The Top 10 (Plus 1) Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid

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Have you ever taken one of your favourite bath or beauty products and flipped around the packaging to see what's actually in it?

Most cosmetics, bath & body, and personal care products are loaded with synthetic chemicals that are either suspected or known irritants or even toxins.  (I know! Crazy, right?!)

I learned this the hard way....a few times, actually.

Most recently, on a trip to Florida for the hubby's brother's 40th birthday party...

...Woohoo! Beach time!...

...we were travelling with only carry-on luggage, and so decided to leave the all natural, organic sunscreen behind and just pick up a bottle of the 'regular' stuff at the grocery store.

Big mistake.

After a week of using the regular old sunscreen (Keep in mind that my body has been used to nothing but all natural and organic products for about 2 years now...) I broke out in full body hives.  So did the hubby.  And one poor little twinsie.

Top 10 Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid

In order to eliminate these known & suspected irritants & toxins, you can do 1 of 2 things: learn to read your labels, or buy a skin care and make-up brand that is garaunteed not to have any of these ingredients.

If you choose the label-reading route here are the top 10 (plus 1) cosmetic ingredients to avoid.

1. Parabens

Parabens are perservatives that are widely used in cosmetic and personal care products to prevent the growth of microbes.  

Parabens are suspected edocrine disruptors, and they have been linked to skin cancer, breast cancer, and reproductive and devopmental toxicity.  Studies demonstrate that at sufficient concentrations, parabens can increase cell proliferation in human breast cancer MCF-7 cells.

2. PEG-Compounds

PEGs (polyethylene glycols) are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers.  

Depending on the manufacturing process, PEG compounds may be contaminated with ethylene oxide (a known human carcinogen) and 1,4-dioxane (a suspected human carcinogen).  This means that ethylene oxide is known to cause cancer in humans, and 1,4-dioxane is suspected to cause cancer in humans.

3. BHT

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT(butylated hydroxytoluene) are closely related synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks, moisturisers, and other cosmetics.

BHA is listed as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (i.e. may cause cancer). Some animal studies have also shown that BHA can disrupt hormone levels, and that BHT causes liver, thyroid and kidney problems and affects lung function and blood coagulation.  There is some evidence that BHT can act as a tumour promoter.

4. Artificial Fragrance & Flavours

A major loophole in FDA’s federal law allows manufacturers include nearly any ingredient in their products under the name “fragrance” without actually listing the chemical.

Two of the most common chemicals that are 'hidden' under the label 'fragrance', 'perfume' or 'parfum' are phthalates and toluene.

Phthalates have been linked to obesity, insulin resistance, early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in developing male fetuses.  DEP (diethyl phthalate) has been listed as a Category 1 priority substance by the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function.

The U.S. EPA found that 100% of perfumes contain toluene, which can cause fatigue, headaches, respiratory problems; liver, kidney, and brain damage; as well as damage to a developing foetus.  Toluene has been listed as "unsafe for use in cosmetics" by the International Fragrance Association Codes & Standards. 

Note: Even products marketed as "fragrance-free" or "unscented" may in fact contain fragrance along with a masking agent.

5. Synthetic Colours & Dyes

FD&C colour pigments (FD&C Blue 1, Green 3, Yellow 5 & 6, Red 33) are used in many products to give them those gorgeous colours.  

These pigments are derived from coal tar, and been shown to contain heavy metal salts that deposit toxins onto the skin, causing skin sensitivity and irritation.  Animal studies have shown almost all FD&C colors to be carcinogenic.

[See this article by CBS news, for instance, on heavy metals and cancer causing toxins found in lipsticks and lip glosses.]


6. Petrolatum (petroleum jelly, mineral oil)

In recent years the safety of petrolatum (petroleum jelly) in cosmetics has come into question. When properly refined, petrolatum has no known health concerns.

However, petrolatum is often not fully refined in the US, which means it can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Numerous studies have found a link between PAHs and increased risk of cancer.

7. Chemical Sunscreens (Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Avobenzone, Padimate O)

Lab studies indicate that some chemical UV filters may mimic hormones or cause skin allergies.  

Oxybenzone has been associated with endometriosis in women, and has relatively high rates of causing skin allergies.  (See my full body hives story above.)  And Octinoxate has caused thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studies. 

8. SLS and SLES

SLES (sodium laureth sulfate) is derived from SLS (sodium laurel sulfate) and is used in cosmetics as a detergent and also to make products bubble and foam.  

