What toxic ingredients should you avoid in your skincare products? There are many, but before we go there, let’s consider why you want to avoid these. Your skin is the largest organ in your body through which topically applied creams and cleansers can penetrate all the way to your bloodstream. I think we can all agree that the idea of toxins circulating throughout your body cannot be helpful in any way. You might then think that this is sure not a great cause for concern, because surely the ingredients in my skincare and other personal care products are highly regulated and there would be no chance of harmful ingredients entering my body. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. One reason for this ambiguity is that the FDA does not recognize the term “personal care product”. Some of the more common personal care products such as perfumes, lipsticks, skin moisturizers, shampoos, nail polishes and a host of others fall under the “cosmetics” umbrella at the FDA. However, other “personal care products” such as lip balms, mouthwashes marketed with therapeutic claims, anti-dandruff shampoos and acne treatments fall under the FDA “drug” umbrella.
The reason this distinction is important is because the FDA regulates “cosmetics” and “drugs” differently. Cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of colour additives, are not required by law to be approved by the FDA before they are allowed on the market. They also cannot be misbranded or adulterated. On the other hand, drugs must receive premarket FDA approval or conform to regulations, being very specific of the conditions where their products are recognized as safe and effective. Misbranding is again not tolerated.
Okay, so now that I know that some of my personal care products might not be approved by the FDA, what toxic ingredients should I avoid in my skincare products? To answer this question, you might be tempted to simply Google it – and you would get pages of sites listing ingredients to avoid, with no two lists exactly the same. But there are many ingredients that show up repeatedly. The most common ingredients you should try to avoid are listed below.
1. Parabens – These are best described as preservatives typically used to increase the shelf life of skincare products by preventing the growth of mould and bacteria. You are most likely to find them in moisturizers and makeup. They have been found to have links to skin irritations, endocrine or hormonal disruptions and harm to the reproductive system.
2. Synthetic Fragrances – Fragrances are listed because they are a roll of the dice. You will never know what is in them because by law, companies are not required to disclose their ingredients and yet are a component of so many different skincare products (shampoo, deodorant, body wash and moisturizers). They are a common cause of contact dermatitis and can also lead to eczema and psoriasis. They may also affect the respiratory and reproductive systems. If you have sensitive skin, it is probably best to err on the side of caution and use unscented products.
3. Phthalates – The most frequent form found in skincare products is diethyl-phthalate (DEP). These compounds can help products retain their scent and colour, and also assist lotions and moisturizers by improving their skin penetration ability. They are known to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system and linked to various issues from early puberty to cancer. Note these may also be contained in fragrances, the ingredients of which manufacturers are not mandated to disclose, so totally avoiding phthalates may be tricky unless the product specifically states it is phthalate free.
4. Propylene glycol/polyethylene glycol/PEG’s – These compounds are commonly used as a thickener in many different skin care products such as moisturizers, sunscreens, deodorants and shampoos and conditioners. These have been linked to dermatitis, hives and even various types of cancer.
5. Triclosan – Once a common active antimicrobial ingredient in anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, it has since been banned in many countries including the USA because of its significant impact on reproductive hormones and the thyroid. However, it may still show up in other products such as deodorants, mouthwash, toothpaste or shaving cream, so keep a close eye out for this one.
6. Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde releasing compounds – Like parabens, it is often used to increase the shelf life of products by preventing bacterial growth. It may also be listed on your product as formalin, methanediol or methylene glycol and can be found in skincare products such as cleansers, soaps and moisturizers. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are similarly used to prevent the formation of bacteria. These are a bit trickier to spot and have many different names including diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, bromopol, polyoxymethylene urea, imidazolidinyl urea, glyoxal, quaternium-15, methenamine, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. There have been reports relating formaldehyde to eye irritations, headaches, wheezing, sore throat, nausea, skin rashes to more serious issues such as neurotoxicity, asthma and developmental problems. It is a known carcinogen and there are reports of associations with cancer after prolonged exposure or at higher levels.
7. Ethanolamines – Sometimes listed as diethanolamine or DEA, they are used as emulsifiers in mascaras, foundations and other skincare products. They are known to be allergens, so if you have sensitivities to other ingredients, you may want to be careful with these as well. There are also links to cancer and the California EPA has even gone so far as classifying DEA as a carcinogen.
8. Oxybenzone – Often found in sunscreens, or any products that contain a sunscreen such as lip balms, it is yet another potential disruptor of your endocrine system and can alter thyroid function. And if you are environmentally conscious, you will want to avoid sunscreens containing this compound because if has a negative impact on our ocean’s coral reefs. Sunscreens with oxybenzone have been banned in Hawaii for this very reason.
9. Sodium Laureth/Lauryl Sulfate – Though these ingredients provide lots of soapy suds, they can dry skin out, irritate existing eczema conditions and cause other skin and eye irritations.
10. BHT/BHA - Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are used as antioxidants and preservatives in cosmetic products. Like many others on this list, they are known endocrine disruptors, skin irritants and may have an association with cancer.
Think of these as the top ten toxic ingredients you should avoid in your skin care products. But with all these long and complicated chemistry terms, you may think it impossible to remember when you are browsing the skin care aisle at your local store. You could make a note in your phone of these ten ingredients, or you can have a look at this resource and try the app to give you additional information about whether a product you are looking at is considered relatively safe.
Take away message
Though you might think that the ingredients in your skincare products are regulated by the government, this is not necessarily the case. We have listed ten ingredients to be on the lookout for and avoid when purchasing skincare products. The vast majority of the compounds listed above will at the very least be skin or eye irritants, perhaps leading to more serious skin conditions such as dermatitis, to endocrine disruptors that can affect your hormonal balance and finally to some that are known carcinogens. Finally, you will never know anything about the composition and ingredients of fragrances, so it may be best just to avoid them, especially if you are predisposed to irritations or allergic reactions.