Top 10 Toxic Skincare Ingredients to Avoid + Why Natural Beauty
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Did you know your favorite beauty products are probably filled with chemicals? Unfortunately toxic skincare ingredients are commonly used in everything from makeup and moisturizer to baby shampoo and diaper cream.
When I first learned about all of the chemicals used in personal products, I was honestly shocked to find how many were allowed! I am pretty sure I had never read an ingredient label. Why would I bother with that? I just looked at the front of the package and believed whatever it said.
Fortunately today I know that if I want to make sure I’m putting something healthy on my body, I have to understand exactly what all of those toxic ingredients are.
Make the Switch to Natural Products
Making the switch from conventional skincare and beauty products to natural alternatives can seem daunting. It can take time to find a product that works well for you, and searching for a new product that works AND is natural might seem like an impossible task.
When I first decided to switch from conventional products more than 10 years ago, it was difficult to find natural alternatives. My first product switch was away from an aluminum based antiperspirant to natural deodorant (read more about my journey into a ‘green’ lifestyle here).
Admittedly, deodorant was probably not the easiest natural product to choose as a starting point since there was definitely a lot of trial and error as well as a detox for my pits (ewww). After that I slowly transitioned my entire beauty and personal care routine to natural products.
Fortunately today there are LOTS of wonderful options from big and small brands who use good-for-you and safe ingredients. There are also a plethora of recipes to DIY your beauty regime, so you can make your own healthy beauty products completely customized to your needs AND save money.
Why Should I Switch to Natural Beauty Products?
Your skin is your largest organ and can absorb whatever it is exposed to (1). When you choose a new moisturizer for your face, you probably look for one with anti-aging, skin loving ingredients that make your skin glow. The package might advertise all of the botanical or natural ingredients in their products that are good for your skin, like argan oil, cocoa butter or lavender.
These ingredients are included in conventional products because they work. Your skin absorbs them and they do their job. What we don’t often consider is that all of the toxic ingredients, like preservatives, parabens, fragrances and colors, are ALSO absorbed by your body (SCARY!).
Not all personal care and beauty products are applied directly to the skin. Some are sprayed on, with a chance of inhalation, while others are ingested (hello lipstick), further increasing the chance of toxic ingredients from these products entering your body (2).
There are a number of studies that show additives and preservatives in beauty products enter the blood stream and can accumulate in your body. Since most women use an average of 9 beauty products daily, the amount of chemicals you are absorbing every day quickly adds up (3).
Why are Toxic Ingredients Allowed in Skincare and Personal Products?
While I have noticed an influx of consumers over the last decade interested in more natural products, our government does not seem to be following suite with more stringent regulations. This means that if you are shopping for natural products in the US, it is up to you to know what is healthy and is not!
What are The Most Toxic Skincare Ingredients?
This list is a great place to start on your non-toxic journey. These are some of the most offensive and toxic ingredients you DO NOT want in your personal care products.
It takes effort for a company to produce a non-toxic product in the US since chemicals are so readily available and inexpensive. I have found that if a company leaves out these 10 widely used toxic ingredients, they likely leave out other potential toxins as well. These are some of the most common and heavily used toxic ingredients to avoid in your personal care and beauty products.
Top 10 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid in Personal Care Products
Where it’s used: Parabens are common preservatives used in many personal care and food products. They are commonly found in shampoo, lotion, and shower gel (6).
Why it’s toxic: Parabens are carcinogens that mimic estrogen and can cause endocrine disruption.
Ingredients to avoid: the most common are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethelparaben, butelparaben, but avoid Any ingredients that end with paraben.
Where it’s used: Phthalates are commonly found in nail polish, color cosmetics, hair products, and can potentially be found in any product that lists fragrance or color as an ingredient.
Why it’s toxic: Phthalates are known reproductive and developmental toxins. They can disrupt hormones, have been linked to lowered sperm count in men, and are especially risky for pregnant women and children (7).
Ingredients to avoid: Phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP and fragrance (8)
Where it’s used: You can find artificial fragrance in any and all types of personal care, beauty and baby products.
Why it’s toxic: The term ‘fragrance’ can include as many as 25 ingredients that companies do not have to disclose because it is considered a trade secret. The most common toxic chemical likely included in the bunch is phthalates. Fragrance has been linked to allergies, respiratory issues and skin irritations (9). Basically you have no idea what you’re getting when fragrance is listed on the ingredients, and that means it’s a big NOPE for me.
Ingredients to avoid: Fragrance, perfume, parfum, aroma. Even if it says ‘natural fragrance’ it’s best to steer clear since you don’t know what it is actually composed of. Look for products scented with natural essential oils instead (and make sure they list every one!).
Synthetic Colors (also known as Coal Tar Dyes)
Where it’s used: Colors are used in everything from baby shampoo to makeup products. Coal Tar based colors are often found in hair dyes. If the product you’re looking at has any sort of color to it, check for synthetic colors.
Why it’s toxic: Synthetic colors, like synthetic fragrance, can (and do) contain a whole list of toxic ingredients themselves that are unknown to the consumer. Many synthetic colors are derived from coal tar, which is a known carcinogen as well as skin and respiratory irritant (10).
