Skincare, dear reader, 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 cosmetics 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 good will of the skincare company itself. No one wants to lose customers, however, so while most products are harmless and beneficial, a given number of them will always be the opposite of that. Sometimes, skincare products can contain harmful chemicals that can be - to put it lightly - less than ideal, irritating, or downright harmful.
And 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,” so here are the 12 harmful chemicals to avoid in skincare.
You’re probably familiar with the fact that parabens, for some reason, should be avoided. 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 breast 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 so minuscule so as to be negligible.
The concerns may end up being justified one day, however, so most skincare companies have sought alternatives to parabens. Parabens are effective preservatives and are found in a great number of skincare products, shampoos, moisturizers, personal lubricants, shaving 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.
Or 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. The concerns are now even greater, after the discovery that artificial colors could be linked with the onset of ADHD in young children too.
Not all synthetic or artificial colors can be harmful, however. What you should be on the lookout for are 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 and Yellow 6, and Red 40 are the ones that 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 are suspicious of that brand new, super colorful skincare product that contains some of these artificial colors - check the label. And if it has them - steer clear.
You might think that you know what a fragrance is, but think again. A lot of skincare, beauty, and cosmetics companies will slap the word “fragrance” on the label, with little to no information about it. A lot of times, 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 used safe ingredients in their “special fragrance formula”? There is no way to tell. You could very well be slathering a concoction of harmful chemicals all over your skin and enjoying it. Until you don’t, because it can cause you trouble.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Database, fragrances and fragrance mixes are associated with numerous allergies, dermatitis, as well as 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 can find many perfumes, colognes, creams, shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, body washes and so on that contain one or more fragrances on their labels. Sure, the fragrance can be completely harmless since most of the times we don’t know its composition. But it can also be the opposite. So, why risk it?
Phthalates are something one can barely pronounce, let alone be okay with using them on skin. But bad jokes aside, phthalates are a group of chemicals that are primarily used to make plastics softer and more flexible. Now, if phthalates can soften plastics… it doesn’t mean that they can also soften your skin.
However, the fact is that phthalates are known as endocrine disruptors - or in other words, substances that mess with your hormone production and can, in turn, 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 breast cancer.
Something messing with your hormones is obviously dangerous. And yet, a vast number of skincare and cosmetics products contain phthalates. The most common variants are dibutyl phthalates that are commonly found in nail polish, then diethyl phthalates which are found in lotions, moisturizers, perfumes, cologne, deodorants and so on, and finally, hair sprays often contain dimethyl phthalate.
Now, you’d guess that companies would disclose the use of phthalates, and that 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, and sometimes they cover their use of phthalates like that. Thankfully, there are brands out there that neither 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.
Triclosan makes short work of bacteria and other harmful microbes, but it’s also a known endocrine disruptor. Its abilities to wreak havoc on the hormonal systems of living organisms is particularly nasty, because it mostly affects the thyroid gland and the reproductive hormones. 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 is aware 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 that scientists believe led to the increased bacteriological resistance to our medicines.
Trioclosan is frequently found in toothpaste, deodorants, and antibacterial soaps, shower gels, and detergents. Some anti-acne cleansers can contain it as well, but good skincare companies avoid using Triclosan and instead offer safe, naturally-based alternatives.
Diethanolamine is a chemical that is used in skincare and personal care 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 that you can still find it in body washes, bubble baths, shampoos, liquid soaps and so on.
In order to make sure a product doesn’t have diethanolamine, avoid any products that have the “DEA” acronym in its ingredients label. Fairly simple, right? It’s even simpler because nowadays many skincare and personal care companies offer body washes that don’t contain diethanolamine.
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 any active ingredients in a skincare product enter your skin more easily. So far so good, right?
The problem is, however, 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 be irritating in concentrations as low as 2%. Propylene glycol is commonly found in makeup products, moisturizers, sunscreen, shampoos, conditioners, creams, hair sprays and so on.
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 will recall that nearly every time they 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.
We should be very clear about the dangers from Vitamin A and its retinoids though: they are mostly dangerous before, during, and after pregnancy. Since Vitamin A performs very key functions in our bodies such as regulating bone and tissue growth, taking too much Vitamin A during pregnancy can cause severe, and even fatal malformation and birth defects.
