The recent push for transparency in the beauty industry brought to light a lot of concern over what ingredients are hiding in skincare products. And, if you’re anything like us, you might be wondering what skincare ingredients are okay and what you should try to avoid.
At the end of the day, your personal preference determines how far you want to pare down your ingredients. But, take note that the amount and frequency of use plays a major role in toxicity.
When you’re looking for the science behind why certain ingredients should be absent from your skincare routine, you’ll see a lot of “may or may not cause” labels. This is because the long-term impacts of cosmetic ingredients are often unknown, especially since the FDA does not review or approve cosmetic ingredients for safety.
If you don’t have a chemistry background, scanning labels often feel like reading a foreign language. That’s why we collected 15 skincare ingredients that you should avoid and why.
Skincare Ingredients to Avoid
We know how easy it is to grab any product labeled “clean” or “natural” and feel good about the purchase. However, if you really want to purge your skincare routine, make sure to read the label.
Because words like “natural” and “clean” aren’t regulated in the skincare industry, companies usually slap on any label without that much truth to back it up. But, don’t panic. We did the hard work for you by listing the most dangerous ingredients down below.
Parabens are often used in skincare and cosmetics as a preservative. Many people know that parabens are endocrine disruptors that can cause some serious problems. However, they also act like estrogen, which can lead to increased cell growth. Furthermore, parabens have been linked to allergies, thyroid disruption, and even breast cancer.
Many skincare brands proactively took out parabens from their formulas and labeled their products paraben-free. For this reason, searching for these labels is the easiest way to avoid this ingredient.
If a product is not labeled paraben-free, check out the back of the product and look for “paraben” in the second half of an ingredient.
It appears something like this:
- Propylparaben (also seen as or propyl 4-hydroxylbenzoate)
- Butylparaben (also seen as butyl 4-hydroxylbenzoate)
- Methylparaben (also seen as methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate)
- Ethylparaben (also seen as ethyl 4-hydroxylbenzoate)
- Heptylparaben (also seen as heptyl 4-hydroxylbenzoate)
Although used as an alternative to parabens, this preservative unfortunately causes very similar negative health effects. It appears like a safer option, but this ingredient has also caused reproductive and developmental concerns.
Basically, this means that phenoxyethanol can be used as a way for brands to label their products as “paraben-free” without really making it any safer to use.
Japan and Europe already restricted its use in cosmetics, and the FDA issued a warning about its use in nipple cream.
Phenoxyethanol shows up as:
- 2-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether
Fragrance can be found in just about everything from makeup to personal-care products to household cleaners. It’s even used by companies as part of their branding.
Airlines like United and Delta diffuse scents throughout their cabins and lounges, while hotels pump their personal fragrance into lobbies and hotel rooms. These unique scents typically retain legal protection as “trade secrets.” That means companies do not have to disclose their ingredients.
One major problem with fragrance is how many different chemicals it can be composed of. According to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, companies choose from over 4,000 fragrance ingredients to make their scents. However, they only have to list this as one ingredient on their labels.
Fragrance is one of the most common irritants in personal care products. Plus, studies found some fragrances to have carcinogen properties, act as endocrine disruptors, as well as a neurotoxic chemical.
When trying to avoid fragrance in products, you might see “unscented” on the label. Even unscented products, however, contain fragrance chemicals to mask the smell of other ingredients. For this reason, look for a “fragrance-free” label on products instead.
If you love the experience of scent, essential oils don’t dabble in synthetic chemicals. In fact, some essential oils have even been shown to have positive health effects, like antibacterial and antitumor properties.
Look for 100% pure essential oils, not fragrance oils. And remember, essential oils always need to be diluted and spot tested on first use.
One of the most concerning chemicals in personal-use products is probably phthalates. The CDC explains that phthalates are actually used in a lot of plastics to make them more flexible. They are found in products from garden hoses to personal-care products. If you don’t think a plasticizer belongs in your skincare, you’re not alone.
While it’s not clear the effect of phthalates on human health long-term, animal studies show them to disrupt hormones and the reproductive system.
