18 Ingredients To Avoid In Skincare

Some of the most relaxing moments of my week are spent on personal skincare, which is a small luxury I particularly cherish. Be it massaging in a beautiful lotion after a bath, or feeling the refreshing coolness of a favorite face wash, body wash, or face moisturizer, I love feeling revived by my skincare routine.

There are SO many ingredients to avoid in skincare, which is why I wanted to write this post as an accessible guide and resource package to help you more easily integrate a cleaner, healthier skincare routine into your daily life.

Why do we need to avoid toxic ingredients in our skincare?

Toxic ingredients in skincare can have harmful short and long-term effects on human health. Immediate impacts of many ingredients include hypersensitivity and allergic reactions, including painful itching, swelling, or rashes. For many ingredients, significant portions of the population experience these types of allergic reactions.

Over longer periods, toxic ingredients in skincare products can cause cancer, or disrupt the endocrine, nervous, and immune systems, while damaging vital organs and reproductive health. Avoiding toxic ingredients helps ensure you get the beauty and wellness benefits you want, without health-damaging trade-offs.

Why do companies use toxic ingredients in their skincare?

Most toxic ingredients in skincare products have multiple functions. For example, many ingredients are preservatives that prevent microbial growth, which would otherwise be common in products that we frequently touch, and store in a hot humid environment. Other ingredients have important marketing effects, like producing vibrant colors or soft luxurious skin.

Noxious Additives In Cosmetics.Pin

These low-cost ingredients can help companies market appealing consumer skincare products that look and feel beautiful. Overall, most ingredients are included because they make the product work as intended, whether to moisturize, preserve, or brighten our skin.

Since many companies also try to greenwash their products, claiming that they are perfectly safe for humans and the environment, it can be stressful and disorienting to know what ingredients to avoid in skincare. With an overwhelming amount of information out there, it can be hard to know how to sidestep toxins when purchasing products for your skin, which is why I’ve shared a few tools throughout this article that I like to turn to when I feel uncertain.

I’ve found The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to be super helpful in navigating safer skincare. Offering a series of quick guides to help consumers understand what ingredients to avoid in specific types of skincare products, as well as a detailed search engine on their website, this project makes it a lot simpler to steer well clear of chemicals to avoid in skincare.

Top chemicals to avoid in skincare

Not only is coal a dirty industry that is environmentally destructive and contributes to climate change, but coal tar is also among the most toxic ingredients to avoid in skincare products. Containing multiple known carcinogens, including those linked to skin cancer, coal tar compounds can also cause lasting and life-altering neurological damage.

Siloxane should also be high on the list of chemicals to avoid in skincare due to its damaging effects on the reproductive system, including fertility impairment and hormone disruption. This toxin can also disrupt the nervous system and accumulate in the body causing long-lasting and cumulative damage.

EDTA (or Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid) is most definitely a constant on any list of ingredients to avoid in skincare due to how it is designed to penetrate the skin barrier. This harmfully paves the way for other chemicals to avoid in skincare, allowing them to bypass your natural protective layer. The invasiveness of this chemical impacts your cell health, and also often causes skin irritation.

Now we'll turn to look at a longer list of what ingredients to avoid in skincare.

1. Benzalkonium Chloride

What is Benzalkonium Chloride?

Commonly found in household cleaners, this toxic ingredient to avoid in skincare is a preservative and antimicrobial agent. Its main use in cosmetics is to protect products from spoiling, but harmful side effects are becoming widely recognized.

What types of skin care products contain Benzalkonium Chloride?

This ingredient is found in many soaps and sanitizers, as well as cosmetics like moisturizers, face lotions, and makeup removers.

Potential Health Risks:

Absorbed into the skin, Benzalkonium Chloride can act as an irritant. Over the long term, repeated exposure can cause dermatitis.

How to spot it on a label:

Benzalkonium Chloride, a group of compounds known sometimes as BACs, can be labeled in several different ways. Look for ingredient keywords including ammonium, chloride, and alkyl dimethyl. Examples include alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chlorides and ammonium alkyl dimethyl benzyl chlorides. If you’re ever confused by an ingredient list, consider using a tool like Think Dirty’s product scanning barcode database, which handily comes as a mobile app.

2. Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) & Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

What are BHAs & BHTs?

This class of chemicals to avoid in skincare are synthetic antioxidants used in food and cosmetic preservation, and they are commonly found in lipsticks and other cosmetics.

What types of skin care products contain BHAs & BHTs?

BHAs and BHTs are found primarily in topical skincare products like makeup, sunscreen, moisturizers, and creams.