Depending on manufacturing processes, sodium laureth sulfate may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide (a known human carcinogen - i.e. does cause cancer) and 1,4-dioxane (a suspected human carcinogen - i.e. might cause cancer).

Although ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane are prohibited on  on Health Canada's Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, this hotlist does not control for the presence of these chemicals as a contaminant.  That means that, while these known and suspected carcinogens cannot be used as ingredients, they may be present as contaminants, and no regulations in Canada or the U.S. require testing for these chemical contaminants.

9. Nitrosamines & MEA, DEA, and TEA Compounds

DEA (diethanolamine) and DEA compounds are used to make cosmetics creamy or sudsy. DEA also acts as a pH adjuster. DEA compounds are mainly found in moisturizers, sunscreens, soaps, cleansers, and shampoos

DEA compounds are known to cause mild to moderate skin and eye irritation. In laboratory experiments, exposure to high doses of these chemicals has been shown to cause liver cancers and precancerous changes in skin and thyroid.

DEA compounds can also react with nitrites in cosmetics to form nitrosamines, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a possible human carcinogen.  MEA (monoethanolamide) and TEA (triethanolamine) are related to DEA and can also react with chemicals in cosmetics to form cancer-causing nitrosamines.

10. Retinyl Palmitate and Retinol (Vitamin A)

In cosmetics, natural and synthetic retinol and retinol derivatives are used as skin conditioners and anti-acne agents in a variety of moisturizers, lotions and anti-aging creams.  Retinol and its derivatives, when used topically (i.e. in skin care products) may damage DNA and speed the growth of skin tumors, especially when exposed to sunlight.

While vitamin A is an essential vitamin that needs to be included in your diet, research is showing that is it likely not a good idea to use it on your skin.

11. Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Formaldehyde-releasing agents such as DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and are as preservatives in a wide range of cosmetic products.  Formaldehyde is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a known human carcinogen (i.e. we know that this causes cancer).

DMDM hydantoin and quaternium-15 may also irritate the skin and eyes, and can trigger allergies at low doses.

How to Avoid These Common Cosmetic Toxins

There are really 3 ways that you can avoid these common cosmetic toxins.

  1. Make your own skin care and beauty products.  When you go the DIY route, you have the benefit of controlling exactly what you put into your products.  
  2. Learn how to read labels and identify potential toxins.
  3. Buy from a company that has been proven to be safe, and gaurantees that these and other toxins are NEVER in their products.  Beauty Counter and Miessence are two of my favourite skin care & beauty brands.  Both companies have signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics and are listed as safe cosmetic companies by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

6 Comment

  1. Rosa says: Reply

    Hi Rebecca,

    WOW! I’ve used products from Bed Bath and Beyond and other cosmetics products. Lately, since I’ve been unemployed I’ve cut back using these products since I’m home most of the time.

    What’s terrible is that most people don’t think to check the labels or are aware of the toxins or ingredients in these products can cause harm to their bodies. I know I never thought of that before.

    Thank you for sharing this information.

    1. admin says: Reply

      Right?! So many people just don’t know about the known and suspected toxins and irritants in most brands. The problem is that the skin care and beauty industry in North America (and in a lot of other countries) has incredibly lax standards. That’s why I switched brands and started making my own products. 🙂

  2. Mallory says: Reply

    Thank you for this information!! I am going to go through my bathroom cabinet now and check out my beauty products and sunscreen to see what ingredients are in them. I never realized how harmful those additives could be until reading your blog. Do you have an suggestions on what your favorite organic beauty products are? How do they wear compared to those with the additives? Thanks again!

    1. Rebecca says: Reply

      Hey Mallory!  Miessence is hands down my FAVOURITE brand. I find they actually work a lot better than the kind with all the synthetic chemicals in them.  They’re gorgeous, they blend easily, they last fairly long.  Most important: my skin has gotten SO much better since switching makeup brands (because most brands with junk like parabens in them clog up your pores and make you break out).  I also love 100% Pure for clean beauty products.

  3. Cathy says: Reply

    This knowledge is important to know. I swear that some of these chemicals are the ones that constantly cause my excessive hair loss as well as itchy scalp.

    For years, I was searching for the right shampoo but my hair just doesn’t agree with the commercial ones. Then I switch completely to the ones without parabens, SLES and fragrance. Slowly the quality of my hair improves and my scalp feels fresh at all times. It was a relief that I finally found a solution.

    1. Rebecca says: Reply

      That’s great that you found a brand you like, Cathy!  Switching to one without parabens, SLES, etc. (and silicone was an important one too!) helped with my oily hair and dandruff too.  🙂 

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