The world of skin care products can be difficult to navigate, especially if you have sensitive skin. Most personal care products have a huge ingredient list with names of chemicals that are difficult to read and understand. In this article, we have broken down the top ten most harmful ingredients in skin care products which can cause irritation, or have properties that are known carcinogens or hormone disruptors.
Parabens are preservatives found in everything from soap to lotion to makeup. If it has water in it, it probably has a paraben to keep it from growing bacteria. Examples include: methylparaben, proplyparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben. If “paraben” is in the word, avoid it. Parabens are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic estrogen in the body and can lead to hormonal imbalances, and possibly even breast cancer. For example, a recent study found concentrations of parabens, specifically methylparaben, in human breast tumors. Another study found 99% of all cancerous breast tumors contained parabens.
2. Artificial Fragrance/Parfum
Almost every single conventional skincare and cosmetic product (even “unscented” ones) contains artificial fragrances. Manufacturers aren’t required to reveal what’s actually in their fragrances, so you’ll simply see Fragrance or Parfum on the ingredients list when it could actually be a cocktail of carcinogens, allergens, endocrine disruptors, and irritants.
3. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate
SLS/SLES are foaming agents used in a slew of personal care products, including skin care and cosmetics, shampoo, and toothpaste. They are surfactants that can cause skin irritation or trigger allergies. Additionally, chemical compounds known as “nitrosamines” are common by-products of the sulphation process. 90% of nitrosamines are believed to be carcinogenic.
Toluene is a chemical commonly found in nail polish and hair dyes. It is a volatile petrochemical solvent that can be toxic to the immune system and can cause birth defects. If you’re pregnant, be especially careful and avoid nail polish containing toluene entirely.
A phthalate is a plasticizer that is added to plastic to keep it from becoming brittle. Phthalates are used in cosmetics primarily in fragrances, and can also be found in other personal care products, such as hair spray and nail polish. Examples include: DBP, DEHP, DEP and others. Like parabens, phthalates are endocrine disruptors and can cause hormonal and reproductive problems and birth defects.
6. Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)
Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) is used is many types of cosmetics as a thickener, especially in lotions, shampoo, and sunscreen. PEG is often contaminated with both ethylene oxide (a known carcinogen) and 1,4-Dioxane (which causes respiratory problems and is banned in Canada).
Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in cosmetics. It’s a known carcinogen that is also linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity. It can be found in preservatives such as quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, and imidazolidinyl urea.
Sunscreens come in two different forms: chemical and mineral filters. The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters such as oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor and can alter thyroid function. It’s also linked to skin allergies. Chemical sunscreens should be avoided at all costs—especially with children. Oxybenzone can also be found in moisturizers, lip balm, and makeup.
Diethanolamine is a foaming agent. It’s a known carcinogen and respiratory toxin, which is why the EU has restricted its use in personal care products. Despite this, it’s still used in bubble bath, body wash, and shampoo in the US. It’s often abbreviated as DEA on cosmetic labels.
Triclosan is an antibacterial agent once used in antibacterial soaps. In 2016, it was banned from soap used in health-care settings, but it is still allowed in personal cosmetics. Not only does triclosan contribute to antibiotic resistant bacteria, but it’s also an endocrine disruptor and was shown to contribute to gut inflammation and promote tumor growth in mouse studies. Not good.
Now that you are familiar with the top ten harmful ingredients, make sure to look out for them in your personal care products! As you start the journey to learn more about what is in your skin care products, this list could identify any barriers in your current health regime, especially if you are at higher risk for certain health conditions. We hope this list was helpful! Feel free to check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” cosmetic database, where you can search ingredients or personal care product names to see its safety rating.
By: Dr. Arlene Dubier ND