Potential Health Risks:

These toxic ingredients in skincare products are potential carcinogens, and they can cause hormonal disruptions, liver & kidney damage, as well as thyroid problems. Lesser issues include fatigue, headaches, hives, and rashes.

How to spot it on a label:

To avoid these toxins look for other names such as BOAs, dibutyl hydroxytoluene, DPBC, Avox, or Additin.

3. Chemical UV Filters (Octinoxate & Oxybenzone)

What are Chemical UV Filters?

These toxic ingredients in skincare products are meant to act as chemical filters that absorb UV rays in order to protect your skin from sunburn.

What types of skin care products contain Chemical UV Filters?

Found in a wide variety of sunscreens or sun lotions, these chemicals are especially prevalent in aerosol spray-based sun protection.

Potential Health Risks:

New analysis indicates that these ingredients are very frequently absorbed into the skin and the bloodstream, and often in high concentrations, even after a single use. These chemicals can then stay in your blood at unsafe levels for as many as three weeks after topical application. These chemicals to avoid in skincare are linked to hormone disruptions, damage to reproductive health and fertility, as well as danger to brain development.

How to spot it on a label:

Look for other names such as Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), benzophenone-3, Milestab 9, Eusolex 4360, or Escalol 567. To avoid these toxic ingredients in skincare products, try zero waste sunscreen, and stick to non-nano, non-spray, and zinc oxide-based options.

4. Coal Tar

What is Coal Tar?

Coal tar is a thick brown-black liquid derived from coal-burning waste. In skincare products, its properties encourage your skin to shed dead cells and it also slows down the growth of new cells.

What types of skin care products contain Coal Tar?

Coal Tar is used in medicinal creams to treat itching, scaling, and flaking from conditions like psoriasis or dermatitis. This ingredient is also found in shampoos focused on scalp treatment, as well as in soaps and lotions.

Potential Health Risks:

Coal tar is a complex chemical mixture containing multiple known carcinogens and chemicals in classes known to cause cancer. In particular, studies have shown coal tar compounds to be toxic to the body via skin exposure and also linked to skin cancer. These compounds can also cause neurological damage linked to emotional fluctuations, changing sleep patterns, and loss of coordination.

How to spot it on a label:

To spot this toxic ingredient in skincare products, focus on coal-based keywords like coal tar, coal solution, and crude coal tar. Also be on the lookout for other names like estar impervotar, KC 261, picis carbonis, petroleum benzin, or naphtha.

5. Ethanolamine Compounds (MEA, DEA, TEA)

What are Ethanolamine Compounds?

These compounds are part of a chemical group used to create fragrances, to adjust PH, and to help ingredients combine properly. They are common in many consumer products.

What types of skin care products contain Ethanolamine Compounds?

Ethanolamines are commonly found in personal hygiene products like soap, shaving cream, shampoo, and conditioner. They’re also present in lotions, make-up bases, foundations, and sunscreens.

Potential Health Risks:

When combined with other common chemicals, these compounds can lead to cancer, and in cosmetics, they often react with other ingredients to form skin-absorbed carcinogens. These products can also disrupt the reproductive system, and they accumulate in the body with damaging impacts on the liver and kidney.

How to spot it on a label:

To steer clear of these toxic ingredients in skincare products, look for name variations like “tri” or “di” ethanolamine, or various “amide” names like linoleamide, or myristamide. These are often combined with abbreviations like DEA, TEA, MEA, making them easier to spot.

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6. Ethylenediaminetetraacetic Acid (EDTA)

What are EDTAs?

EDTAs are common preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast. They also help beauty products foam, lather, and neutralize hard water build-up on your scalp and skin.

What types of skin care products contain EDTAs?

These ingredients to avoid in skincare are common in soaps and cleansers.

Potential Health Risks:

The main reason these are ingredients to avoid in skincare is that they are designed to help other chemicals penetrate your skin barrier, allowing other potentially harmful ingredients to bypass your natural protection. They can also have potential impacts on cell health, reproductive systems, and skin irritation.

How to spot it on a label:

The two primary varieties of EDTAs in skincare products are disodium and tetrasodium EDTA. Most variations of this compound will include “EDTA” in the name.

7. Synthetic Fragrance or Parfum

What are synthetic fragrances or parfums?

Synthetic fragrances are lab-manufactured, not naturally occurring, but can be created from a blend of natural and man-made ingredients. Their primary use is to keep products fragrant for longer periods of time, usually about twice as long as natural scents can.

What types of skin care products contain synthetic fragrances or parfums?

A wide variety of skin care products are scented with parfums, including moisturizers and creams.

Potential Health Risks:

Especially if you have a scent sensitivity, these are toxic ingredients to avoid in skincare products. Many of the most common fragrance ingredients can cause irritation, sensitivity, or other skin problems.

