Toxic Skincare Ingredients to Avoid

Posted February 3, 2020 by Thirty-Something Angie in Clean Living / 0 Comments

The most toxic skincare ingredients to avoid - plus why you should care

Looking to clean up your skincare? Check out this list of 10 skincare ingredients to avoid in your makeup and beauty products.

Confession time: years after I switched to a whole foods diet and started using green cleaners in my home, I was still using crappy ingredients on my skin. For some reason, I just didn’t think the products I put on my skin were as important as the products I put in my body.

Well, I knew they were important, but I assumed that since I was buying well known, quality brands, that there wasn’t anything to worry about.

As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Up until just a few years ago, I had no idea that the cosmetics and skincare industry were virtually ungoverned.

In fact, the laws in place regarding cosmetics have remained largely unchanged since the late 1930’s. So much has changed since then, and yet, the laws remain the same. This has allowed for a number of ingredients to hit the shelves that can cause serious adverse effects to consumers.

We’re talking hormone disruptors, allergens, respiratory irritants, neurotoxins, and carcinogens. And they’re all just sitting there on the shelf, in pretty packages, begging you to use them.

It’s up to us to learn what skincare ingredients to avoid. After years of learning and doing better for my own family, I wanted to compile what I’ve learned to pass on to others just getting started. I hope this list helps you on your clean living journey!

clean skincare tips

Why do Skincare Ingredients Matter?

I think the reason I didn’t worry about my skin care products for so long was because unlike food that I ate or cleaners that I inhaled, I wasn’t putting these products in my body. So, what does it matter? It turns out, it matters a lot.

Your skin is your largest organ. Whatever you put on your body gets absorbed into your bloodstream. To make matters worse, the Environmental Working Group, the average woman uses over 12 products a day, averaging over 150 ingredients. Think about your simple morning routine. I don’t know about you, but before breakfast, I’ve already washed my face, used moisturizer with SPF, brushed my teeth, put on deodorant, chapstick, and lotion. If I take an early shower, I’m also using shampoo, conditioner, and soap! This doesn’t even include makeup, so that number can grow pretty quickly without us even realizing it.

With how little regulation there is on the industry, it’s important to understand the ingredients ourselves!

We have to be the gatekeepers of our homes. It’s up to us to make sure the products we’re bringing around our families are safe from harmful ingredients. We can’t trust that just because it’s on the store shelf, that it’s safe.

Self regulation is the only regulation. And these days, that means understanding ingredients, and knowing which skin care ingredients to avoid.

Skincare ingredients to avoid

For a long time, I was in denial over the fact that everything I was slathering on my skin was terrible for me. It’s not like I was picking the cheapest options available! I bought simple products that said things like “dermatologist recommended,” and “clear skin,” and “pure.” But, as with everything else, the more I learned, the more I realized I needed to change.

At first, I was really overwhelmed. There’s just so much information out there, and it’s hard to know where to start! How are we ever supposed to cut through all the noise, eliminate the greenwashing companies, and find products that are truly safe?

The good news is, all we have to do is know what to look for! If we’re going to take the power into our own hands, we have to go beyond trusting marketing, and truly understand what ingredients we need to avoid. Over time, this will allow us to build up our own arsenals of clean beauty brands we love and trust.

This list is nowhere near all-inclusive, but it’s a great place to start.


Phalates are a group of chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic. This helps them stick to our skin, which makes it a really helpful ingredient in things like nail polish, body sprays, fragrance lotions, and other cosmetics.

Phalates are linked with:

  • endocrine disruption
  • developmental and reproductive toxicity
  • and cancer.

This post from Safe Cosmetics has a long list of references to peruse if you’d like to learn more.


While “fragrance” doesn’t sound nearly as scary as some of the other ingredients we’re discussing, it should scare you just as much. That’s because the term “fragrance” is considered a trade secret.

Federal law doesn’t require companies to disclose this information, and so the term “fragrance” is actually a blanket statement that covers over 300 different ingredients. It’s basically a “fragrance loophole” that allows companies to be pretty vague about what they’re using. Since they don’t have to disclose what’s in their fragrance blend, there’s really no telling what you’ll get.

Ingredients that fall under this category are known to cause a lot of problems, including:

  • endocrine disruption
  • allergies
  • respiratory problems
  • environmental pollution
  • and neurotoxicity

While “fragrance” is in what seems like everything, you can easily avoid it by looking for products that are either fragrance free* or use essential oils. My experience is that generally, if a company is using good ingredients, they won’t hide it under blanket statements.

*A word of caution: even “unscented” products can still contain fragrance, so be sure to look at the labels and find products that are “fragrance free.”

clean beauty advice


Parabens are a whole family of chemicals that extend the shelf life of products, and are one of the biggest offenders in most skincare products.