Particularly disconcerting, women of child-bearing age are most likely to be exposed to phthalates, which have been linked to fertility issues and even cancer.
Phthalates appear as:
- Diethyl phthalate (most commonly used today, also seen as DEP)
- Dibutyl phthalate (also seen as DBP)
- Dimethyl phthalate (also seen as DMP)
Nanoparticles aren’t exactly an ingredient, but rather have to do with the particle size of an ingredient. The nano size of ingredients allow it to easily penetrate skin, which raised concerns of cellular damage and bio-accumulation in the body.
Since labeling of nanoparticles is not required, you won’t find it on your cosmetics, skincare, or sunscreens. It is possible, however, to find products that are labeled “non-nano.” Some brands, like RMS Beauty, pledge all of their products are non-nano formulas.
Commonly found in nail polish, formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing substances are used as preservatives. They are often hidden in cosmetics, hair smoothing products, pressed-wood products, and even food.
Although this ingredient does occur naturally in the environment, studies of concentrated levels of exposure have led a lot of agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.
Formaldehyde is listed as:
- Formic aldehyde
- Methylene glycol
- Methyl aldehyde
- Methylene oxide
Formaldehyde-releasing substances include:
- Diazolidinyl urea
- 1,3-dimethylol-5,5-dimethylhydantoin (or DMDM hydantoin)
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
A highly-debated skincare ingredient, retinyl palmitate is part of the retinoid family, and a manufactured form of vitamin A. It’s used for a little bit of everything, including topical acne medications, wrinkle creams, and psoriasis.
The FDA considers retinyl palmitate as generally safe, and other countries (like Canada and Germany) allow its use with restrictions on concentration.
Overexposure to vitamin A, however (known as hypervitaminosis A), can lead to some pretty serious problems such as liver damage, hair loss, and osteoporosis.
The safety of retinyl palmitate still isn’t confimred, but if this ingredient or other types of retinoids are present in multiple skincare products, then it’s possible you could be overexposing yourself.
Any type of topical retinoid will increase the user’s sensitivity to the sun. The obvious concern with sun exposure is skin cancer, so it’s best to continue to use enough sun protection. Most experts recommend limiting sun exposure while using a retinoid and for a week afterwards. Retinoids should not be used while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Besides it’s own name, retinyl palmitate also shows up on labels as:
- Axerophthol palmitate
- Hexadecanoate retinol
- Retinol palmitate
- Vitamin A palmitate
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) + Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
SLS and SLES are other hot topics up for debate in the world of personal-care products. Their primary use is as a foaming agent to give suds to shampoo, bubble bath, soap, body wash, toothpaste, face wash, mascara, conditioner, and baby wash.
SLES can contain a trace contaminant known as 1,4-dioxane, which has been labeled as a possible human carcinogen by the FDA.
You won’t find 1,4-dioxane on any labels, however, since it occurs as a result of manufacturing. In order to avoid it, look for skincare certified as USDA organic, products labeled sulfate-free, or avoid products that list:
- Sodium Lauryl/laureth sulfate
- Sodium dodecyl sulfate
- Mono dodecyl ester
- Sodium salt sulphuric acid
- Variations of sodium sulfate or sodium salt combined with other chemicals
- PEG lauryl sulfate and variations
A common component of antiperspirants and another “may or may not be harmful” ingredient, aluminum and its variations are used to block sweat glands. On a basic level, tiny particles of aluminum enter sweat glands to form a plug which stops or limits perspiration.
Aluminum has been found in breast tissue, raising concerns about possible links to breast cancer. An abstract published in The National Library of Medicine points to aluminum as a neurotoxin, since it is a toxic metal. Plus, experts don’t know of any “physiological roles” for aluminum in the body, which might create some unwanted effects.
In 2005, the FDA released a statement that those with kidney disease should not use antiperspirants because of aluminum absorption, but those with healthy kidneys do not need to limit exposure. The statement also mentions that aluminum has been studied as a link to Alzheimer’s, but results were inconclusive.
