The 14 Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid (and How to Find Healthier Alternatives)

The 14 Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid (and How to Find Healthier Alternatives)
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Here’s the deal. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating the safety of cosmetics and personal care products. At this point, the agency is way behind and doing a less than stellar job at it. So, it’s up to you, the customer, to zero in on the safest, healthiest, best-for-you products.

You are probably no novice to an ingredient listing, right? Still, even those of us who deal with this stuff every day (as in, it’s our job) can get lost in the sea of chemical names, acronyms, and greenwashing practices. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have a helpful list of ingredients you want to avoid handy while shopping online or scanning store shelves.

What’s also helpful is learning which natural ingredients perform the same as those synthetics. Only without the health risks.

That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive list of cosmetic ingredients to ditch, pronto. Learn why you want to avoid them, which countries already are, products they are found in, how to identify them on those tricky product labels, and healthy ingredient alternatives to zero in on. Safe, organic beauty products are not a luxury. They are a right.

14 Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid (and Healthy Ingredient Alternatives)

1. 1,4 DIOXANE

This chemical by-product of ethoxylation (an ingredient processing method used to make petro-ingredients less irritating to skin) is determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be a likely human carcinogen. It is also a suspected cardiovascular and blood toxicant, gastrointestinal toxicant, immunotoxicant, kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant, respiratory toxicant, skin toxicant.

Products used in: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep database found the contaminant in approximately 46% of personal care products tested in 2008. 1,4 dioxane often shows up in items like shampoo, facial cleansers, body wash, bubble bath, baby bath, and liquid soap.

Where restricted: Canada

How to ID on product labels: Since 1,4 dioxane is a contaminant produced during manufacturing, the FDA does not require it to be listed on cosmetic product ingredient listings. Look for ingredients commonly contaminated with 1,4 dioxane — sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, and ingredients that include “xynol”, “ceteareth”, and “oleth”.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Organic standards prohibit the ethoxylation process, so products that are 100% Organic are free from 1,4 dioxane. Using cosmetic products made with natural foaming agents is another way to avoid the contaminant.

2. DEA, TEA, MEA

Diethanolamine (DEA), monoethanolamine (MEA), and triethanolamine (TEA) are ammonia compounds used as emulsifiers and foaming agents in cosmetics. Studies show links between ethanolamines and cancer in lab animals, organ and neural system toxicity, and skin irritation and inflammation. These chemicals can also form carcinogenic compounds when mixed with nitrosamines (substances often found in cosmetics).

Products used in: Ethanolamines are widely used in cosmetics and personal care, and can be found in everything from makeup and shampoo, to sunscreen and hair dye.

Where restricted: European Union

How to ID on product labels: DEA or diethanolimine, TEA or triethanolamine, MEA or monoethanolamine cocamide DEA or cocamide diethanolimine, lauramide DEA or lauramide diethanolimine, DEA lauryl sulphate or diethanolimine sulfate, linoleaide DEA or linoleaide Diethanolimine, or oleamide DEA or oleamide diethanolimine.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Some natural emulsifiers are beeswax, vegetable wax, and lecithin from plant sources. Castile soap and soapwort are natural surfactants, and decyl and coco glucoside are much safer than ethanolamines.

3. DIMETHICONE
Dimethicone is a silicone-based polymer found in a wide range of cosmetics and personal care products. It is used to create a soft, smooth feel on skin and hair. Think hair conditioners and facial serums. This ingredient blocks pores from drawing moisture from the air and releasing toxins, and often leads to acne and irritation.

Products used in: Facial moisturizers and serums, anti-aging products, acne products, makeup, body moisturizers, sunscreens, hair care.

How to ID on product labels: dimethicone, methicone, phenyl trimethicone, cyclomethicone, dimethiconol, and dimethicone copolyol.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Cocoa, shea, and mango butters are all natural occlusive ingredients. Jojoba oil offers skin softening and smoothing effects without clogging pores or irritation.

4. FORMALDEHYDE

Formaldehyde is an impurity released by certain synthetic preservatives, like urea. It is a known carcinogen, gastrointestinal and liver toxicant, and neurotoxin. These chemicals can be absorbed by the skin or inhaled when heated.

Products used in: Hair straightening products, hair dye, nail polish, deodorant, and shampoo.

Where restricted: Japan, Sweden, European Union, Canada

How to ID on product labels: Formaldehyde, formalin, urea, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, and sodium hydroxylmethylglycinate.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Using products made with natural preservatives is a smart way to avoid formaldehyde. Vitamin E, certain essential oils (tea tree and grapefruit), grapefruit seed extract, and antioxidants are all healthier options.

