There are a lot of questions about which ingredients to avoid. Unfortunately, the list is pretty long (search any ingredient on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic’s Database) and is likely to be an inconvenient printout to take with you shopping.
However, you should start familiarising yourself with some of the worst and most dangerous ingredients. Here’s a tip, if you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably not good. I use my iPhone for quick ingredient checks on ones I’m not sure about, but you can figure it out with sound judgment for the most part.
Every time you put something on your skin (hand cream, facial serum, body lotion, foundation, lipstick, etc.), always remind yourself where it ends up and how that can cause some serious health effects over time using these products. Switching to natural and organic is that much safer. Below are some of the major “no-no” ingredients to help you on a journey to a more healthy and beautiful body.
Sources: National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database & Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
Found in: Products that create suds (such as shampoo, liquid soap, bubble bath), hair relaxers, others
1,4-dioxane is generated through ethoxylation, in which ethylene oxide, a known breast carcinogen, is added to other chemicals to make them less harsh.
Found in: Artificial Nail Products (Acrylic Nails, Nail Enhancing Polishes)
Acrylic acid is derived from acrylic acid and is commonly found in cosmetic nail preparations. Ethyl acrylate acts as an adhesive to apply artificial nails and eyelashes.
Found in: Deodorants, antiperspirant products, cosmetic colours
Aluminium compounds are a common ingredient used for their antiperspirant function. These compounds form a temporary barrier in the sweat duct that hinders the flow of perspiration to the skin’s surface. This is believed to cause toxins from the sweat to flow back into the bloodstream.
Found in: Sunscreens, moisturisers
A disinfectant used as a preservative and surfactant associated with severe skin, eye and respiratory irritation and allergies.
Benzophenone & Related Compounds
Found in: Lip balm, nail polish, foundations, baby sunscreens, fragrance, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, moisturisers, and foundation
Benzophenone is widely used in household products, such as sunglasses, food packaging, laundry and cleaning products to protect from UV light.
BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
Found in: Commonly found in lipsticks, moisturisers, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, antiperspirant/deodorant, fragrance, creams
Synthetic antioxidants are used as a preservative to extend shelf life. They are likely carcinogens. It may also disrupt hormones and cause liver, thyroid, and kidney problems.
Found in: mineral powder makeup
While this may not be a genuinely toxic ingredient, it irritates about 80% of people, causing irritation and sensitisation such as redness, itching, rashes and inflammation. Because of its molecular crystalline shape, many people experience itching from this ingredient, mainly when they sweat.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Found in: plastic bottles, the lining of aluminium food cans, possibly in eyeshadow and styling gel
A hormone disruptor may also alter DNA used in plastics and resins.
Found in: Fragrance, hair colour
A solvent is used to control viscosity or a “fragrance” additive. It irritates the skin and may cause cancer and reproductive toxicity. (See also Synthetic Fragrance)
Found in: Lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, antiperspirant/deodorant, fragrance, creams
BHA is primarily used as an antioxidant and preservative in food, cosmetics, food packaging and animal feed.
Found in: Eyeliner, mascara, nail polish, eye shadow, brush-on-brow, lipstick, blushers, rouge, makeup, and foundation
Carbon black is the product of incomplete combustion of carbon-containing materials.
Found in: Cosmetics with reddish dyes and colourings
It’s an insect-based ingredient. Crushed beetles, to be specific. Companies use it for colour instead of other FD & C, Coal Tar derived ingredients considered toxic. Vegans and those with allergies or sensitivities to insects and/or their bites should steer clear of items containing carmine.
Coal Tar (Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine)
Found in: Shampoos and scalp treatments, soaps, hair dyes, and lotions, mascara/eyeliner
Coal tar is formulated through a complex blend of hundreds of petroleum-based chemicals contaminated with Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. It is mainly used as a colouring in cosmetics and hair products. Their presence can be identified on product labels as “P-Phenylenediamine” or “CI” and a five-digit number that follows. Coal tar is a brown-black material and thick liquid generated during coal’s incomplete combustion (burning).
Cyclomethicone and Dimethicone
Found in: Skincare, foundation, tinted moisturiser
Ingredients Cyclomethicone or those ending in -siloxane are known endocrine disrupters which can harm reproductive and immune systems. They have the potential to bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms. Dimethicone contains residual amounts of -toxic siloxane ingredients.