Ingredients to avoid: Fortunately synthetic colors are easy to spot on a label. They are typically labeled ‘FD&C’ or ‘D&C’, followed by the color and number. Occasionally they will just list the color name and number. Examples: FD&C Blue No. 4, D&C Green No. 6, Red No. 2.
Heavy Metals (lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc and iron)
Where it’s used: Metals are added to a number of beauty products and are most commonly used in lipstick, eye makeup, whitening toothpaste, nail polish and other makeup products.
Why it’s toxic: Heavy metals are known carcinogens that can cause developmental, reproductive and organ system toxicity (11).
Ingredients to avoid: Lead acetate, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate
Sodium Laryel Sulfate & Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Where it’s used: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and it’s close cousin Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are foaming agents used most often in shampoo. These ingredients make your shampoo super sudsy.
Why it’s toxic: SLS and SLES are known to irritant to skin, eyes and lungs and SLS has been linked to organ system toxicity (12). That makes these additives a no-go for me.
Ingredients to avoid: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate and a number of combinations with ‘lauryl sulfate’ in the name (see a complete list here).
Where it’s used: There are a number of sunscreen chemicals that are used to prevent UV Rays. They are used in sunscreen (of course!) and many face products that have UV protection. Basically if your product provides any sort of UV protection, you need to read the ingredients carefully.
Why it’s toxic: Sunscreen ingredients are a tricky bunch to navigate. On the one hand, we know sun damage is bad for us and we need to protect our skin. On the other hand, there is researching showing that some chemical sunscreens may be WORSE for our skin than the sun damage they prevent. This is because they also contain vitamin A (also known as retinol and retinyl palmitate) which can speed up the rate at which malignant cells develop (13).
Many chemical sunscreens mimic hormones (which is especially scary for children who are still developing) and some cause skin irritation. In addition, sunscreen chemicals have been found in blood, urine and breastmilk samples, showing that they are readily absorbed IN to the body (14).
Ingredients to avoid: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate
The mineral sunscreen ingredients you DO want are zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. They work by creating a barrier on the skin to protect from UV rays.
What to Try: I’ve tried a number of mineral based sunscreens, and it can be a challenge to find one that doesn’t leave you pasty white. A few of my favorites are:
- ThinkSport SPF 50 Kids Sunscreen
- Babo Botanicals SPF 30 Clear Zinc Sunscreen
- Andalou Naturals 1000 Roses Tinted SPF 30
Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasing Preservatives (FRP)
Where it’s used: Are you shocked to know that formaldehyde is allowed in ANY form in products designed for our bodies? Not only is it commonly used in nail polish, hair products and body wash, but it is also frequently found in baby shampoo.
Why it’s toxic: Formaldehyde has been linked to skin irritations and cancer (15), and is something I definitely don’t want on my body!
Ingredients to avoid: Formaldehyde can be a tricky ingredient to spot on labels because it goes by many names. In addition, there are several ingredients that are not actually formaldehyde based, but they release formaldyhyde after added to a product (15). Look out for any variation of these:
- Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.
- FRPs: quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, bromopol and glyoxal.
Petroleum Based Ingredients
Where it’s used: Petroleum based ingredients have been used in cosmetics for many years (I’m looking at you, Vaseline), and are commonly found in lip products and lotions.
Why it’s toxic: Petroleum ingredients form a barrier on the skin. The biggest concern about petroleum ingredients is the large chance of contamination from the petroleum it is refined from. When it is not properly refined, it contains contaminates that can cause cancer. Since there is no way to know if the petroleum in a certain product has been properly refined, it is best to avoid all products containing petroleum (16). I’d rather slather something like shea butter on my skin anyway!
Ingredients to avoid: Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly, Paraffin Oil, Mineral Oil and White Petrolatum
Where it’s used: Triclosan is an antibacterial agent most commonly used in hand soaps, antibacterial hand gel and toothpaste.
Why it’s toxic: It has been associated with endocrine disruption, skin irritation and trisclosan resistant bacteria (17).
I am so glad to see more people jumping on the anti-triclosan train lately, because this is one of the ingredients I have been adamantly against for a long time. Recent studies have shown use of triclosan over time (specifically hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial hand soap) causes resistance to bacteria (18), and handwashing with normal soap is still the best way to clean your hands.
Ingredients to avoid: Triclosan (TSC) and triclocarban (TCC)
There are other toxins that are used in beauty products, but these are, in my opinion, 10 of the most offensive and toxic skincare ingredients.
If you find a product missing these top 10 offenders, chances are the rest of the ingredients are good. Unfortunately you can’t trust how the products are marketed since there are so few regulations around it. The term ‘natural’ has no meaning in the beauty industry and anyone can use it without consequence.
The best way to make sure you are purchasing truly natural products is to read ingredients and ask questions!
Make Your Own Skincare and Beauty Products
One great way to make sure your products are chemical free is to make your own! I’ve been making some of my own products for years, and it is so much fun! Check out my recipe for homemade cuticle oil and learn how to make lotion bars to replace your traditional lotion.