Avoid these harmful ingredients in your makeup and skin care routine
We’re cautious of the things we put in our bodies – that’s why we’re big on natural products when it comes to food and medicine – but what about the stuff we put on it?
The cosmetics and skincare products that we use to feel good and stay young may be harmful to our health, especially since most of these products contain toxic ingredients.
For instance, recent studies show that the ingredients found in sunscreens and some facial washes can cause severe side effects, such as hormonal disruption and even cancer. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested over 1,400 sunscreens and found that only 5% met safety standards. What’s worse, nearly half of these commercial sunscreens can increase the risk of skin cancer.
To help you avoid the health risks these chemicals may bring, we’re providing you a list of the 12 most toxic ingredients found in skincare products, so you’ll know what to watch out for when you buy these necessities.
Ingredients to avoid in makeup and skincare products
1. Sodium lauryl sulfate and Sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLS and SLES)
Found in: Foundations, shampoos, facial wash, body wash, mouthwash, toothpaste
You can’t make suds without SLS: It’s the ingredient that turns your shampoo and body wash into a smooth lather. SLS is an emulsifier that stabilizes and thickens products to make them easier to apply. It also allows them to cut through oil and residue, so the skin feels clean afterward. However, SLS is considered a synthetic ingredient.
While SLS makes for a great bath, it can also contribute to acne, especially those outbreaks that appear around the mouth and on the chin. SLS and SLES can irritate the skin and trigger allergies. They can even cause canker sores. Both chemicals also disrupt the skin’s natural oil balance and can cause eye damage.
Don’t be quick to avoid all SLS-containing products, though. Natural skincare products still contain SLS in the form of coconut meat – something to look for in the ingredients. This form of SLS comes in seven grades, with most brands using the highest. The problem comes from cheaper alternatives such as decyl glucoside, sodium cocoyl isethionate, and sodium cocoyl glutamate, which react with the skin’s natural sebum and clog the pores.
2. Butylated compounds (BHA and BHT)
Found in: Perfumes, exfoliants, lip products, hair products, deodorants, fragrance, creams, makeup
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are common ingredients in many skincare products and cosmetics. They are used as preservatives and antioxidants. Both chemicals are also used as food preservatives and in packaging.
These chemicals, however, are linked to multiple health risks. BHA is classified as a potential carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program, which means it may cause cancer. Multiple studies show that BHA can cause liver damage, increase the risk of stomach cancer, and interfere with the development of the reproductive system.
BHA can also lead to skin pigmentation disorders. In fact, the EU considers it unsafe, especially when used in fragrances.
Both BHA and BHT are linked to organ toxicity. According to the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption, there is strong evidence suggesting that BHA is a human endocrine disruptor. In addition, multiple studies demonstrate that exposure to BHA is lethal to healthy cells, even at low doses. BHT, on the other hand, is a respiratory irritant, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Irritants. These findings make BHA and BHT toxic ingredients that are worth avoiding.
Lipstick and eye shadow are common sources of BHA exposure.
3. Triclosan and triclocarban
Found in: Toothpaste, deodorants, antibacterial soaps, and products
Triclosan was first used as an ingredient in hospital disinfectants. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it started being added to products as an antimicrobial agent. For all its hype, it doesn’t do much – the Food and Drug Authority ruled that products containing triclosan aren’t any better at killing bacteria than soap and water.
The adverse effects associated with triclosan are the subject of a lot of studies. Aside from being unnecessary, triclosan (in liquids) and triclocarban (in bar soaps and other solids) are also linked to endocrine disruption and even antibiotic resistance.
Triclosan negatively impacts thyroid function and homeostasis. What’s more, recent studies reveal that triclosan use can promote the growth of bacteria that are resistant to antibacterial products as well as antibiotics. According to a report by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, even low concentrations of triclosan can cause antibiotic resistance in bacteria.
Triclocarban, on the other hand, can increase the growth of breast cancer cells, according to studies. If you find these toxic ingredients in your skincare products, stop using them.
4. Coal tar and p-Phenylenediamine
Found in: Shampoos, hair dyes, scalp treatments
Coal tar, which is obtained from burning coal, can be found in many products, such as textiles, cosmetics, food, and personal care products. It’s commonly added to anti-dandruff shampoo because of its ability to relieve itching, scaling, and flaking caused by seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis.
Coal tar is classified as a keratolytic agent – a chemical that causes the skin to shed dead cells and slows down the growth of new cells. There are over 10,000 compounds in coal tar, but scientists have only identified around 400.