DEA, MEA AND TEA (Diethanolamine, Cocamide and Triethanolamine)
Found in: In most personal care products that foam, including bubble baths, body washes, shampoos, soaps and facial cleansers. Also in hair dyes, mascara, foundation, fragrances, sunscreens, dry-cleaning solvents, paint.
According to several government-funded research studies, ingredients are linked with kidney, liver, and other organ damage. They can cause hormone disruption, irritation of the eyes, skin, respiratory tract, sore throat, asthma and allergic contact dermatitis. Surfactants and pH adjusters are linked to allergies, skin toxicity, hormone disruption, and inhibited foetal brain development.
Diazolidinyl Urea and Imidazolidinyl Urea
Found in: Skin, body and hair products, antiperspirants and nail polish
These formaldehyde-forming preservatives can cause joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches, chest pain, chronic fatigue, dizziness, insomnia and asthma. They can also weaken the immune system and can even cause cancer.
EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid)
Found in: Hair colour, moisturisers
A binding agent is added to cosmetics to improve stability. It may be toxic to organs.
Ethanolamine Compounds (MEA, DEA, TEA and Others)
Found in: Soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and dyes, lotions, shaving creams, paraffin and waxes, household cleaning products, pharmaceutical ointments, eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, blush, makeup bases, foundations, fragrances, sunscreens
Diethanolamine (DEA) and Triethanolamine (TEA) are critical examples of Ethanolamines—a chemical group comprised of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and alcohols. They are used in various applications, including cosmetics and personal care products.
Found in: shampoo, liquid soap, bubble bath, hair relaxers
Ethoxylated ingredients on their own are of common concern. However, the process of ethoxylation may leave behind trace amounts of carcinogens.
Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives
Found in: Nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, hair gel, hair-smoothing products, baby shampoo, body soap, body wash, colour cosmetics
Formaldehyde is a colourless, strong-smelling gas used in various industries and products, including building materials, walls, cabinets, furniture and personal care products.
Found in: Most personal care products, including sunscreen, shampoo, soap, body wash, deodorant, body lotion, makeup, facial cream, skin toner, serums, exfoliating scrubs and perfume
The FDA defines the fragrance as a combination of chemicals that gives each perfume or cologne (including those used in other products) its distinct scent. Fragrance ingredients may be derived from petroleum or natural raw materials. Companies that manufacture perfume or cologne purchase fragrance mixtures from fragrance houses (companies that specialise in developing fragrances) to develop their own proprietary blends. In addition to “scent” chemicals that create the fragrance, perfumes and colognes also contain solvents, stabilisers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes.
Found in: Sunscreen, Skin Care Products with Sun Protection
Homosalate is an organic compound that belongs to a class of chemicals called salicylates. Salicylates prevent direct skin exposure to the sun’s harmful rays by absorbing ultraviolet (UV) light. Homosalate specifically absorbs short-wave UVB rays associated with DNA damage and an increased risk of skin cancer.
Found in: Skin lighteners, facial and skin cleansers, facial moisturisers, hair conditioners, fingernail coating products
Hydroquinone is marketed most aggressively to women of colour for its whitening ability in skin creams. The chemical is allowed in personal care products in the United States in concentrations up to two per cent. Although banned in the European Union, a UK news report found that hydroquinone products were relatively easy to procure. In addition to its use in skin lighteners, hydroquinone is a possible impurity of tocopheryl acetate (synthetic Vitamin E) which is very common in facial and skin cleansers, facial moisturisers and hair conditioners.
Found in: Lip products, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner, nail colour, foundations, sunscreens, eye shadows, blush, concealer, moisturisers, eye drops
Lead is a neurotoxin commonly present in cosmetics, among other materials. Many well-loved drugstore makeup brands use high lead levels in their products and especially in their lipsticks. Some metals play essential roles in the normal functions of the body. For instance, iron is necessary for blood oxygenation. However, when these metals accumulate, they may have serious adverse effects. Other metals, such as lead and mercury, do not have regular physical functions in the body.
Mercury (Thimerosal and Merthiolate)
Found in: Ear and eye drops; may be used in mascara
Metallic elements are used as a preservative and antiseptic known to damage brain function.
Methylisothiazolione and Methylchloroisothiazolinone
Found in: Shampoo, conditioner, hair colour, body wash, lotion, sunscreen, mascara, shaving cream, baby lotion, baby shampoo, hairspray, makeup remover, liquid soaps and detergents
Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT) are widely used preservatives in liquid cosmetic and personal care products. Both chemicals inhibit bacterial growth in cosmetic products on their own. Still, they are most commonly used as a mixture in products.
