It might sound like a daunting task to look through all the ingredients of every product you use, but it is for good reason, trust me! Not all labels that say they’re natural actually are, so it is important to go through the list yourself, to protect yourself. Once you’ve researched what’s in a product and you can comfortably say it is to your standards it will be all the more enjoyable to use.

We absorb up to 60% of what we put on our skin. Health issues linked to toxic chemicals in the body include skin allergies, infertility, birth defects, reproductive problems, cancer, and even learning disabilities. It is hard to simply put every ingredient into a “good” or “bad” column, but after researching many lists and referencing a few trusty sources (see below), these are what I consider to be the top ingredients to avoid in cosmetics and skin care products. I wanted to trim it down to a neat little list of 10, but I just couldn’t leave some of these out, so here are 17 (my lucky number!). If you have any to add to this list, please leave a comment to let me know.

Sulfates – Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES).These are used in many foaming products and can damage the eyes and severely irritate skin, so look out for these in shampoo and shower gel. Can cause eye damage, depression, labored breathing, diarrhea, skin irritation, and death.

Parabens – Look for methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, and propylparaben – commonly found in many lotions, hair conditioners, deodorants, and makeup products. Parabens have been found in breast cancer tumors, and may contribute to sterility in males, and hormone imbalance in females.

BHA & BHT – These are used as a preservative and commonly found in moisturizers and makeup. BHA and BHT can induce allergic reactions in the skin and some research has identified BHA as a possible human carcinogen.

Petrochemicals – Look out for certain alcohols, or terms ending in “anol”, like isopropyl alcohol or isopropanol, methyl alcohol or methanol, butyl alcohol or butanol, ethyl alcohol or ethanol. These chemicals can be absorbed through the skin and be toxic to the kidney, brain and respiratory system.

DEA, MEA, & TEA – These ingredients are used to make products creamy or sudsy. Look out for them in lotions, sunscreens, and cleansers like hand soap or shampoo. These chemicals are already restricted in Europe due to known carcinogenic effects and studies have shown that repeated skin applications can lead to an increased risk of liver and kidney cancer. Can easily cause contact dermatitis. Easily absorbed through skin to accumulate in body organs and the brain.

Propylene glycol (PG), Butylene glycol, and polyethylene glycol – Petroleum plastics. Look out for “ethylene glycol”, which can be found in certain lotions, and propylene glycol, which is often an ingredient in mascara. These chemicals can easily penetrate the skin, weakening protein and cellular structure.

Triclosan – This is used in antibacterial and antifungal products, so be sure check for it in toothpaste and deodorant, as well as soaps. Triclosan is classified as a chlorophenol, a class of chemicals suspected of causing cancer in humans. It is similar in structure to Agent Orange! Registered by the EPA as a pesticide, causing concern for not only human health but environmental. Stored in body fat, it can accumulate to toxic levels, damaging the liver, kidneys and lungs and can cause paralysis, suppression of immune function, brain hemorrhages, and heart problems. Tufts University School of Medicine says that triclosan is capable of forcing the emergence of “super bugs” that it cannot kill.

Synthetic dyes – Look out for any term that begins with “F&DC”, usually followed by a color and a number. Certain colors can be absorbed into the skin and cause depletion of oxygen in the body, and animal studies have shown almost all of them to be carcinogenic.

Coal Tar Dyes – A known carcinogen made from bituminous coal. Found in anti-dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, anti-itch creams, hair dyes and other cosmetics. Also listed as p-phenylenediamine and colors listed as “CI”, “FD&C,” or “D&C.”

Petrolatum – Derived from petroleum/crude oil – this chemical is an endocrine disruptor and a carcinogen. Healthy skin needs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Instead, this chemical may suffocate the skin. Found in lotions, hair products, lip balms etc.

Mineral Oil – Petroleum by-product that coats the skin like plastic, clogging the pores. It interferes with skin’s ability to eliminate toxins, promoting acne and other disorders. Slows down skin function and cell development, resulting in premature aging. Used in many products such as baby oil which is 100% mineral oil! Alternatives: Moisture Magnets (Saccharide Isomerate) from beets; Ceramides, Jojoba and other vegetable oils, etc.