5. HEAVY METALS (METALLOESTROGENS)

Used as sweat blockers, colorants, whiteners, and lightening agents, common heavy metals (lead, aluminum, arsenic, mercury, zinc, chromium, and iron) are linked to hormonal disruption. Heavy metals accumulate in the body and take longer to flush out, which means longer exposure to these toxins. High levels may cause an increased risk in cancer, reproductive issues, immune system disruption, and allergic reaction.

Products used in: Lip products, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner, nail color, foundations, sunscreens, eye shadows, blush, concealer, moisturizers, eye drops.

Where restricted: Banned in Canada, Japan and the European Union, and restricted in the U.S.

How to ID on product labels: Aluminum, aluminium flake, aluminum, LB Pigment 5; Pigment metal 1; A 00; A 95; A 995; A 999; AA 1099; AA1199, lead acetate, lead flake, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, and sodium hexametaphosphate. Note that heavy metal contaminants will not appear on cosmetic ingredient listings.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: To avoid heavy metals in personal care and cosmetics, check labels for ingredients above, purchase color cosmetics from trustworthy natural brands, and make sure sunscreens made with titanium dioxide are non-nano.

6. METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE (MIT)

Parabens aren’t the only preservative bad guys used in cosmetics. MIT is often used to prevent bacterial and microbial growth in beauty products. This ingredient is a possible neurotoxin with links to health risks in unborn babies. It can also lead to allergic reaction.

Products used in: Any water-based products, including hair care, body wash, sunscreen, and skin care.

Where restricted: European Union

How to ID on product labels: > 3 (2h) -Isothiazolone, 2-Methyl-; methylchloroisothiazolinone225methylisothiazolinone solution; 2-Methyl-3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-4-Isothiazolin-3-One; 2-Methyl- 3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-2h-Isothiazol-3-One; 3 (2h) Isothiazolone, 2methyl; 2-Methyl-3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-4-Isothiazolin-3-One. Be sure to check products labeled “paraben-free” for MIT.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Vitamin E, certain essential oils (tea tree and grapefruit), grapefruit seed extract, and antioxidants are all healthier natural preservative options.

7. PARABENS
Sort of the poster child for toxic cosmetic ingredients, parabens are widely used as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products. You may see a brand claim that parabens are safe in small amounts but most products contain several types of parabens at once. These ingredients have been found in breast tissue, mimic estrogen in the body, and may lead to impaired fertility or fetal development.

Products used in: Any water-based products, including hair care, body wash, sunscreen, and skin care.

Where restricted: Propyl and butyl paraben are banned in Denmark in products for children up to 3 years.

How to ID on product labels: alkyl parahydroxybenzoate, butylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparabens.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Vitamin E, certain essential oils (tea tree and grapefruit), grapefruit seed extract, and antioxidants are all healthier natural preservative options.

8. PETRO-INGREDIENTS

Petroleum jelly and mineral oil are commonly used emollients and lubricants. But these ingredients are often contaminated with impurities linked to cancer, and can cause skin irritation and acne.

Products used in: Skincare, body care, lip balm, makeup.

Where restricted: European Union requires full refining history.

How to ID on product labels: Petrolatum, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, paraffin wax.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Cocoa, shea, and mango butters are all healthy natural emollients. Read more on nontoxic petrolatum alternatives.

9. PHTHALATES

These chemical cosmetic ingredients are widely used as plasticizers to make a substance more flexible and adhere to a surface, as in nail polish and hair spray. They are also commonly used as carriers for synthetic fragrance to get the product, like perfume, to stick to skin. The National Toxicology Program and the EPA deem some phthalates probable carcinogens. The ingredients are shown to be endocrine disruptors, and can also negatively affect fertility and fetal development.

Products used in: Hair spray, lipstick, perfume, and nail polish

Where restricted: The European Union bans cosmetics that contain DBP and DEHP.

How to ID on product labels: benzylbutyl phthalate (BzBP), di-n-butyl phthalate or dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethyl phthalate (DEP), DEHP, and sometimes “fragrance”. It is important to note that, due to a trade secret loophole, phthalates will often not appear on product ingredient listings.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Purchasing beauty and personal care products made without the ingredients listed above and natural fragrance ingredients are safer. If a product ingredient listing includes the term “fragrance”, check to see if there is a notation regarding the source of the fragrance ingredients. Nontoxic brands will often add “from natural sources” or “from essential oils” to product labels.

10. PEG COMPOUNDS

These petroleum-based chemicals are used to thicken, soften, and help products to retain moisture. As mentioned above, PEG compounds can be contaminated with 1,4 dioxane. But these ingredients are also penetration enhancers, allowing other chemicals to more readily absorb through the skin and into the body. A 2001 study shows they cause skin irritation and system toxicity, especially when used on damaged or broken skin.

