18 Ingredients To Avoid In Skincare Products You Use Daily
Trying to wrap your head around skincare ingredients is overwhelming.
Most of them are impossible to pronounce, and some manufacturers make it confusing on purpose.
Once you realize what’s inside, the negative health and environmental effects of skincare formulas start to add up.
Clean beauty ingredients have better intentions, but it’s not always enough – making your support of more sustainable brands essential if you want to see changes in the industry.
So what’s the big deal with these ingredients anyways?
What are the worst ingredients to avoid in skincare?
It’s a long article, so feel free to skip around!
Per-and-polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a super diverse group of chemicals, and you’ve probably been hearing all about their health and environmental impacts.
To summarize: PFAS are synthetic, widespread, and persistent human-made compounds that pollute every ecosystem on earth and are linked to various human health issues.
Here’s a screenshot from the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) interactive PFAS map, showing how many sites contaminated with PFAS exist in the New York, USA area alone.
In fact, it’s been known since the 1950’s that PFAS accumulate within the human body; as of late, their suspected carcinogenic properties have led to a startling uptick in research surrounding these compounds.
One major issue that affects everyone who buys skincare products is the regulations, or lack thereof, surrounding the labeling of PFAS. Not only are PFAS nearly always unlabeled, the regulations that do exist are usually incredibly vague – making it hard to know if products contain them.
PFAS are the main reason I started researching sustainable skincare brands in the first place, and thankfully plenty of PFAS-free options exist.
Common PFAS labels:
- Anything containing “fluoro”
- Usually not required to be labeled
Sulfates are added to skincare formulas as detergents or scrubbing agents, and are the ingredients that make things like shampoos and conditioners, body washes, and other soapy products foam up.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), also known as sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) is a common example you’ll spot on the label of many bottles in your bathroom, a sulfate similar to sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).
While not as directly harmful to your health as PFAS, sulfates commonly cause skin irritation and allergies even in small amounts, although these problems usually don’t stick around if you discontinue their use.
The bigger issue with sulfates is that they’re industrially produced at a large scale from things like palm kernel oil or coconut oil. Growing oil palms directly contributes to horrific levels of environmental destruction, but I’ll save that for further down this list, where we go over palm oil in more detail.
The other major issue with sulfates is the potential for them to be contaminated with or purposefully combined with byproducts like 1,4-dioxane, a suspected human carcinogen.
Common sulfate labels:
- SLS, SLES, SDS, ALS
- Sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate
- Anything ending in -sulfate
PEGs & PPGs
Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) and polypropylene glycols (PPGs) are petrochemical compounds used as thickening agents and creamy bases in skincare products like face moisturizers, lotions, and sunscreens.
Here’s an example of how pristine natural environments actually appear nowadays, as more oil and gas pipelines sprout up each year – used to transport fossil fuels before being refined into things like PEGs and PPGs:
These compounds are considered “safe” and “biologically inert” by most regulatory bodies, but most comprehensive PEG studies are funded by cosmetic groups, like this study which found no specific human health issues with PEGs after extensive animal testing – funded by the Foundation of Korea Cosmetics Industry Institute in 2014.
A bit of a conflict of interest, perhaps.
Similar to sulfates, PEGs and PPGs are often contaminated with impurities like ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, and recommendations (like from the study above) are to simply filter them out before adding PEGs to their products.
The actual labeling of PPGs and PEGs in skincare is almost impossible to grasp for the average non-chemist, due to how many different variations there are.
You’ll often see numbers and letters attached to the end, for example PEG-25M or PEG-9 stearate, meaningless words for most people; which usually just means that the molecular weight has been changed or an additional chemical was added.
Still confused? Me too. Just avoid all of the things listed below.
Common PEGs & PPGs labels:
- PEG, PEG-4, PEG-25M, PEG-9 stearate, etc
- PPG-17, PPG-14 butyl ether, etc
- Polyethylene glycol or polypropylene glycol
- Anything starting with PEG- or PPG-
Phthalates are substances added to skincare products to do things like stabilize synthetic fragrances, and they’re also heavily used in the production of plastics where flexibility is often a must (hint: your toothbrush bristles).
These chemicals are also petroleum-derived, and are actually found in just about everything you can buy if you aren’t careful, even though phthalates are widely recognized as harmful for the human endocrine system and functioning of multiple organs.
If you’ve ever seen warning labels advising anyone pregnant or breastfeeding not to use certain products, phthalates may be the reason why – as evidence of changes to fetal hormones and preterm births from phthalate exposure increases.