Methyl Cellosolve (or Methoxyethanol)
Found in: Anti-ageing creams
Fragrance ingredient and the solvent is an irritant and a possible neurotoxin, developmental toxin, and cause of DNA mutations that could lead to cancer.
Found in: Makeup products, shingles, wallpaper, insulation, cement and asphalt
Mica minerals are often used as colour additives in cosmetics. They also have reflective properties, allowing for a shimmery effect in mineral foundations. Long term inhalation of mica poses a health risk to workers, specifically those working in muscovite (the most common form of mica) mills and other occupations such as agriculture and construction work.
Nail Polish Removers
Found in: Nail polish removers
Isopropyl acetone, MEK, and NMP are solvents used in nail polish removers. Isopropyl acetone is also a ketone used in lacquers. MEK is used primarily as a solvent in applying protective coatings, adhesives, and food processing. It is also a common ingredient in varnishes and glues. NMP has many purposes, including stripping paint, removing graffiti, laboratory reagents, insecticide/fungicide/herbicide products, and pharmaceutical solvents. NMP’s primary modes of exposure include inhalation and dermal pathways.
Found in: Deodorants, toothpaste, shampoos, lotions, foundation, anti-ageing creams, and nail polish
There is no legal definition for nanomaterials. Typically, they are defined as purposely engineered materials with at least one dimension between 1 and 100 nanometers, about 1/8000 the width of a human hair. At this size, materials begin to exhibit unique properties that affect physical, chemical, and biological behaviour. There is no single type of nanomaterial. They can differ concerning composition, primary particle size, shape, surface coatings and strength of particle bonds.
Found in: Nearly every kind of personal care product
Nitrosamines form when certain compounds such as diethanolamine (DEA) or triethanolamine (TEA) are used in products along with preservatives that can break down into nitrates.
Found in: Hair colour products and shampoos, sunscreen, lipstick, nail polish, skin creams
Octinoxate filters UV‐B rays from the sun. It does not protect against UV-A rays. Octinoxate dissolves in oil, making it a fat-seeking substance in the body. It is formed by combining methoxy cinnamic acid and 2-ethyl hexanol- compounds that are not harmful on their own. When mixed together, they form a clear liquid that does not dissolve in water. It is found in hair colour products and shampoos, sunscreen, lipstick, nail polish, and skin creams. It is used as a UV filter in products other than sunscreens to protect the products from degrading when exposed to the sun.
Found in: Sunscreen, moisturisers, foundation and lipsticks with SPF
Sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber linked to irritation, sensitisation and allergies, and possible hormone disruption.
Parabens (Isobutylparaben, Butylparaben, Methylparaben, Propylparaben)
Found in: Shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial and shower cleansers and scrubs
Parabens are one of the most common preservatives in cosmetic products (estimated 75% – 90% of all cosmetics). Parabens and their harmful effects on the human body are unavoidable as they are found in everyday products such as makeup shampoo and lotions.
While natural parabens exist, which can be found at insignificant levels in certain foods, these are usually not harmful as the body digests and breaks them down – reducing their effect (if any) on estrogen levels. However, these chemicals skip the metabolism stage when applied directly to the skin. They can be absorbed directly into the bloodstream and organs. Parabens are actually several different chemicals with a similar molecular structure. Several are common in a wide array cosmetic and personal care products: ethylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben.
Found in: Sunscreens
PABA was introduced in the 1970s as a UVB filter. Its use has declined due to allergic dermatitis, photosensitivity and a tendency to stain clothing. Some research links PABA with thyroid-disrupting activity, raising concerns about long-term health effects. Currently, PABA derivatives are used in place of PABA, but these derivatives may also cause health problems.
Petrolatum/Paraffin/Mineral Oil, Petroleum Jelly
Found in: Lotions, baby oil, lipstick/lipgloss, moisturisers, cleansing oils (makeup remover)
Petrolatum is a byproduct of petroleum refining. With a melting point close to body temperature, petrolatum softens upon application. It forms a water-repellant film around the applied area, creating an effective barrier against the evaporation of the skin’s natural moisture and foreign particles or microorganisms that may cause infection. Petrolatum is odourless and colourless, and it has an inherently long shelf life. These qualities make petrolatum a popular ingredient in skin care products and cosmetics.