How to spot it on a label:

Brands often list “parfum” instead of the ingredients that make up their particular scents, which makes it hard to tell if a labeled parfum is dangerous. To help determine if your preferred product is safe, check out The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database. For additional skin care safety, take care to avoid harmful ingredients like benzyls and alcohols, and stay fragrance-free on the thin and vulnerable skin of your neck, face, and eye areas. Alternatively, consider using unscented, or naturally perfumed, products.

8. Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

What are Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives?

Formaldehyde is a colorless strong-smelling gas used as a preservative in skincare products. They help prevent microbial growth in water-based products.

What types of skin care products contain Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives?

Liquid soap/body wash, makeup, lotions, deodorants, and shampoos.

Potential Health Risks:

These chemicals to avoid in skincare risk being absorbed into the skin, or emitting formaldehyde gas that is toxic when breathed in, causing allergic reactions and acting as a potential carcinogen. As much as 12% of the population may have a sensitivity to formaldehyde, making it a significant contact allergen causing allergic reactions and rashes. Studies link formaldehyde with elevated leukemia risk, and tumor growth.

How to spot it on a label:

Look for alternative names like quaternium 15, DMDM, urea-based ingredients, and glyoxal. As a helpful aid, some products are also explicitly labeled as formaldehyde free or “toxic-trio-free”.

9. Methylisothiazolinone & Methylchloroisothiazolinone

What are Methylisothiazolinone & Methylchloroisothiazolinone?

These chemicals to avoid in skincare are preservatives mixed into your skincare products to inhibit bacterial growth. In addition to being present in your skincare routine, factory workers are often overexposed to these compounds, which has helped reveal their harmful side effects.

What types of skincare products contain Methylisothiazolinone & Methylchloroisothiazolinone

Typically found in liquid hygiene products like body wash, lotion, sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner, and many baby products.

Potential Health Risks:

These toxic ingredients in skincare products can cause damage to vital organs like the lungs and intestines. They are also significant allergens that cause skin irritation and sensitization, and they have been linked to neurotoxic properties.

How to spot it on a label:

Alternative names include MIT, Neolone, MI, OriStar, and Microcare MT. Otherwise, most ingredients will be numbered variations of Methylisothiazolinone & Methylchloroisothiazolinone, such as “2-methyl-4-isothiazoline-3-one”.

10. Parabens

What are Parabens?

Parabens are another group of preservatives used in topical pharmaceutical and skincare products because they help prolong shelf life and prevent bacterial growth.

What types of skin care products contain Parabens?

These chemicals to avoid in skincare are commonly found in cosmetics like skin cream, lotion, and makeup, such as foundation, as well as deodorants, shampoos, and conditioners.

Potential Health Risks:

There is evidence that these toxic skincare products accumulate in our bodies over long periods, integrating into our bodily tissues and forming potential carcinogens. They commonly cause skin sensitivities and allergies, provoking reactions thought to weaken human immune systems.

How to spot it on a label:

Other common names include prefixes on “paraben”, including butyl, methyl, or propylparaben.

11. Paraffins and Petrolatum

What are Paraffins and Petrolatum?

These ingredients to avoid in skincare are long-lasting byproducts of oil refining used to make gasoline and other petroleum products. Paraffin is a liquid mineral oil applied in skincare products to protect the skin and retain moisture. By melting onto the skin, petrolatum creates a moisture-locking protective barrier.

What types of skin care products contain Paraffins and Petrolatum?

Mainly found in lotion because of its unique moisturizing properties.

Potential Health Risks:

The main health risks of paraffins and petrolatum come from improper refining processes, which can leave behind cancer-causing contaminants. The long-lasting nature of these contaminants means that they often leach out into the home environment, increasing exposure to toxins in the household.

How to spot it on a label:

Alternative names include petroleum jelly, paraffin oil, or mineral oil. There is no way of knowing if a product has been cleanly refined without a full history, but hazard labeling systems like the one from MADE SAFE can help you make an informed decision. Overall, you should avoid products with petrolatum unless you have verification on a label that the ingredient listed is fully refined white petrolatum, or you can find such information on a company website.

12. Phthalates

What are Phthalates?

These toxic ingredients to avoid in skincare products are used to enhance fragrances and maintain scent for long periods of time. They are very commonplace, so be on the lookout!

What types of skin care products contain Phthalates?

These ingredients to avoid in skincare are found in color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, and body washes.

Potential Health Risks:

Phthalates cause disruptions to the hormone system and inhibit our ability to expel toxins. They also represent developmental and reproductive health risks and are likely carcinogens. 