Similar to PFAS, phthalates are unfortunately not always required to be listed on ingredient labels, making it difficult to know if you’re being exposed to them. You can honestly just assume they’re included in most skincare products.
Common phthalates labels:
- Fragrance, perfume, parfum, eau de toilette
- DMP, DEP, DBP, DEHP, DNOP
- Anything ending in -phthalate
Added to products like dental floss, deodorants, and lotion, synthetic fragrances can be an issue for a few different reasons.
Often simply listed under things like “fragrance” or other innocent sounding names, these synthetic compound blends are made up of many different chemicals – including most listed in this guide.
These blends are protected by law in countries like the US, which is apparently due to the need to safeguard “trade secret” blends – meaning, you’ll never be allowed to know what’s inside.
Yep, that’s literally how the FDA explains why these mixtures of over 3000 different chemicals don’t need to be disclosed on labels. Here’s a section taken from the FDA’s website:
So even if you do your research, chances are you wouldn’t be allowed to know what’s inside the fragrance blends anyway, by law.
And that really only leaves you one option, which is to avoid any of the common labels below and only buy products from brands with transparent fragrance labeling.
Usually, more ethical brands use plant based sources for their scents, like essential oils, a huge step up from random secret blends of synthetic fragrances that can trigger symptoms of allergies, headaches, and other diseases.
Common synthetic fragrance labels:
- Fragrance, perfume, parfum, eau de toilette
Parabens are another petrochemical class of preservatives, added to formulas for lotions, creams, and all other kinds of products to prevent bacterial or fungal growth.
There’s a long list of parabens to avoid, but in general these chemicals fall under the classification of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and share many of the issues that similar compounds have.
It’s not uncommon for people to develop asthma from paraben exposure, alongside other allergic reactions like dermatitis; and as EDCs, parabens could put your hormonal and reproductive systems at risk over a long period of time.
Similar to other cosmetic ingredients, parabens can be found in human tissue and urine samples taken from patients from all over the world.
Common paraben labels:
- Anything ending in -paraben
Siloxanes are mass produced silicone-based compounds added to products like body lotion and conditioner for smoothing, shining, and detangling purposes.
The scientific community is divided when considering the toxicity of siloxane exposure in small amounts, but the main issue with these compounds is how they interact with the environment.
As microplastics, siloxanes degrade poorly once they’re released into the environment and can even transform into different, lesser-studied compounds.
That isn’t to say that siloxanes are safe for humans – even if they’re well tolerated, there’s evidence that siloxanes cause permanent damage to the human skin barrier, and considerable concern that direct contact with siloxane compounds or impurities can lead to other negative health effects.
Common siloxanes labels:
- Dimethicone, dimethiconol
- Anything ending in -cone, -conol, -siloxane
Synthetic colors & tints
Synthetic colors and dyes can be made from an incredibly varied list of chemical compounds. Some, like iron oxide (Fe2O3) and titanium dioxide (TiO2), are added to products like sunscreen and toothpaste as whitening pigments.
These minerals – even if used in tiny amounts – are sourced from mining operations that irreversibly destroy ecosystems and leave our planet scarred and disfigured.
Other non-mineral dyes like Yellow-10 and Blue-1 are, you guessed it, petrochemicals. You’ve probably seen these dyes labeled on junk food packaging, but they’re often added to skincare products too.
If you’re familiar with these ingredients, you may have heard rumors of a relationship between synthetic dyes and childhood behavioral disorders like ADHD, even in those who showed no prior symptoms.
There are some promising non-synthetic dyes in the works, but for now most conventional skincare brands are content to use dyes similar or identical to the ones found in food products.
Common synthetic colors & tints labels:
- Iron oxide, titanium dioxide, etc
- Yellow 10, Blue 1, etc
Mineral oil is a colorless, liquid byproduct of crude oil refinement, and has a pretty innocent, harmless sounding name.
The distillation process of crude oil produces unrefined mineral oil, which has a strong link to human carcinogenicity; as chronic exposure to unrefined or mildly refined mineral oil is associated with skin irritations and cancers.
Refined mineral oil added to skincare formulas is thought to be safe for humans, and has been in use for decades in the cosmetic, healthcare, and food industries.
But health issues aren’t really the main concern when it comes to mineral oil, unless you’re making the stuff yourself (please don’t) – the main issue with this ingredient is that it’s a branch of the fossil fuel industry worth nearly $4 billion per year.
