Ingredients in Skin Care Products to Avoid

woman with a clay mask depicting ingredients in skin care products to avoid

​Have you ever flipped over the back of your moisturiser or your shampoo bottle and wondered what the heck all those ingredients are?  

Are they safe?  

Which ones are natural?  

And what does it matter?

As it turns out, most countries have incredibly lax standards when it comes to personal care products.  That's why we need to know which ingredients in skin care products to avoid. 

In places like Canada and the U.S., the burden of proof is on the consumer to prove that something is unsafe before it gets taken out, not on the manufacturer to prove that it's safe before it goes in.​

What this means is that just because something is sold on store shelves doesn't mean it's safe to use.

Pretty rotten, right?

But the good news is that becoming more ingredient-literate will help you in choosing safer products.  Combine that with a few trusted skin care and personal care brands, and you'll be unbeatable!

So let's talk about the top 12 ingredients in skin care products to avoid.

no bathers beyond this point sign

Want to skip all the toxins in your skin care products that you should be avoiding?  Check out my favourite certified organic brand HERE.  Just plants, no junk.

Top 12 Ingredients in Skin Care Products to Avoid

When it comes  to choosing safer skin care products, there are certain key ingredients to avoid.  These are the most common irritants and potential toxins.

1. Parabens

Parabens are perservatives that are widely used in skin care products to prevent the growth of microbes.

Parabens are suspected edocrine disruptors, and they have been linked to skin cancer, breast cancer, and reproductive and devopmental toxicity. Studies demonstrate that at sufficient concentrations, parabens can increase cell proliferation in human breast cancer MCF-7 cells.

How to identify: anything ending in -paraben (e.g. methylparaben).

2. "Fragrance", "Perfume", or "Parfum"

"Fragrance" is catch-all term for over 3,000 different synthetic chemicals that don't need to be listed ass ingredients.  Crazy, right?  That's because "fragrance" is considered a trade secret.

One of the troubles with artificial fragrance is that it almost always contains phthalates.  Phthalates help bind the scent to your skin, making it last longer.

Phthalates have been linked to obesity, insulin resistance, early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in developing male fetuses.

DEP (diethyl phthalate) has been listed as a Category 1 priority substance by the European Comission on Endocrine Disruption, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function.

How to identify: this will be listed as "fragrance", "perfume", or "parfum".

3. SLS and SLES

SLS is a synthetic surfactant, which means that it makes things foamy.  The problem is that it is really harsh on the skin, so it is often "softened" by turning it into SLES through a process called ethoxylation.

This process can produce a contaminant called 1,4-dioxane, which is a suspected carcinogen.  That means that it probably causes cancer.

This is definitely one of the top ingredients in skin care products to avoid.​

How to identify: SLS, SLES, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate.

4. BHA and BHT

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT(butylated hydroxytoluene) are closely related synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks, moisturisers, and other cosmetics and skin care products.

BHA is listed as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (i.e. may cause cancer). Some animal studies have also shown that BHA can disrupt hormone levels, and that BHT causes liver, thyroid and kidney problems and affects lung function and blood coagulation. There is some evidence that BHT can act as a tumour promoter.

How to identify: these are just listed as BHA or BHT.

5. PEG-Compounds

PEGs (polyethylene glycols) are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in skin care products as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers.

Depending on the manufacturing process, PEG compounds may be contaminated with ethylene oxide (a known human carcinogen) and 1,4-dioxane (a suspected human carcinogen). This means that ethylene oxide is known to cause cancer in humans, and 1,4-dioxane is suspected to cause cancer in humans.

How to identify: anything with "PEG" in the name.

6. Silicone Derivatives

​Silicone and it's derivatives are often used in skin care products to make them feel "soft" and to add moisture to the skin.

Silicone-derived emollients do not biodegrade and are often linked to tumor growth and skin irritation.

The European Union classifies cyclotetrasiloxane as a endocrine disruptor, based on evidence that it interferes with human hormone function, and a possible reproductive toxicant.

In laboratory experiments, exposure to high doses of D5 has been shown to cause uterine tumours and harm to the reproductive and immune systems. D5 can also influence neurotransmitters in the nervous system

How to identify: generally ends in "-cone" (e.g. dimethicone).

7. Retinol & Retinyl Palmitate​

In cosmetics, natural and synthetic retinol and retinol derivatives are used as skin conditioners and anti-acne agents in a variety of moisturizers, lotions and anti-aging creams. Retinol and its derivatives, when used topically (i.e. in skin care products) may damage DNA and speed the growth of skin tumors, especially when exposed to sunlight.

While vitamin A is an essential vitamin that needs to be included in your diet, research is showing that is it likely not a good idea to use it on your skin.

How to identify: retinol, retinyl palmitate, or anything else with "retinyl" in the name.

8. Oxybenzone & Other Chemical Sunscreens

Lab studies indicate that some chemical UV filters may mimic hormones or cause skin allergies.

Oxybenzone has been associated with endometriosis in women, and has relatively high rates of causing skin allergies. (The last time I used a sunscreen containing oxybenzone I actually broke out in full body hives!)

And Octinoxate has caused thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studies.

How to identify: oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, avobenzone, padimate O)

9. Formaldehyde-donating Ingredients

Formaldehyde-releasing agents such as DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and are as preservatives in a wide range of cosmetic products. Formaldehyde is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a known human carcinogen (i.e. we know that this causes cancer).

DMDM hydantoin and quaternium-15 may also irritate the skin and eyes, and can trigger allergies at low doses.