Talc – This is used to absorb moisture or give a shimmery look. Be sure to look out for it in baby powder, eye shadow, and blush. Using talcum powder can increase your risk of ovarian cancer.

Phthalates/Fragrance – In addition to irritating the skin, inhaling these chemicals allows them to be absorbed internally which can lead to further health issues like asthma or damage the immune and nervous systems. DHP, DBP5, DEHP, and dibutyl phthalate are used in personal care products. They are considered probable carcinogens by the EPA and likely to cause cancer. Phthalates are also known endocrine disruptors (may interfere, mimic or block hormones), development toxicants (can interfere with the normal development of a fetus or child), and a reproductive toxicant (can harm the reproductive system). Phthalates can be inhaled and also absorbed through the skin via perfume, nail polish, skin lotion, deodorant and some hair styling products. Since the ingredients are not required on fragrances, there is no way to know if phthalates are in a fragrance. A safer alternative is to choose pure essential oils instead of perfumes. Even “unscented” products often contain artificial fragrance. Look out for the terms “fragrance” or “parfum.”

Phenoxyethanol – As a preservative, this is a popular alternative to parabens. Restricted in Japan and the EU, this chemical has been linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity and comes with a warning from the FDA.

Benzoyl Peroxide – Used in acne treatment products (a bleaching and drying agent in cosmetics). Toxic by inhalation. A skin allergen and irritant. Canada does not permit it in cosmetics intended to be applied to the skin.

Formaldehyde Recently added to the known carcinogens list.  It’s most commonly used as a water solution called formalin, rather than in its pure form. With the help of preservatives, formaldehyde is released in small amounts over time to help protect cosmetic products against contamination by bacteria during storage and during continued use. Also referred to as Quanternium-15 or DMDM hydantoin. Where is formaldehyde found? Used in nail polishes, nail hardeners, eyelash glues, hair gels, soaps, makeup, shampoo, lotions and deodorants and hair straightening treatments.

Alcohol, Isopropyl (SD-40) – A very drying and irritating solvent and dehydrator that strips your skin’s moisture and natural immune barrier, making you more vulnerable to bacteria, molds and viruses. It is made from propylene, a petroleum derivative and is found in many skin and hair products, fragrance, antibacterial hand washes as well as shellac and antifreeze. It can act as a “carrier” accelerating the penetration of other harmful chemicals into your skin. It may promote brown spots and premature aging of skin. A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients says it may cause headaches, flushing, dizziness, mental depression, nausea, vomiting, narcosis, anesthesia, and coma. Fatal ingested dose is one ounce or less.


Sources: Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, Bella Floria, Organic Beauty Talk, Mind Body Green, MightyNest, Free People, A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients

2 Comments on Ingredients to Avoid

  1. Leslie
    February 21, 2015 at 2:06 pm (9 years ago)

    This a great list Naomi. I recently changed my skincare routine to all natural and now I’m in the process of updating my makeup bag. What is your opinion about Titanium Dioxide? I’m in research I found mixed information, however the fact that there is a slight chance of it being a carcinogen makes me want to avoid it.

    • Naomi
      February 23, 2015 at 8:04 pm (9 years ago)

      Hi Leslie,
      Great question. Titanium Dioxide does have limited evidence of carcinogenicity according to but only for products that may be aerosolized (airborne). In A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients it says “In high concentrations the dust may cause lung damage.” Its hard to know exactly what “high concentrations” means.
      In liquid form (like sunscreen) I don’t see much concern, but it is found in a lot of face powders, blush and eye shadows also – even in the most natural brands I know of because it is used to lighten pigments. I haven’t put it on my list because it would limit the products I try to so few and in my mind isn’t the worst of what we should be looking out for. Obviously try not to inhale it when tapping excess off your brushes etc. And there are a few hidden gems that don’t have it. Most 100% pure blush and eye shadow seem to be free of it.
      Hope that helps!
      xo – Naomi