Common mineral oil labeling:
- Mineral oil, paraffin oil
Petrolatum is essentially just a waxy form of mineral oil, which comes from the same source: petroleum.
Which is weird, as I personally only made the connection between the name and crude oil after I started doing extensive research on skincare ingredients.
As a moisturizing agent, petrolatum is commonly added to things like deodorants and healing ointments or jellies like Vaseline. While useful for hydrating and healing skin or acting as a bacterial barrier, its production can cripple natural ecosystems.
Oil spills, some of the most devastating human-caused natural disasters, are funded in part by the sale of ingredients like petrolatum and mineral oil.
These catastrophic environmental disasters affect more than oceanic life, however, as both mental and physical illnesses including elevated rates of prostate cancer can be found in the human workers who clean up oil spills.
Common petrolatum labels:
- Petrolatum, petroleum jelly, paraffin
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a huge category of different organic compounds, many of which are petrochemicals you’ll find in aerosol can propellants used to power shaving cream cans, or directly added to skincare products.
Chronic exposure to VOCs has been linked to health issues like asthma and wheezing, and some specific VOCs like benzene are suspected human carcinogens.
VOCs also contribute to water and air pollution, with a recent example being the devastating Ohio train derailment that released enough vinyl-chloride, a VOC, into local ecosystems to kill nearly 50,000 wild animals.
Common VOCs labels:
- Isopropyl alcohol
Formaldehyde is classified as a VOC, which we just covered above, and is either intentionally added to cosmetics or unintentionally released by other added chemicals.
In skincare, formaldehyde releasers are added as preservatives and cosmetic biocides in things like face wash, with the goal of killing off any bacterial growth. Formaldehyde itself is the same stuff used in jars to display dead animal specimens.
These compounds, which go by many different names and may be unlabelled, are a well-documented cause of contact dermatitis and other skin allergies.
And the carcinogenic properties of formaldehyde have been studied for over 40 years at this point, so the concern over these preservative-releasing compounds slowly poisoning cosmetic products is a pretty valid one.
Common formaldehyde releasers labels:
- Formaldehyde and paraformaldehyde
- DMDM hydantoin
- Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
- Anything ending in -urea
Triclosan is a synthetic antimicrobial compound added to skincare and cosmetics as a preservative biocide.
TCS, another name for Triclosan, is a known endocrine disruptor readily absorbed by the human skin and can be found in human tissue samples quite easily. With estimates of around 75% of the US population being exposed to TCS by personal care routines, it’s slowly being banned in products like soaps.
Future concerns over pandemics like COVID-19 have brought the issue of widespread Triclosan use into focus, as constant use of antibacterial soaps and disinfectants directly leads to more TCS exposure.
Ever heard of antimicrobial resistance?
Common triclosan labels:
- Triclosan, TCS
UV filters fall under two categories: chemical filters or physical filters.
Chemical filters are usually petroleum-based compounds like oxybenzone, while mineral compounds such as zinc oxide (ZnO) act as physical filters.
Found in sunscreens and other sun protection products, the purpose of these filters is to block ultraviolet (UV) radiation from damaging and aging your skin and prevent issues like sunburns or skin cancer.
Both kinds of filters have issues, but chemical filters in particular are suspected to contribute to coral bleaching events we all see plastered in the news now and then.
Reef safe ingredients are a hotly debated topic though, and even mineral filters are sourced from mining operations, which obviously aren’t innocent when it comes to environmental issues.
However, in terms of biodiversity coral reefs are considered the rainforests of the oceans, and protecting them is of vital importance – which is why most sustainable skincare brands don’t include chemical UV filters in their formulas.
Common UV filters labels:
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
- Mineral filters starting with nano-
Ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA) is a petroleum-derived compound added to skincare formulas in various salt forms, and is known to be cytotoxic and weakly genotoxic, especially when combined with other chemicals.
Added to improve stability and prevent products from going rancid, EDTA is also added to a variety of other things you use or eat everyday.
As a food additive, EDTA has been shown to aggravate colitis and colon cancer in mice, with colitis being the swelling or inflammation of the large intestine.
In the environment, EDTA biodegrades poorly and is considered a persistent pollutant that may increase the spread of heavy metals.
Common EDTA labels:
- Disodium EDTA
- Sodium calcium edetate
- Tetrasodium EDTA
Added to cosmetics, food, and just about everything else for its rich moisturizing properties, it’s used in virtually every industry you can name.
