Have you ever looked on the back of a skin care product and tried reading the ingredient list? For the most part, it’s a long list filled with things you’ve never even heard of, or look like they belong in a chemistry textbook. There’s a big barrier of entry to understanding what goes into many skincare products, and it’s what keeps people from truly understanding what they’re putting on their body.
We’re here to help demystify some of that for you. Below is an updated list of skincare ingredients that you should avoid and the reason why.
1. DMDM Hydantoin & Urea
DMDM Hydantonin and urea are both preservatives used in cosmetics. However, both of them can be formaldehyde-releasing—formaldehyde being a known skin toxin and allergen. Studies have also shown that formaldehyde can penetrate the skin and be absorbed by the body.
DMDM Hydantoin is antimicrobial, which means it’s a preservative that helps prevent the development of bacteria in products. Urea slows the loss of moisture in products, therefore also extending the shelf life (there is an urban myth that urea is the same as body urine. This isn’t true—urea in skincare is completely man-made in a lab).
2. Mineral Oil
Mineral oil is a by-product of oil and other petroleum productions. While there are a lot of myths surrounding the ingredient, it’s not technically toxic for the skin—less refined mineral oils are another story. However, you should still avoid it for other reasons.
Because of where mineral oil comes from, the use of it in skincare contributes to climate change through the continued use and production of fossil fuels. There are also many other natural, clean ingredients that make your skin soft and supple, like our Radiance Boosting Face Serum, with no mineral oil involved.
We’ve talked about the dangers of parabens in a previous post. But to recap, they’re chemical preservatives that prevent bacteria growth, particularly in liquid products like shampoos. However, they’ve also been shown to remain and accumulate in your body and are endocrine disruptors. This page is an extremely detailed breakdown on why they’re so harmful.
The most common are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben. These hormone disruptors are commonly found in many cosmetic products like make up, moisturizers, hair care products, and shaving creams. Paraben links to cancer because it can penetrate the skin and mimic estrogen. They can potentially turn on the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers. Parabens have not only been found in breast tissue and breast cancers. Because of their ample use, it has also been found in many other tissues.
4. PEG (Polyethylene glycol)
Polyethylene glycol (often called) PEG on labels is a widely-used ingredient in skin care because of its versatility. It’s used to improve absorption, thicken products, and soften skin. However, if your skin is compromised through something like acne or other irritation, PEG can be very irritating. There is also some concern that toxic impurities can appear during the manufacturing process.
Because PEG is used to enhance the absorption, it can allow harmful ingredients to penetrate the skin, more easily.
Fortunately, this is one set of ingredients that have largely been phased out of use (namely the variety known as DBP). Phthalates are a group of products used in nail polishes and hair sprays that help stiffen or prevent cracking. Varieties of phthalates are completely banned for use in skincare in the EU because of their effect on endocrine disruption—a threat to women’s reproductive health.
Watch out here for nail polishes that have “natural fragrances” in them—this can be code for a kind of phthalate, even in products that claim to be phthalate-free.
Even when combined at low levels, some phthalates can cause similar harm as seen with exposure to just one phthalate at high levels. Exposure to Phthalates in humans has been linked to sex hormone disruption, altered development of genitals, and low sperm count and quality.
6. Propylene glycol (PG) & Butylene glycol
These glycol products attract water and increase absorption, meaning it’s often used in lotions and moisturizers. Like mineral oil, it’s a petroleum derivative, meaning it also has the same negative environmental effects.
The EWG classifies it as a skin irritant, even in low concentrations, and there’s also additional research from Canada that suggests it may be harmful for non-reproductive organs.
This is another endocrine-disruptor, and is also a type of silicone. This is a common skincare ingredient present in some deodorants and antiperspirants—as the form cyclomethicone—for the silk-smooth application. Your underarms are also a very sensitive location because of their proximity to the lymph nodes, which then circulate absorbed chemicals throughout the body. Along with parabens, siloxanes have been shown to accumulate in ovaries.
Some of the health issues associated with siloxanes are:
- Reproductive issues.
- Liver problems.
- Benign uterine tumors.
- Uterine cancer.
- Adverse reproductive effects.
- Adverse neurological effects.
- Immunity issues.
- Endocrine disruption.
8. Sodium lauryl sulfate & Sodium laureth sulfate (SLS & SLES)
These two “surfactants” are used in cleansing and foaming—present in foaming face washes, shampoos and foaming soaps. While we may love the experience of something getting foamy in our hands or hair, these two sulfates can actually be very drying and irritating to the skin. Even SLS, which is the milder form of SLES.
How toxic is this ingredient? Well, the debate is ongoing. During the process of ethoxylation of SLS into SLES, a potential carcinogenic byproduct named 1,4-Dioxane can result, US FDA has acknowledged. Although the US FDA has concluded that 1,4-Dioxane is a toxic containment, it doesn't believe this byproduct is present in harmful quantities in beauty products.
Although FDA does not regulate SLS and SLES, they did provide guidance to manufacturers that outlines the potential health risks and how to minimize the presence of 1,4-Dioxane in products.
According to the Environmental Working Group, triclosan has concerns around endocrine-disruption, organ toxicity, increased thyroid hormone levels, and is also a suspected environmental toxin. Whew, that’s quite the list. Tricolsan is an antibacterial agent most commonly found in body washes, hand soaps, and toothpastes. In 2016, the FDA banned antiseptic products containing the ingredient from being marketed to consumers because of the concern around daily, repeated exposure.
Phenoxyethanol is a preservative and stabilizing agent that is especially present in perfumes. Different countries, such as Japan and Canada, have labeled it as potentially harmful to internal organs and as a skin irritant. Part of the problem with phenoxyethanol in skin care is that while it may be present in low amounts, if that product is applied multiple times or everyday it becomes more dangerous.
While this seems pretty long, it’s far from exhaustive. Unfortunately, there are many hidden toxins in what we put on or in our bodies. While we always recommend clean, plant-based ingredients, not all of these ingredients are safe themselves. As consumers, train yourself to look past the marketing and do real research, so you can feel confident in every choice.
If you see an ingredient we haven't covered, here's a skincare ingredient checker you can always resort to.