They can mimic estrogen in the body and can lead to hormone imbalances, fertility problems, and even cancer. If you want to learn more about this, you can check out this article from the EWG and this study on the matter.

When I first started checking the ingredients on my products, I will say parabens were the biggest offender, because they’re in everything. You can find parabens in products ranging from shampoo to lotion to makeup and everything in between. It goes by a lot of names, but if “paraben” is part of the word, avoid it.


Yep. Formaldehyde is pretty widely used in cosmetics, because it’s a great preservative. Of course, if you ever dissected a frog in high school biology, you already knew that. Unfortunately, formaldehyde is also a known human carcinogen.

It’s also been linked with:

  • asthma
  • developmental toxicity
  • and skin irritation.

Formaldehyde won’t be listed on the label, though. You see, while cosmetics companies want to make sure there’s some formaldehyde in their products to help preserve it, they aren’t just dumping it into the formula. Instead, they’re using formadehyde-releasing chemicals that go by a lot of different names. You can learn more through this article, as well as get a list of ingredient names to be on the lookout for.


Tricolosan and Triclocarbon are antibacterial agents that used to be used in a lot of soaps and hand sanitizers. The ingredient was banned from that use in 2016, but is still widely used in other cosmetics. Some side effects include:

  • bacterial resistance
  • impaired immune function
  • hormone disruption
  • and increased allergies


The ingredient toluene is found naturally in crude oil, and is used in paint thinners, adhesives, rubber, nail polish, and hair dyes. The biggest concerns with toluene are nail polish, nail treatments, and hair dyes, so your best bet is to find more natural alternatives for those.

Exposure to toluene can cause immune system problems, as well as birth defects, which makes it especially dangerous for pregnant women.

Learn more here.

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) is commonly used as a thickener in cosmetics. You’ll also find it in products that contain those little exfoliating beads, like lip scrubs and face exfoliants.

PEG contains 1,4-dioxane, and ethylene oxide. I recommend checking out both of the links, because they include good information!


If you’re buying conventional sunscreen from the store, you’re most likely slathering oxybenzone on your skin. Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor, can alter thyroid function, and has been associated with endometriosis in women. It also has high rates of skin allergy.

You can avoid this by finding safer sunscreens that use zinc oxide or titanium oxide instead.

Retinyl palmitate and Retinol (aka, Vitamin A)

Retinyl palmitate and retinol (aka, Vitamin A) are most commonly found in anti-aging products. If you apply these products to your skin in the presence of sunlight, it can speed up the development of lesions and tumors. You can avoid that issue by only applying these products at night, but to be extra safe, try some essential oils with skin benefits, like frankincense or rose.

Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine (Coal Tar)

Coal tar, derived from burning coal, is a known carcinogen. The FDA has restricted the use of this ingredient in most cosmetics, but it’s still allowed in products like anti-dandruff shampoo and other specialty products.

Studies have shown that exposure to coal tar can produce skin tumors and neurological damage, although more research needs to be done. In the meantime, I always prefer to play it safe.

How to Choose Safer Skincare

Even just a few years ago, I had a really hard time finding safe makeup and skincare that I could trust. I would do my best, but no matter what, nothing seemed “perfect.” The all natural stuff wasn’t effective, and the effective stuff all seemed to have ingredients we should be avoiding!

Luckily, more and more brands are waking up and realizing what consumers want. It’s becoming easier and easier to find safe brands full of good ingredients that actually work!

My hope is that over the coming years, it will be even easier. Actually, my hope is that over the coming years, this won’t even be a discussion anymore, but I feel like that’s a pipe dream.

In the meantime, the best we can do is arm ourselves with knowledge and regulate our own products by knowing what skincare ingredients to avoid.

There are websites and apps you can use to get information on products, (Like EWG and Think Dirty), but at the end of the day, knowing what to look for is the best thing you can do for yourself. Be your own advocate. Understand how to read labels, and take the time to do so. So, keep this list handy, learn it, and use that knowledge the next time you’re shopping clean beauty!

The most toxic skincare ingredients to avoid (and why you should)

Skincare Ingredients to Avoid: Final Thoughts

It’s easy to overlook our beauty products when we start cleaning up our lives. After all, these aren’t products we’re eating or even breathing in, so what does it matter if they’re clean or not?

It turns out, it matters a lot more than we realize. Everything you put on your body gets absorbed into your bloodstream. That means the ingredients in your lotion matter just as much as the ingredients in your salad dressing.

Unfortunately, this industry is virtually unregulated, which means no one is looking out for us.

It’s time for us to be our own health advocates and demand better. Learn these skincare ingredients to avoid so that the next time you go shopping, you’ll be able to bring only the best products into your home.

Find more green beauty and skincare tips:

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