13 Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid - Revealing Toxic Ingredients in Skincare & Beauty Products
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating the safety of cosmetics and personal care products. At this point, they are way behind and doing a less than stellar job at it. So, it’s up to you, the customer, to zero in on the safest, healthiest products that are best for you.
You are probably no novice to an ingredient listing, right? You can brush up with our Decoding Skin Care Labels article. Still, even those of us who deal with ingredients every day can get confused in the sea of chemical names, acronyms, and greenwashing practices. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a helpful list of ingredients you want to avoid handy when you’re searching for products that are safe for you and your family.
I’ve put together a comprehensive list of ingredients to avoid at all possible cost. Here you can learn why you want to avoid them, which countries already are, products they are found in, and how to identify them on those tricky product labels.
13 Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid
1. 1,4 dioxane
This chemical by-product of ethoxylation (an ingredient processing method used to make petro-ingredients less irritating to skin) is determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be a likely human carcinogen. It is also a suspected cardiovascular and blood toxicant, gastrointestinal, immune, kidney, neuro, respiratory, and skin toxicant.
Products used in: 1,4 dioxane often shows up in items like shampoo, facial cleansers, body wash, bubble bath, baby bath, and liquid soap.
Where restricted: Canada
How to ID on product labels: Since 1,4 dioxane is a contaminant produced during manufacturing, the FDA does not require it to be listed on cosmetic product ingredient listings. Look for ingredients commonly contaminated with 1,4 dioxane — sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, and ingredients that include “xynol”, “ceteareth”, and “oleth”.
2. DEA, Tea, MEA
Diethanolamine (DEA), monoethanolamine (MEA), and triethanolamine (TEA) are ammonia compounds used as emulsifiers and foaming agents in cosmetics. Studies show links between ethanolamines and cancer in lab animals, organ and neural system toxicity, and skin irritation and inflammation. These chemicals can also form carcinogenic compounds when mixed with nitrosamines (substances often found in cosmetics).
Products used in: Ethanolamines are widely used in cosmetics and personal care, they can be found in everything from makeup and shampoo, to sunscreen and hair dye.
Where restricted: European Union
How to ID on product labels: DEA or diethanolimine, TEA or triethanolamine, MEA or monoethanolamine cocamide DEA or cocamide diethanolimine, lauramide DEA or lauramide diethanolimine, DEA lauryl sulphate or diethanolimine sulfate, linoleaide DEA or linoleaide Diethanolimine, or oleamide DEA or oleamide diethanolimine.
Note: Some natural emulsifiers are beeswax, vegetable wax, and lecithin from plant sources. Castile soap and soapwort are natural surfactants, and decyl and coco glucoside are much safer than ethanolamines.
Dimethicone is a silicone-based polymer found in a wide range of cosmetics and personal care products. It is used to create a soft, smooth feel on skin and hair. Think hair conditioners and facial serums. This ingredient blocks pores from drawing moisture from the air and releasing toxins, and often leads to acne and irritation.
Products used in: Facial moisturizers and serums, anti-aging products, acne products, makeup, body moisturizers, sunscreens, hair care.
How to ID on product labels: dimethicone, methicone, phenyl trimethicone, cyclomethicone, dimethiconol, and dimethicone copolyol.
Note: Cocoa, shea, and mango butters are all-natural occlusive ingredients. Jojoba oil offers skin softening and smoothing effects without clogging pores or irritation.
Formaldehyde is an impurity released by certain synthetic preservatives, like urea. It is a known carcinogen, gastrointestinal and liver toxicant, and neurotoxin. These chemicals can be absorbed by the skin or inhaled when heated.
Products used in: Hair straightening products, hair dye, nail polish, deodorant, and shampoo.
Where restricted: Japan, Sweden, European Union, Canada
How to ID on product labels: Formaldehyde, formalin, urea, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, and sodium hydroxylmethylglycinate.
5. Heavy metals (metalloestrogens)
Used as sweat blockers, colorants, whiteners, and lightening agents, common heavy metals (lead, aluminum, arsenic, mercury, zinc, chromium, and iron) are linked to hormonal disruption. Heavy metals accumulate in the body and take longer to flush out, which means longer exposure to these toxins. High levels may cause an increased risk in cancer, reproductive issues, immune system disruption, and allergic reaction.