The National Toxicology Program classifies coal tar as a carcinogen. Experimental studies also show that it can cause skin tumors, as well as neurological damage. Coal tar can dry and irritate the skin.
Europe has banned the use of coal tar as an ingredient in hair dyes. The FDA, however, considers coal tar safe at concentrations between 0.5 to 5%, despite studies that prove otherwise.
Hair dyes also contain another toxic compound known as p-Phenylenediamine. It’s mainly found in permanent hair dyes called oxidative dyes. p-Phenylenediamine can also be found in rubber and Kevlar vests.
However, p-Phenylenediamine is a common skin allergen. Studies show that the compound is a potential carcinogen. It’s what makes hair dyes highly toxic.
Found in: Face cleansers, body wash, shaving gels, moisturizers, foundations, shampoos
Parabens are a group of chemicals that improve the shelf life of products. You can find parabens in almost every product you have – from shampoos and body wash to night creams and makeup – these products have at least one type of paraben in their ingredients list.
For things that are present in many consumer goods, parabens are quite scary. They are linked to several side effects, including cancer, cell damage, and endocrine dysfunction. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that parabens are detected in “virtually all Americans.”
In vitro studies reveal that parabens, at enough concentrations, can increase the proliferation of human breast cancer cells. It gets worse when you apply personal care products that contain these toxic ingredients – particularly methylparaben. This chemical promotes UV-induced damage and increases the risk of developing malignant melanoma, a form of skin cancer.
Some parabens that have been identified as endocrine disruptors include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben.
Parabens are also bad news for men and children: Exposure to propylparaben and butylparaben can decrease sperm production and testosterone levels. On the other hand, pregnant and lactating women can pass on the harmful effects of parabens on their children. These chemicals can disrupt the development of their reproductive systems.
In some countries like Denmark, parabens are banned from being used in cosmetic products designed for children.
Parabens are easy to identify on labels. Most ingredients will have the suffix “-paraben,” like methylparaben and propylparaben. Paraben-free products, on the other hand, will be labeled as such.
6. Polyethylene and PEGs
Found in: Facial wash, scrubs, body wash, makeup, toothpaste
Polyethylene (or polythene) is the most popular type of plastic in the world. This toxic ingredient, unfortunately, can also be found in skincare products in the form of microbeads.
These tiny beads were first used in exfoliants and face and lip scrubs because they’re gentle on the skin. However, studies revealed that polyethylene could irritate the skin, especially if it’s broken.
Aside from being a skin irritant, most polyethylene microbeads are contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a potential carcinogen, and one that has been banned in countries like Canada.
Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are petroleum-based compounds that often serve as bases for cosmetic creams. Used as solvents, softeners, and moisture carriers, PEGs can also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is harmful to the nervous system.
Additionally, exposing broken skin to PEGs can cause irritation and damage to the genetic information contained within a cell (genotoxicity).
In the U.S., products aren’t even required to list 1,4-dioxane as an ingredient, since the FDA considers this contaminant a product of manufacturing.
It’s also worth noting that these microbeads are small enough to go down the drain, after which they contaminate marine environments, thanks to their ability to attract toxins such as DDT. These can decimate ecosystems and even accumulate up the food chain, ultimately affecting humans.
7. Retinol and its compounds
Found in: Anti-aging creams, moisturizers, sunscreens, lip products, foundations
Many people think that since retinol is vitamin A, it’s great for the skin. However, the science is a little more complicated than that. While you can eat as much kale as you’d like – a cup of it has enough vitamin A to meet your daily requirement – some forms of retinol can harm the skin, especially when it’s added to certain cosmetic products.
There’s a reason why most retinol-containing products are designed to be used at night: Retinol derivatives like retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate, in combination with sunlight, can increase the risk of skin cancer. Retinol itself shouldn’t be used at high doses.
An animal study conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that both retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate can increase the number of tumors in mice. They are also linked to reproductive toxicity.
If you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t even dream of touching products with retinol: Doctors usually advise women to avoid using them as they can cause DNA damage – bad news for expectant mothers.
8. Petrolatum and petroleum distillates
Found in: Mascara, makeup, lotions
Petrolatum and petroleum distillates come from the same liquid used to make fuel oils and plastics. Petrolatum, better known as petroleum jelly, is popular skincare and cosmetic ingredient that helps lock in the skin’s moisture and protects it against microorganisms.
