12 Harmful Chemicals To Avoid In Skincare

12 Harmful Chemicals To Avoid In Skincare

Skincare is not all sunshine and roses. It's a vast field of information where science, popular trends, and thousands of skincare products containing hundreds of chemicals intersect. And sometimes, these are harmful chemicals that you need to avoid.

The skincare and beauty industry is loosely regulated, and the product approval processes are generally not very rigorous. In other words, a product's quality mostly depends on the goodwill of the skincare company itself.

However, no one wants to lose customers, so while most skincare products are harmless and beneficial, a given number of them might be the opposite. Some skincare products can contain harmful ingredients that can be less than ideal, irritating, or downright harmful.

The laws of mathematics dictate that with every new skincare product that comes out, the room for errors and potential side effects increases. So, it's time we had a conversation about exactly that. As the saying goes, "Better safe than sorry." Here are the 12 toxic chemicals to avoid in skincare.

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

1. Parabens 

You're probably familiar with the fact that parabens should be avoided. But, in case you don't know why or have simply forgotten, let us remind you. 

Parabens are known for their estrogen-imitating properties, which are associated with higher risks of breast cancer. While there is no direct established link between parabens and cancer, amounts of parabens have been found in the tissues of breast cancer tumors. This has raised some suspicions, even though scientific tests have shown that the influences of parabens on our bodies are minuscule.

However, the concerns may end up being justified one day, so most skincare companies have sought alternatives to parabens.

Parabens are effective preservatives and are found in a great number of skincare products because they help prevent bacterial growth. You'll find these toxic ingredients in shampoos, moisturizers, personal lubricants, shaving cream and gels, sunscreens, toothpaste, and some food products. 

So are parabens definitely harmful? Our guess is that you don't want to be the one to find out.

2. Artificial Coloring

These are synthetic colors and hues created in labs and derived from coal tar and petroleum sources. There are strong suspicions that artificial colors are carcinogenic to humans and that they are also skin irritants.

Not all synthetic or artificial colors can be harmful, however. Be on the lookout for the letters FD&C or D&C on the label of the product. Those markings indicate that the product contains artificial colors, with the letter F denoting colors intended for food and the letters "D&C" denoting synthetic colors for drugs and cosmetics. Generally, these letters come before a specific color and number, such as FD&C Green 77 or D&C Red 131. 

Some colors are safe, while others are not. For example, Yellow 5 , Yellow 6, and Red 40 are considered risky for children. They were deemed so risky that even the European Food and Safety Authority's (EFSA) Panel on Food Additives and Flavourings has banned them.

So, if you're suspicious of that new, super colorful skincare product that contains some of these artificial colors - check the label. And if it has them, steer clear.

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

3. Artificial Fragrances

You might think that you know what a synthetic fragrance is, but think again. Many skincare, beauty, and cosmetics companies will slap the word "fragrance" on the label with little to no information about it. A lot of the time, companies use the "fragrance" moniker to indicate that they are using their own special, secret chemical formula for something. 

But the problem is that it can be anything. Do you actually know if this company is using safe ingredients in their "special fragrance formula"? There's no way to tell. You could very well be slathering a concoction of toxic ingredients all over your skin.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Database, synthetic fragrances (and fragrance mixes) are associated with numerous allergic reactions, dermatitis, various kinds of respiratory distress, and, last but not least, potential side effects on the reproductive system.

You have probably noticed that fragrances are widespread. You'll find many perfumes, colognes, creams, shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, body washes, and so on that contain one or more fragrances on their labels. Sure, the synthetic fragrance might be completely harmless since, most of the time, we don't know its composition. But it could also be the opposite. So, why risk it?

Always look for skin and hair products with natural fragrances.

4. Phthalates

Phthalates are something we can barely pronounce, let alone be okay with using them on the skin. But bad jokes aside, phthalates are a group of chemicals primarily used to make plastics softer and more flexible. Now, if phthalates can soften plastics, it doesn't mean they can also soften your skin.

