15 Harmful Chemicals Hiding in Cosmetics and Beauty Products to Avoid Putting on Your Skin at All Costs


Harmful toxins to avoid putting on your skin

What’s Hiding in Our Beauty Products?

You’ve, most likely, either noticed the cultural shift toward a more natural look and simpler, cleaner products or started implementing them in your own life. But the beauty industry has always gone through fads and trends. Is this just another temporary craze? What are the harmful effects of chemicals in cosmetic and personal care products? Let’s pull back the curtain and look at the science of how conventional makeup, as well as skin-care and hair-care products, have been harming us and our ecosystem, and why we need to continue to turn toward natural cosmetics.

+ Our skin is our largest organ for absorption, so anything we put on our skin is being soaked into the bloodstream. Products such as birth control, nicotine patches, and other pharmaceuticals can be administered through the skin precisely because it’s so permeable. In fact, many experts even agree that absorption through the skin is more dangerous than ingestion by mouth.

+ Substances absorbed into the digestive system have the slight benefit of passing through our detoxification organs (the kidneys, liver, and colon), where enzymes help to break them down. Substances absorbed through the skin don’t go through this process—they pass, unfiltered, straight into the bloodstream.

+ Women are disproportionately exposed to these dangers. On average, American women use twelve beauty products per day, which translates into the exposure of more than 168 synthetic, unregulated chemicals in cosmetics. And teenagers, who are using an average of seventeen products per day, are even more vulnerable to these risks.

+ It’s now being discovered that toxins in beauty products can even pose a major danger to unborn babies. The Canadian NGO Environmental Defense tested the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies and found that babies are now being born “prepolluted.” They found that each child had been born with 55 to 121 toxic compounds and possible cancer-causing chemicals in their bodies.

Sadly, many conventional beauty and personal care companies have overlooked the negative effects of cosmetics on health, and most mainstream products are unnecessarily filled with chemicals and toxins. While developing AVEDA, Horst Rechelbacher was in constant disbelief that conventional beauty products don’t come with a warning label. Even today, in the United States, no policies have been enacted to get rid of—or even warn consumers about—the harmful chemicals in beauty products (while the European Union has completely banned hundreds of them).

Thankfully, resources do exist to help inform and educate consumers. Of all the potentially harmful ingredients we may find on labels, research has been done to prioritize the removal of key ingredients known as the “Mean 15”, which are some of the major cosmetic ingredients to avoid. Adria Vasil, the author of Ecoholic Body, takes us through the following ingredients, which pose the greatest risk to both human and environmental health:


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1. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): The International Agency for Research on Cancer has listed these chemicals as potential carcinogens. They’re not restricted in the United States, but California includes BHA on its list of chemicals that must be listed on product ingredient labels as potentially cancer-causing.

2. Coal tar dyes or PPD: Coal tar dyes are also among the makeup ingredients to avoid. They are very popular in the cosmetics industry because they provide rich, long-lasting hair color. But, like a lot of petroleum-based products, researchers claim that any degree of exposure can lead to health risks. Long-term use of these dyes can even lead to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

3. Cyclomethicone and siloxanes: If you like a clean windshield, dry underarms, or a smooth makeup base, you’ve probably used products containing siloxane. They interfere with hormone function and damage the liver. Environment Canada says that D4 (cyclotetrasiloxane) and D5 (cyclopentasiloxane) may build up in fish or other aquatic organisms. The European study reached a similar conclusion, rating the chemicals as “high concern.”

4. The ethanolamines (ammonia compounds)—DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (monoethanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine): These unfriendly acronyms are found in creamy and foaming products such as moisturizer, soap, sunscreen, and shampoo. They react to form cancer-causing nitrosamines, which are not only harmful to humans, but also to fish and other wildlife.

5. Dibutyl phthalate: It keeps nail polish from chipping, helps PVC remain flexible, and is used as a solvent for dyes and fragrances. But is it worth it? This chemical has been found to interfere with hormone function, especially during pregnancy.

6. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, or quarternium-15): These are widely used in hair and nail products and in moisturizers. They’re used as preservatives in cosmetics and as active ingredients in some toilet bowl cleaners. Formaldehyde is proven to cause cancer.

7. Parabens: Widely used in makeup and moisturizers, parabens are common chemicals in beauty products with links to impairing regular hormonal function. Studies have shown that parabens can mimic the effects of estrogen, which in an imbalanced state could lead to breast cancer for women and interfere with male reproductive function.

8. Parfum: Present everywhere, even in products marketed as “unscented” (it may also be listed as “scent,” or “fragrance”). Parfum is actually not one single ingredient—it’s a compound of many chemicals and, sometimes, essential oils. Since there are no regulations requiring companies to disclose the ingredient lists of their signature scents, the blanket term parfum is used. For people with chemical sensitivities, these unlisted ingredients can trigger other harmful effects of chemicals in cosmetics such as allergic reactions, migraines, and/or cause asthma.

9. Polyethylene glycols or PEG: Widely used in conditioners, moisturizers, and deodorants, PEG can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which may cause cancer. If perfectly pure, they’re considered generally safe, though they’re not recommended for use on broken skin. In rare cases, polyethylene glycol compounds can become contaminated with ethylene oxide—and that’s when it gets really concerning. Ethylene oxide, which is another harmful cosmetics ingredient, is a known carcinogen and can also cause developmental problems.

10. Petrolatum or petroleum jelly (Vaseline): It can keep skin hydrated, which is why it’s often added to skin-care and hair-care products. But these products can easily become contaminated with carcinogens.

11. Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): They’re common foaming agents used in dish soaps and foamy beauty products such as cleansers, shampoos, and for bubble bath use. SLES can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which can cause cancer and liver damage. It can also possibly become contaminated with the known carcinogen ethylene oxide. And it can be harmful to fish and other wildlife.

12. Triclosan: Triclosan, which is among the most popular toxins in cosmetics, is a very effective antibacterial chemical found in lots of common consumer products, including toothpaste, hand sanitizers, laundry detergent, and facial tissues. Research has shown that triclosan sticks around in the environment long after we’ve finished using it, killing helpful algae and even accumulating in the bodies of other organisms.

13. Retinyl palmitate and vitamin A: A popular ingredient in acne serums, anti-redness, and anti-aging creams, this ingredient smooths the skin at first, but under the sun it has been found to speed up the harmful effects of UV rays.

14. Palm oil: An edible oil used in processed foods and cosmetics, palm oil is considered as one of the makeup ingredients to avoid due to some major issues linked to it, which include deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it’s produced, as the land and forests must be cleared for the development of the oil palm plantations. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area the equivalent size of three hundred football fields of the rain forest is cleared each hour to make way for palm oil production. This large-scale deforestation is pushing many species to extinction, and findings show that if nothing changes, species such as the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next five to ten years, and Sumatran tigers, in fewer than three years.

15. Oxybenzone (BP-3/ benzophenone) and octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate): These are two sunscreen chemicals that may disrupt our hormonal systems and that can trigger allergic reactions. Sunscreens containing zinc oxide, titanium oxide, and avobenzone are much safer.

At first, this amount of information may seem a little overwhelming, but there are many helpful tools to guide you on your journey toward incorporating sustainable, natural beauty products:

+ Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database: This is one of my favorite resources. They have compiled more than 64,536 products, so you can look up and learn about anything and everything in your bathroom or makeup bag. Just enter the product in question or even a single ingredient of concern, and the site will generate a full analysis along with a toxicity ranking between 1 and 10.

+ Lily Tse’s Think Dirty app: The app was born of Lily’s personal quest to understand the facts about products and labeling in light of her family history of cancer. In her research, Lily found that our overexposure to toxins from cosmetic and personal care products is linked to many forms of cancer. With Think Dirty, you can scan the bar code of a product or search for it by name. The app then provides you with a 1-to-10 toxicity ranking and up-to-date ingredient information as well as safer alternatives within each product category—and a direct link to Shop Clean.

The power is in our hands, as consumers, to demand more of this positive change—the more we move toward natural beauty products, with loving energy and with the greater good in mind, the more the industry will move away from conventional, harmful chemical formulas. True to the ECOrenaissance, we’re driving a movement that only continues to grow. We’re deeply connected to emerging beauty trends, and we have the power to redefine beauty for a better world.
The industry is shifting—that much is clear from the explosion of holistic beauty brands that have emerged in recent years—and are lining the shelves of your neighborhood pharmacies. In addition to supporting more conscious and safe makeup brands, there are so many ways we can avoid the harmful effects of cosmetics on health.

The Skin-Gut Connection

In the ECOrenaissance spirit of interconnectivity, we know that looking good on the outside really does begin with your insides. Our external issues always have an internal root, and our skin is basically a mirror for our gut health. Figuring out what you can add to your diet and beauty routine—as well as figuring out what you may need to remove—is an exciting journey that begins with listening to the messages of your body, experimenting a little, and using the health of your skin as a road map.

Favorite tips for radiant skin:

+ Support gut health by taking a daily probiotic supplement.

+ Eat more vitamin A-rich foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, oranges, and peppers to help skin cells overturn more quickly, avoiding breakouts.

+ Eat more high-quality fats such as in avocados, flaxseeds or hempseeds, and coconut products.

+ Eliminate inflammatory foods such as dairy, which can be a major cause of acne.

+ Lay off the synthetic skin products, as their chemical makeup, aside from being a major health gamble, can really dry out your skin; even so-called moisturizers have this effect.

We’re never separate from the beauty of nature. The defining tenet of the ECOrenaissance is understanding ourselves and each aspect of our lives as essentially and intricately connected to the ecosystems we live in. Nature is the ultimate source of beauty. And when we give ourselves permission to just be, simply as we are, the beauty of the entire universe shines through us. Beauty is timeless because our light is endless.

DNA of ECOrenaissance Beauty: No Compromise in Function or Quality

+ Authentic beauty is within reach for us all. Connect to your inner being.

+ True beauty radiates from the inside out—healthy food, positive attitude, and wellness.

+ Food choices impact the overall health of your skin. Eat consciously.

+ Beauty regimens should contain no harmful chemicals and should include regular self-love and self-care.

+ No harmful ingredients such as synthetic fragrances, parabens, phthalates, lead, etc.

+ Cruelty-free and no animal testing.

+ Less is more.

+ Plant-based, organic ingredients, and made with love.

+ Share with your friends and family. The more they know, the better off they’ll be.

+ There are examples of beauty everywhere. Keep your eyes open to the abundance.

Excerpted from the book ECOrenaissance: A Lifestyle Guide for Cocreating a Stylish, Sexy, and Sustainable World by Marci ZaroffExcerpt courtesy of Enliven/Atria Books.

About The Author

Marci Zaroff coined the term and pioneered the market for “ECOfashion.” She is an internationally recognized ECOlifestyle entrepreneur, educator, and expert who keynotes globally on organic and sustainable textiles, strategic creative vision, social innovation, green business and design, and the rise of the millennial generation. Marci is the founder and CEO of MetaWear Organic, founder of Under the Canopy, producer of THREAD | Driving Fashion Forward, and co-founder of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Good Catch Foods, and BeyondBrands. Learn more at marcizaroff.com.