Found in: Moisturizer, eye shadow, foundation, sunscreen, conditioner, mascara, eyeliner, shampoo, lip gloss, concealer, body wash, hand cream, blush, hair colour, hair spray, lip balm, lotion, nail polish, baby wipes, baby lotions and soaps, soap (liquid and bar), shaving cream, deodorant, toothpaste, fragrance, hair removal waxes, hand sanitiser and ultrasound gel.
Phenoxyethanol is used as a preservative in cosmetic products to limit bacterial growth. A review of 43 cosmetic products demonstrated that only 25 per cent of the products had concentrations of phenoxyethanol greater than 0.6 per cent and the mean concentration of phenoxyethanol was 0.46 per cent. Phenoxyethanol is also used to stabilise components found in perfumes and soaps.
Found in: Facial moisturisers, anti-ageing products, colour cosmetics, lotions, hair products, sunscreens, and more
Polyacrylamide is used in cosmetics to stabilise products and bind ingredients. It also has foaming, anti-static and lubricating properties.
Polyethene Glycol (PEG COMPOUNDS)
Found in: Shampoo, body wash, bubble bath, foaming cleansers, creams, sunscreen
Polyethene Glycols (PEGs) are petroleum-based compounds commonly used in cosmetics as thickeners and fillers, softeners, solvents, and moisture carriers. These compounds are widely present as the base for cream products such as conditioners and moisturisers and are classified as a known carcinogen. Excessive exposure to PEGs may damage the nervous system and interference with human development. Depending on manufacturing processes, PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, both carcinogens. Its purpose is to dissolve oil and grease. PEG’s can strip the skin’s natural oils, leaving the immune system vulnerable. They are also potentially carcinogenic. A byproduct of manufacturing that is a probable human carcinogen (a known animal carcinogen) and toxic to organs and the respiratory system, and a skin irritant. Likely to be present where ethoxylated ingredients like sodium Laureth sulfate, PEGs, and ceteareth are listed on ingredient labels.
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, AKA TEFLON®)
Found in: Foundation, pressed powder, loose powder, bronzer, blush, eye shadow, mascara, shave gel, lip balm, anti-ageing lotion
Fluorinated compounds are ingredients built around fluorine, a halogen element, with properties similar to chlorine and bromine, which are common in flame retardant chemicals.
Found in: Hair dyes
Consumers are primarily exposed top-phenylenediamine (PPD) through its use in permanent hair dyes that rely on chemical reactions (called oxidation) to fix the colour where it is found in concentrations of about 4 per cent. P-phenylenediamine is part of a class of chemicals called aromatic amines, which are found in the plastic and chemical industries as byproducts of manufacturing. In addition to hair dyes, this chemical is used to manufacture rubber and specific polymers, such as Kevlar. It also acts as a developing agent in photography.
Found in: Fragrance, lipstick, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, moisturiser, facial and shower cleansers, nail polish, nail glue, hair gel, hair-smoothing products, baby shampoo, body wash/soap, colour cosmetics and anti-ageing products
Preservatives may be used in cosmetics to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mould. Parabens and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are commonly used in cosmetic and personal care products.
Found in: Cosmetics, baby wipes, lotion, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant
Propylene Glycol will cause severe health conditions, including liver and heart damage and damage to the central nervous system if sufficient is absorbed by the body. Used in anti-freeze solutions, in brake and hydraulic fluids, as a de-icer, and as a solvent. There is no difference between the propylene glycol used in industry and that used in personal care products. It has been known to cause allergic reactions, hives and eczema.
Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP)
Found in: Color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, body washes and hair care products, nail polish and treatment
Phthalates are a common synthetic chemical found in eye shadows, blushes, fragranced lotions, and nail polish and treatment, to name a few. They are a popular choice among manufacturers because they are more affordable and versatile. One of the most common forms is Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), which is listed by the European Union as one of the most worrying components in cosmetics. Phthalates share a similar chemical structure and are widely used in consumer products.
Found in: Hairspray and cosmetics
Petroleum derived and considered toxic.
Found in: Hair conditioners, hair styling products, creams, lotions, cleansers, shaving products, eye drops contact solutions and household cleaning products
Polyquaternium refers to any polymer that has been modified by a process called cauterisation. This process results in changes to molecules that improve the performance of body care products. Polyquaternium may also be called quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) or simply quats.