However, phthalates are known as endocrine disruptors - or in other words, substances that mess with your hormone production and can cause hormonal imbalances (which can lead to hormonal acne).

Additionally, phthalates have been linked to reproductive birth defects in both girls and boys, increased and early breast development in girls, and subsequently, a higher risk of cancer.  

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

Something that messes with your hormone system is obviously dangerous. And yet, a vast number of skin care and cosmetics products contain phthalates. The most common variants are dibutyl phthalates, commonly found in nail polish. Diethyl phthalates are found in lotions, moisturizers, perfumes, cologne, deodorants, and so on. Finally, hair sprays often contain dimethyl phthalate.

Now, you'd guess that companies would disclose the use of phthalates so you can easily check for them on the product's label, right? Wrong. 

As we mentioned above, companies often use the loophole of declaring something a fragrance, or a secret formula, which is how they cover their use of phthalates. Thankfully, there are beauty brands out there that don't list these substances in their ingredients list, nor do they hide away unpleasant ingredients behind the fancy excuses of fragrance or secret formula.

Be on the lookout for moisturizers that don't contain phthalates because they're definitely out there. Cut toxic ones out of your skincare routine.

5. Triclosan

Triclosan makes short work of bacteria and other harmful microbes, but it's also known to disrupt the endocrine system. Its ability to wreak havoc on the hormonal systems of living organisms is particularly nasty. This source shows it mostly affects the thyroid gland and the reproductive hormones, causing hormone disruption. On top of that, triclosan is also a known skin irritant.

But did we mention that triclosan is used as a powerful antimicrobial chemical? Indeed, we did, but anyone who has read anything about antibiotics and microbes knows that bacteria keep evolving and are becoming resistant.

Gradually, through the massive use of antibiotics, bacteria have evolved to become stronger and more resistant, mutating into almost unkillable microorganisms called superbugs. And, to make matters even worse, triclosan is one of the suspects scientists believe lead to the increased bacteriological resistance to our medicines. 

Trioclosan is frequently found in toothpaste, deodorants, antibacterial soaps, shower gels, and detergents. Some anti-acne cleansers can also contain it, but good skincare companies avoid using triclosan and offer safe, naturally-based alternatives.

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

6. Diethanolamine

Diethanolamine is a chemical used in skincare and personal products as a foaming agent. However, diethanolamine is also a known respiratory toxin and carcinogen, which is why its use in personal care products has been severely restricted throughout the EU.

However, diethanolamine is still largely unregulated in the US, which means you can still find it in body washes, bubble baths, shampoos, liquid soaps, and so on.

To ensure a product doesn't have diethanolamine, avoid any beauty products with the "DEA" acronym on their cosmetic ingredient labels. Fairly simple, right? It's even simpler because nowadays, many skincare and personal care companies offer body washes that don't contain diethanolamine

7. Propylene Glycol

Propylene glycol is a small organic molecule belonging to the chemical class of alcohols. Propylene Glycol is commonly used as a penetrator, which means that it helps active ingredients enter your skin more easily. So far, so good, right?

However, the problem is that propylene glycol is also a known skin irritant, having been correlated with cases of contact dermatitis and hives in humans. Depending on your personal health and skin type, propylene glycol can cause skin irritations in concentrations as low as 2%. Propylene glycol is commonly found in makeup products, moisturizers, sunscreen, shampoos, conditioners, creams, hair sprays, and more.

8. Retinol, Retinyl Palmitate and Other Vitamin A Analogues

Wait, what? How can retinol and the other analogues of Vitamin A be harmful? We have written several articles covering the benefits of Vitamin A and retinoids such as Retin A, Accutane (also known as Roaccutane), which is also a retinoid called Isotretinoin, and so on. Surely this must be some kind of mistake?

