular, is a suspected endocrine disruptor[5].


Parabens – Another class of preservatives ingredient typically found in hand soaps. Toxicity concerns related to parabens include that they are endocrine disrupting chemicals[6] and have been associated with breast cancer[7] and reproductive harm[8]. They come in many forms and can be found by looking for the suffix “paraben” on the ingredient label (ethylparaben, isopropylparaben, etc.). 

Tips for Choosing a Better Hand Soap

  • Shop MADE SAFE Certified products.
  • Steer clear of formulations containing ethoxylated ingredients, which can be found by looking for ingredients ending in -eth. A common one for hand soaps is sodium laureth sulfate.
  • Avoid formulations that contain isothiazolinone preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone. How to spot them? Look for the suffix “thiazolinone”.
  • Bypass products that contain parabens -- ingredients ending in -paraben (e.g., ethylparaben)
  • Use products that disclose 100% of ingredients (especially fragrance)
  • Don’t use products that list “fragrance” or “parfum” that skirt around full ingredient disclosure
  • Bonus points: To slash your contribution to plastic pollution, choose liquid hand soap that is bottled in glass, is refillable, or comes in a highly concentrated form. Trying to go completely plastic free? Go for a soap bar that isn’t packaged in plastic.


[1] Humans, I. W. G. o. t. E. o. C. R. t. (2012). Chemical Agents and Related Occupations. International Agency for Research on Cancer.


[2] Lundov, M. D., Krongaard, T., Menné, T. L., & Johansen, J. D. (2011). Methylisothiazolinone contact allergy: a review. The British journal of dermatology, 165(6), 1178–1182.


[3] Higgins, E., Kirby, B., Rogers, S., & Collins, P. (2013). Methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone allergic contact dermatitis and the effect of patch test concentration. Dermatitis : contact, atopic, occupational, drug, 24(2), 73–76.


[4] de Groot, A. C., & Herxheimer, A. (1989). Isothiazolinone preservative: cause of a continuing epidemic of cosmetic dermatitis. Lancet (London, England), 1(8633), 314–316.


[5] Search the TEDX List — The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. (n.d.). The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Retrieved July 9, 2023, from


[6] Darbre PD., et al., Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 2008.


[7] Parabens. (n.d.). Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. Retrieved July 9, 2023, from


[8] Kawaguchi, M., Morohoshi, K., Masuda, J., Watanabe, G., Morita, M., Imai, H., Taya, K., & Himi, T. (2009). Maternal isobutyl-paraben exposure decreases the plasma corticosterone level in dams and sensitivity to estrogen in female offspring rats. The Journal of veterinary medical science, 71(8), 1027–1033.

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