Found in: Most common in hair dyes, also in shampoos/hair lotions, peels and in products used to treat acne, eczema and other dermatological issues
Resorcinol is primarily used by the rubber industry, especially in the production of tires; it is also used in high-quality wood bonding, dyes, chemical fertilisers, and certain chemicals.
Retinyl Palmitate and Retinol (Vitamin A)
Found in: Anti-aging creams and lotions, moisturisers, and foundation
Natural vitamin A and its derivatives have essential roles in human reproduction and development and maintaining good vision and healthy skin. People must consume enough vitamin A from their diet to be beneficial.
Retinol and Retinol Compounds
Found in: Anti-aging creams and lotions, moisturisers, and foundation
Natural vitamin A and its derivatives have essential roles in human reproduction and development and maintaining good vision and healthy skin. People must consume enough vitamin A from their diet to be beneficial. In cosmetics, natural and synthetic retinol and retinol derivatives are used as skin conditioners and anti-acne agents in various moisturisers, lotions and anti-ageing creams.
Siloxanes (D4 & D5)
Found in: Haircare, moisturisers, lotions, foundation, face primers
Siloxanes are silicon-based ingredients used in skin care products to help soften, smoothen and moisturise. Widely used in makeup, deodorants, and moisturisers, siloxanes can interrupt regular hormone function and damage the liver.
Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS AND SLES)
Found in: Just about anything that foams; shampoo, body wash, face wash, hand soap, toothpaste, bubble bath
A foaming agent is used to break down water in grease. It’s so powerful that it’s also used in concrete floor cleaners, engine degreasers, and car wash detergents. A well-known skin irritant, it is rapidly absorbed and retained in the eyes, brain, heart and liver, resulting in harmful long-term effects. It can slow healing, cause cataracts in adults, prevent children’s eyes from developing correctly, corrode hair follicles and impair the ability to grow hair. These surfactants can cause skin irritation or trigger allergies. SLES is often contaminated with formaldehyde-releasing 1,4-dioxane, a byproduct of a petrochemical process called ethoxylation.
Styrene Acrylates Copolymer
Found in: Styrene acrylates copolymer and related styrene-based polymers are most often found in nail polish, sunscreen (SPF greater than 30), sunscreen moisturiser, body wash/cleanser, shampoo and eyeliner.
Styrene acrylates copolymer is a chain of polymers consisting of styrene and acrylate, added to cosmetics for colour. There is a contamination concern with this ingredient and related ingredients.
Found in: Cosmetics
Used to make cosmetics “pretty,” synthetic colours, along with synthetic hair dyes, should be avoided as many can be carcinogenic. They will be labelled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a colour and a number. Example: FD&C Red No. 6 / D&C Green No. 6.
Found in: Perfumes, colognes, and scented soap, body wash, sprays, lotions, hair products, detergents, softeners, deodorants, sunscreen, makeup, skincare
Synthetic musks are used as fragrance ingredients in personal care and cleaning products. The most common musks used in consumer products are nitro-musks (e.g., musk ketone and musk xylene) and polycyclic musks (e.g., galactoside and tonalite). These chemicals enter the human body through skin absorption, inhalation, and ingestion of foods such as fish exposed to these chemicals.
Found in: Baby powder, body and shower products, lotions, feminine hygiene products, eyeshadow, foundation, lipstick, deodorants and face masks
Talc is a mineral substance used in various cosmetic and personal care products, from baby powders to eye shadows. It is added to absorb moisture, smooth or soften effects, prevent caking, and make makeup opaque.
Found in: Sunscreen, pressed and lose powders
It is naturally opaque and bright, making it useful for use in paper, ceramics, rubber, textiles, paints and cosmetics. It is also UV-resistant and is used widely in sunscreens and pigments that are likely to be exposed to light. It is used in various personal care products, including colour cosmetics such as eye shadow and blush, loose and pressed powders and sunscreens.
Found in: Nail polish, nail treatment, hair dyes
Toluene, found naturally in crude oil and in the tolu tree, is added to gasoline and is used to make many products, including paint thinners, adhesives, rubber and hair dyes.
Found in: Antibacterial soaps and detergents, toothpaste and tooth whitening products, antiperspirants/deodorants, shaving products, creams, colour cosmetics
Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent found in a wide variety of antibacterial soaps and detergents and many deodorants, toothpaste, cosmetics, fabrics, and plastics. It was initially developed as a surgical scrub for medical professionals. Still, in recent years it has been added to a host of consumer products, from kitchen cutting boards to shoes, to kill bacteria and fungus and prevent odours.