Well, think twice. If you remember reading those articles, you'll recall that each one also included a section on the possible side effects of these substances. Merely overdosing on vitamin A can be toxic, let alone the other, more potent medications

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

We should be very clear about the dangers of vitamin A and its retinoids. They are mostly dangerous before, during, and after pregnancy. Since vitamin A performs key functions in our bodies, such as regulating bone and tissue growth, taking too much during pregnancy can cause severe and even fatal malformation and birth defects.

So, if you're having a child, avoid any skincare products or supplements containing high doses of vitamin A. Accutane, which we mentioned above, is notorious for its severe side effects during pregnancy, so steer clear.

However, all that we said mostly applies to pregnent women and nursing mothers. Using skincare products that contain Vitamin A and retinoids, such as Retinol, Retin A, or even Isotretinoin, is largely harmless outside pregnancy. Sure, Isotretinoin (Accutane) has a whole host of unpleasant but mostly bearable side effects, but Vitamin A in itself is not dangerous in general. Once pregnancy enters the picture, though, things become very different.

9. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) And Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are chemicals that belong to the category of surfactants. For a substance to be classified as a surfactant, it basically means that it can loosen or dissolve surface tensions between different substances. This makes surfactants especially useful for cleaning since they can dissolve any bonds between dirt and filth and whatever surface you are trying to clean.

Unsurprisingly, this makes them very popular and has won them "a place at the table" in most domestic cleaning products. That would be okay because SLS and SLES in cleaning detergents are not harmful on their own. After all, your skin is not the bathroom's floor, and we doubt you'd want to drink these chemicals or shove them in your eyes.

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

The problem is that they are also present in some skincare personal care products because, besides being powerful surfactants, they are also foaming agents. 

So what, right? Well… the problem appears exactly when these toxic ingredients come into contact with other chemicals. They're tolerable on their own and in small amounts, but when they interact with other chemicals, the chemical reaction can form less-than-beneficial combinations. 

For example, they can form a class of harmful chemicals known as nitrosamines, which are classified as carcinogenic. Nitrosamines and other harmful products of the use of SLS and SLES can cause a broad variety of body damage.

From impacting your kidneys and causing lung and other respiratory damage to different types of cancer, SLS and SLES and their random chemical by-products are definitely something to avoid.

Regrettably, they are commonly found in almost 90% of shampoos, body washes, cleansers, anti-acne treatments, beauty products, and more. 

10. Formaldehyde

You've probably heard of formaldehyde. That creepy liquid that holds all sorts of genetic experiments and mutants in B-rated sci-fi movies. But why is formaldehyde used to, uh, store living tissues like that? 

Well, that's because formaldehyde is one of the most efficient and widespread preservatives. It is naturally occurring too, which makes it easy to produce, and it has an uncanny ability to keep things frozen in time. That makes it the darling of science departments and creepy pop culture references, but formaldehyde has also found its way into skincare.

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

See, formaldehyde and various formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used in many cosmetic products to help preserve the active ingredients and simultaneously prevent bacteria growth.

But there's a slight problem. Formaldehyde and similar harmful chemicals are considered to be human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC). And for a good reason - formaldehyde has been linked to a whole array of occupationally related nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers. 

On top of that, formaldehyde is also known to cause allergic skin reactions and may also prove harmful to the immune system. Formaldehyde can be found in most personal care and beauty products, such as nail polish, cleansers, body wash, shampoos, conditioners, eye shadows, mascara, and so on.

If you want to keep yourself safe from the potential side effects of formaldehyde, steer clear of any product that lists it on its label. Pick something better and healthier for you. Leave formaldehyde-containing products to zombies, monsters, mutants, and aliens. 

11. Toluene

Toluene is a so-called petrochemical derived from petroleum or coal tar sources. Right, so this can't be good, can it? But toluene has several different names too, which makes it a bit difficult to detect in products. If you see benzene, phenylmethane, toluol, or methylbenzene listed on a product's label, it contains toluene.

Toluene is generally used as a potent solvent, which makes it useful in dissolving paints of various kinds. It's also a paint thinner. You've probably sensed its intense smell in various scenarios and have found it very off-putting.

