13 Ingredients You Should Avoid In Your Makeup + Skincare (And Why)

6 min read

With more awareness about ingredients in food and personal care products coming to light, there’s been a pendulum swing for many consumers, and more people are asking: How do we know what’s actually safe to put on our bodies? In the largely unregulated cosmetics industry—there hasn’t been federal legislation regarding beauty and personal care products since 1938, and the United States only bans or partially bans 30 ingredients while the European Union has restrictions on more than 1,400—we have to be our own advocates by reading labels, asking questions and staying informed.

According to a 2004 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the average adult uses nine personal care products on a daily basis. Those cosmetics contain an average of 126 chemical ingredients, many of which are linked to cancer, hormone disruptions or bad allergies. So, how do you know what’s been linked to health issues, and what to avoid? At WELL Summit Brooklyn 2018 on  October 5 and 6, we hosted a panel called Clean Your Daily Routine. Experts weighed in on why it’s important to pay attention to your personal care products, and told attendees how to avoid potentially harmful ingredients.

Read on for which ingredients they agree you should start checking your labels for.

13 Ingredients You Should Avoid In Your Makeup + Skincare

1,4 dioxane

  • Where you’ll find it: Hair relaxers, hair dyes, shampoos, sunless tanners, lotion, face creams and children’s bath toys
  • Why to avoid it: It’s been linked to cancer, kidney damage and issues with fetuses.
  • Check labels for: PEG, polyethylene, polyoxeythylene, ethylene oxide, or ingredients that end in “-eth” (Laureth, Myreth, etc.) or “-oxynol”


Aluminum Salts

  • Where you’ll find it: Deodorant
  • Why to avoid it: It’s been linked to breast cancer, and potentially Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • Check labels for: Aluminum Chloride, Aluminum Chlorohydrate (ACH), Aluminum Hydroxybromide, Aluminum Zirconimu


Coal Tar

  • Where you’ll find it: Dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, anti-itch creams, hair dyes, synthetic coloring in makeup, occasionally in oral care products
  • Why to avoid it: It’s been linked to breast cancer, respiratory issues, skin rashes and inflammation.
  • Check labels for: Coal tar solution, FD&C (color), C&D (color), P-phenylenediamine



  • Where you’ll find it: Shampoo, face wash, body wash, hair dye, hand soap
  • Why to avoid it: They’ve been linked to cancer, respiratory issues and skin irritations.
  • Check labels for: Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), Ethanolamine (ETA)



  • Where you’ll find it: Nail polish, eyelash glue, hair gels, keratin treatments, deodorants, bubble baths, shaving creams
  • Why to avoid it: It’s a known human carcinogen; linked to immune system damage, liver problems, skin irritation and allergies; known respiratory and immune system toxin.
  • Check labels for: Cormalin, formic aldehyde and variations of methanol, methyl aldehyde and oxymethane. Also beware of DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, diasolidinyl/imidazolidinyn urea, DEA, MEA or TEA, which can release formaldehyde in the production process.



  • Where you’ll find it: Skin cream, sunscreen, nail treatments, skin lighteners (prescription and over the counter)
  • Why to avoid it: It’s been linked to cancer in animals; can lead to permanent, black-blue lesions on the skin called ochronosis
  • Check labels for: 1,4-benzene, dihydroxybenzene and variations of hydroxyphenol


Lead and Mercury

  • Where you’ll find it: Lipsticks, mascaras and hair dyes
  • Why to avoid it: They’re known toxicants, and can contribute to mood swings and depression; can contribute to gastrointestinal and reproductive issues; could contribute to learning disabilities in children.
  • Check labels for: thimerosal is the most common name, but it’s usually not listed as an ingredient because its a contaminant that unintentionally ends up in cosmetics during production


