Common Chemical Ingredients to Avoid at All Costs

Contributor: By Sophie Groton, Managing Director at YAYFOREARTH
Photographer: Pinterest/J.R. Geigy

I like to think of myself as a “healthy” person; I’m vegan, almost solely eat local and organic, buy package free products, make my own cleaning solutions, only use mineral based beauty products, avoid anything synthetic, etc., so in general I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what should and shouldn’t be around my house, let alone put on or in my body. We’ve all heard not to trust any ingredients you can’t pronounce on product labels, but what about the others? And what about ingredients you can pronounce, but don’t understand why they’d be in your shampoo or sunscreen? Stevie and I are in the process of creating a few new products for YAYFOREARTH, and have both been blown away by the amount of awful ingredients a lot of “all natural” and “organic” beauty brands use, which got us both thinking. How is anyone supposed to know what is and isn’t safe to use on their bodies, especially if the product label advertises how gentle and natural it is? I’ve spent some time doing research into chemicals we should avoid putting on our skin, along with looking over and cross referencing hundreds of “natural” product labels, and came up with the 13 most common hazardous chemicals found in beauty products that we should all avoid with a ten foot pole.

*Quickly want to mention that I will not be naming any other cosmetic brands by name, as this post is not intended to highlight brands that I feel are doing a disservice to their customers. Instead, I am using this post to discuss what I have found to be the 13 most common hazardous ingredients that many of these brands use, so you can use your own judgment and decide for yourself whether or not you want these ingredients on or in your body!*

1. FRAGRANCE: For me, this is the most mind blowing and infuriating ingredient of all. I recently watched the documentary, “Stink!” by Bryan Cole and Jon Whelan (if you haven’t watched it, you absolutely should), where I first learned about the overarching term “fragrance”. The ingredient “fragrance” (also known as “parfum”) is listed on the back of almost every cosmetic, hair dye, perfume, air freshener, and cleaning product label, but “fragrance” isn’t a single ingredient. Just that one word alone can actually represent up to 3,163 chemical ingredients, and by simply putting “fragrance” on the ingredients list, manufacturers legally don’t have to disclose how many or which of those 3,163 chemicals are included. Not only that, but 1 in every 20 of those potential chemicals that fall under the “fragrance” ingredient are considered “highly hazardous”, and are proven to lead to birth defects, cause hormone imbalances, and so much more. As always, I wish I could dedicate an entire post just to the term “fragrance” because this one really irks me, but there are still 12 other ingredients to get to…long story short, if a product lists “fragrance” as an ingredient, put it down and look for a product that uses organic, plant-based essential oils for scent instead. (1)

2. FORMALDEHYDE: Used as a preservative (yup, the same stuff used to preserve dead animals for dissection in your high school biology class), formaldehyde is a known carcinogen found in about one in every five cosmetic products. And the worst part? Manufacturers aren’t legally required to list it on the ingredients list. Instead, it’s often listed as “DMDM hydantoin”, “Bronopol”, “Hydroxymethylglycinate” and a few others (which you can find listed in this article Formaldehyde is known to cause rashes, skin irritation, dermatitis, and has high cancer risks. It’s the most toxic when inhaled, and studies show that cosmetic products that contain formaldehyde tend to release particles into the air shortly after application. So skip the formaldehyde and look for a product with a natural preservative instead, such as potassium lactate. (2)

3. PARABENS: While we’re on the topic of preservatives, let’s move on to parabens. Parabens are an artificial preservative used in almost every cosmetic product out there. Similar to formaldehyde, they’re known to cause hormone imbalances, birth defects, skin irritation, and increase the risk of cancer, especially breast cancer. Unfortunately, studies have shown that almost every person’s urine contains traces of parabens, as they are such a common product ingredient. Like most chemical ingredients, parabens have a plethora of names, but some of the most common ones are “methyl-“, “propyl-“, “isopropyl-“, “butyl-“ and “isobutylparaben”. Parabens are a big no no and can sneak onto a product label under many different names, so it’s best to do a quick search before buying if you suspect an ingredient you’re reading could be a paraben. (3)

4. 1,4-DIOXANE: Another big one to look out for is 1,4-Dioxane, which is a chemical found in over 22% of cosmetics that helps to create suds in things like shampoo and hand soap. It’s actually banned in Canada because of it’s known hazards, such as organ toxicity, and is included in California’s list of 65 chemicals to avoid because of known cancer risks. Again, manufacturers know how to be sneaky, so 1,4-Dioxane is usually listed on the ingredients label as “Sodium laureth sulfate”, “PEG compounds”, “ceteareth”, “oleth”, and any ingredients that have “xynol” in their name. Avoid these! (4)