Products used in: Skincare, hair care, body care, makeup, baby care products, contact lens cleaner.

How to ID on product labels: PEG-(followed by a number), polyethylene glycol, PPG, polypropylene glycol. Propylene glycol is a related ingredient and another penetration enhancer.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Aloe vera, honey, and hyaluronic acid are all natural humectants that come without the nasty side effects.

11. SODIUM LAURYL/LAURETH SULFATE

Two more ingredients you are probably familiar with are these surfactants. Commonly used in conventional products to create foam, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) are penetration enhancers, allowing other chemicals to more easily enter the system. These harsh cleansing ingredients strip natural oils from skin, causing dryness, allergic reaction, and irritation. So much so that they are actually used to stimulate an irritation response for testing purposes.

Products used in: Shampoo, facial cleansers, body wash, bubble bath, baby bath, and toothpaste.

How to ID on product labels: sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium lauryl ether sulfate, anhydrous sodium lauryl sulfate, and irium.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Castile soap and soapwort are natural surfactants, and decyl and coco glucoside are much safer than ethanolamines.

12. Artificial COLORANTS

Petroleum-derived colorants are used to artificially color a cosmetic product. These synthetic ingredients contain carcinogenic properties, and can cause skin irritation, acne, and allergic reaction. Many contain coal tar and heavy metals.

Products used in: Shampoo, facial cleansers, body wash, skincare, baby care products, hair care, and makeup.

Where restricted: Some artificial color ingredients are restricted for use in cosmetics by the FDA.

How to ID on product labels: FD&C or D&C followed by a name and number (FD&C RED NO. 40).

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Mineral pigments and plant-derived dyes give beautiful color and are all natural. Always check a manufacturers packaging or website if in doubt as to the source of color ingredients.

13. SYNTHETIC SUNSCREENS

Not only are synthetic sunscreen ingredients less effective in protecting against UV damage, they also have health concerns. Commonly used chemical sunscreen ingredients have been shown to mimic estrogen in the body, potentially causing hormonal disruption. They are also linked to skin irritation and allergic reaction. For more information on chemical sunscreen ingredients, read our guide to avoiding toxins in sunscreen products.

Products used in: Sunscreens, facial moisturizer, lip protection.

Where restricted: Japan

How to ID on product labels: Oxybenzone, octinoxate (octylmethoxycinnamate), homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, avobenzone, 4-methyl-benzylidencamphor (4-MBC), oxybenzone benzophenone-3, octyl-methoyl-cinnamates (OMC), octyl-dimethyl-para-amino-benzoic acid (OD-PABA), homosalate(HMS).

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Zinc oxide is your best bet for safe and effective sun protection. Check our Sunscreen Guide 2017 for the best mineral sun protection.
14. TRICLOSAN

This super potent antibacterial was initially intended for use in hospital settings. Today it can be found in everything from hand soap to toothpaste. But triclosan is potentially contaminated with chloroform and dioxins, and has links to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity, allergic reaction, skin, eye, and lung irritation, and bioaccumulation.

Products used in: Hand soaps, hand sanitizers, makeup, deodorant, shaving gel, after shave, facial cleanser, facial wipes, body wash, and toothpaste.

Where restricted: The FDA issued a ruling that all over-the-counter brands must reformulate products that contain triclosan and related ingredients by September 2017 or remove them from the market.

How to ID on product labels: Cloflucarban, fluorosalan, hexachlorophene, hexylresorcinol, iodine complex (ammonium ether sulfate and polyoxyethylene sorbitan monolaurate), iodine complex (phosphate ester of alkylaryloxy polyethylene glycol), nonylphenoxypoly (ethyleneoxy) ethanoliodine, poloxamer-iodine complex, povidone-iodine 5 to 10 percent, undecoylium chloride iodine complex, methylbenzethonium chloride, phenol (greater than 1.5 percent), phenol (less than 1.5 percent) 16, secondary amyltricresols, sodium oxychlorosene, tribromsalan, triclocarban, triclosan, and triple dye.

Healthy ingredient alternatives: Unless you are in a hospital or food service workplace, washing hands with warm soapy water is totally effective in removing dirt and germs.

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Liz Thompson

Liz Thompson is an organic beauty expert who has been researching and writing on the subjects of natural beauty, health, and wellness for over 10 years. She specializes in sharing safe beauty products and her knowledge on healthy ingredients with her readers, and helping organic beauty brands and shop owners share their message and products with the world through her writing services.