30 Toxic Chemicals to avoid in Skincare products
Have you ever taken a really good look at that long list of ingredients on that shampoo or foundation you bought?
Like a REALLY good look?
Ok, go to your dressing table right now and pick up just one tube or bottle of whatever you find there and read the ingredients list on the back. Go on. I’ll be waiting right here.
Did you see a couple of unfamiliar words on that list, some of which you couldn’t even pronounce? Do you even know how much of each ingredient is in the product or even, how those products could affect your skin or your body?
No? Don’t worry. You aren’t alone. Analyzing an ingredient list is incredibly complicated due to the sheer number of ingredients listed (and many hidden ones!). How they are formulated, the effects these formulations have on our skin and if they even work aren’t clear. Even products that are “natural” or “organic” have ingredient lists that are difficult to decipher.
To kickstart the process for you and make it all simpler, I’ve compiled a list of the common potentially harmful chemicals in your beauty products, its uses and how it could possibly affect you.
Click on the letters to Navigate
*Benzyl, ethyl, isopropyl [SD-40], methyl, SD alcohols
Found in hand sanitizers and alcoholic toners.
- Very drying for the skin. Bad for all skin types
- Erodes the skin surface and makes you more susceptible to bacteria
- Prevents skin from replenishing, renewing and rejuvenating itself
Used in deodorants, antiperspirants and sunscreens
- Linked to brain disordes and Alzheimer’s
- Possible factor in breast cancer
- Neurotoxin that binds and sticks to our red and white blood cells
- Aluminium in sunscreen might contribute to oxidative damage in the skin, increasing the risk of cancer
3. Benzalkomium Chloride
Added to products to kill germs
- Skin and eye irritant
- A suspected respiratory and gastrointestinal toxicant
4. Benzoyl peroxide
Commonly used in acne-removal creams.
- Possible tumour promoter, mutagen, produces DNA damage
- Causes redness, irritation, itchiness and a burning sensation for some skin types*
*I’ve gotten a massive breakout and skin irritation once when I applied to a ingrown pimple. My skin was red and was burning for a couple of hours, and it spread to my entire cheek area. Different people are different, but I have sensitive skin and I’d never use this to cure my acne.
5. Bisphenol-A (BPA), BPS
Used in hand sanitizers, soaps, sunscreens, lotions – expedites the delivery of active ingredient they contain. Handling receipts (especially after using hand sanitizer) quickens the BPA transfer into body.
- PCOS, infertility, premature delivery, miscarriage, and other reproductive effects in women
- Reduced libido and sperm quality, and altered sex hormone concentrations in men
- Altered thyroid function
- Obesity and diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- Impaired liver and kidney function
- Impaired immune function
- Neurobehavioral deficits such as aggressiveness, hyperactivity, and impaired learning
6. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), Toluene, BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
Preservative in many lipsticks and moisturizers
- Endocrine disruptor, interferes with hormone function
- Causes allergies
- BHA: possible carcinogen
7. Carbon Black
Found in eyeliners
- Linked to cancer and organ toxicity
8. Coal Tar Dye, P-Phenylenediamine
*Colours listed as “CI”, “FD&C,” (Synthetic dyes, colour pigments) or “D&C.”
Gives hair dye its colour
- Potentially causes cancer
- Contaminated with heavy metals toxic to the brain
- Often used as part of hair dyes. Extensive usage may cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
9. Dibutyl Phthalate, Phthalates, DHP, DBP5, DEHP
Used mainly in nail products to prevent it from becoming brittle
- Can enhance the capacity of other chemicals to cause genetic mutations
- Endocrine disruptor, toxicant
- Affects reproductive systems – harm unborn child, impair fertility
- Damage immune and nervous sytems
- Causes liver and kidney failure in young children after long exposure
- * Choose pure essential oils instead of fragrances
Found in many products, including sprays, tampons and shampoo
- Extremely toxic, has a score of 10 on the EWG database
- Won’t appear in ingredients. Often in antibacterial things, cleansers etc
- Causes cancer reduced immunity, nervous systems disorders, miscarriage, birth deformity
- Endocrine disruptor
11. Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives
*DMDM Hydantoin (Quanternium-15), Diazolidinyl Urea, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Methenamine
Found in many products – lotions, nail polishes, eyelash glue, hair gels, shampoos, deodorants etc.
