The cosmetics, shampoos, lotions, and other products you apply to your skin can be just about as beneficial or harmful as anything you put inside your body. It is essential to nourish your body from the inside out as well as the outside in. Ingredients found in face washes, lotions, sunscreens, and more have been linked to everything from allergic reactions to hormonal disruptions to cancer.
What’s worse is that some of them go directly into your bloodstream and build up over time when applied to the skin or hair. While there are numerous studies with a variety of perspectives on this topic, everyone can agree that using more natural products or—better yet, making your own—is the safest bet for you and the environment.
12 Ingredients to Avoid in Makeup + Skincare Products
1. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
Found in: shampoo, body wash, foundation, face wash, mouthwash, and toothpaste
It is also widely believed to be a major contributor to acne (especially cystic acne) around the mouth and chin because it is comedogenic (clogs pores) [source]. Opt for a natural shampoo, and try making your own chemical-free body wash and toothpaste.
2. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
Found in: exfoliants, perfume
The National Toxicology Program classifies BHA as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”[source] In animal studies, BHA has been shown to exhibit neurotoxic effects [source] and interferes with normal reproductive system development [source] and thyroid hormone levels.
The European Union considers it unsafe in fragrance. Opt for a BHA- and phthalate-free perfume.
3. Triclosan and triclocarban
Found in: toothpaste, deodorant, antibacterial soap
Triclosan was all the rage as antibacterial products became ubiquitous in the 1990s. Even the FDA agrees that the use of triclosan brings no health benefit to humans.
And in 2013, it ruled that manufacturers will have to demonstrate that there are no long-term detrimental effects when using it in products [source]. The chemical was banned by the FDA in 2016 from certain soaps.
Still showing up in many remaining consumer products, triclosan (in liquid products) and triclocarban (in bar soaps) have been linked to hormonal disruptions [source], bacterial resistance, impaired muscle function, impaired immune function, and increased allergies [source].
Instead, use naturally antibacterial and antiseptic agents like tea tree oil.
4. Aminophenol, diaminobenzene, phenylenediamine (coal tar)
Found in: hair dye, shampoo
Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, has been studied mostly for its effects after occupational exposure [source]. It is a known human carcinogen [source], according to the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer [source].
Hairstylists and other professionals are exposed to these chemicals in hair dye almost daily. Europe has banned many of these ingredients in hair dyes. While the FDA sanctions coal tar in specialty products such as dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, the long-term safety of these products has not been demonstrated.
Found in: makeup, moisturizer, shaving gel, shampoo, personal lubricant, and spray tanning products
There are several studies linking parabens, which are endocrine disruptors that mimic estrogen [source], to the promotion of breast cancer [source], skin cancer, and decreased sperm count, but the FDA has not ruled that it is harmful [source]. The most recent concern has been lifetime exposure to parabens, as cosmetic products are used daily over long periods of time [source].
According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl parabens and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutyl parabens, may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders [source].
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics recommends you look to avoid ingredients with the suffix “-paraben.” [source] Also, paraben-free products will be labeled as such.
Found in: scrubs, body wash, makeup, toothpaste
Those tiny plastic beads in face or lip scrubs and exfoliating washes are made from polyethylene (used because they’re gentler on the skin than natural exfoliators like walnut shells). These synthetic chemicals are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. government considers a probable human carcinogen [source] and which readily penetrates the skin.
Polyethylene has been noted as a skin irritant and should never be used on broken skin. These polyethylene beads in scrubs and body washes are also not filtered by our sewage systems, meaning they can collect pollutants and travel into waterways, where they’re consumed by fish and marine animals.
7. Retinyl palmitate and retinyl acetate
Found in: moisturizer, lip products, sunscreen
Retinol products (often designated “anti-aging”) have the opposite intended effect and become ineffective in sunlight, making it extra important to only use them at night and avoid any sunscreens containing retinyl-derived ingredients.
8. Petroleum distillates
Found in: mascara
Petroleum-extracted ingredients used in cosmetics may cause contact dermatitis and are often contaminated with cancer-causing impurities. They are produced in oil refineries at the same time as automobile fuel, heating oil, and chemical feed.
Find or make a non-toxic mascara to use instead.
Found in: moisturizers, deodorant, lotion, face cream, shampoo, conditioner
Federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixtures [source]. Recent research from the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products, none of which were listed on the label.
Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top 5 allergens in the world. Our advice? Buy fragrance-free or a product containing beneficial essential oils wherever possible.
Found in: sunscreen
Studies on cells and laboratory animals indicate that oxybenzone and its metabolites may disrupt the hormone system. It also has high rates of skin allergy.
Opt for safe, physical sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium oxide instead. These are chemical-free, mineral-based ingredients. Don’t forget to cover up with a hat and clothing, and stay out of the sun during peak hours of the day.
11. Dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde
Found in: nail polish and other nail products, perfume, makeup remover
These chemicals, known as the “toxic trio,” have been linked to birth defects, endocrine disruption, headaches, and respiratory problems—especially worrisome for nail salon workers and those who frequently get manis or pedis [source].
It’s advised that pregnant women avoid nail products altogether. Non-toxic nail polish brands like OPI and Zoya have pledged to remove these chemicals from their products. Look for “toxic-trio-free” products.
Found in: skin lighteners
The FDA warns that this skin-bleaching chemical, when used chronically, can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, with “disfiguring and irreversible” blue-black lesions on exposed skin [source]. Illegally imported skin lighteners can contain mercury, which may poison adults and children and is especially toxic during pregnancy [source].
Be wary of imported skin lighteners, don’t buy products without ingredients clearly labeled, and always avoid products with “mercury,” “calomel,” “mercurio,” or “mercurio chloride.”
Learn how to make just about any DIY personal care product on our DIY Bath + Body and Skincare + Makeup pages. You might even become a total DIY beauty routine convert. (I know I couldn’t live without these homemade turmeric masks!)
This post was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Haley, a board-certified dermatologist with extensive experience in medical, cosmetic, and surgical dermatology. Learn more about Hello Glow’s medical review board here. As always, this is not personal medical advice, and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.806