Naturally Toxic

If you look to the Internet for information about beauty products, you’ll quickly become overwhelmed with articles about how all-natural ingredients are superior and for your hair and skin and synthetic ingredients are sending you to an early grave. This has always bugged me because if people just thought about it, they’d soon realize that “natural” does not automatically mean “good”. Snake venom, viruses, and radiation are all natural.

In fact, some of the most toxic substances are “natural”.

So, the next time you hear someone droning on and on about how much better natural ingredients are than synthetics just remind them of these ten All-Natural Nasties.

Naturally Toxic Ingredients
10. Patulin: The patulin toxin produced by fungi found on rotting apples. It’s not especially dangerous but a few studies have shown it can cause DNA mutations.

Watch out if you’re making your own apple juice to put in your DIY personal care products

9. Aflatoxin: Another toxin naturally produced by our fungi friends. Aflatoxins make their way into food crops like corn and peanuts. The compound has been shown to cause liver cancer in lab animals and has been associated with live cancer in humans. Governments monitor and regulate food for acceptable amounts of aflatoxin.

Be careful about contaminated corn or peanut compounds in your cosmetics

8. Ergotamine: This is an alkaloid produced naturally by a food fungus that grows on rye and wheat plants. If not properly processed grains contaminated with ergotamine can end up in your bread and cause the disease ergotism. Not a problem if you don’t mind gangrenous infections of the limbs and hallucinations.

This natural material is also the starting point for making the drug LSD.

7. Mistletoe Lectin: People love mistletoe at Christmas but did you know this naturally growing plant is extremely toxic to humans? Any part of the plant can poison you and if ingested can cause vomiting, hallucinations, and blurred vision.

Avoid any product said to contain Mistletoe extract. Unless hallucinating and vomiting is your idea of a good time.

6. Saxitoxin: This is a toxic material naturally produced by a common algae found in oceans around the world. When conditions are right, the little microscopic organisms produce saxitoxin, or red tide. If enough of it is introduced into your body, it causes paralysis and death. On occasion, people can get exposed to the poison by eating contaminated shellfish.

Apparently algae extracts aren’t always advisable.

5. Batrachotoxin: Frogs are cute except for maybe the poison dart frog that makes one of the most toxic compounds known. Batrachotoxins are naturally produced by certain species of frogs, beetles and birds. If you get some of the compound in you, expect paralysis of your breathing muscles followed by death soon afterwards.

Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment to stop the nasty effects of this natural substance.

4. Ricin: With a natural sounding name like ricin it’s got to be good right? Wrong. Ricin is a protein toxin that comes from castor beans. Yeah, this is the same plant that gives us the beneficial castor oil. If you’re exposed to enough ricin, it’ll cause diarrhea and death.

Thankfully, man-made, synthetic purification processes can separate the good parts of the castor bean from the toxic ones.

3. Alpha-Amanitin: This is a simple, natural, toxic peptide produced by a mushroom. If you happen to eat some alpha-amanitin laced mushrooms you’ll feel cramps and diarrhea within 24 hours. Left untreated your kidneys and liver will be damaged beyond repair and you will die. This little natural molecule is considered one of the deadliest compounds known.

Synthetic chemicals have nothing on this natural killer.

2. Anthrax Toxin: This natural ingredient is one you’ve probably heard about. This toxin is a combination of three proteins produced by a bacterium (Bacillus anthracis). It most often kills domestic animals like sheep and cattle but it can kill humans too. And you only need to be exposed to it on your skin. Anthrax ultimately causes death by respiratory and cardiac failure.

And you thought protein was always good.

1. Botulinum Toxin: No list of natural toxins would be complete on a cosmetic site without the mention of this neurotoxic protein. While deadly, this compound can be used in small doses to remove wrinkles. Botox treatments are all the rage and are one of the most popular profitable forms of cosmetic surgery. If you ingest this toxin however, you can expect paralysis, blurred vision, vomiting, among other symptoms. Ultimately, this natural compound will lead to respiratory failure and death.

But in the hands of a good cosmetic surgeon, there’s not much to worry about. Yikes!

Natural does not = good.
Synthetic does not = bad.

You have to look at each compound on an individual basis to make a judgment about them. And as millions of successful Botox injections demonstrate, there is a safe way to use “toxic” ingredients no matter where they come from.


Perry Romanowski has over 18 years experience formulating products to solve consumer problems in the personal care and cosmetic industry. His primary focus has been on hair & hair related products. He is also an author who has published extensively about the field of cosmetic science. He is currently Vice President of Brains Publishing which specializes in science education.

Perry received his B.S. in Chemistry from DePaul University. He has written and edited numerous articles and books, teaches SCC continuing education classes in cosmetic science, and is the primary author at a website dedicated to training current and future cosmetic scientists. His latest book project is the third edition of Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry published by Allured. Perry can be reached thorough his website ChemistsCorner where he is available for consulting about cosmetic formulating, testing, and Internet solutions.

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