Not sure if your cosmetic products are safe? Here’s a quick and easy list of the top ingredients to avoid in skincare and makeup products.
For the majority of my twenties, I thought health was really just about food and exercise. While both of those things are important, I had no idea that what I was putting on my skin on a daily basis was negatively impacting my health.
When I got pregnant with my first child at age 31, I suddenly cared a lot more about what potential dangers were lurking in my lipstick, and how harmful ingredients impacted pregnancy.
It turns out ignorance was bliss. I was shocked to learn the number of harmful ingredients in skincare products. And, I was even more surprised to find out there is little to no government regulation in the cosmetic industry.
According to the Environmental Working Group, the average woman uses 12 products containing 168 unique ingredients every single day. Some of these are carcinogens and can cause birth defects. Many are endocrine disruptors, which can inhibit your body’s ability to balance hormones naturally.
After researching skincare ingredients to avoid and learning more about how it could impact my family’s health, I knew I needed to make the switch. The best way to proactively choose safer products is to know which ones to avoid.
PS: I now write a monthly newsletter centered around understanding harmful ingredients in skin care and cosmetic products. Join my Clean Beauty Community to get it!
Lack of Regulation with Skincare Products
Unfortunately, there is almost zero federal regulation of the cosmetics industry in the United States. A product can go straight from manufacturing to store shelves without any type of approval or mandatory safety testing. The Food and Drug Administration only regulates misbranding or false advertising on packages—not what actually goes inside the packages.
There are over 1,300 chemicals banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union due to questions over their safety. In comparison, the U.S. has only banned 11.
But that’s not the only problem. If a product is sold in stores and consumers (like me and you) report problems—like a lotion caused a severe reaction—the company does not have to report the complaint to the FDA. And when the FDA is alerted of the complaint? The FDA has no authority to issue a recall of cosmetic products. Companies must self regulate.
Here are some examples of where this regulation has failed miserably:
- In July 2018, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay a $4.96 billion settlement to 22 women who found asbestos in talc in baby powder caused their ovarian cancer.
- Guthy-Renker, the manufacturer of WEN hair products, settled a class-action lawsuit for $26 million after consumers said it caused rashes and hair loss.
- After decades of use in soaps, the FDA finally banned triclosan from soap in 2016 over concerns about its long-term safety and contribution to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Unfortunately, it is still used in many products like toothpaste, mascara, and foundation.
And there are lots of other chemicals that are known to be dangerous, including the ingredients to avoid in skincare products below, but are still widely used in the cosmetics industry.
Are All Natural Skin Care Products Better?
When it comes to skincare and cosmetic products, there is no regulation on the term “natural”. In fact, natural products can contain just as many toxic chemicals as conventional ones. Even products labeled “unscented” can contain synthetic fragrances.
The only way to know for sure if there are harmful ingredients in a product is to read the label. But even then, not every ingredient has to be listed, as some formulations (like for fragrance) are considered trade secrets and don’t have to be disclosed.
And perhaps the biggest misconception in cosmetics, switching to natural makeup isn’t always better. In fact, many natural brands, including mineral cosmetics, are some of the worst offenders. They often use a higher concentration of ingredients that are frequently contaminated with heavy metals, like clay.
Do I Need to Avoid All Chemicals?
Certainly not! Chemicals are nothing to avoid or be feared. You are made of chemicals. Everything that you can taste, smell, or hold—including water, coconut oil, and even dirt —is made up of chemicals.
There is no such thing as chemical-free cosmetics, and “natural” cosmetics are not free of chemicals. What you want to avoid is harmful chemicals in cosmetics, that is, chemicals that have know negative health effects. Just because skincare or makeup ingredients are natural, doesn’t make them safe. And just because an ingredient is synthetic doesn’t mean it’s unsafe.
Because there is little to no regulation of harmful ingredients in cosmetic products, it is up to you to choose safer products for yourself and your families. While they are few and far between, there are a number of companies that are paving the way for transparency, responsibility, and safety testing in makeup and skin care for women, men, and kids. Check out some of the Best Clean Beauty Brands if you want options.
Choosing safer products (yes—that actually work) involves finding companies that are transparent with their ingredients and committed to safety testing, and knowing what ingredients to avoid in skincare and makeup products so you can make informed decisions.
10 Ingredients to Avoid in Skincare and Makeup Products
Parabens are preservatives found in everything from soap to lotion to makeup. If it has water in it, it probably has a paraben to keep it from growing bacteria. Examples include: methylparaben, proplyparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben. If “paraben” is in the word, avoid it.
Parabens are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic estrogen in the body and can lead to hormonal imbalances, and possibly even breast cancer. For example, a recent study found concentrations of parabens, specifically methylparaben, in human breast tumors. Another study found 99% of all cancerous breast tumors contained parabens.
2. Artificial Fragrance/Parfum
Almost every single conventional skincare and cosmetic product (even “unscented” ones) contains artificial fragrances. Manufacturers aren’t required to reveal what’s actually in their fragrances, so you’ll simply see “Fragrance” or “Parfum” on the ingredients list when it could actually be a cocktail of carcinogens, allergens, endocrine disruptors, and irritants.
3. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate
SLS/SLES are foaming agents used in a slew of personal care products, including skin care and cosmetics, shampoo, and toothpaste. They are surfactants that can cause skin irritation or trigger allergies. Additionally, chemical compounds known as “nitrosamines” are common by-products of the sulphation process. 90% of nitrosamines are believed to be carcinogenic.
Toluene is a chemical commonly found in nail polish and hair dyes. It is a volatile petrochemical solvent that can be toxic to the immune system and can cause birth defects. Because of this, be especially careful and avoid nail polish containing toluene entirely when you’re pregnant.
A phthalate is a plasticizer that is added to plastic to keep it from becoming brittle. Phthalates are used in cosmetics primarily in fragrances, and can also be found in other personal care products, such as hair spray and nail polish. Examples include: DBP, DEHP, DEP and others. Like parabens, phthalates are endocrine disruptors and can cause hormonal and reproductive problems and birth defects.
6. Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) is used is many types of cosmetics as a thickener, especially in lotions, shampoo, and sunscreen. PEG is often contaminated with both ethylene oxide (a known carcinogen) and 1,4-Dioxane (which causes respiratory problems and is banned in Canada).
Formaldehyde is a preservative included in many cosmetics products. It’s a known carcinogen that is linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. It can be found in preservatives such as quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, and imidazolidinyl urea.
8. Oxybenzone (and other chemical sunscreens)
Sunscreens come in two different forms: chemical and mineral filters. The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule.
In 2019, the FDA released research that showed widely used chemical UV filters are absorbed in the body in substantial amounts right after application. And in 2020, the FDA released new research that reveals six chemical UV filters are detectable on the skin and in the bloodstream weeks after application.
Blood tests showed concentrations of oxybenzone were more than 180 times the FDA’s level of concern after a single application, and soared to more than 500 times after 4 days of regular use.
This is highly problematic. These chemicals are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they can block or alter proper hormone function in the body. Oxybenzone, which is found in 40% of chemical sunscreens, is linked to hormone disruption, negative birth outcomes, reduced male fertility, and possibly cancer. In short, this is one of the most important skincare ingredients to avoid!
Chemical sunscreens should be avoided at all costs—especially with children! Oxybenzone can also be found in sunscreen, SPF lotions, lip balm, and makeup, and tinted moisturizers. Stick with mineral-only sunscreens, which create a barrier on the surface of the skin to physically bounce or reflect the sun’s rays away from the skin. This is the mineral sunscreen I recommend.
Diethanolamine is a foaming agent. It’s a known carcinogen and respiratory toxin, which is why the EU has restricted its use in personal care products. Despite this, it’s still used in bubble bath, body wash, and shampoo in the US. It’s often abbreviated as DEA on cosmetic labels.
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent once used in antibacterial soaps. In 2016, it was banned from soap used in health-care settings, but it is still allowed in personal cosmetics. Not only does triclosan contribute to antibiotic resistant bacteria, but it’s also an endocrine disruptor and was shown to contribute to gut inflammation and promote tumor growth in mouse studies. Not good.
Avoiding Ingredients in Skincare Products
Besides reading labels, one of the best resources I have found to evaluate the safety of products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database. Each product is given a score based on the ingredients it contains. Because of this, it’s a super easy way to figure out if the products you are using on yourself and your children are safe.
If you’re looking for a good place to start, check out my Guide to Clean Beauty Brands for a comprehensive list of different clean beauty brands, and where they stand on ingredients and testing for heavy metals.
My goal in sharing this information is to empower you to make better decisions for yourself and your family. Hopefully, one day there will be better regulation in the cosmetics industry and all personal care products will be safer. Until then, check ingredients lists for these skincare ingredients to avoid, and start with the brands below!
My Favorite Safer Cosmetics Brands
Beautycounter is what I use exclusively now for skin care and makeup. In particular, the Countermatch line does wonders for my dry skin, and I use the Countertime line for its anti-aging effects. It’s the only skin care brand I’ve found that actually works and my skin hasn’t felt dry and has been blemish-free since using it. (Many people with sensitive skin are actually sensitive to the harmful ingredients and contaminants!)
I’m a makeup junkie, and it’s the only makeup with a safer label that doesn’t make me breakout and has a beautiful pigment. They also do rigorous testing in their color cosmetics for heavy metals like lead.
Primally Pure is a brand that makes natural skincare products with ingredients that are sourced with the utmost attention and care. If you’re looking for a natural deodorant that works—the Charcoal Deodorant is it! I also love the Everything Spray and use it nightly as a toner and throughout the day to freshen up my face (great for after a workout).
Dr. Bronner’s is an organic soap brand that only uses pure organic and Fair Trade ingredients. There are no synthetic preservatives, and no detergents or foaming agents. They make the most magical Pure-Castile Liquid Soap that can be used for just about anything. I also use their All-One Toothpaste and Pure-Castile Soap Bars.