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Harmful Chemicals in Skincare Products

From a young age, many of us learn about the glory of skincare, whether it’s from family members, television or magazine advertisements and articles. We are taught to take good care of our skin to avoid premature aging, acne, inflammation and other skincare issues. 

Since early history there has been documentation of beauty rituals, fabled beauty treatments and many of these have been passed through the ages and perfected or tossed out with time. With the advancement of science, clinical studies and research, we now know more about skin care than ever before. And even so, there are still a lot of toxic ingredients found in today’s products. 

And products are aplenty. We use them constantly; we have developed a dependence on them and would be hard pressed to live without them. With little to no conscious effort, we slather balms, moisturizers, serums and more on our skin, relying on the promises depicted on the packaging. But that’s likely where people are making the major misstep. 

Is Everything Safe?

If you keep up to date on skincare headlines, articles or broadcast features, you’re probably well aware that not all skincare, or cosmetic products, are safe. But, in our fast-paced society, generally consumers don’t have much time to flip the packaging over, start reading ingredients and trying to determine what they are. Many of them you can’t even pronounce, let alone understand what it is. And who has time to Google every ingredient on your smartphone when you are trying to squeeze in some essential shopping? You know your skin is dry, oily, irritated or inflamed, so you begin reading the benefits and attributes on the labels and hope for the best.

How It’s Regulated

Most people trust that the brands on shelves or online are 100% safe, regulated and primed for application. What most don’t know is that cosmetics/skincare are not approved by the FDA, only regulated. This means that the law does not require cosmetic/skincare products and ingredients, except for color additives, to be approved by FDA before they go on the market. 

Companies are legally responsible for making sure products are “safe” and properly labeled, in compliance with all the laws and regulations that apply to them. But “safe” is an ambiguous and controversial term. We want to trust and believe as consumers that companies are doing their due diligence – but there are so many differing opinions on ingredients, potency, side effects and more. For every study stating a product is bad for you, you’ll find another study arguing the other side.

Action To Take

This is why it’s imperative for you to be conscientious and educated about what you’re putting on your skin. Many ingredients deemed “safe” can have long-term effects such as cancer-causing properties, or chemicals that can severely irritate the skin. If you’ve been clueless about ingredients up to this point, you’re not alone. The power of today’s cunning marketing strategies has the majority of us left in the dark about what’s behind the packaging. Fear not, as we have compiled a list of toxic ingredients in skincare to look out for.

10 Toxic Skincare Ingredients to Avoid

  1. Parabens

Parabens are a family of related chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic products. Preservatives may be used in cosmetics to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold, in order to protect both the products and consumers. If you take a peek at some of your current products, you will likely find parabens in many of them. Most commonly, parabens are found in face wash, night cream, makeup, masks, body wash and shampoo. 

These little bandits might seem innocuous at first, but parabens are known to mimic estrogen and can upset the hormone balance in your body. Further, they have been linked to breast cancer and can lead to fertility and reproductive issues. If you see these listed in your ingredients on any of your products, toss those now!

  1. Phthalates

These pesky chemicals have been linked to a surge in negative health benefits. They’re used in everything from household cleaners to food packaging to fragrance, cosmetics and personal-care products. The chemicals act as binding agents and also make plastics flexible. These are also banned in children’s products, so why would we put them on our skin? Phthalates have been linked to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues. 

You’ll find these most in deodorant, lotion, fragrance and hair spray. If you see this ingredient on your packaging, ditch these products immediately. It may be tough to part ways with some of your favorite skincare staples, but you will be doing yourself a favor in the long run.

  1. Fragrance

Yes, fragrance. It sounds pleasant, but this is actually a secret code word in the manufacturing of products that means companies don’t have to reveal what ingredients are inside. Sketchy, right? You’ll likely find “fragrance” included in the majority of products you possess. Often, these ingredients consist of tons of chemicals that can trigger allergies, hormone disruption and lead to bigger health problems reproductive issues and infertility. 

You’ll mostly find fragrance listed on moisturizers, hand creams and hair products. It may smell fabulous, but it can lead to not-so-fabulous effects on your skin and health. So be extra weary, because sometimes “fragrance” can mean an aromatic scent from organic ingredients, and sometimes it can mean something else altogether.

  1. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and/or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

SLES is an inexpensive and very effective foaming agent. SLES, sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), ammonium lauryl sulfate (ALS), and sodium pareth sulfate are surfactants that are used in many cosmetic products for their cleaning and emulsifying properties. 

Don’t get me wrong, we all love a good foaming product, but at what cost? These chemicals can cause severe skin irritation and contribute to allergies. You will mostly find these in shampoo, body wash, bubble bath (hence the foaming properties). As with any chemical, the higher the concentration and the more frequent you use products that contain these chemicals, the higher the chance is for irritation.