- Weakens immune system
- Human carcinogen
- Can cause irritation of the eyes and difficulty breathing
12. Gluten, Hydrolized wheat protein,Wheatgerm
*Some gluten ingredients are hidden
Toothpaste, lipstick, facial cleansers and many more.
- Causes allergic reactions and even athsma in some cases
13. Heavy Metals (Nickel, Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, Mercury etc)
Used in various cosmetic products – lipstick, mascara, foundation, concealers, eye shadow, eye liner etc
- Builds up in body overtime and produces symptoms that are mistaken for other illnesses (ie: headaches, dizziness, numbness, chronic pain etc)
Used for skin lightening
- Rated the most toxic on EWG’s database
- Linked to cancer and reproductive toxicity
Found in foundations
- An unstable chemical linked with endocrine disruption and thyroid disorders.
16. Para-Aminobenzoic acid, PABA, Sunscreen chemicals, Benzphenone, Avobenzone, Ethoxycinnamate
Found in all types of cosmetics but most common in sunscreen
- Free radical generators -> damage DNA
- Causes cancer
17. Parabens (ethyl, butyl, methyl, propyl, isobutyl, methyl)
*Also used as fragrance ingredients
Widely used as a preservative in many cosmetic products.
- Suspected of interfering with hormone functions (endocrine disruption)
- Imitates estrogen -> causes breast cancer
- Found in many products
- Studies indicate that methylparaben applied on skin combines with UVB which leads to skin aging and DNA damage
18. Paraphenylenediamine (PPD)
Used in hair products and dyes
- Toxic to skin and human immune system
19. PEG (Polyethylene glycol). Dioxane; 1,4 Dioxane
Ingredients ending with eth/oxynol)
Acts as a solvent, thickener, softener, moisture-carrier
- PEGs are usually contaminated with Dioxane and 1,4 Dioxane
- Possible carcinogen to humans
- Development Toxicant. Interferes with humans’ development
- Readily absorbed through skin
- Found in hair products, face lotions, hand creams, anti-aging products
- All glycols: weaken protein and cellular structures
20. Petroleum, Petrolatum, Mineral oil, Petrochemicals
*Paraffins, Terms ending in “anol”, like isopropyl alcohol or isopropanol, methyl alcohol or methanol, butyl alcohol or butanol, ethyl alcohol or ethanol
Enables products to give your hair/skin/lips shine
- Absorbed through the skin; toxic to brain, kidney, respiratory system
- May be contaminated with PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAH). Extensive use may cause skin cancer
Used as a preservative in beauty and personal care products
- Suspected to be a carcinogen
- Causes skin irritation
- *Said to be a better preservative than parabens
22. Propylene glycol (PEG), Butylene glycol
Used as a skin-conditioning agent. Found in sunscreen, moisturiser, conditioners, shampoo, hair spray
- Skin irritant and penetrant. Causes hives and dermatitis
Used to smoothen and enables products to spread evenly
- They accumulate on skin and can be hard to clean off
- May accumulate on hair and over time lead to reduced volume, greasy hair with a need for more frequent washing
*Cyclomethicone and ingredients ending in “siloxane” (e.g., cyclotetrasiloxane)
Used to soften, smoothen, moisten
- Interferes with hormone function and damage the liver
- Also known as D4 and D5 which are endocrine disruptors. High amounts may cause uterine tumours, is harmful to the reproductive and immune systems
25. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
Commonly found in shampoos, cleansers and bubble baths. Make products bubble and foam
- May be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane or ethylene oxide, which may cause cancer (human carcinogen)
- Extensive exposure to SLS has been linked to eye damage, depression, laboured breathing, diarrhoea and severe skin irritation.
- Suspected to also damage the skin’s immune system by causing layers to separate and inflame.
- Body retains the SLS for up to five days, during which time it may enter and maintain residual levels in the heart, liver, the lungs, and the brain.
- Endocrine disruptor
*(Retinyl Palmitate, Oxybenzone and Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
- When exposed to sunlight, reactions occur between the sunscreen’s active and inactive ingredients and the epidermis.
