Unfortunately, there are bad ingredients in skin care and cosmetics products currently for sale in a big retail store near most of us. Some of the chemicals used in our personal care products should be avoided and other chemicals are safe to use. As you get started on your clean beauty journey, it’s good to start familiarizing yourself with the ingredients listed on the makeup and skincare products you’re currently using.
When I first started to examine my own products, finding toxic ingredients in makeup (more specifically, in my ‘high end’ makeup) I put on my face every day was the encouragement I needed to get serious with my clean routine and to start making clean swaps for all of my dirty products.
I have been writing about clean, non-toxic cosmetics and skincare for a long time and often see certain ingredients repeatedly listed on many popular cosmetics and skincare products so I thought it was time to do a cosmetics ingredient review.
In this article, I discuss some commonly found ingredients you might find in products in your makeup bag or on your vanity right now.
You might be shocked to find bad ingredients in your skin care routine… I know I was!
Truth be told… I really thought I knew about the harmful, toxic ingredients in skin care products to avoid, but I soon realized I had so much more to learn about bad skin care ingredients I should avoid vs safe ingredients.
If you are looking for recommendations for clean, safe skin care products, check out our article Natural Skin Care Products Your Skin Will Thank you For Be Using.
Read on to learn more about skin care ingredients.
You might be asking yourself…
‘if a chemical or ingredient is unsafe and known-to-be harmful, how and why is it allowed to be in my skincare and makeup products?’
I asked myself the same.
The unfortunate truth is that currently, the cosmetics and personal care industry in the United States is poorly regulated and the laws that cosmetics and skincare product manufacturers must abide by haven’t been updated since 1938.
In the United States, there 11 ingredients prohibited or restricted by FDA regulations. (source)
In contrast, the European Union has outlawed or banned over 1,300 ingredients.
The European Union ban any ingredient presumed to be dangerous or thought to cause harm, but in the US, the law can basically be interpreted as any ingredient is innocent until proven very, very guilty.
EWG's Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) launched their online database, EWG’s Skin Deep® Database, in 2004 to help consumers find safer products and to inform consumers about the ingredients lurking in their personal care, home care and food products that could be hazardous or haven’t been thoroughly tested.
From the EWG’s About Us page, the organization describes themselves as follows:
The Environmental Working Group’s mission is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. With breakthrough research and education, we drive consumer choice and civic action.
We are a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.
With EWG Safety Ratings for over 87,000 cosmetics and personal care products and almost 2,500 brands, the EWG’s Skin Deep® Database has become my #1 trusted source for skincare and cosmetics product safety and ingredient education.
The EWG’s Skin Deep® Ratings are as follows:
BEST – EWG VERIFIED™
Low Hazard – Rating 1-2
Moderate Hazard – Rating 3-6
High Hazard – Rating 7-10
Throughout this article, I may refer to ingredients having an EWG’s Skin Deep® Rating so please refer to the above as reference.
Your skin is your body's largest organ
Before we get into discussing ingredients in products we put on our body, I wanted to first talk about why it’s important to know about skincare ingredients.
Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and you must protect your skin. We have to be careful and can’t rely on some cosmetics and skincare brands to not use toxic ingredients in their products.
Educating yourself about your skincare and makeup products is not only a safety precaution, product and ingredient knowledge can also be an important factor in keeping your skin looking soft and smooth.
the ingredients in my skincare products
What is a peptide?
And exactly what are good antioxidants for skin, and what are the bad antioxidants I should avoid?
What is the deal with retinol?
And should I use PABA-free sunscreen?
These and more questions were rolling around in my brain, and when friends asked me about sulfates and mineral oil, I didn’t have any answers for them either.
I realized I didn’t know much.
I decided to dig in and review some commonly used yet bad ingredients in skin care and cosmetics.
Retinol - The Good & The Bad
Look at most skincare products and you’ll most likely find retinol, retinyl palmitate, or retinyl acetate listed in the ingredients.