  1. BHT

BHT stands for Butylated Hydroxytoluene and are synthetic antioxidants used to extend shelf life and are likely carcinogens and hormone disruptors that could cause liver damage. There is a lot of controversy around BHT because many large, well-known companies use these chemicals and spend a lot of money lobbying against harsh claims.

But being that BHT is ostensibly linked to liver cancer, the organ in our bodies responsible for detoxification, and if this major organ is being affected it’s a good assumption that other major organs may suffer consequences as well. BHT is mostly found in lipsticks, moisturizers, diaper creams and other cosmetics. Sayonara BHT!

  1. Retinyl palmitate and Retinol (aka, Vitamin A)

This one may come as a shock to you! You see Vitamin A and thing, “oh vitamins are healthy!” but retinol, which is extremely popular for lessening wrinkles, can have some major negative effects too. Pregnant women are often instructed by their physicians to immediately stop using anything with retinol. But why? Retinol may harm DNA and speed the development of skin tumors when applied to skin. This is scary, particularly when you’re pregnant! You’ll find this most in moisturizer, anti-aging skincare. 

The more retinol you put on, the weaker the barrier function becomes, which is why a lot of people feel that their skin is very sensitive and experience peeling, flaking, and irritation. One of the main side effects of using retinol is that it makes your skin more sensitive to UV sunlight, in particular.

  1. Lead

If this one worries you, it’s justified. Lead is a chemical element for which toxicity in humans has been well documented. The FDA has even reported that over 99% of the cosmetic lip products and externally applied cosmetics on the U.S. market contain lead. Continual exposure to products containing lead raises risks for kidney problems, cardiovascular disease, reproductive disorders, and other health issues. Scary! Lead belongs in pipes, not our skincare products. 

When the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics raised concerns about lead in lipstick, the FDA tested hundreds of products. Disturbingly, two back-to-back investigations discovered lead in each lipstick tested, with levels up to 3.06 ppm in the first test and levels up to 7.19 ppm in the second. Because we often lick our lips, eat and kiss while wearing lipstick, consumption of lead becomes a real worry.

  1. Formaldehyde

Yes, the chemical used to preserve bodies, which is used in embalming fluid. Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas also often used in cosmetics. It is used in small amounts over time to help protect cosmetic products against contamination by bacteria during storage and during continued use. It is a known carcinogen that is also linked to asthma, neurotoxicity and developmental toxicity. 

We still can’t get over the fact that an embalming chemical is found in skincare products. You’ll typically find this in shampoo, body wash and bubble bath. The most common health problems in people exposed to formaldehyde include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.

  1. Petrolatum

Petrolatum is a rich emollient and FDA-approved skin protectant, so what’s the harm? While approved for human use, petrolatum is in fact a potentially harmful skincare product. There are risks of adulteration when using this ingredient. This is due to the large number of cheap imitations and mass productions, leading to undesirable results. Petrolatum-based goods are fast-functioning, providing quick but short-term results. 

This ingredient gives the fleeting illusion that the epidermis is smooth and hydrated. Moisturizing products like lip balms and moisturizers contain petrolatum. However, they do not have moisturizing properties. Rather, this creates a barrier that retains moisture. Also, it thwarts absorption of outward moisture. The result is smothered skin that dries out quickly.

  1. Alcohol

Alcohols like ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, alcohol denat and methanol are used to make creams feel lighter, help other ingredients to penetrate your skin and are used as a preservative. These alcohols can lead to dryness, irritation and acne or other skin problems. These are the last things we want out of a reliable skincare product. 

Troublesome alcohols when used in excessive concentrations in skincare worsen your skin’s defensive barrier which means your skin won’t be effective at containing moisture within. It also encourages oil production which may cause severe breakouts if your skin is over-producing oil. People with sensitive skin should be wary of any alcohol-based products. So, watch out for alcohol, it is in a lot more products than you would assume!


Now keep in mind, many of these harmful ingredients come at very low levels in some products, but it can be difficult to ascertain just how much is included in some products. While there has been a numerous amount of research on all of these ingredients, there is always a counterpoint somewhere claiming the validity of science. This list has been compiled because there is overwhelming evidence and case studies proving the harmful effects of each. 

In any event, it’s always a good idea to take precautionary steps to avoid excessive usage of any foreign chemicals. And use organic and natural alternatives when they are obtainable. Most of these products today are a vital part of our lifestyles and we cannot escape them completely, but we can regulate our use and prevent overly harmful effects.

Skincare is a long game, so if you haven’t been analytical about the products you are using, there is no time like the present! 

After all, it is the largest organ in your body, keeping you safe from harmful environmental factors each day, so it will be worth returning the favor. And if you have any major concerns that you can’t find any information or answers for, it’s always a good idea to reach out to a dermatologist for expert advice. 

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