As our main source of vegetable oil, these palms are highly efficient crops. But, they tend to grow best in biodiverse regions that really don’t have much agricultural land to spare.
Are you a fan of David Attenborough’s classic documentaries full of amazing animals like orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos?
Unfortunately, their habitats are rapidly being replaced by oil palm plantations grown using monoculture farming techniques, mainly around the equator in areas like Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa.
There are a few different “sustainable” palm oil certifications which claim to help prevent rainforest destruction, but in the end it’s impossible to truly know where your palm oil is coming from.
Palm oil labeling is also pretty confusing – there are so many ways in which palm oil is disguised or processed to avoid clear labeling; making palm oil one of the more hidden products from the rainforest you may be buying on the regular.
Common palm oil labels:
- Palm oil, palm kernel oil
- PKO, PHPKO, FPKO, OPKO
- Many other ingredients containing “palm,” “stear,” “laur,” “glyc”
Hydroquinone is added to skin whitening creams, some of the worst skincare products out there, a kind of cosmetic that promotes skin lightening.
Skin lightening works by reducing the number of melanocyte cells in your skin. These melanocyte cells produce melanin, and the less of that you have the lighter your skin will appear.
These creams and lotions don’t always contain what they claim, as regulations in many countries are poor, and heavy metals like mercury are often found in hydroquinone product formulas, making the practice of unnecessary skin whitening an incredibly risky one too.
Common hydroquinone labels:
Heavy metals & impurities
One issue that’s often swept under the rug or simply just unknown is the contamination of skincare products with impurities and heavy metals.
Not only is it hard to pinpoint which stage of the manufacturing process these impurities come from, but there’s also a clear lack of any labeling.
I mean, why would a cosmetic company tell you their products may be contaminated?
And this extensive, varied list of compounds may cause cumulative effects like a high risk of skin cancer or other chronic health disorders, although makeup ingredients tend to be much worse than skincare in this regard.
The most common sources of toxic impurities in skincare formulas are mainly petrochemicals, of course, as thousands of different compounds are produced directly from crude oil refinement.
However, it’s not just petrochemicals.
There are plenty of other sources of impurities and heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic which do end up in cosmetics, and none of these will ever be labeled.
Common heavy metals & impurities labels:
- These will likely never be listed or disclosed
Can bad ingredients in skincare affect your health?
Describing ingredients as toxic is a questionable move nowadays, considering how overused the word is alongside other buzzwords like natural.
We’ve all come across clickbait videos and articles claiming that certain ingredients cause these issues, and others ingredients solve those problems – there’s really no end to this kind of content.
But when it comes to skincare toxicity, alot of what’s added to formulas truly does fall somewhere along the scale of somewhat to highly ecotoxic, and these effects are all backed up with data.
ecotoxic: harmful to animals, plants, or the environment
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are found in countless skincare products you know and love, and reports of adverse carcinogenic properties and effects from many other ingredients can be found quite easily. Several PFAS, especially PFOA in particular, have been linked to breast cancer.
These are just a few examples, but when you start poking around and doing research on specific ingredients, you’ll likely end up looking at all your bottles wondering: are these ingredients safe?
You can go even further and check out searchable databases like the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) skindeep cosmetic database, which lists and analyzes nearly 100,000 skincare products, and grades them depending on what they contain.
The key thing to remember about bad skincare ingredients is that you’re exposed to them in different ways – it’s not all about rubbing cleansers and lotions on your face.
For example, direct exposure to high concentrations of chemicals is another way you could be exposed if you work at a factory where skincare brands manufacture all their products. Even just working at a store that sells products means you’re surrounded by an invisible and unknown concentration of airborne particles ready to be inhaled.
The weird thing is, people usually choose to ignore (or aren’t aware of) the consequences, and we’re left in a situation where a majority of people are playing with fire when it comes to long term exposure to tiny amounts of toxic ingredients over a lifetime.
And the effects of absorbing, swallowing, and inhaling small amounts of chemicals everyday aren’t very well understood anyways – something you may be familiar with if you’re figuring out how avoid microplastics as well.
Microplastics are in a similar situation, where we all know we’re being exposed to them, but because of how unclear the effects really are we tend to just go about our lives.
EDCs are some of the most well-studied chemicals to avoid in skincare, and may be contributing to a rapid, worldwide decline in human fertility.
Other reasons for this exist too, as endocrine disruptors are found in the air we breathe and the food we eat – they’re not only added to cosmetics.
