Ingredients I Avoid

Going “green” with beauty products wasn’t hard per se, but it definitely took some time and effort. When I first started reading about “green beauty” I was shocked by the number of harmful chemicals put in beauty products, and then saddened that I was putting those all over my body. I realized that pretty much every product I used had some sort of chemical on the “bad” list. Sadly, many products had multiple.

One thing I found when doing research on ingredients is that certain websites or books would list something as very harmful but never show or provide the research to back up their statements. I’m a pretty research/data-driven person, so for all of these, I have tried to find original research or official sources to back up why these might be harmful, and have linked to them.

The below ingredients are ones I try to avoid whenever possible. The one exclusion being phenoxyethanol. While I do have concerns, it is in so many ‘natural’ products, it’s not a deal-breaker for me (but that doesn’t necessarily mean I like it).

Aluminum Zirconium
This is what is used in traditional anti-perspirant to stop sweating. Unfortunately, aluminium is a well-known neurotoxin that can cross the blood-brain barrier and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease but there is no causal relationship. There is some concern about a link to breast cancer because aluminum was found in breast cancer tissue, but other studies show no connection. It can also be a skin irritant. Those with kidney dysfunction should also not use antiperspirant with aluminium because of the increased risk of exposure and accumulation.

There are actually many types of dioxins, I will just talk about the group as a whole. This is a little different then the other chemicals in this list in that no one purposefully puts dioxins in something. Dioxins are created through the breakdown, or as a by-product of something else. In the US, dioxins have mostly be created from a byproduct of PVC and pesticides/herbicides. The problem with dioxins is that they are very stable. What this means is that once they are made, they stick around. Because they are fat soluble, once they are in our body, they usually just hang out in our fat cells. For years. And unfortunately they are really toxic. They are known to cause cancer, liver damage, and developmental issues.

Formaldehyde is used as an embalmer and is also a great preservative since it kills most bacteria. Unfortunately, it’s also a known carcinogen. It can be found in nail polish and other random beauty products. For nail polish, look for the “3 Free” – one of those 3 being formaldehyde. For other products, just check the ingredients label.

The scary thing about formaldehyde is not only do you have to worry about it being on the label (although I rarely see it in beauty product ingredient labels beyond nail polish), is that there is a class of “formaldehyde releasers” that actually release formaldehyde. These include:

  • Quaternium-15
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin

And you WILL see these on labels, because they are also preservatives.

Hydroquinone is a skin bleaching ingredient that the FDA has ruled is a potential carcinogen (causes cancer) and can cause ochronosis, a disfiguring disease in which blue-black pigments are deposited onto the skin. It is currently under review by the National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, to see if it should be taken off the market. Look on the label for hydroquinone. There are now many skin lightening creams that do not use hydroquinone.

Lead is a toxin that affects multiple organ systems. After all, we DID take it out of paint and gasoline for a reason. Unfortunately, it can still be found in certain makeup such as lipsticks and hair dyes. The FDA has stated the levels found in these two products are safe, but it comes down to the idea of – how much toxin is a safe toxin? I’d rather have NO toxin. Lead is listed as lead acetate on hair dyes. Look on the label for “lead free”.

Oh parabens. This is one of the most commonly-known, and controversial, of chemicals. It is a preservative, and it is a good preservative at that, which is why so many companies use(d) it. Unfortunately, it can mimic estrogen and has been found in breast tumors – although no direct causal link with breast cancer has been established. It also can be a skin irritant. It can be found in almost any type of beauty product that needs a preservative (and they pretty much all do). There are many types of parabens, but the last part will always say “paraben”. The FDA has stated parabens are safe, but many people (myself included) try to stay away from them.

When parabens were taken out of many skin care products, many companies put phenoxyethanol in their place. It’s also a very good preservative but research is coming out that shows it may also have some side effects. It can be a skin irritant, along the same lines as parabens. The main concern came when the FDA released an advisory against a nipple cream saying that phenoxyethanol can “depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration in infants.” It’s not clear if this is only because it will be ingested by infants from the nipple cream and if topically it’s ok? But that advisory raised a lot of red flags about this now widely used preservative. I still use it, mainly because it’s in a lot of my favorite products, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Phthalates are endocrine disrupters. What exactly is an endocrine disruptor? Well, the endocrine system is another word for our hormone system, and hormones have a part in pretty much every part of our body. By hormones, I don’t mean THOSE hormones that go crazy in puberty, although those are a part of it. Anything that messes with your endocrine system can affect your fertility, metabolism, immune system, brain function and early development. Phthalates are most known for affecting development of children, but if something is bad for a child – it could probably be bad for an adult too. Three more sources about phthalates, National Academies Press, National Resources Defense Council and CDC.

The scary thing about phthalates? They are widely used in a variety of every day products. In beauty products, they are mostly found in fragrance. Anytime you read a label and it says “fragrance”, it could have phthalates. And unfortunately, most products use fragrance to cover up the smell of the other chemicals in it. I’ve even seen mascara with fragrance. Really? I need a fragrant mascara? Perfumes, candles and even plug-in’s for your home can have phthalates. In Europe, the use of phthalates in cosmetics are banned, but they are still commonly used in the US.

