The beauty industry has an ugly secret: Most skin care products contain harmful chemicals that could potentially harm your health, and even make aging worse. Your makeup, face cream, skin moisturizer, or cleanser may deliver short-term smoothness and brightness, but it also may disrupt your hormones, expose you to cancer-causing chemicals, and deliver dangerous toxins that age your skin.
In the U.S., beauty products are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines such products as, “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body...for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”
While companies must ensure their products are safe, they are not required to do any premarket testing or submit safety data to the FDA before selling a product. In other words, although cosmetic and beauty products are regulated by the FDA, there is no FDA approval required for any ingredient or combination of ingredients, other than color additives. The FDA has only banned a few specific chemicals from cosmetic products, which are listed on their website.
When it becomes apparent a particular chemical is harmful to health or the environment, consumer pressure often leads companies to remove certain chemicals from their products. You often see companies advertising their products as paraben-free or phthalate-free, for example. Become educated about which ingredients are harmful and avoid them.
19 Ingredients to Avoid
To protect your skin and keep it as healthy as it can be, I recommend that you avoid cosmetic, bath, and beauty products that contain any of the following chemicals.
1. BHA & BHT
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are antioxidant preservatives added to beauty products, as well as foods. BHA is considered a likely carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) by the U.S. National Toxicology Program and is added to cosmetic products that contain fats and oils, especially lipstick and eyeshadow. In studies, animals exposed to BHA developed stomach and liver damage and complications with their thyroid and reproductive organs. BHT — a similar compound — was not found to cause cancer but did cause liver and kidney damage, as well as other toxic effects. Some companies are proactively removing BHA and BHT from their products.
Borates are boron-containing chemical compounds, the most common include sodium borate (borax), boric acid, sodium perborate, and perboric acid. Sodium borate, also called sodium tetraborate or disodium tetraborate, is a naturally-occurring mineral, and it is used as a preservative and emulsifying agent which stabilizes the combination of ingredients in creams, lotions, shampoos, and bath products. Borates are sometimes used in teeth whitening toothpaste.
A major concern with sodium borate and its chemical cousin, boric acid, is that, in several laboratory animal species, exposure to either of these two compounds led to shrunken testes (testicular atrophy) and reduced sperm count in males and birth defects in females. Exposure to sodium perborate caused chromosomal rearrangements and mutations in hamster cells. Borates have been banned in the European Union, and the Canadian government advises individuals against using borax.
3. Coal Tar & Coal Tar-Derived Colors
Coal tar is a made from burning bituminous coal and contains hundreds of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). It’s used in anti-dandruff shampoos, as well as in creams treating skin conditions like psoriasis. Studies found coal tar led to skin, lung and liver cancers as well as DNA mutations. Coal tar is comedogenic, which means it blocks the skin pores and increases the skin’s sensitivity to light.[9, 10]
Many colors used in cosmetics were once made from coal tar; although today they are made from petroleum, the name coal tar dye remains. Many hair dyes contain coal tar dyes, usually called D&C or FD&C followed by the color and a number, e.g., D&C Red 33).[11, 9] Avoid them.
4. Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde and its cousin formalin are found in nail polish, nail polish remover, eyelash glue, hair gel, soap and other products. You can be exposed to inhalation of formaldehyde during Brazilian blowout hair smoothing treatments, even if they claim to be formaldehyde-free. There are also many formaldehyde-releasing preservatives – including DMDM hydantoin, Diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate – in products, including baby shampoos. Most studies have studied the effects of inhalation of formaldehyde versus skin application, but the clear link to cancer from inhaled formaldehyde is enough to avoid products that contain these compounds altogether.
5. Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) Compounds
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) is used in cosmetics to create a cream base, and are used to thicken, soften or moisturize. PEG compounds are petroleum-based and include propylene glycol, polyethylene glycols, and polyoxyethylene. There’s some evidence that PEG compounds are harmful to DNA. Depending on the manufacturing process, PEG compounds may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a chemical the FDA warns may cause cancer, or ethylene oxide, a developmental toxicant — a compound that interferes with fetal development.[12, 13, 14, 15, 16]
Exposure to even a small amount of mercury is toxic to the brain and nervous system, as well as the digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys. It has been banned in cosmetics in the U.S. since 1974. But mercury-containing cosmetics made overseas can be imported into the U.S. and sold in shops catering to Latin, African, and Middle Eastern communities. Buyer beware! These products may release mercury vapor, which not only causes mercury poisoning to you, but to people around you.
To avoid hidden mercury, steer clear of products with these ingredients: calomel, mercurio, mercurio chloride, or mercury. Products are required to include English ingredients, so avoid products that do not, as they may have been imported illegally and do not abide by FDA regulations.
Hydroquinone is used to lighten skin pigmentation. However, its use sometimes results in a disfiguring skin disorder called ochronosis, which results in blue-black pigmentation that is difficult to treat. Animal studies have found enough exposure leads to tumor development, DNA mutations, and reduced fertility in males.
Sunscreens contain oxybenzone to absorb UV light. While the American Academy of Dermatology says oxybenzone is safe, the Environmental Working Group, an environmental nonprofit that publishes the Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database warns of moderate to high concern due to its endocrine-disrupting properties. One study found oxybenzone caused the excess creation of reactive oxygen species, which can cause DNA mutations, cell death, and lead to cardiovascular concerns. Synonyms for oxybenzone include benzophenone and phenyl-methanone.
Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal substance in many hand soaps and hand sanitizers, as well as deodorants, skin cleansers, and toothpaste. At very low doses, triclosan is an endocrine disruptor which can affect your thyroid and reproductive hormones.
After finding evidence of liver damage in mice and reviewing extensive evidence of its endocrine disrupting properties, in 2016, the U.S. FDA banned triclosan in personal antibacterial products and is working on getting them out of hospitals.
Many beauty products market themselves as paraben-free. Research indicates that they are endocrine-disrupting chemicals; in other words, they mimic estrogen and can lead to hormone imbalances in the body. Although the FDA still considers them safe for use in cosmetics, they are so widespread in products and the environment that these chemicals are in the urine of almost every person in the U.S.
According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database, some parabens are worse than others, with the strongest evidence for endocrine disruption in isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. The FDA has yet to offer an assessment of the safety of other parabens. I recommend avoiding products with parabens altogether.[27, 28]
Fragrances are added to lotion, body wash, soap, and many beauty products. However, cosmetic companies don’t have to legally disclose which chemicals are in their fragrance because they are considered trade secrets. Fragrances and perfumes emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals, some of which have been linked to cancer.
Products that are labeled as unscented products may contain fragrances with masking agents. Masking agents are often phthalates, which are endocrine disruptors. Choose fragrance-free options. Some fragrances are linked to allergic reactions, asthma, and migraine headaches.
A common ingredient in fragrances, phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic human estrogen and cause hormone balance issues for both women and men. Several studies have found phthalates to be obesogens, chemicals that alter metabolism and result in weight gain. Phthalates have also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
13. Petroleum Distillates
Petroleum distillates are mixtures of volatile hydrocarbons created from petroleum, and used in mascara. They are categorized by the European Union as a possible carcinogen and possible mutagen, which is a chemical that mutates DNA. You can search the Skin Deep® database for mascaras that contain these and other chemicals.
14. Siloxanes and Cyclomethicone
Siloxanes are used in cosmetics to soften and smooth skin, to help deodorants glide on more easily and for hair products to dry more easily. Three in particular — cyclotetrasiloxane (D4) and Cyclopentasiloxane (D5) cyclohexasiloxane (D6) — are harmful to the environment, and D4 is a known endocrine disruptor which interferes with fertility. Cyclomethicone is a mixture of D4, D5, and D6.
15. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate & Sodium Laureth Sulfate
You will find sodium laureth sulfate (a contraction of sodium lauryl ether sulfate, SLES) or sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) in most shampoos, soaps, and cleansers. Although these two ingredients are relatively safe themselves, during production, SLES may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen, and ethylene oxide, a chemical known to harm the nervous system. Because of possible skin irritation, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board recommends SLS should not exceed 1 percent in any product that stays applied to the skin.
Toluene is commonly found in nail polish, and research suggests it affects the nervous system, interfering with learning and performance as well as brain development in animal studies. Fertility and fetal development are also affected by exposure to toluene. Pregnant women, in particular, should take every effort to avoid exposure to toluene, as it can affect the brain development of babies in utero.
17. Retinol & Retinyl Palmitate/Acetate
Retinol, retinyl palmitate, and retinyl acetate are forms of vitamin A, but they may not be safe to put on your skin. A few studies have found that when retinyl palmitate or retinol applied to skin that was exposed to UV light, it broke down into harmful byproducts, including reactive oxygen species, which caused damage to cellular DNA, and even caused cell death.[37, 38] Although it’s unlikely to occur from skin application, high doses of vitamin A (>30,000 IU) are linked to developmental effects.
18. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) aka Teflon
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is the chemical name for Teflon, most commonly known for its use as a nonstick coating on pots and pans. Did you know it might also show up in your cosmetics? PTFE is found in pressed and loose powder, blush, mascara, eyeshadow, lip balm and anti-aging cream. The chemical itself is relatively safe but has potential to be contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) during the manufacturing process. PFOA is linked to thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, as well as testicular and kidney cancer.
Nanoparticles — particles less than 1/1000th the width of a human hair — are relatively new but already widely used in cosmetic products especially sunscreens. A number of recent studies have questioned their safety. Studies indicate that various types of nanoparticles caused concerns in human cells, including DNA damage, oxidative stress, and cellular toxicity.[41, 42, 43, 44]
Products do not necessarily say that they contain nanoparticles, but if you see “ultrafine” or "microfine" listed in the packaging, these are a giveaway. Unless you know that a particular nanoparticle is safe — such as colloidal silver — you can avoid them or do your research. You can search the Consumer Products Inventory database for nanotechnology-based products to find out which ones to avoid.
Facts About Organic Skin Care
Most consumers who spend the extra money to buy organic skin care products feel they are getting higher quality, more pure and natural products. This is not always the case. Some organic skin care products still contain these same toxic chemicals, so it’s critical to read labels and avoid products with these harmful ingredients.
With that said, a high-quality organic skin care product can do wonders for your skin. Studies have shown many organic ingredients have antioxidant properties that protect against damage caused by UV radiation and environmental pollution.[47, 48]
A review study found that several natural compounds have a positive impact on skin health. Green tea can help hyperpigmentation, acne, and rosacea, while colloidal oatmeal and aloe vera can help reduce the effects of psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. Acai berry, turmeric, and pomegranate are beneficial as well, and these can balance damage caused by the sun.[47, 49] Natural ingredients like plant oils — including olive oil, borage oil, and argan oil, among others — promote healthy skin through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Organic skin care products also help the environment. If you buy products that are developed from natural sources and which do not contain toxic chemicals, it reduces environmental pollution. Take microbeads for example. Those tiny plastic beads added to lotions, creams, and soaps to exfoliate end up washed down the drains and into the oceans, lakes, and rivers, where they make their way into the food chain.
Best Options for Natural Skin Care
Even though the cosmetic industry is largely unregulated, with a few mindful steps, you can protect, heal, and restore your skin in a way that keeps you healthy and helps the environment. Check this natural skin care article for an all-natural DIY recipe and routine to maintain your skin healthy and looking radiant.
There are also good products on the market. Take time and research the products you are interested in buying. If they claim to use natural, organic ingredients, make sure their ingredient lists support their marketing. Many of the best, safest, and “real” natural skin lotions and cosmetics can be bought online, saving you time and travel. I recommend Luminous, an all-natural facial cream that contains no synthetic preservatives — and none of the ingredients above.
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.