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10 Toxic Skincare Ingredients You Should Avoid

Apr 20, 2020Natalie Novak-Bauss

It's sad but true: toxic skincare ingredients are all too common in our industry. While some companies do their best to use only approved chemicals, many still rely heavily on untested or downright dangerous chemicals to fill out their offerings. 

In the US, only 11 (you read that right!) chemicals have been curbed or outright banned by the FDA. Compared to the more than 1300 chemicals banned in the EU, this seems like an absurd amount of potentially dangerous chemicals are able to make their way into our beauty products. 

Knowing this, it's incredibly important to become fluent in the language of skincare ingredients. Lucky for you, we're outlining 12 common (and downright toxic) skincare ingredients you can be on the lookout for the next time you're searching for that perfect serum. 

The first step you should take is to familiarize yourself with product labeling. This might sound obvious, but raise your hand if you always read the full label of everything you put on your skin. Not many of us do - but we can change that! 

A really important caveat to note: many labels try to "look" green, while being absolutely chock-full of harmful additives. If the package is full of green font, leaves, natural scenes and buzz words, alarm bells should be ringing. A truly green product will have easy-to-find ingredients which will help you to determine whether or not it is truly non-toxic. 

Before you start reading labels, keep in mind that skincare ingredients may sound like crazy chemical compounds whether they’re clean or not! 

Pop quiz! Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate is toxic: True or false?

If you didn’t Google the answer, you probably said true. And that is absolutely no surprise! With a name like Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, it’s hard to believe that this ingredient is actually a safe and gentle surfactant (cleaning agent). My point? You may not be able to easily tell which toxic ingredients to avoid just by looking at names on a skincare label.

You need to become familiar with (or be willing to Google!) the names of ingredients you aren’t sure of while browsing. But for a handy reference guide to the top 12 products we want you to avoid, look no further than this list:

  1. Retinoic Acid: 

  • What It Is: Retinoic acid is used in anti-aging skin creams.
  • Why You Should Avoid It: Retinoic acid is associated with mucocutaneous side effects, liver toxicity and abnormalities of serum lipid profiles, which might be related to an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
  • How It Appears On Labels: Retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid
  1. Butylated Hydroxyanisole & Butylated Hydroxytoluene: 

  • What They Are: Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene are synthetic antioxidants that are used to increase product shelf-life. These ingredients are often found in lipsticks, moisturizers, and diaper creams. 
  • Why You Should Avoid Them: They are suspected carcinogens and hormone disruptors and may damage your liver - more testing needs to be done to verify their safety for topical use. 
  • How They Appear On Labels: As Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene or BHA and BHT. 
  1. Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid: 

  • What It Is: Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid is a chelating agent that aids in a product’s stability and is often found in moisturizers. 
  • Why You Should Avoid It: This ingredient should be avoided as it may cause organ toxicity. 
  • How It Appears On Labels: As Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid or EDTA. 
  1. Ethanolamines

  • What They Are: Ethanolamines are surfactants and pH adjusters. They are often found in mascara, foundation, fragrances, sunscreens. 
  • Why You Should Avoid Them: Ethanolamines have been linked to cancer, environmental concerns (bioaccumulation), and organ system toxicity. 
  • How They Appear On Labels: As MEA/DEA/TEA. 
  1. Formaldehyde

  • What It Is: Formaldehyde is a commonly used preservative in cosmetics. It’s often found in shampoo, body wash and bubble bath, and the recently deceased! 
  • Why You Should Avoid It: Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that has also been linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and allergic skin reactions. 
  • How It Appears On Labels: If the label includes the words quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol); then formaldehyde is in the product. 
  1. Hydroquinone

  • What It Is: Hydroquinone is a chemical used to remove excessive pigmentation of the skin. It is often found in skin-lightening products aimed at people of color, as well as in scar creams. 
  • Why You Should Avoid It: Hydroquinone has been linked to cancer, organ-system toxicity, and respiratory tract irritation
  • How It Appears On Labels: As hydroquinone.
  1. Parabens: 

  • What They Are: Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics. They are often found in shampoo, face cleanser, body wash, body lotion, and foundation. 
  • Why You Should Avoid Them: Parabens may cause endocrine disruption, cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity.
  • How They Appear On Labels: As methyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-paraben.
    1. Phthalates: 

    • What They Are: Phthalates are plasticizing chemicals that are used for texture in cosmetics or to get fragrances to cling to your skin. They are often found in synthetic fragrance, nail polish. 
    • Why You Should Avoid Them: Phthalates have been linked with endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, as well as cancer.
    • How They Appear On Labels: As DBP, DEHP, DEP 
    1. Synthetic flavors or fragrance: 

    • What They Are: Synthetic flavor or fragrance are engineered scent or flavoring agents that often contain numerous chemicals. They are found in nearly all cosmetic products. 
    • Why You Should Avoid Them: Often companies do not disclose all the ingredients in flavors and fragrance because they are considered proprietary. If you’re unable to determine the origin of a fragrance or flavor, it is best to avoid it. 
    • How They Appear On Labels: As a flavor, or fragrance. The actual components may not be listed because they are considered proprietary.
    1. Triclosan and Triclocarban:  

    • What They Are: Triclosan and Triclocarban are antimicrobial pesticides. They are often found in liquid soap, soap bars, and toothpaste. 
    • Why You Should Avoid Them: These ingredients are toxic to marine life (bioaccumulation) and are suspected of harming human reproductive systems. 
    • How They Appear On Labels: Triclosan and Triclocarban.
    Remember people: this is just 10 of the thousands of potentially harmful chemicals found in everyday skincare products. To keep yourself healthy, it is imperative that you do your research! If you’re interested in learning more about what ingredients are safe, we recommend checking ingredients against the EWG Skin Deep scale regularly!

    Until next time, stay safe beauties!



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    Comments (1)

    • Incredibly important to know, thank you for publishing this.


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