Products used in: Lip products, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner, nail color, foundations, sunscreens, eye shadows, blush, concealer, moisturizers, eye drops.
Where restricted: Banned in Canada, Japan and the European Union, and restricted in the U.S.
How to ID on product labels: Aluminum, aluminum flake, aluminum, LB Pigment 5; Pigment metal 1; A 00; A 95; A 995; A 999; AA 1099; AA1199, lead acetate, lead flake, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, and sodium hexametaphosphate. Note that heavy metal contaminants will not appear on cosmetic ingredient listings.
6. Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
Parabens aren’t the only bad guy preservatives used in cosmetics. MIT is often used to prevent bacterial and microbial growth in beauty products. This ingredient is a possible neurotoxin with links to health risks in unborn babies. It can also lead to allergic reaction.
Products used in: Any water-based products, including hair care, body wash, sunscreen, and skin care.
Where restricted: European Union
How to ID on product labels: > 3 (2h) -Isothiazolone, 2-Methyl-; methylchloroisothiazolinone225 methylisothiazolinone solution; 2-Methyl-3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-4-Isothiazolin-3-One; 2-Methyl- 3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-2h-Isothiazol-3-One; 3 (2h) Isothiazolone, 2methyl; 2-Methyl-3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-4-Isothiazolin-3-One.
Note: Be sure to check products labeled “paraben-free” for MIT.
Parabens are the poster child for toxic cosmetic ingredients, parabens are widely used as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products. These ingredients have been found in breast tissue, mimic estrogen in the body, and may lead to impaired fertility or fetal development.
Products used in: Any water-based products, including hair care, body wash, sunscreen, and skin care.
Where restricted: Propyl and butyl paraben are banned in Denmark in products for children up to 3 years.
How to ID on product labels: alkyl Para hydroxybenzoate, butylparaben, methylparaben, ethyl paraben, propylparaben, isobutyl parabens.
Petroleum jelly and mineral oil are commonly used emollients and lubricants. But these ingredients are often contaminated with impurities linked to cancer, they may cause skin irritation and acne.
Products used in: Skincare, body care, lip balm, makeup.
Where restricted: European Union requires full refining history.
How to ID on product labels: Petrolatum, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, paraffin wax.
Note: Cocoa, shea, and mango butters are all healthy natural emollients.
These chemical cosmetic ingredients are widely used as plasticizers to make a substance more flexible and adhere to a surface, as in nail polish and hair spray. They are also commonly used as carriers for synthetic fragrance to get products, such as perfume, to stay on the skin. The National Toxicology Program and the EPA classify some phthalates probable carcinogens. The ingredients are shown to be endocrine disruptors and can also negatively affect fertility and fetal development.
Products used in: Hair spray, lipstick, perfume, and nail polish
Where restricted: The European Union bans cosmetics that contain DBP and DEHP.
How to ID on product labels: benzyl butyl phthalate (BzBP), di-n-butyl phthalate or dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), DEHP, and sometimes “fragrance”. It is important to note that, due to a trade secret loophole, phthalates will often not appear on product ingredient listings.
Note: Purchasing beauty and personal care products made without the ingredients listed above and natural fragrance ingredients are safer. If a product ingredient listing includes the term “fragrance”, check to see if there is a notation regarding the source of the fragrance ingredients. Nontoxic brands will often add “from natural sources” or “from essential oils” to product labels.
10. Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate
Here are two more ingredients you may be familiar with these are surfactants. Commonly used in conventional products to create foam, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are penetration enhancers, allowing other chemicals to more easily enter the system. These harsh cleansing ingredients strip natural oils from skin, causing dryness, allergic reaction, and irritation. So much so that they are used to stimulate an irritation response for testing purposes.
Products used in: Shampoo, facial cleansers, body wash, bubble bath, baby bath, and toothpaste.
How to ID on product labels: sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium lauryl ether sulfate, anhydrous sodium lauryl sulfate, and irium.
