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
SLS has been shown to cause or contribute to skin irritation [source], canker sores [source], disruption of the skin’s natural barrier function [source] and oil balance, and eye damage [source].
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.
Try frankincense, a natural replacement for retinol, or bakuchiol, another plant-based alternative.
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
Oxybenzone is one of the highest-risk chemicals found in sunscreen. It acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals, and is associated with endometriosis in women [source].
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.”
If your overall skin goal is evenness, there are three natural alternatives that don’t involve harsh chemicals: neroli, orange, and chamomile essential oils.
Always Read the Label
Some ingredients in nail polish, body lotion, and make-up is not harmful to you, but to the enviornment, including:
Chemical UV filters: Many sunscreens and other personal care products contain chemical UV filters, which can be harmful to coral reefs and marine life. Look for products that use physical blockers like zinc oxide instead.
Harmful chemicals: Unfortunately, many beauty products contain harmful chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde. Try to avoid products that contain these chemicals, as they can be harmful to your health.
Polyethylene glycol (PEG): This ingredient is often used in cosmetics as a thickener or emulsifier, but it can be harmful to your skin and the environment. Look for products that don’t contain PEG or other potentially harmful ingredients.
Synthetic fragrance: Many perfumes and other scented products contain synthetic fragrances that can trigger allergies and other health problems. Look for products that use natural fragrances instead.
Immune system and hormonal disruption: Some chemicals, such as triclosan and phthalates, can disrupt the immune system or interfere with hormonal balance. Look for products that don’t contain these ingredients.
Developmental and reproductive toxicity: Some chemicals can be harmful to fetal development or reproductive health. Look for products that are free of potentially harmful chemicals like lead, mercury, and formaldehyde.
Mineral oil: This ingredient is commonly used in skincare and cosmetic products, but it can clog pores and prevent your skin from breathing. Look for products that use natural oils instead.
Shaving cream: Many shaving creams contain ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) that can dry out your skin and cause irritation. Look for natural shaving creams that are free of harmful chemicals.
Known carcinogens: Some ingredients, such as coal tar and formaldehyde, are known to cause cancer. Look for products that are free of these ingredients.
Chemical preservatives: Many beauty products contain preservatives to extend their shelf life, but some of these preservatives can be harmful to your health. Look for products that use natural preservatives like vitamin E or rosemary extract.
Nail polish: Nail polish is often packed with toxic chemicals like formaldehyde resin, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene that can cause allergic contact dermatitis. Studies have shown that chemicals in nail polish can be absorbed into the body, which is why it’s important to read the label and understand the contents of any product.
Chemical sunscreens: Some chemical sunscreens contain ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate that can be harmful to coral reefs and marine life. Look for sunscreens that use physical blockers like zinc oxide instead.
Zinc oxide: This ingredient is often used in natural sunscreens and other beauty products, as it provides protection against UV rays. Look for products that contain zinc oxide to protect your skin from sun damage.
Lip balm: Many lip balms contain ingredients like petroleum jelly that can be harmful to your skin. Look for natural lip balms that use ingredients like beeswax and shea butter.
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 reviewers here. As always, this is not personal medical advice, and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.911
Natalie Ann Redman says
what about phenoxyethanol, what does it say about this ingredient in either cosmetics or skincare? id love to know!
Ann Kleinman says
All I’m saying is I’m cutting waaay back on cosmetics and all the things that are questionable or I cant pronounce. I’ve got to, for my mystery health issues, trying rule things out. It feels weird without so much makeup, perfume, and all the things I used to use. But I just got to do this. Take careful care everyone. Health means everything.
“…. and what’s worse is that they go directly into your bloodstream when applied to the skin or hair.”
– Which is total and absolute nonsense.
Why is that?
Can you explain? I do know that my mom was prescribed some medicines she just wipes on to her skin, which means it does get absorbed into the blood stream quite easily?
Cosmetics are MUCH different than drugs. Active ingredients are able to penetrate your skin layers and reach your bloodstream, not inactive ingredients. This article is BS and doesn’t even give proper citations. “SLS causes skin irritation” well yes if they are improperly formulated applied directly to the skin. But these ingredients have not been linked to these health issues. And if they have, the FDA bans their use as they have with triclosan in hand soap.
