Dirty 13: Most Harmful Ingredients to Avoid in Cosmetics

Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid

Natural. Organic. Green. We are familiar with these monikers. But when searching for safe cosmetics, how do you truly know what is safe and what is not? By learning to identify which cosmetic ingredients to avoid.

Ignore what may be on the front of a product label and get to the real information. The ingredient listing. Even products that say “Natural” or “Organic” sometimes contain nasty toxins detrimental to our health.

Below are the ingredients best avoided in cosmetics and how to easily identify them on a product ingredient listing. Bookmark and save this list so you can refer to it while shopping. And remember, no clear or readily available ingredient listing on the label? Back away from the product.

1. 1,4 Dioxane

Usage: A chemical by-product of ethoxylation, an ingredient processing method used to make petro-ingredients less irritating to skin

Toxicity: Carcinogenic, suspected cardiovascular and blood toxicant, gastrointestinal toxicant, immunotoxicant, kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant, respiratory toxicant, skin toxicant

Found In: Shampoo, facial cleansers, body wash, bubble bath, baby bath, liquid soap

How to ID: Because 1,4 Dioxane is a contaminant produced during the manufacturing process, FDA does not require it to be listed on a product ingredient listing. EWG.org recommends looking for common ingredients which may contain the impurity, identifiable by the prefix or designations of ‘PEG,’ ‘–eth–,’ ‘Polyethylene,’ ‘Polyethylene glycol’ ‘Polyoxyethylene,’ or ‘–oxynol–’ (FDA 2007)


Usage: Foaming agent

Toxicity: Skin sensitizer, can form carcinogenic compounds when mixed with certain cosmetic ingredients

Found In: Makeup, body wash, shampoo, skincare

How to ID: DEA or Diethanolimine, TEA or Triethanolamine, Cocamide DEA or Cocamide Diethanolimine, Lauramide DEA or Lauramide Diethanolimine, DEA Lauryl Sulphate or Diethanolimine Sulfate, Linoleaide DEA or Linoleaide Diethanolimine, Oleamide DEA or Oleamide Diethanolimine

3. Formaldehyde

Usage: An impurity released by some chemical preservatives

Toxicity: Carcinogenic, skin and lung irritant, gastrointestinal or liver toxicant and neurotoxin

Found In: Nail polish, deodorant, shampoo

How to ID: Formaldehyde, Formalin, Urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, Quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, and Sodium hydroxylmethylglycinate

4. Heavy Metals (Metalloestrogens)

Usage: Sweat blocker, colorant, whitener, lightener

Toxicity: Possible carcinogen, developmental and reproductive toxicant, organ system toxicant, allergies and immunotoxicant, bioaccumulation

Found In: Lip products, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner, nail color, foundations, sunscreens, eye shadows, blush, concealer, moisturizers, eye drops

How to ID: Aluminum, Aluminium flake, Aluminum, LB Pigment 5; Pigment metal 1; A 00; A 95; A 995; A 999; AA 1099; AA1199, Lead acetate, Lead flake, Chromium, Thimerosal, Hydrogenated cotton seed oil, Sodium hexametaphosphate

5. Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)

Usage: Preservative

Toxicity: Possible neurotoxin, possible health risks to unborn babies, allergic reactions

Found In: Hair care, body wash, sunscreen, skin care

How to ID: > 3 (2h) -Isothiazolone, 2-Methyl-; Methylchloroisothiazolinone225methylisothiazolinone Solution; 2-Methyl-3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-4-Isothiazolin-3-One; 2-Methyl- 3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-2h-Isothiazol-3-One; 3 (2h) Isothiazolone, 2methyl; 2-Methyl-3 (2h) -Isothiazolone; 2-Methyl-4-Isothiazolin-3-One

6. Parabens

Usage: Preservative

Toxicity: Found in breast tissue, acts like estrogen in the body, could lead to impaired fertility or fetal development

Found In: Soap, skincare, body care, hair care, toothpaste, deodorant

How to ID: Alkyl parahydroxybenzoate, butylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparabens

7. Petrolatum

Usage: Emollient or lubricant

Toxicity: Commonly contains impurities linked to cancer

Found In: Skincare, body care, lip balm, makeup

How to ID: Petrolatum, petroleum jelly, mineral oil

8. Phthalates

Usage: Often used as a carrier for synthetic fragrance

Toxicity: Can negatively affect fertility and fetal development, considered a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organizaiton

Found In: Hair spray, lipstick, perfume and nail polish

How to ID: Benzylbutyl phthalate (BzBP), Di-n-butyl phthalate or Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), Diethyl phthalate (DEP), and sometimes Fragrance (though even nontoxic product makers use the term “fragrance” to protect trade formulas)

9. Propylene Glycol

Usage: Helps a product to retain moisture

Toxicity: Penetration enhancer (alters skin structure, allowing other chemicals to more easily enter the system)

Found In: Skincare, hair care, body care, makeup, baby care products, contact lens cleaner

How to ID: Propylene Glycol, Proptylene Glycol, 1,2-Propanediol. Related synthetics: PEG (polyethylene glycol) and PPG (polypropylene glycol)

10. Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate

Usage: Makes a product foamy

Toxicity: Penetration enhancer (alters skin structure, allowing other chemicals to more easily enter the system)

Found In: Shampoo, facial cleansers, body wash, bubble bath, baby bath, toothpaste

How to ID: Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, Anhydrous Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Irium

11. Synthetic Colorants (FD&C colors)

Usage: Coal tar (petroleum) derived and commonly tested on animals due to their carcinogenic properties, used to artificially color a cosmetic product

Toxicity: Can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions

Found In: Shampoo, facial cleansers, body wash, skincare, baby care products, hair care, makeup

How to ID: FD&C or D&C followed by a name and number (FD&C RED NO. 40)

12. Synthetic Fragrances

Usage: Combination of chemical ingredients used to artificially scent a cosmetic product

Toxicity: Can cause allergic reactions, headache, dizziness, and rash (children tend to be particularly sensitive), respiratory distress, and possible effects to reproductive system

Found In: Hair care, skin care, makeup, body care, perfume

How to ID: Fragrance, parfum (It is important to note that the terms “fragrance” or “parfum” sometimes occur on an ingredient listing which contains natural fragrance ingredients and no chemical ingredients. This is most often due to manufacturer trade secret and should be disclosed on the label.)

13. Synthetic Sunscreens

Usage: Provide sun protection

Toxicity: Have been found to mimic estrogen in the body potentially causing hormonal disruption, can also cause skin irritation and easily absorb in to the skin

Found In: Sunscreens, facial moisturizer, lip protection

How to ID: 4-Methyl-Benzylidencamphor (4-MBC), Oxybenzone Benzophenone-3, Octyl-methoyl-cinnamates (OMC), Octyl-Dimethyl-Para-Amino-Benzoic Acid (OD-PABA), Homosalate(HMS)

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Toxic cosmetics image via Shutterstock

Liz Thompson

Liz Thompson is an organic beauty expert who has been researching and writing on the subjects of natural beauty, health, and wellness for over 10 years. She specializes in sharing safe beauty products and her knowledge on healthy ingredients with her readers, and helping organic beauty brands and shop owners share their message and products with the world through her writing services.