The beauty industry has an ugly secret. Most skin care products–both regular and “organic”–contain harmful chemicals. When it comes to cosmetics, no one regulates what “organic” or “natural” means. Your makeup, face cream, skin moisturizer, or cleanser may deliver short term smoothness and brightness, but it may disrupt your hormones and fertility, expose you to known cancer-causing pesticides, and deliver dangerous toxins that penetrate and age your skin. That’s right. The cosmetics you use may actually speed the formation of wrinkles, age spots, and worse.
In the US, researchers have found 1 of every 8 ingredients used in cosmetics is an industrial chemical. Many of these were originally created to keep concrete soft, remove grease from auto parts, and as surfactants paints and inks.
You might think if these industrial chemicals were that bad they’d be banned. In fact, many are…in Europe. European authorities have banned more than a thousand of these chemicals. In the US, the FDA has banned eight.
Lookout for These 19 Ingredients
To protect your skin and keep it looking young, firm, and bright, look for these chemicals in all skin care products–and avoid them.
Used to lighten skin, BHA and BHT are considered by the National Toxicology Program as a likely carcinogen. In studies, animals exposed to these chemicals developed stomach cancer and liver damage, and developed complications with their thyroid and reproductive organs. Banned in Europe.
Sodium Borate / Boric Acid
These chemicals interfere with hormones and cause infertility in men. Regular exposure is linked to low sperm counts. It absorbs easily through the skin and is used in diaper creams. Banned in Europe and Canada, and the cosmetic industry states it’s unsafe for infants.
You can find coal tar still used in hair dyes and dandruff and psoriasis shampoos. It’s recognized as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. On ingredient lists, it goes by aminophenol, diaminobenzene, and phenylenediamine.
Another known cancer causing agent, formaldehyde also harms the brain, interferes with growth and development in children, and induces asthma. These preservatives slowly release formaldehyde to keep the skin care product from spoiling. These often trigger allergic reactions on the skin. If you’ve ever experienced a contact allergy after using a skin lotion, it probably had one of these ingredients: DMDM Hydantoin (very common), diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, and quaternium-15.
These go by many names like Propylene glycol, polyethylene glycols, or polyoxyethylene as they are petroleum-based compounds. But they go by other names too; If you see a word with “–eth” or “–oxynol” in it, it’s likely one of these PEGs. These chemicals can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a chemical the FDA says may cause cancer.
Another skin lightener, it causes a skin disease called ochronosis that features black and blue lesions that can become permanent. In animals, studies have found enough exposure leads to tumor development.
You know mercury is bad, but some cosmetics use it to lighten the skin. It absorbs easily through your skin and with enough use can develop into mercury poisoning. Steer clear of products with “calomel,” “mercurio,” “mercurio chloride,” or just plain old “mercury.”
Sunscreens use oxybenzone to absorb UV light. In humans, this chemical causes skin irritation and allergic reactions. Animal studies report it acts as an endocrine disruptor and interferes with hormone activity.
You’ll find this one in many antibacterial hand soaps and hand sanitizers. But it’s also used in deodorants, skin cleansers, and toothpaste. It’s another endocrine disruptor that harms your thyroid and reproductive hormones.
You’ve probably seen a slew of products marketing themselves as “paraben-free.” These chemicals mimic estrogen and lead to hormone imbalance. Now, CDC reports suggest their presence in every American’s body. Whether they are or aren’t, avoid products with parabens to prevent reproductive issues like infertility or slowed growth and developmental disorders in children.
Also called perfume, these terms indicate a mixture of ingredients that cosmetic companies don’t have to legally tell you about. Three thousand or more chemicals may be used to create a fragrance. Some “Unscented” products contain fragrances with masking agents. Some fragrances have been linked to allergic reactions, asthma, and breathing difficulties while others have links to cancers.
Used in mascara, these ingredients come from oil refineries and often contain impurities linked to cancer.
These, and similar ingredients labeled as “methicones,” soften and smooth skin. They also disrupt your hormones and interfere with fertility and libido.
Sodium Lauryl (Laureth) Sulfate
You’ll find this one in most shampoos, soaps, and cleansers. It may contain 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen, and ethylene oxide, a chemical known to harm your nervous system. The California EPA has even identified it as a possible developmental toxin.
Used in nail polish, toluene is also used in paint thinners. Research suggests it interferes with the human immune system and may be tied to the development of malignant lymphoma.
Retinol, or Retinyl Palmitate/Acetate
These vitamin A compounds are not safe for skin use. Sunlight breaks them down and creates free radicals that increase the risk of skin cancers. Avoid all skin and lip products with any of these vitamin A chemicals.
Used in dandruff shampoos, these ingredients wreak havoc when rinsed down the drain and into nature. Researchers report that one fungicide, climbazole, kills tiny organisms like algae and stops growth in larger plants and fish.
Many cosmetics now use nanoparticles to deliver chemicals to the surface or even into the skin. Many of these products have not been evaluated for safety. Some are even used in sprays that make it possible for particulates to enter your lungs and blood stream.
- FDA. Cosmetics.
- Suzuki, David. Dirty Dozen Cosmetic Chemicals to Avoid.
- FDA. 1,4-Dioxane A Manufacturing Byproduct.
- Breast Cancer Fund. Phthalates.
- Suzuki, David. Sodium Laureth Sulfate.
- Richter E1, Wick A, Ternes TA, Coors A. Ecotoxicity of climbazole, a fungicide contained in antidandruff shampoo. Environ Toxicol Chem. 2013 Dec;32(12):2816-25. doi: 10.1002/etc.2367.
- Bowe WP, Pugliese S. Cosmetic benefits of natural ingredients. J Drugs Dermatol. 2014 Sep;13(9):1021-5; quiz 26-7.