Toluene fumes can affect your respiratory system, cause organ toxicity, and even create nauseating feelings and skin irritation. For this reason, expecting mothers are advised to avoid inhaling toluene fumes and coming into contact with the chemical itself. 

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

On top of causing skin irritation, it can also cause developmental changes in the fetus and even result in birth defects. The immune system is also not immune to toluene because it has also been linked to immune system toxicity.

Toluene is frequently found in nail polish, nail paint removers, different kinds of nail treatments, and hair bleaching or hair coloring products, including hair dyes. Toluene can also be found in some skincare products or makeup products, so keep your eyes peeled. If you see toluene, benzene, phenylmethane, toluol, or methylbenzene on a product's label, you're better off without it. 

12. Oxybenzone and Other Sunscreen Chemicals

Sunscreen generally comes in two kinds - mineral filters or chemical filters. Common sunscreens on the market fall into the category of chemical filters, and they usually contain oxybenzone as their active ingredient.

However, the problem is that oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor, and it's a chemical that won't just affect your skin barrier. It can easily sneak inside your body and can affect human health negatively. So negatively that high concentrations of these chemical UV filters can mess up your thyroid gland, damage your skin cells and even lead to cancer. In smaller amounts, oxybenzone can also lead to skin allergies. 

But oxybenzone is not the only staple of chemically-based sunscreens that can have potential side effects. Other chemicals that carry similar levels of danger are avobenzone, benzophenone, homosalate, PABA, octyl methoxycinnamate, and others.

harmful chemicals to avoid skincare

However, it needs to be said that this substance can mostly be harmful to small children or people with sensitive skin. Normal use should not cause negative consequences, but everyone is different, so it's wise to err on the side of caution. 

All of these can be found in otherwise quality, broad-spectrum sunscreen products, but in moisturizers, makeup, and lip balms as well. If you wish to avoid exposing yourself to danger from these substances, always check the product's label and - act accordingly. 

Other Toxic Ingredients to Avoid in Skincare Products

Coal Tar - This is found in hair dye and can slow down the growth of skin cells. It contains more than one known carcinogen with links to skin cancer.

Polyethylene Glycol - You'll find this as a solvent or a softener.

Paraffins and Petrolatum - Paraffin is a liquid mineral oil. It can protect the skin barrier and help retain moisture. Alternative names include petroleum jelly and paraffin oil.

Benzalkonium Chloride - Commonly found in house cleaners. Benzalkonium chloride is an irritant. You're likely to find it in soaps and sanitizers, as well as moisturizers and face lotions.

BHA and BHT - These two synthetic antioxidants are used to extend product shelf life and are commonly found in lipsticks, moisturizers, and other cosmetics.

Summing It Up

Needless to say, the chemicals mentioned in this article are not the only harmful ingredients available on the market. We haven't even scratched makeup and some of the irritating ingredients it sometimes contains. Unless a thorough, complete compendium of potentially toxic chemicals is published by someone, articles like this one are all we've got.

Realistically, it's almost impossible to avoid every harmful chemical out there, but being aware of the issue is better than not. Keeping yourself educated and always doing your own research is the best defense. Look for safe cosmetics and natural ingredients. If you have safety concerns over a product, speak to your dermatologist.

From hair dyes and nail polish to body wash and even lip balm products, it's hard to escape the chemical preservatives and toxic ingredients found in hair and skincare products. But we've given you the best ones to avoid in skincare.

Your wisest choice is to live as cleanly as possible, avoid processed foods loaded with chemicals, drink clean water, and ideally, only use naturally based skincare products. And, of course, in the meanwhile - worry less. 


Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk

Impact of Triclosan on Female and Male Reproductive System

Acute toxic effects of fragrance products

Right to Know: Exposing Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Report


European Food Safety Authority

This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances, and its goal is to offer a general view of the subject. In case you are suffering from a severe case of acne, you should consult with a dermatologist or a certified medical professional.

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