If you want to err on the side of caution, just look for a deodorant, rather than an antiperspirant, and check that it doesn’t contain aluminum:
- Zirconium tetrachlorohydrex GLY
- Hydroxy bromide
Powder-based cosmetics and skincare products may have talc as an ingredient. The main concern here is possible links to ovarian cancer when used near genitals and contamination with asbestos, which is a known carcinogen.
Despite evidence that asbestos causes mesothelioma, lung cancer, and respiratory issues, it is not banned in the US and is not tested for in cosmetics. Cosmetic ingredients do not have to go through review or approval by the FDA, so you may be exposing yourself to asbestos unknowingly.
Talc is clearly a concerning ingredient but it’s easy to avoid: just look for products or brands that pledge talc-free formulas and avoid products that list talc or talcum powder as an ingredient.
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent found in a lot of products such as toothpaste, deodorant, detergents, and Microban. It’s banned in 5 countries, however, for the negative effects that’s been linked to it’s usage.
Furthermore, research has shown that it can alter hormone regulation in animals, affect the thyroid, the immune system, and the reproductive system. Although it has been banned in the use of household soap in the US, it can still be found in several other personal-care items, so double check that label before to make sure it doesn’t list:
- Triclocarbon (a close cousin)
These silicone-based compounds are often used to soften and smooth, making them an ideal ingredient in many skincare and makeup products such as deodorant and moisturizers.
However, there are quite a few health risks associated with siloxanes, including reproductive issues, liver problems, uterine cancer, and immunity issues, just to name a few.
If you want to avoid siloxanes in your products, watch out for these terms in the ingredients:
- Antifoam FD 62
- DIME, DC 35A
- DC 360
- Dimethyl siloxane
- Dow Corning 200
- Dow Corning 561,
- KO 08 or PMS 1.5
Found in a lot of sunscreens, this agent is not only a know endocrine disruptor, but it’s also super harmful to the environment, especially coral reefs. Research shows that it is a hormone disruptor in humans as well as in coral.
Along with creating eye and skin irritation, oxybenzone has also produced growing concern with experts about the possibility of causing skin cancer. If you want to eliminate this ingredient from your skincare, avoid these alternative names for oxybenzone:
- Milestab 9
- Eusolex 4360
- Escalol 567
- KAHSCREEN BZ-3
Although this ingredient hasn’t shown any serious issues in humans, it can cause a lot of harm to the environment, if that’s something you’re concerned about.
In fact, Hawaii passed a bill to ban sunscreens that use octinoxate in order to help protect coral reefs. It’s shown to be super toxic to coral reefs, playing a major part in their bleaching.
Octinoxate can be called a few other names, such as:
- Octyl methoxycinnamate
- Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate
- Neo heliopan
Even though Teflon is well-know for coating cookware, it can also be found in your makeup and other care items such as shaving cream, sunscreen, and shampoo.
It is actually the brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene (or PTFE), a synthetic chemical. Like other fluorinated chemicals, Teflon has been linked to negative health risks such as cancer and thyroid disease.
In order to avoid Teflon and other PFAS chemicals, avoid any ingredients with “fluoro” in the name.
When it comes to the skincare and cosmetics industry, it often feels a bit like the wild west. A lot of back and forth occurs between companies and medical studies about what skincare ingredients to avoid. Plus, transparency about skincare ingredients needs some serious updating.
The easiest way to make future purchases is by finding brands that focus on transparency and that go above current FDA regulations. Don’t wait for legislation to dictate what ingredients can or can’t be used (to give you an ETA, we’ve been waiting for a total ban on asbestos since 1989).
This means purchase from brands that are committed to freeing their products of possible carcinogens and avoiding chemicals of concern, even if they’re not yet required to.
The world of skincare is, thankfully, moving to a healthier standard as our options for thoughtful products and formulas continue to increase. Check out some of our favorite companies that offer cleaner skincare, such as The Honest Company (read our review), Cocokind, and Conscious Skincare.