12 Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty Products
Buyer beware: We talked to top dermatologists to uncover the chemicals and ingredients that might be creeping in your go-to products.
First made as a pesticide, this antimicrobial chemical has made its way into personal care items since the 1960s. “Triclosan is added to soaps and washes and even some clothing or cookware to reduce bacteria in products,” says Dendy Engelman, MD, New York City-based celebrity dermatologist. Now, because of its potential link to skin cancer and thyroid issues, the FDA has banned soaps and other antiseptic products from using the ingredient. This rule went into effect in September 2017. “Dial, Clearasil, and Bath & Body Works have had products containing this ingredient,” she adds. “Crest Pro-Health toothpaste and Mrs. Meyer’s avoid this ingredient.”
Sure, synthetic fragrances might make your products smell undeniably delicious, but they’re one of the top contenders to cause an allergic reaction to your skin. “Fragrances are usually made up of other harmful chemicals, like parabens, benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and more that are linked to cancer and nervous system issues,” explains Dr. Engelman. “Short term, they can cause irritation and redness on the applied area.” She recommends looking for these terms to clue you in that a product contains a fragrance: parfum, perfume, linalool, limonene, eugenol, citronellol, geraniol or cinnamal. Fragrance-free products are mostly labeled as so. “Eight Hour® Cream Skin Protectant Fragrance Free is a great way to boost moisture and strengthen the skin barrier without putting yourself at risk,” says Engelman.
These chemicals, commonly found in nail polishes, hair sprays, deodorants, perfumes, and moisturizing lotions, are meant to keep products soft and flexible. That’s great, but phthalates can also be incredibly dangerous. “There have been reports of phthalates being linked to various cancers, including breast, liver, kidney and lung, though no causal relationship has been proven,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Keep your eyes peeled for products that contain terms including the term “phthalate” to be safe. You also may find many newer products on the market that contain the term “phthalate-free”—stock up on those. “Restorea is a great brand that avoids all phthalates,” adds Dr. Engelman.
You’ve probably heard of this term, especially considering how many new products are launching with the claim of being “paraben-free.” “Parabens are preservatives used in skin-care products to prevent contamination of products while they are sitting on the shelves,” explains Dr. Zeichner. “Without preservatives, product ingredients, like fresh fruit, will become contaminated with bacteria and viruses and become broken down over time.” So what’s the problem? Dr. Zeichner notes reports that have come out (though none conclusive) that link parabens to breast cancer, as well their negative impact on the body’s endocrine system. Parabens are also a common catalyst for skin allergies. “The good news is there are a variety of paraben-free skin-care products available,” he says. “Some may include grape seed extract, which is nature’s parabens, and offer similar benefits.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) cites avobenzone as a relatively safe sunscreen ingredient, however, research suggests otherwise. “Studies have found that avobenzone is converted into toxic substances in the presence of UVB and chlorine (as occurs when swimming in a pool during the daytime),” explains Craig Kraffert, MD, board-certified dermatologist and President of Amarte. For this reason, he says, it’s best to choose sunscreens that don’t contain avobenzone, such as Amarte Ultra Veil Sunscreen.
Sulfates are commonly used surfactants, which are ingredients that cleanse the skin and hair in cleansers and shampoos, explains Dr. Zeichner. They’re found in more than 90 percent of personal care and cleaning products, like detergents. (Learn more about the healthy beauty care swaps you should make.) “Sulfates such as SLS (sodium laurel sulfate) are known irritants at high concentrations and are even used as the positive control group in experiments to evaluate how irritating products are.” This is why you may be starting to see more sulfate-free skin- and hair-care products hitting the market. A great sulfate-free cleanser Dr. Zeichner recommends is Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser, as the entire skin-care line contains only naturally derived ingredients.
This colorless, flammable gas is commonly used to make home-building products such as adhesives for wood, particleboard, furniture paneling, and cabinets. It’s also an ingredient in some beauty products, including hair treatments and even nail polishes. “This chemical has been linked to cancer as well as other nervous system issues, like chest pain, coughing, trouble breathing, and respiratory irritations,” warns Dr. Engelman. “Some hair-straightening procedures use this chemical during the process and some nail polishes still contain formaldehyde, putting your body and salon workers at risk.” She recommends looking for nail polishes labeled “3-Free” or “5-Free,” as these are formaldehyde-free. “Jinsoon nail polishes are a great brand without formaldehyde,” she adds.
“This frequent skin irritant is associated with altered immune function and increased incidence of certain malignancies in animals,” says Dr. Kraffert. (Check out these home remedies for skin irritation.) “Arbutin, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring cousin to hydroquinone with excellent brightening properties and an irritancy profile that’s not linked to malignancies.” Derm-approved products that swap hydroquinone out for arbutin include Kate Somerville Complexion Correction Daily Discoloration Perfector, Amarte Aqua Lotion, and Erno Laszlo Luminous Intensive Cream.
Also known as PPD, P-phenylenediamine has been used in permanent hair coloring since the late 1800s; however, it has been banned in France and Germany (though the European Union has since allowed its use). In the U.S., it’s FDA-approved for hair dying. “PPD is a frequent contact allergen,” Dr. Kraffert warns. “Temporary tattoos with PPD are increasingly common. These tattoos are referred to as ‘black henna’ and rely on direct application of PPD to the skin.” Cases of severe contact allergy continue to occur frequently, sometimes with permanent negative consequences.
Those microbead scrubs and cosmetics you love to use are slowly being phased out and banned in the United States. “Microbeads are used as physical exfoliants in cleansing products and do a fair job; however, the problem with microbeads is that they linger in the environment for many decades and have been linked to potential biosphere disruptions in aquatic environments,” warns Dr. Kraffert. (Are you making any other exfoliant mistakes?) “The good news is there are lots of natural exfoliants that actually work better—without the environmental baggage.” He recommends Amarte’s Daily ExfoliPowder, which uses corn as a physical exfoliant instead. “The product works in a delicate and thorough fashion, all while being environmentally inert.”
This petrochemical is mainly used to dissolve paint and paint thinner, but it’s also a common ingredient in nail polishes and treatments, as well as hair-bleaching products. The problem is that exposures to high levels of this chemical could lead to respiratory problems, as well as kidney and liver damage, according to EWG. Studies on animals have linked toluene to these and other health risks including impaired immune functions. Keep your nails healthy with these 14 tips.
You might find this ingredient listed on the back of many of your beauty products, including hair sprays, makeup, conditioners and shampoos, moisturizers, and even sunscreen. Propylene glycol is typically used as a skin-conditioning agent, however it’s been linked to allergy-induced conditions such as dermatitis and hives, cautions EWG.