Ethyl, Methyl, Propyl and Butyl Paraben

  • Where you’ll find it: Cosmetics, including makeup, shampoo, conditioners, lotions and scrubs
  • Why to avoid: They’ve been tagged as possible hormone disruptors, as they mimic estrogen and bind to estrogen receptors in the body; linked to breast cancer, and stunted development in fetuses and children; animal tests report brain and nervous system damage.
  • Check labels for: ethyl, methyl, propyl, dutyl, isobutyl, paraben, or variations of those prefixes; hydroxybenzoic acid; hydroxybenzoate or ester


Petrochemicals (Mineral Oil, Petroleum, Petrolatum)

  • Where you’ll find it: Mascara, makeup, lip balm and hair, skin and nail products
  • Why to avoid it: Byproducts of petroleum have been linked to breast cancer and to ADD symptoms; they can clog pores; can suffocate skin, leading to irritation and dryness.
  • Check labels for: petroleum distillate, stoddard solvent, petroleum jelly, paraffin


Phthalates (“thall-ates”)

  • Where you’ll find it: Cosmetics, including hair spray, nail polish, perfumes, lotions, plastic products; in anything listed as “fragrance”
  • Why to avoid it: Contain properties that have been linked to disrupting hormones; linked to damage in liver and kidneys.
  • Check labels for: fragrance (most of the time it won’t be listed as an individual ingredient because it’s part of the “fragrance”); DBP, DEHP, DMP, DEP, dibutyl/diethyl ester, 1,2-benzenedicarboxylate


Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

  • Where you’ll find it: Commercial shampoos, soaps, body washes, toothpastes, bubble baths, facial cleansers, mascaras, conditioners and exfoliators
  • Why to avoid it: Because they are made to quickly penetrate the skin, they can lead to allergies and skin irritations; linked to central nervous system depression, labored breathing.
  • Check labels for: sodium dodecyl sulfate, sodium salt sulphuric acid, monododecyl ester, other variations containing “sodium” or “sulfate”



  • Where you’ll find it: hair dye, nail polish
  • Why to avoid it: It reaches the body through inhalation, so pay attention at nail salons; it’s a known cardiovascular and neurological toxin that can cause lightheadedness, fatigue, memory loss and damage to liver, kidneys and heart; regulated in California under Proposition 65, meaning any product containing it has to have a warning that it may cause cancer.
  • Check labels for: toluol, methylbenzene/phenylmethane, or variations of (or not listed at all, if part of “fragrance”)



  • Where you’ll find it: hand soap, detergents, deodorant, toothpaste, cosmetics
  • Why to avoid it: Tests suggest it’s an endocrine disruptor; impacts thyroid functioning and thyroid hormone levels; widespread overuse of triclosan is linked to causing numerous strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can attack the immune system.
  • Check labels for: triclocarban

Resources for Healthier Beauty Products

Staring down a list like that can be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. Start simple, by replacing products you run out of and finding greener alternatives. A few certifications that can help guide consumers include:

  1. MADE SAFE: From mattresses to baby toys, cosmetics to bodycare, MADE SAFE products are rigorously tested to ensure safety in all parts of the formulation process.
  2. Think Dirty: A portable way to check your cosmetics before purchasing them. Just use their handy app to scan the barcode of the product, and you’ll get info about its ingredients.
  3. ECOCERT: ECOCERT was the very first certification body to develop standards for “natural and organic cosmetics,” and its label means it’s been third-party verified.
  4.  EWG Healthy Living App: Another way to scan products before buying, this app includes cosmetics, cleaning and food items.



Want to learn more about ingredients? Read about five ingredients to avoid in your lipstick, and about how companies use breast cancer awareness to sell products that might not be completely safe.

About The Author

Nicolle Mackinnon

Nicolle Mackinnon

Stemming from her personal journey to treat her celiac disease and Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Nicolle serves as a writer and editor for several leading publications helping women understand how important, stylish and fun it is to commit to clean beauty. By way of her contributions to No More Dirty Looks, Thoughtfully Magazine and numerous beauty brands' blogs, websites and social media, Nicolle has become a trusted voice on the correlation between health and beauty. Follow her journey on Instagram and connect with her via nicollemackinnon.com.



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