My Cart


12 Sketchy Ingredients in Your Beauty Products

Written by Elizabeth Lynn


Posted on December 13 2018

We consider the following 12 popular chemicals as the Cardinal Sins of Ingredients used in the beauty industry. News Flash: You most likely use most of them every day.  

1. Phthalates

Found in: skin-care, hair-care, nail polish, plastics 

What's the Deal: Phthalates (also called phthalic acid esters) are multifunctional chemicals. 

Why it's Sketch:This family of ingredients is restricted in the E.U. and has possible links to cancer, says Sobel. And, according to Sigurdson, phthalates have been linked to hormonal disruption in men and women. There have been concerns over phthalates’ exposure to the body due to their detection in blood, amniotic fluid and human breast milk across many countries (Koniecki et al, 2011). Currently, all phthalates have been banned from cosmetics in the European Union under category two substances (which may be considered as impairing fertility) (Koniecki et al, 2011) however, some countries such as USA still employ phthalates in cosmetics and skincare products.

2. Parabens

Found in: skin-care, makeup, and hair-care

What's the Deal: Parabens are a family of synthetic esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid that share similar molecular structures and are widely used as preservatives. Paraben compounds; the most common being methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben have been found to affect oestrogen levels, potentially impacting female reproductive health (Gao et al, 2016).

Why it's Sketch: Sigurdson cites a Harvard study that connected paraben build-up in the body with reduced fertility, which is part of why this specific long-chain paraben in the paraben family (which are used as preservatives) has been targeted by the EWG. 

In general, parabens are estrogenic (meaning they have characteristics similar estrogen hormones and can disrupt your body's normal hormonal balance), confirms Wilson, but you should also keep in mind that they are not as estrogenic as, say, the soy in your food. She adds: “A frequently referenced study in Europe found parabens in breast cancer tissue. However, it was not well done.”

Experts agree that more research is necessary, but if you're being hyper careful, Sobel suggests avoiding parabens completely and, if you're trying to get pregnant, your man should too.This is further supported by a new study by Geer et al (2016), which found an association between antimicrobials and adverse birth outcomes in neonates. These findings are also consistent with animal data resulting in developmental and reproductive toxicity.

3. Petroleum

Found in: skin-care and hair-care

What's the Deal: 

Why it's Sketch: While petroleum-derived ingredients like mineral oil, paraffin, and petrolatum are the bomb at keeping skin moisturized, “there have been links to cancer and its long-term use is questionable,” says Howard Sobel, New York City dermatologist and founder of the brand DDF Skin Care. “If you put it on once it’s unlikely you’ll get cancer, but for long-term use I do tell my patients to avoid these ingredients.”

4. Triclosan

Found in:

What's the Deal: Triclosan is a wide-spectrum antimicrobial agent.

Why it's Sketch: It is believed that Triclosan can penetrate through the skin and it is a suspected endocrine disruptor, that is, it affects hormone function. This is supported by a 2009 study which found that triclosan decreased thyroid hormone concentrations. In addition, another study showed that triclosan enhanced the expression of androgen and oestrogen-sensitive genes (Zorilla et al, 2008, Ahn et al 2008). Furthermore, Triclosans lipophilic nature has shown accumulation in fatty tissues, which has been supported by studies that found concentrations of triclosan in three out of five human milk samples (Adolfsson-Erici et al, 2002, Allymr et al, 2006)

5. Sodium laureth sulphate/sodium lauryl sulphate

Found in:

What's the Deal: Sodium laureth sulphate/sodium lauryl sulphate was introduced globally more than 60 years ago as an emulsifier or detergent. Alone or in combination, these surfactants are used as the primary detergents in a majority of products such as skin cleansers. 

Why it's Sketch: Studies on skin irritation of surfactants show that irritation is dependent on the structure of the sulphate. SLS is an anionic detergent which tends to be more irritating to the skin and eyes in comparison to amphoteric and non-ionic detergents (L. Rhein, 2007).

Their ability to remove stratum corneum lipids means they penetrate the skin deeper into the viable layers and cause immune reactions.

In addition, they are also known to elicit skin reactions such as irritant contact dermatitis or may cause inflammation. Though emulsions are often used to treat inflammatory skin disorders such as eczema, emulsions may also cause skin disorders because of the presence of surfactants added as stabilisers (Bárány et al, 2000).

6. Polyethylene glycols (PEGs)

Found in: skin-care 

What's the Deal: Polyethylene glycols are petroleum-based ingredients and are often used in creams in particular, as a moisturizing agent. They have a penetration-enhancing effect, which is important to remember for several reasons. One of them being, PEGs make it easier for other undesirable ingredients in your skincare products to penetrate deep into your skin.

Why it's Sketch: Studies have shown exposure to high concentrations of 1,4-dioxane may cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation, nervous system effects, and liver and kidney toxicity (Stickney and Carlson-Lynch, 2014). Secondly, PEGs have the potential to disrupt the skin’s natural moisture balance, thus altering the surface tension of the skin. And thirdly, PEGs often come contaminated with toxic impurities. Examples of these impurities are ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. 

7. Imidazolidinyl urea

Found in: Water-based cosmetics.

What's the Deal: It serves as a preservative or additive in these types of products and after application often remains on the skin for hours, allowing sufficient time to be absorbed by the skin’s dermal cells.

Why It's Sketch: Its formaldehyde-releasing ability makes it a potential allergen and toxicant in humans. Formaldehyde in cosmetics is widely understood to cause allergic skin reactions and rashes in some people (Flyvholm MA and Menne T, 1992; Boyvat A, 2005; Prat et al 2004).