5. PHTHALATES: This is another one that really drives me crazy, especially since they have been banned in the European Union because of known endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer risks. They often appear on the label as “DEP”, “DBP”, “DEHP” and are frequently placed under that umbrella term of “fragrance”. They are included in products to prolong scent, along with adding flexibility to certain nail polishes. Like so many of these chemicals, phthalates don’t legally need to be listed on the label, as long as the term “fragrance” is included. Because of this, phthalates are a tough one to avoid, but if you see “fragrance” in the ingredients list, it’s safe to assume there are phthalates included as well. (5)

6. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): These are two synthetic preservatives that are most often found in lipsticks, but make their way into a number of other cosmetics as well. They are known to induce allergic reactions in the skin and are a known carcinogen. In studies with mice, high amounts of BHT proved to cause liver, thyroid, and kidney problems, along with affected lung function and blood coagulation. BHT has also shown to act as a tumor promoter. Both BHA and BHT are listed as chemicals of potential concern. Let’s just avoid these ones, shall we? (6)

7. TOLUENE: Most commonly found in house paint and gasoline, toluene is another chemical that shows up a lot in nail polishes and some other cosmetics. It’s used to make color last and form a smooth finish. It’s shown to cause nervous system disorders such as spasms, tremors, speech impairment, and memory, hearing, vision and coordination loss. It also may cause skeletal muscle disease and decreased sperm counts. To avoid toluene, especially in nail polishes, look for an all natural polish! (7)

8. TRICLOSAN: Another common chemical found in our everyday products. The FDA actually banned triclosan from antibacterial hand soaps in 2017, but manufacturers are still allowed to add it to personal care products such as toothpaste, dish soaps, and many others. It has been linked to liver and inhalation toxicity, and even small amounts can affect thyroid function. It’s also extremely difficult to filter out of water supplies, so it ends up in large bodies of water, where it’s deadly to aquatic life. It also shows up on ingredients labels as “triclocarban”. To avoid triclosan, don’t buy products that claim to be “antibacterial”. (8)

9. ETHANOLAMINES: Often known as “diethanolamine” aka “DEA”, “triethanolamine”, “TEA”, and so many more, which can be found via this link These are found in a myriad of products, from cosmetics to cleaning agents to shampoos. The European Commission prohibits DEA from cosmetics, as they’ve been linked to liver tumors, cancer, and organ system toxicity. Ethanolamines can interact with other chemicals found in everyday products and create nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. Stay away, stay away! (9)

10. COAL TAR: This one just sounds bad. It goes by many names, such as “petroleum benzin”, “solvent naphtha”, “estar”, oftentimes a couple of letters followed by a few numbers, and many more, which can be found here Coal tar is a known carcinogen that comes from burning coal (yuck). It’s found in virtually everything, from food to hair dye to cosmetics to textiles and is known to cause skin tumors, cancers, and neurological damage. Be especially careful of this one when buying hair dyes and mascaras, as coal tar is often used as a black or brown dye. (10)

11. BENZOPHENONE: A big one to look out for. Look for ingredients that include the word benzophenone, or the letters BP followed by a number. Found in many every day products, it’s known to cause cancer, endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive issues, and organ system toxicity. Be especially careful of this one when buying sunscreen! (11)

12. POLYETHYLENE/PEGS: Often found in scrubs, body wash, makeup and toothpaste, polyethylene is what makes up those little plastic micro beads added to cosmetics to exfoliate the skin. It often contains that other yucky chemical, 1,4-dioxane, and is a known skin irritant and human carcinogen that should never be used on broken skin. Yet another reason to avoid those micro beads! (12)

13. RETINOL: This one is tricky because Retinol is the chemical name of the vital nutrient, vitamin A, but it can be harmful when added to cosmetics in certain forms, known as “retinoic acid” and “retinyl palmitate”. It also shows up on labels as “vitamin A”, “tretinoin”, and words including the clause “retinyl”. It’s known to cause developmental and reproductive toxicity, and is on California’s list of 65 ingredients known to cause cancer. Vitamin A in it’s natural form is vital to human health, but when created synthetically and infused into cosmetics in large amounts, the results are extremely damaging. (13)

And there you have it! My list of 13 ingredients to avoid at all costs. Unfortunately there are thousands of other ingredients out there that have horrible health consequences, but these 13 are the ones I found to be the most common and the most alarming. Moral of the story, don’t trust product labels that claim to be “all natural” or even “organic” before reading the label, as manufacturers know how to be sneaky and throw in a few nasty chemicals. Make sure to read every ingredient label before using a product and if you don’t recognize a certain word, look it up! What we put on our skin is often absorbed into our blood, so it’s absolutely vital to know what each and every ingredient we put on our bodies actually is. Hopefully this list can help you out! <3