How to spot it on a label:

Look for the acronyms DEP, DBP, and DEHP. Avoid a product if “fragrance” is listed as an ingredient as this often means unlabeled phthalates have been included.

13. Polyethylene Glycols (PEGs)

What are PEGs?

These versatile petroleum-based compounds are widely used in cosmetics for their thickening properties, and as softeners/moisture carriers. They are often contaminated with long-lasting chemicals to avoid in skincare due to the petroleum refining process they have undergone.

What types of skin care products contain PEGs?

These ingredients to avoid in skincare are common as the base of cosmetic creams, gentle cleansers, moisturizers, sunscreens, and medical treatment products.

Potential Health Risks:

Dirty oil refining processes can contaminate PEGs with cancer-causing compounds that can also harm the human nervous system and impede development.

How to spot it on a label:

These compounds often appear as PEG followed by a number, sometimes combined with another ingredient (example: PEG-20 cocamine). Look for the PEG acronym to help decipher these complex ingredients to avoid in skincare routines.

14. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)/Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

What is SLSs/SLES?

These ingredients to avoid in skincare are used to combine ingredients in skincare products, allowing ingredients to blend properly and better facilitate cleansing. Produced synthetically or from intensively processed coconut, they also help to produce a foaming lathering effect.

What types of skin care products contain SLSs/SLES?

These compounds are found in personal products like body wash, face cleansers, and soaps.

Potential Health Risks:

These products are often contaminated with harmful chemicals which can irritate your skin, eyes, mouth, and lungs, and are especially irritating when combined with warm water.

How to spot it on a label:

Look for sulfate names on labels, including another common and similar ingredient, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS).

15. Siloxane

What is Siloxane?

This ingredient to avoid in skincare is made up of silicon-based chemicals used to soften, smooth, and moisturize dry skin. Most of these compounds are derived from natural silicone sources like mica, clay, or sand.

What types of skin care products contain Siloxane?

These compounds are widely found in cosmetics used for smoothing, softening, and moisturizing - especially skin conditioning products.

Potential Health Risks:

These chemicals can disrupt human hormones, impair fertility, and damage the reproductive system. They can also disrupt the normal functioning of the nervous system, and have the potential to accumulate in the environment as well as in the body over long periods. In high doses, siloxane may also cause tumor growth and harm the immune system.

How to spot it on a label:

Look for alternative terms for siloxanes like Cyclomethicone, and a variety of prefixes on siloxane, such as “cyclotetra”.

16. Synthetic Colors

What are synthetic colors?

These ingredients to avoid in skincare are varied, but often derived from coal tar, petroleum, or heavy metal salts such as arsenic and lead. These can be irritants when absorbed by the skin. Synthetic colors are mainly added to products to make them more appealing, bright, and beautiful.

What types of skin care products contain synthetic colors?

These toxic ingredients in skincare products appear most frequently in lotions, soaps, makeup, and shampoos, and they are most likely to be found in vibrantly colored versions of these goods.

Potential Health Risks:

Applying synthetic toxins to your skin increases sensitivity and irritation while absorbing harmful chemicals into the body that can cause cancer, trigger new allergic reactions, and lead to thyroid and kidney problems.

How to spot it on a label:

Ingredient lists will include “dyes” or “colorants,” and sometimes the specific dye. Examples of specific dyes include complex names like D&C Blue No. 1 (Brilliant Blue FCF) or FD&C Yellow No. 6 (Sunset Yellow) (E110).

17. Triclosan

What is Triclosan?

This ingredient to avoid in skincare is an antimicrobial agent for cosmetic products, and it is extremely commonplace. An unfortunate byproduct of its widespread use is that it has contributed to bacterias becoming more resistant.

What types of skin care products contain Triclosan?

These chemicals to avoid in skincare are found mainly in bar soaps, shaving products, creams, and color cosmetics.

Potential Health Risks:

These compounds disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates hormones and impacts thyroid functions. This ingredient, even in low concentrations, also produces stronger and more resistant bacteria strains that can be extremely damaging to human health. Since Triclosan accumulates in human fatty tissues, there are also significant risks that pregnant and nursing mothers will pass the toxin on to their babies, impacting their development.

How to spot it on a label:

Avoid products labeled with triclosan or triclocarban.

A final word on ingredients to avoid in skincare

It’s understandable if you’re feeling a little whirlwind by all your new knowledge on what ingredients to avoid in skincare, but just think how much more empowered and aware you are now with the ability to spot toxic ingredients to avoid in skincare products!

There are still so many great options out there for cleaner skincare and armed with the tips and tools this article provides, you’re sure to feel safer and more prepared next time you shop for skincare products.


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