- May cause inflammation, dermalogical effects, allergic reactions and photogenotoxic (DNA altering) effects.
- Has ingredients that causes cancer
- Sunscreen doesn’t allow your skin to absorb Vitamin D
- Oxybenzone increases production of harmful free radicals that attacks human DNA. Mimics estrogen, causes breast cancer. Causes melanoma
- Octyl methoxycinnamate is ironically particularly toxic when exposed to sunshine. Triggers biochemical changes that cause mutation and cell death upon exposure. Reproductive toxicity. Organ system toxicity, especially in the liver; and enhanced skin absorption
- Retinyl Palmitate when exposed to sunlight may cause skin lesions and tumours
- Inorganic UV filters: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles. Might be able to penetrate the top layer of skin and reach living cells, though studies are still inconclusive.
27. Synthetic fragrances (Parfum, Fragrance)
Gives products a pleasant fragrance
- Complex mixture of chemicals that triggers allergies and asthma
- Linked to cancer and neurotoxicity
- Most chemicals are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines, asthma symptoms
Found in baby powders, face powders and body powders
- Ovarian cancer (especially using too much baby powder, frequent use in female genital area). Travels through reproductive system and embeds in lining of ovary
- Very closely related to asbestos, a potent carcinogen
29. TEA, DEA and MEA
*TEA (triethanolamine), DEA (Diethanolamine) and MEA (Monoethanolamine), Cocamide DEA, Diethanolamine (products that state it contains coconut), Lauramide DEA.
Makes cosmetics creamy/sudsy, acts as pH adjuster
- Hormone disruptor
- Possible human carcinogen
- Causes allergic reactions
- In high doses, causes liver and kidney cancer, precancerous changes in skin and thyroid
Used in antiperspirants/deodorants, cleansers, hand sanitizers as a preservative and anti-bacterial agent.
- Endocrine, thyroid disruptor
- Bioaccumulates in body
- Suspected to cause cancer too
As more research is done on this, more will be known about these chemicals and the effects of these products on our body. Whilst there has been an increasing amount of information available to the public in recent years, it’s still very early days. Research takes a lot of time and it won’t be a few years til we get the full picture.
Deciphering ingredient lists aren’t easy and takes a lot of practice and research. I think that it’s extremely difficult to avoid ALL of these ingredients. A couple will be present in any one product in unknown percentages.
So, for now it’s just best to keep informed and aware – until safer alternatives appear in the market.
Steps you can take:
- Always read the chemical ingredients in your beauty products before you buy them. Keep a handy list of these chemicals to avoid in your phone or wallet, so you can refer whilst making purchases
- For all your products, you can check the ingredients against the EWG Cosmetics Database or Paula’s Choice Ingredient Dictionary. Those provide toxicity ratings of many types of chemicals, and descriptions of the side effects.
- There are apps like the Think Dirty App where you can scan products and get quick infor on the ingredients. I don’t know how effective these apps are though, as I’ve not tried them. So if you have, let me know how it worked for you.
- Try exploring natural beauty products. There are lots of good brands around that use ingredients like essential oils for instance. You will see sites and magazines pushing certain natural/organic products, but always read around and try out samples before committing to a big purchase. Certain companies like to claim their products as natural but, it might not actually be.
- Different countries have different ways of classifying these chemicals, for eg, the FDA (USA) and EU (do an ingredient search and some papers will pop up) have different classifications on toxin levels allowed in consumer products. So check where your cosmetics are produced and what is sold in your country.
- If you can, make your own DIY products, or use simple alternatives. For eg, I’ve been using mouthwash as a replacement for talc and deodorant.
- David Suzuki Foundation
- Huffington Post
- The Guardian
- Collective Evolution
- Mind Body Green
- Mighty Nest
- Chris Kesser – 1, 2, 3, 4
With 10 years of experience as a Researcher (MSc) in Psychology, Neuroscience, Mental Health, Consumer and Organisational Behaviour; I help action-oriented, time-strapped people and solopreneurs crush their inner critics, navigate toxic workplaces and relationships and build their self-esteem so that you can have the freedom, happiness and confidence you desire. I spend the rest of my time daydreaming and downing cups of tea/coffee – my life’s vice.