Note: decyl and coco glucoside are much safer than ethanolamines.
This super potent antibacterial was initially intended for use in hospital settings. Today it can be found in everything from hand soap to toothpaste. But triclosan is potentially contaminated with chloroform and dioxins, and has links to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity, allergic reaction, skin, eye, and lung irritation, and bioaccumulation.
Products used in: Hand soaps, hand sanitizers, makeup, deodorant, shaving gel, after shave, facial cleanser, facial wipes, body wash, and toothpaste.
Where restricted: The FDA issued a ruling that all over-the-counter brands must reformulate products that contain triclosan and related ingredients by September 2017 or remove them from the market.
How to ID on product labels: Cloflucarban, fluorosalan, hexachlorophene, hexylresorcinol, iodine complex (ammonium ether sulfate and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monolaurate), iodine complex (phosphate ester of alkylaryloxy polyethylene glycol), nonylphenoxypoly (ethyleneoxy) ethanoliodine, poloxamer-iodine complex, povidone-iodine 5 to 10 percent, undecoylium chloride iodine complex, methylbenzethonium chloride, phenol (greater than 1.5 percent), phenol (less than 1.5 percent) 16, secondary amyltricresols, sodium oxychlorosene, tribromsalan, triclocarban, triclosan, and triple dye.
Note: Unless you are in a hospital or food service workplace, washing hands with warm soapy water is totally effective in removing dirt and germs (sing the birthday or ABC song).
The synthetic fragrances used in cosmetics can have as many as 200 ingredients. There is no way to know what the chemicals are because formulas are protected under federal law’s classification of trade secrets. On the label it will simply read “fragrance.” Some problems caused by these chemicals include including hormone disruption, headaches, dizziness, rash, hyperpigmentation, violent coughing, vomiting, skin irritation—the list goes on. Don’t buy a cosmetic that has the word “fragrance” on the ingredients label. Look for labels that say, “phthalate–free”.
Product used in: almost any type of personal care product.
Where restricted: Banned and Restricted in EU.
How to ID on product labels: Body care products that might have these disrupting chemicals in them will be listed in the ingredients as “parfum”, “fragrance” or “perfume”.
Important Note: The fragrance industry has isolated elements of essential oils (geraniol, limonene, citrol, etc.) and have created synthetic versions that can be sold to manufacturers who put them in their products and sold as “natural”, yikes! I was very disappointed in a company I had formerly used for skin care products for my son. Their ingredients were top of the line, including essential oils and plant extracts. A few months ago, I found the product line in the health food store I shop at, I checked the ingredients again (why, I don’t know, but I’m glad I did). They have now replaced those pure plant extracts with components of the real deal: geraniol, thymol, limone, etc. what a big disappointment. Do not be fooled, these isolated ingredients are growing in number, and I’m sure marketed to manufacturers as a more cost-effective alternative without the stress of relying on natural plant material. The French perfumists were the first to do this in the mid 1800’s to control the process. Isolated ingredients are more easily replicated in synthetic form than their full natural plant material.
A skin lightening chemical that inhibits the production of melanin and is a linked to cancer, organ toxicity and skin irritation. Hydroquinone decreases the formation of melanin in the skin. Melanin is the pigment in skin that gives it a brown color. Hydroquinone topical (for the skin) is used to lighten areas of darkened skin such as freckles, age spots, melasma (sun damage), or chloasma (darkened skin caused by hormonal changes). Hydroquinone, also benzene-1,4-diol or quinol, is an aromatic organic compound that is a type of phenol. It is a white granular solid. Substituted derivatives of this parent compound are also referred to as hydroquinones.
Product used in: skin lighteners, facial and skin cleansers, facial moisturizers, hair conditioners, finger nail coating products.
Where restricted: On August 29, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban on over-the-counter sales of cosmetic products containing hydroquinone, a skin-bleaching (lightening) ingredient. Banned in Japan, the European Union, and Australia.
How to ID on: Hydroquinone or tocopheryl acetate.
This has certainly been a lot for you to digest and hope it was helpful. Do you have any questions or comments? Please leave us feedback.
Until next time remember, “Your Skin Deserves Love Too!”