10 Harmful Skincare Ingredients To Avoid

Guest writer Melissa Akopiantz, a holistic health coach, nutrition consultant and owner of Nourishing Lab, goes over the ABCs of clean beauty and what you should know about the ingredients hiding in your products.

Eating healthy and exercising regularly is important, but so is what you put on your skin. Have you ever thought about what might be in the products you use every day?

The personal care industry is effectively unregulated. The last piece of regulation was passed in 1938 and was all of one page long. Everyday products such as mascara, face wash, shampoo, conditioner, creams, etc. are filled with toxic ingredients. Many ingredients in these products are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors but companies freely use misleading adjectives such as “green”, “natural”, “eco” etc to entice buyers. 

The Environmental Working Group shows that the average woman uses 12 products containing 168 chemicals daily, while men use 6 products that contain 85 such ingredients. All together, every day 12.2 million adults are exposed to ingredients that are known carcinogens.

You may be thinking: “well, I want luxurious products that smell good and are effective.” You can still get the beneficial effects without the harmful chemicals. It comes down to having accurate information in order to make informed decisions about what you’re choosing to put on and in your body. Here’s a list of the top 10 most harmful chemicals you should avoid to get you started. 

Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP and fragrance) 

What they are: Phthalates are added to products as solvents for dyes and as a plasticizer to prevent nail polish from becoming brittle. They also make fragrances stick to the skin.

Why you should avoid them:  Phthalates disrupt the endocrine system and can cause birth defects – in fact, DBP and DEHP are banned in cosmetics in the EU. Look for labels that say “phthalates free” as well as “fragrance-free”.

Where they’re found: Synthetic fragrance, nail polish, hair spray and plastic materials. 

Sulphates (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate SLS and Sodium Laureth Sulfate SLES) 

What they are: A foaming agent and detergent.

Why you should avoid them: Sulphates can cause skin irritations and trigger allergies. SLES can be contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxine – a byproduct of the petroleum process. Both can cause cancer and interfere with human development.

Where they’re found: Shampoo, body wash, and bubble bath. 

Parabens (methyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-, and others) 

What they are: Parabens are preservatives that are added to products to prevent bacterial growth and mold.

Why you should avoid them: They are endocrine (think hormone) disruptors that interfere with the way our hormones are supposed to work. They can cause cancer and developmental toxicity. Look for products that are labeled “paraben free” 

Where they’re found: Shampoo, face cleanser, body wash, body lotion, foundation.


What it is: A preservative commonly found in cosmetics.

Why you should avoid it: Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that has been linked to asthma, neurotoxicity and respiratory irritation. Look for DMDM hyantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methanamine, quaternium-15 and sodium hydroxymethylglicinate.

Where it’s found: Shampoo, body wash, bubble bath, baby bath soap, eyelash adhesive and hair dyes.

Col-Tar Dyes 

What they are: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline. They are used as colorants and anti-dandruff agents. 

Why you should avoid them: They are known to be carcinogenic according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute and National Toxicology Program. According to the FDA, any product containing col-tar at 0.5% to 5% (the level deemed safe) must specify on their label the concentration of coal tar.

Where they’re found: Hair dyes and shampoo

Ethanolamines (MEA/DEA/TEA)

What they are: Ethanolamines are used in cosmetics to make them creamy or sudsy.

Why you should avoid them:  They are linked to allergies, skin toxicity, hormone disruption and inhibit fetal brain development.

Where they’re found: Hair dyes, mascara, foundation, fragrances, sunscreens, dry cleaning solvents, and paint.


What it is: Fragrance is used in almost every self-care product. There are over 3000 chemicals used in the manufacturing of synthetic fragrances that have never been tested for toxicity. Fragrance formulas are protected under federal law’s classification of trade secrets and therefore they do not need to be disclosed.

Why you should avoid them: They are hormone disruptors and allergens. In addition to the chemicals that go into making them, they can also contain solvents, stabilizers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes.

Where they’re found: Almost every personal care product.


What it is: Petrolatum or mineral oil jelly is used as a barrier to lock moisture into the skin.  Basically, it prevents the skin from breathing and excreting.

Why you should avoid it: Petrochemicals can be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s). The European Union considers petrolatum a carcinogen and restricts its use in cosmetics.

Where it’s found: Hair care products for shine, body wash, children’s bath products and baby lotion. 


What they are: BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants that extend a product’s shelf life. They are preservatives used in food, cosmetics, food packaging and animal feed.

Why you should avoid them: They are most likely carcinogens and hormone disruptors and there are studies indicating developmental and reproductive toxicity.

Where they’re found: Lipsticks, moisturizers, diaper creams


What it is: A sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber.

Why you should avoid it: Oxybenzone is linked to irritation, allergies, and possible hormone disruption as well as developmental and reproductive toxicity. It is not restricted in the US but is restricted in cosmetics at up to 10% maximum concentration in the EU, according to The Safe Cosmetics.

Where it’s found: Sunscreen, nail polish, lip balm, fragrance, shampoo, conditioner, hairspray moisturizers, and foundation.

For more information on clean beauty, check out:
Not Just a Pretty Face – The Ugly Side of The Beauty Industry by Stacy Malkan

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