Most experts say that petroleum jelly doesn’t carry health concerns, but this only applies to products that have been properly refined – information that you won’t find on the label.
In addition, petrolatum can be contaminated with toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from organic material combustion. PAHs can elevate your cancer risk, as both the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer identify some of them as carcinogens. One study in New York revealed that women with higher levels of PAH in their bodies have an increased risk of breast cancer.
Aside from this, petroleum-extracted petrolatum in cosmetics can also irritate the skin, so ditch skincare products that contain this toxic ingredient.
Found in: Face creams, moisturizers, perfumes, colognes, body wash, lotions, hair products – basically, anything that has a scent
What makes your perfume smell good? Chances are, you wouldn’t even know. That’s because federal law only requires manufacturers to list these ingredients like “fragrance” or “flavor” in the interest of protecting their trade secrets.
But that’s where the problem lies. Since these ingredients aren’t disclosed, there is no way of knowing if they can cause adverse effects, such as reproductive issues, allergies, developmental toxicity, and even cancer. In fact, fragrances are among the top 5 allergens in the world.
You can see fragrance written on labels in various ways: fragrance, perfume, parfum, or aroma. Some even preface it with the word “natural.” Don’t believe the hype: If it has the word “fragrance” in its ingredients list, it’s likely that the fragrance used is synthetic and can likely to irritate your nose and skin.
Fragrances can also cause nasty side effects. According to the International Fragrance Association, there are over 3,000 chemicals identified as fragrance compounds. Some of them are linked to respiratory distress, dermatitis, and problems related to the reproductive system.
10. Benzophenone and oxybenzone
Found in: Sunscreens, lip balms, nail polish
Benzophenone is another toxic ingredient used in skincare products. Its purpose is to protect against UV light. Its derivatives, benzophenone-2 (BP2) and oxybenzone (benzophenone-3 or BP3) are common ingredients of sunscreens. However, the former is a high-risk chemical: It’s linked to endometriosis in women and altered sperm production in men, based on animal studies. Experimental studies also show that benzophenone can cause tumors.
In addition, benzophenone and its derivatives are known as endocrine disruptors that cause harm to multiple organs. One example is oxybenzone, which is absorbed by the skin. Oxybenzone can accumulate in the blood, kidneys, and liver and cause damage. Animal studies also show that benzophenone is toxic to liver cells.
Exposure to high levels of these harmful ingredients can affect the reproductive system. Studies reveal that BP2 affects the ovaries of female fish and the testes of male fish. It also reduces egg and sperm production. The harmful effects of sunscreen, especially when it comes to the environment – where it’s known to cause coral bleaching and damage marine life, have been so severe, that Hawaii has banned sunscreens that have oxybenzone in the state.
Found in: Nail polish, hair dyes
Toluene comes from petroleum or coal tar – just like petroleum jelly. While the health risks linked to toluene are different from those linked to petroleum jelly, they’re just as serious, if not more so.
Exposure to toluene can lead to headaches, dizziness, and cracked skin, while more serious side effects include reproductive damage and respiratory complications. This applies even to low doses, with reported symptoms of confusion, temporary tiredness, and memory loss.
People who are regularly exposed to this toxic ingredient, like those working in nail salons, experience even worse symptoms. Chronic exposure to toluene can damage the hearing, impair color vision, reduce brain function, and cause nerve damage.
The Environmental Protection Agency lists toluene as a known human respiratory toxicant, meaning that it can irritate the respiratory tract. It is also linked to immune system toxicity and certain cancers.
Pregnant women should stay away from nail polish, as simply inhaling it can be life-threatening to a developing fetus.
Found in: Nail polish, hair gels, shampoos, color cosmetics
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are found in many skincare products as antibacterial agents. Formaldehyde itself is a colorless gas, so formalin – a solution of formaldehyde in water – is often used.
FRPs can cause skin irritation and are known allergens. Commonly used FRPs include:
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Diazolidinyl urea
- DMDM hydantoin
- Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
FRPs can permeate the skin and cause allergic skin reactions and certain types of cancer.
It’s a lot…
You might be feeling overwhelmed with the information on this list. It may seem a lot to take in, but educating yourself can help you make better choices when it comes to your beauty and skincare routine. Our bodies deserve the best, both inside and out.
Check out our personal care collection of non-toxic and non-GMO nature-based ingredients formulated products to keep your skin healthy, improve its texture and complexion, and give it a natural, youthful glow.
Which among your products are the worst offenders? Let us know in the comments below.