So, if you are in the process of having a child, you should avoid any skincare products or supplements that consist of high doses of Vitamin A. Accutane, which we mentioned above, is notorious for its severe side effects during pregnancy, so steer clear.
All that we said mostly applies during pregnancy, however. Using skincare products that contain Vitamin A and retinoids such as Retinol, Retin A, or even Isotretinoin, is largely harmless outside of pregnancy. Sure, Isotretinoin (Accutane) has a whole host of unpleasant, but mostly bearable side effects, but Vitamin A in itself is not dangerous for people in general. Once pregnancy enters the picture though, things become very different.
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 possesses the ability to loosen or dissolve surface tensions between different substances. This makes surfactants especially useful for cleaning purposes, since they can dissolve any bonds between dirt and filth and whatever surface you are trying to clean. Which is awesome for cleaning purposes, right?
Unsurprisingly, this makes Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) very popular, and has won them “a place at the table” in most domestic cleaning products. That would be kinda okay, because SLS and SLES in cleaning detergents are not really harmful on their own. After all, your skin is not the bathroom’s floor, and we doubt you’d want to drink Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate or shove them in your eyes and so on.
The problem is that Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are also present in some skincare and personal care products too, because besides being powerful surfactants, they are also foaming agents.
So what, right? Well… the problem appears exactly when Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are used like this, when they come into contact with other chemicals. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are tolerable on their own and in small amounts, but when they interact with other chemicals, the chemical reaction can form some less than beneficial combinations.
For example, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) 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 injuring them, through causing lung and other respiratory damage all the way to different types of cancer, SLS and SLES and their random chemical byproducts are definitely something to avoid. Regrettably, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are commonly found in almost 90% of shampoos, body washes, cleansers, anti-acne treatments and products, various types of mascara and so on.
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 sort of frozen in time. That makes it the darling of science departments and creepy pop culture references, but formaldehyde has found its way into skincare too.
Which is exactly what the problem is. See, formaldehyde and various formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used in tons of cosmetic products to help preserve the active ingredients and simultaneously prevent bacteria growth.
Buuut, 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 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 it may prove harmful to the immune system too. And formaldehyde can be found in most personal care and beauty products, such as nail polish, cleansers, body washes, shampoos, conditioners, eye shadows, maskara, and so on.
In any case, 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 else, something better and healthier for you. Leave formaldehyde containing products to zombies, monsters, mutants, and aliens.
Toluene is a so-called petrochemical, because it’s derived from petroleum or coal tar sources. Right, so this can’t really be good, can it? But toluene has a number of different names too, which makes it a bit difficult to detect in products. If you see benzene, phenylmethane, toluol, or methylbenzene listen on the label of a product, it means that it contains toluene.
Toluene is generally used as a potent solvent, which makes it useful in dissolving paints of various kinds and is used as 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, and even cause nauseating feelings and irritate your skin. For this reason, expecting mothers are advised to avoid any inhalation of toluene fumes, as well as coming into contact with the chemical itself.
On top of being irritating to you, it can also cause developmental changes to 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. Toluene can also be found in some skincare products, makeup products or various cosmetic products as well, 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.
Sunscreen generally come 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 can easily sneak inside your body where it can affect your health negatively. So negatively, in fact, that in high concentrations oxybenzone can mess up with your thyroid gland, damage your 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 dangers are avobenzone, benzophenone, homosalate, PABA, octyl methoxycinnamate and others.
It needs to be said however that this substance can mostly be harmful to small children or people with sensitive skin. Normal use should not cause any 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.
Needless to say, the chemicals mentioned in this article are by far not the only harmful chemicals available on the market. We haven’t even scratched makeup and some of the irritating makeup ingredients it sometimes contains. Unless a thorough, complete compendium of potentially harmful chemicals is published by someone, articles like this one is all we got.
Realistically, it’s almost impossible to avoid every harmful chemical out there, but being aware of the issue is better than not being aware of it. Keeping yourself educated and exercising critical thinking is the best defense.
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.
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.