So how do you avoid? Look on the label for phthalate-free. You will rarely see it listed as an actual ingredient, because it is usually hiding in the “fragrance” and with our current labeling laws, companies don’t have to disclose what they put in their fragrance. Some fragrance companies are starting to make phthalate-free fragrance oils, and some perfume companies are even going phthalate-free, such as L’Occitane. So just look for that “phthalate-free”.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate/Sodium Laureth Sulfate
SLS is a surfactant, another word for soap or detergent. It also makes a nice foam. The main problem with SLS is that it can be a skin irritant and can cause canker sores when used in toothpaste. I read that it may be linked with cancer on a couple of websites, but I cannot find an article or official source to agree so I’m not sure about that statement. SLS can be found in toothpastes, shampoos, facial cleansers, body wash, acne treatment, exfoliants – anything that needs to foam and/or clean. It will be listed on the label as sodium lauryl sulfate. Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) was considered to be a more mild version of SLS, but the latest research shows it can be irritating too. There is also a possibility that SLES may be contaminated with 1,1-Dioxane, a potential carcinogen.

I will try to be as objective as possible with this, but I really, really don’t like triclosan. It may be, no – it is, my least favorite of all of the chemicals listed on this page. Not because it’s the most dangerous, but because it’s so widely used and it doesn’t need to be.

Triclosan is antibacterial and antifungal and is found in almost all liquid hand soaps (and even toothpaste!), yet even the FDA has come out to say it does absolutely nothing beyond what simple soap and water can do. The safety of triclosan is actually currently under review by the FDA and in Canada. Besides the fact is adds nothing extra to cleaning hands, it has multiple issues. One, it has been shown to be a skin irritant and has been linked with allergies/hay fever.

Another problem with triclosan is that it can break down to pretty harmful stuff. When it combines with chlorine (think chlorine in our tap water that is used as to kill bad stuff), it can break down to dioxin. Dioxins are very bad (check out that section above). As well as dioxin, triclosan and chlorine can form chlorform, a carcinogen.

Another problem with triclosan is that it may be an endocrine dispruptor. Whereas some other chemicals mimic estrogen, triclosan mimics thyroid hormone. Now this was found in bullfrogs and rats but not humans, but it’s something to consider.

Triclosan has been found in dolphins, fish and even human milk. And how did it get to those dolphins and fish? From the millions of people washing their hands with soap that has triclosan and rinsing it down the drain. How did it get into human milk? Triclosan has been shown to enter the bloodstream through skin.

Lastly, one concern with triclosan, or any commonly used antibacterial, is that it can cause resistance that leads to more dangerous, hard-to-kill bacteria. No research has shown that to be true yet, but it is always a possibility.

Sooo, all of these reasons are why I choose to not buy liquid soaps with triclosan.

Triethanolamine/Diethanolamine (TEA/DEA)
These are used primarily as an emulsifier and surfactant. They can also be used as a pH buffer. They also can be a skin irritant, and TEA was shown to cause liver tumors in mice. Sadly, these are also pretty bad for the environment. They have been shown to be toxic to acquatic life. On the label, look for the full names or TEA or DEA.


  1. Hello,

    While looking up new natural beauty blogs for me to read, I stumbled upon this post and really enjoyed reading it! I recently opened up a a natural beauty boutique, and I always enjoy reading more information about ingredients.



  2. This is a fantastically well-researched list that I’ve (whoops) just now gotten around to reading. Thank you for putting this information out there!

  3. Dariusz says:

    Unfortunately, aluminium is a well-known neurotoxin that can cross the blood-brain barrier yes and you see in what dose ? “An area of past and continuin
    function with age.
    Based on the available scientific literature, neurotoxic effects are not expected at the levels of
    aluminium to which the general public is typically exposed.
    A recent guideline study8 has demonstrated mild neurological effects in rats exposed to high
    levels of aluminium. These effects were only observed at aluminium levels a thousand‐fold
    higher than what is typically found in treated drinking water and food. ”
    In one article you wrote about dose in other you ignore this.

    • You do make a valid point. I should be more specific in my discussions of the ingredients (and they are due for an update!). While it is true that the dose in certain studies is far more than what you use on a daily basis. I have three concerns with aluminum: 1) it is a well known neurotoxin, 2) it can cross the blood-brain barrier so can directly affect the brain, and 3) it is found in deodorants that people apply every day. So while the dose may be less, what about the time? It may only be 1/1,000 of a dose that is shown to cause acute/immediate harm, but that small dose may be applied 15,000-20,000 times (or more!) throughout someone’s lifetime! So it’s not that I ignored the dose factor, I’m more concerned about the long-term effects given that it can cross the blood-brain barrier.

      And with aluminum specifically, there are SO many well-formulated, aluminum-free deodorants out there, why even take the risk?

      Hopefully my explanation helps you understand my point of view a bit more?

  4. Great wrap-up, Cori!

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