8. Triethanolamine (TEA)

Found in:

What's the Deal: Triethanolamine (TEA) is primarily used as a pH adjuster and it also has several other purposes in cosmetic and personal care products, for example, a surfactant, buffering and masking agent.

Why it's Sketch: TEA is an amine produced by reacting ethylene oxide (considered highly toxic) with ammonia (another known toxin). These compounds break down over time and recombine to form nitrosamines which can be carcinogenic and toxic. It has been determined by CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review Assessments) as a skin toxicant and “safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with the skin, the concentration of Triethanolamine should not exceed 5%.”

Other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals to look out for are DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, methenamine, and quarternium-15.

Although ethylene oxide has exhibited a low carcinogenic potency in animal models, epidemiological studies have not conclusively linked exposures to ethylene oxide with carcinogenic outcomes in humans (Parod, 2014). Information on PEG toxicity is limited and contradictory, but they should be avoided to ensure safety.

9. Sunscreen chemicals

Found in: Sunscreen 

What's the Deal: Sunscreen chemicals such as benzophenone-3, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (EHMC) and butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, (BMDBM) have more recently been utilised in cosmetic and personal care products to protect consumers against the adverse effects of solar radiation.

Why it's Sketch: Some UV filters can have side effects with potential health risks to the consumer. Laboratory studies of several sunscreen chemicals indicate that they may mimic hormones and disrupt the hormone system (Krause et al 2012; Schlumpf 2001, 2008). In addition, two European studies have detected sunscreen chemicals in mothers’ breast milk, indicating that the developing fetus and newborns may be exposed to these substances (Schlumpf 2008; Schlumpf 2010). A 2010 study by Margaret Schlumpf of the University of Zurich found at least one sunscreen chemical in 85 percent of milk samples.

Mineral sunscreens such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are usually better in terms of safety, however, it is important the forms used are coated with inert chemicals as to reduce photo-activity otherwise the user could potentially suffer damage to their skin.

10. Synthetic colorants

Found in: Cosmetics and hair dyes

What's the Deal: Used in cosmetics and hair dyes to make them look ‘pretty’, however, the FD&C colors* used in these product types are derived from coal tar (a byproduct of petroleum). Some of these are restricted by the FDA, (Food and Drugs Administration) in the USA, to 10 parts per million of lead and arsenic due to their carcinogenic nature.

Why it's Sketch:  In the United States, FD&C numbers [which indicate that the FDA has approved the colorant for use in foods, drugs and cosmetics] are given to approved synthetic food dyes that do not exist in nature. A study conducted in 2009 found women who used permanent hair dye once a month for more than a year double their risk of bladder cancer (Jiang et al, 2001). In addition, Lake** colors can also be derived from coal tar and stimulate allergic reactions.

** A lake pigment is a pigment manufactured by precipitating a dye with an inert binder, or “mordant”, usually a metallic salt.)

11. Synthetic Fragrances

Found in: perfume, skin-care, makeup, and hair-care.

What's the Deal: Synthetic fragrances are used in some cosmetic products and primarily personal care products. However, they are not required to be declared in the ingredients list other than indicated under ‘parfum’, therefore it is impossible to know which fragrance substances are in the cosmetic products we purchase. You even have to be careful when looking at Essential Oils -- most are synthetic essential oils. Marketing scheming at its finest. 

Why it's Sketch: This has raised some concerns as there have been some reported side-effects of these substances related to skin sensitivity, rashes, dermatitis, coughing, asthma attacks, migraine, etc (De Groot and Frosch, 1997, Bickers, et al., 2003). Some of the ingredients of concern and their potential effects can be further read-up on the following link

12. Polyacrylamides

Found in: color cosmetics, skin-care lotions and moisturizers

What's the Deal: Polyacrylamides is used as a stabilizer and binding agents or foaming, anti-static, and lubricating agents. Though the ingredient itself is not a concern, its potential to break down into acrylamide, which is a suspected carcinogenic, is concerning.

Why it's Sketch: Human studies who have found associations between acrylamide exposure and pancreatic cancer among men, exposed in the workplace. Moreover, studies have shown that acrylamide may reduce fetal weight at doses in the low parts per million ranges (Manson et al, 2005). As a consequence of the potential negative effects, the use of acrylamide is banned in cosmetics in the EU and the EU also sets limits on the amount of residual acrylamide allowed in products containing polyacrylamide.

13. Hydroquinone

Found in: Facial Skin-Care -- Brightening and Lightening Products.

What's the Deal: Hydroquinone is used primarily in skincare products as a whitening agent.

Why it's Sketch: First off, it's outlawed in Europe and Japan.... & pretty much everywhere else, except in the USA. 

“It is cytotoxic, meaning it will kill cells and chromosomes if overused, which can lead to some cancers."Hydroquinone has been related to several health concerns, cancer and organ-system toxicity. Studies which support these concerns have shown hydroquinone works by decreasing the production and increasing the degradation of melanin pigments in the skin. This increases the skin’s exposure to UVA and UVB rays, increasing the risk of skin cancer (Jimbow et al, 1974). Mouse studies in Europe revealed a link between heavy use and cancer, the U.S. continues to use hydroquinone at a prescription-only level of 4 percent (to control the exposure to the drug) and at 2 percent, which are available over-the-counter.

Also, hydroquinone has been linked to a skin condition called Ochronosis in which the skin thickens and turns bluish-grey (Findlay et al, 1975).