How to identify: DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate are fairly common, though the full list is pretty huge.

10. MEA, DEA, & TEA Compounds​

DEA (diethanolamine) and DEA compounds are used to make products creamy or sudsy. DEA also acts as a pH adjuster. DEA compounds are mainly found in moisturizers, sunscreens, soaps, cleansers, and shampoos

DEA compounds are known to cause mild to moderate skin and eye irritation. In laboratory experiments, exposure to high doses of these chemicals has been shown to cause liver cancers and precancerous changes in skin and thyroid.

DEA compounds can also react with nitrites in cosmetics to form nitrosamines, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a possible human carcinogen. MEA (monoethanolamide) and TEA (triethanolamine) are related to DEA and can also react with chemicals in cosmetics to form cancer-causing nitrosamines.

How to identify: anything with MEA, TEA, or DEA in the name.

11. Synthetic Colours & Dyes​

FD&C colour pigments (FD&C Blue 1, Green 3, Yellow 5 & 6, Red 33) are used in many products to give them those gorgeous colours.  This is more common in makeup than in skin care (things like cleansers and moisturisers), but it's still something to watch out for.

These pigments are derived from coal tar, and been shown to contain heavy metal salts that deposit toxins onto the skin, causing skin sensitivity and irritation. Animal studies have shown almost all FD&C colors to be carcinogenic.

How to identify: anything labelled "FD&C", or with a colour and a number.

12. Petrolatum (Petroleum Jelly & Mineral Oil​)

In recent years the safety of petrolatum (petroleum jelly) in cosmetics has come into question. When properly refined, petrolatum has no known health concerns.

However, petrolatum is often not fully refined in the US, which means it can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Numerous studies have found a link between PAHs and increased risk of cancer.

How to identify: petrolatum, petroleum jelly, or mineral oil.

dandelion in a field

4 Things You Should Know about "Natural" and "Organic" versus Synthetic Ingredients

One of the reasons that we need to educate ourselves on which ingredients in skin care products to avoid is that just picking something that says "natural" or even "organic" on the bottle doesn't ensure that this toxic junk isn't in there.​

So let's take a minute to talk about "natural" and "organic" and what they really mean.​

1. Just because something says "natural" or even "organic" on the bottle doesn't mean anything.

The industry definition of "natural" is any ingredient "derived from" a natural substance.  And if you have a few ingredients that came from plants at some point in the manufacturing process, you can call your product "natural" even if it is 99% synthetic chemicals.​

Unfortunately, it's similar for the term "organic".  A company can use the word "organic" if it contains anything at all that is organic.  

Do you use organic shea butter in your product along with parabens, BHT, artificial fragrance, and cheap fillers?  Then you can call yourself "organic"!  Or maybe "made with organic ingredients".

The best way to ensure that your organic products are truly organic is buy from a company that is certified by the ACO or the USDA.  These are 2 of the international bodies with the strictest standards worldwide.​

2. Synthetic isn't always bad.

​I know that a lot of the hardcore organic crowd out there is going to shout at me for saying this, but hear me out.

Just because something is made in lab doesn't automatically mean it's terrible.​  Most clothing, for instance, is some combination of natural and synthetic fibers (some are entirely synthetic).  If you wear rubber boots when it rains, you're wearing something that didn't come entirely from nature.

Yes, we have to be more careful with things that we put in our bodies, and directly on our skin,​ but even then just because it doesn't come straight from a plant without interference doesn't mean it's bad.

The biggest reason that more and more people are avoiding synthetic chemicals in products is the low product standards.  Especially in the skin care and personal care industry, the standards for what can and cannot go into a product are terrible.​

Green chemistry refers to alternative and sustainable technologies that are non-toxic to living things and the environment.​

Sorbitan olivate & cetearyl olivate​ is an example of an ingredient made in a lab that is "benign by design".  

Sorbitan olivate & cetearyl olivate​ (actually just one ingredient) is a unique natural PEG-free emulsifier from olive oil. It reduces skin water loss, has a high moisturizing effect, is hypoallergenic and biomimics the skin.​

3. "Natural" and even "organic" isn't always safe.

Did I tell you about that time that I had a cold and I ingested tea tree oil instead of oregano oil accidentally?​  

No?  Well, I had to call poison control.

Natural isn't always safe.  The key is to know WHICH ingredients are unsafe and which are poison.​

That's why I'm writing this article.  To help you sort that out.

4. Choosing certified organic is the easiest way to avoid all the potential toxic junk in your products.

If you don't want to have to check the labels of every product you think you might want to buy, then choosing an ACO or USDA certified organic skin care brand is the simplest and easiest way to avoid all these dangerous ingredients in your skin care products.

If your products are certified organic, then you can be fairly confident that they contain NO potentially toxic or harmful synthetic chemicals.  And the ACO and the USDA are 2 or the international bodies with the strictest standards worldwide.​  (Some other certifying bodies have lower standards.)

For the full run down on USDA certified organic skin care and why it's better, be sure to check out this article.

Want to skip all the toxins in your skin care products that you should be avoiding?  Check out my favourite certified organic brand HERE.  Just plants, no junk.

Want to get an extra 5% off on top of a 10-40% bulk discount?  Just contact me for your exclusive coupon.​

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I am a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University, a twin mommy, and a health and wellness entrepreneur. I am in the process of building a sustainable online business to support my family, and helping others to build sustainable businesses themselves. Find me on Google+.

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