I’ve been stressed out lately & I think that’s caused a painful cyst-like bump to form under my skin. Ouch. I know not to try popping it, so I’m going to try an at-home remedy using sea salt & baking soda to try to decrease swelling.
Rebecca E. Webber says
I get those, I have throughout my life. You are right to not pop it! I’ve had to have them removed. They are a cyst and can’t hurt you but they do get sore when the grow.
This site was a bit useful for me and the description was really approaching….. but I think that some more information was required regarding the harmful chemicals….. hope you would do it for the next time!!!
I make all natural makeup eyeshadows highlighters mainly right now if you would like to try some cream some powder the cream does have oils like jojoba or almond etc
And just because the AMA doesn’t approve such studies doesn’t mean tgey havent been done and that doesn’t take away the validity of the claim therefore you are the one who should be embarrassed. There are plenty of other ways to block the sun. Ypu putting out a claim about lavender without providing your documented studies is just as irresponsible as ypu claim the author is. So please…sit down. Until you are staring cancer in the face you have no right to tell ANYONE they shouldn’t have access to this information. Natural always means better. It is from the earth and from Godand our bodies can eliminate it properly. You soujd hypocritical and foolish.
Sarah Afifah says
Hi, about BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid); if in one toner, they have combination of AHA,BHA,PHA, Niacinamide 2% –> is that OK to use? Because somes said that this combination are good and beneficial to all skin types. Can you explain. Thank you.
Zei Ham says
Hi. Could you please advise where you studied ? Thanks
Do you know how to avoid cosmetic that use Hydroquinone? Sometimes some product doesn’t write it on their label.
You also cannot claim things are safe for everyone when they have not been tested. I have been told to avoid products containing formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers by an allergist. These products have many names and products without them tend to cost more as formaldehyde releasers are preservatives.
What about Ethylhexyl Palmitate? Is that safe?
I have gone through this site.Now a days we are using lots of cosmetic products without knowing their harmful effects.this site make us aware of the precautions while purchasing the cosmetic materials.We also have a same kind of site which deal with health issues.For more information please visit to our website.
You may be the one who needs to research these products. You may also want to research hormone be and what happens when they are out of whack. You may also want to research estrogen and things that mimic estrogen. Bad bad stuff. Why would anyone want to put chemicals on there bodies. Would you open your mouth and pour chemicals down your throat. Well when you use products with chemicals, that’s pretty much what you’re doing. They are absorbed into your body. Da! Some people are just idiots.
The BHA in chemical exfoliants stand for beta hydroxy acid (typically salicylic acid which helps with a number of skin concerns), not the chemical this list says. It would have taken simple research to see this difference.
yasha jackson says
all product ingredients doesnt affect everyone you have to find what works for you and make-up is a multi billion industry as we can see these so called dangerous ingredients isnt stopping no ones show??
I recently had a bad reaction with propylene glycol in Toms deodorant, let’s just say I haven’t used it since, and try to stay away from products containing it. The reaction caused horrible peeling, darkening, and redness under my arms. Thank you for this list.
The Dame International says
This is SO important, I wish more people would ask “what’s in my cosmetics?” and not just, “is this tested in animals”.
Laura H says
Seeing BHA on this list makes me wonder how well researched this list is, as it seems the author is confusing Beta Hydroxy Acid (salicylic acid, an exfoliant, often called BHA) with butylated hydroxyanisole, a preservative/stabilizer. They are not the same thing. Butylated hydroxyanisole is not used as an exfoliant but it’s listed as being found in them in the list above, which is what makes me think it’s being confused as being the same thing as Beta Hydroxy Acid. Is this a mistake?
In addition, it seems odd to include retinol on here when it can be irritating to some people, but for others (like myself!) it’s a miracle product. It’s not the same thing as parabens or formaldehyde, which have scientifically backed horrific effects! I avoid most of these ingredients but some of it seems like fear mongering and not well researched.
Thanks for the post! I see a lot of variations on Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Cocosulfates. Should these be avoided as well?