Studies looking for evidence of microplastics in human tissues are evermore frequent, and it’s highly relevant to skincare as many ingredients like siloxanes tread the line of being considered a microplastic or not.
Of course, social and economic factors like your diet, exercise routine, job, hobbies, and even where you live changes how often you’re exposed to harmful chemicals.
Either way, the evidence of negative human health effects from completely optional skincare ingredients is growing, which is just another reason to avoid them aside from their environmental impact.
How do toxic beauty products affect the environment?
Most toxic ingredients in skincare don’t biodegrade easily, or ever, especially when it comes to things like PFAS and microplastics.
Instead of degrading, they tend to bioaccumulate within living organisms including plants, animals, and other small creatures.
bioaccumulate: to gradually accumulate in living tissue over time
When organic compounds don’t degrade, they’re called persistent organic pollutants (POPs) or forever chemicals.
You’ve probably heard of PFAS, which are well known POPs which have been silently polluting the earth’s air, water, and soil since their development in the 1940’s.
Unfortunately, it’s not just PFAS polluting the environment. It’s thousands of different compounds mixing together into an ecotoxic soup spread throughout our planet via waterways and air currents.
Industrial production of skincare formulas, combined with all the other pollution flowing from factories, businesses, and households doesn’t just disappear – it all ends up in natural environments where most of it becomes impossible to clean up, polluting even countries with the cleanest water in the world.
Important ecosystems like coral reefs are under siege by chemicals, constantly exposed to pollutants that flow into the ocean and play a small part in massive coral bleaching events.
As these molecules flow through food chains, they sometimes undergo a process called biomagnification.
biomagnification: a process in which compounds increase in concentration per organism as they travel up food chains
This means that much of the seafood we eat can contain high concentrations of harmful pollutants like mercury.
There’s even evidence that pollutant combinations can have even worse synergistic effects – as in, their combined effects can be more harmful.
And organisms living in wild ecosystems can be affected by these compounds in similar ways to us; chronic exposure to chemicals contribute to biodiversity loss over time as animal reproductive systems and hormones change due to endocrine disruptors.
Pollutants added to skincare formulas are found in our air, water (including rain), and even in sediments and soils, and there’s a really simple explanation for how alot of these chemicals end up there:
We wash them down our drains.
Wastewater treatment plants are able to filter some things out, at least in certain amounts and in a select few nations which are more well-off than the rest of the world.
But, ultimately this isn’t enough to stop them from entering natural environments. Of course, the average person isn’t responsible for all pollution – corporations pollute in massive amounts at all stages of product manufacturing, and things like spills or intentional dumping of chemicals is quite common as well.
The big takeaway from all this is that you have the power to decide which products you buy, use, and toss in the trash. Nobody forces you to buy from particular brands that knowingly pollute the world (excluding medical needs, of course).
Does skincare packaging contain harmful chemicals?
The last thing we should talk about is the packaging these products are sold in. Plastics like polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), the two most common kinds you’ll come across, are both petroleum derived.
Chemicals and impurities within plastic containers can leach into our bodies and the ecosystems or landfills they’re left to rot in, and these containers simply turn into more microplastics instead of properly biodegrading like more sustainable alternatives.
Each step of the plastic manufacturing process leads to greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide (CO2) or nitrous oxide (N2O), and requires tons of energy, water, and other resources.
Finally, plastic isn’t recyclable in most cases. And that’s really an understatement anyways, as the entire plastics recycling industry itself has mainly been a scam since its inception.
Should you avoid skincare ingredients while pregnant or breastfeeding?
Even though most of the ingredients above should be avoided while pregnant or breastfeeding, there are a few you’ll want to completely avoid.
Make sure not to use any of these ingredients:
- UV filters like Oxybenzone
- Isotretinoin (Accutane)
- Salicylic acid
- Benzoyl peroxide
Can skincare ingredients cause acne?
Acne is another reason you may want to avoid some skincare ingredients, and it’s really more of a case-by-case situation that should be evaluated by a dermatologist.
Here are a few more ingredients you may want to avoid to prevent acne:
- Coconut oil
- Cocoa butter
- Essential oils
- Alcohol or ethanol
- Sodium chloride (salt)
Eliminating harmful ingredients from your skincare products is one of the easiest changes you can make that benefits both your health and the environment.
Now that you know which skincare ingredients to avoid, make sure to come back to this guide and check to see if any new brands you’re following have questionable formulas.
What skincare ingredients do you try to avoid?