Retinol is a topical ingredient, derived from vitamin A. It’s absorbed through the skin and increases the rate of skin turnover. Retinol boosts collagen production, plumps the skin, and reduces fine lines.
All good things.
Like most aging individuals, I want to decrease the wrinkles and increase the collagen. Retinol has more proven skin benefits than any other anti-aging remedy currently on the market so it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular skin care ingredients.
With so many benefits, why are some concerned about the use of retinol in skincare? Some question and many have written about the dangers of retinol…. is retinol, in fact, dangerous?
Because of the amazing anti-aging benefits retinol can produce described above, it is no wonder retinol can be found in a wide variety of creams and lotions, including skincare products with SPF.
And retinol used in products with SPF is where the problems concerning (and the risks of) the use of retinol in skincare are founded.
Based on studies done by the EWG (The Environmental Working Group), there is cause for concern when forms of retinol are found in products intended to be worn in the daytime, when skin is exposed to the sun.
Nneka Leiba, M.P.H., EWG’s Director of Healthy Living Science states:
‘Thirty percent of the sunscreens we see have retinyl palmitate…
The concern is about photocarcinogenicity, the cancer-causing potential of retinol in the presence of UV light.
Our stance on retinols is that consumers should be wary of them only in products designed to be worn in the sun. So we don’t flag the presence of retinol in, say, a night cream, because that’s not something people wear during the day when they’re exposed to sunlight.
We focus just on retinols in sunscreen—and we do feel they are dangerous in that context.’ (source)
So is retinol a good and useful skincare ingredient or is retinol a bad ingredient to avoid?
The answer is yes and no.
To be safe and benefit from using products made with retinol, apply products with retinol in the evening only.
SPF - Sun Protection Factor
Speaking of SPF… I’m forever applying sunscreen. Daily.
SPF is a estimate of how much protection your skin will get from those nasty UVB rays, the kind of radiation from the sun which causes sunburn and permanent skin damage.
The EWG suggest an SPF between 15-50, depending on your own skin color, and to not go over SPF 50. The FDA has stated that products with SPF over 60 can be potentially ‘misleading.’ (source)
PABA - skincare ingredient to avoid
PABA, or para-aminobenzoic acid, was a once-popular sunscreen ingredient. When shopping for sunscreens, you’ve probably seen ‘PABA’, or ‘PABA-free’ written somewhere on the label.
Widely used as ultraviolet B (UVB) filters, research studies found it to cause allergic reactions in many people who used products containing PABA. Later findings concluded exposure to PABA may alter thyroid activity and PABA derivatives may have additional endocrine disrupting properties.
And a small sidenote, PABA also was known to stain clothes.
For obvious reasons, it’s rarely used now. If you do happen to find PABA on an ingredients list, this is definitely an ingredient you should avoid.
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) in Skin Care - Good or Bad?
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) is a toluene-based, synthetic antioxidant most commonly found in moisturizers and lipsticks and also used as a preservative in food.
Although there are many people out there who have expressed concern for BHT in skin care and cosmetics, the EWG’s Skin Deep® Database has multiple products containing BHT with EWG Ratings of 1 & 2 and give BHT as an ingredient an overall EWG Skin Deep® Rating of 3.
Should products containing BHT be avoided? From what I have researched, it seems some are a hard ‘YES, avoid BHT’ while some researchers say ‘BHT is safe as used in cosmetic’. (source)
Alpha Hydroxy Acids - skincare ingredient we love
Usually listed on skin care ingredient lists as AHA, Alpha Hydroxy Acids include any of the various acids: glycolic acid (from sugar cane), lactic acid (milk), malic acid ( apples and pears) citric acid – (oranges and lemons) tartaric acid – (grapes).
AHA’s are used as exfoliating agents which can slough off dead skin cells, encouraging new cell growth.
It’s rumored that Cleopatra soaked in a bath of sour milk (lactic acid) to improve her complexion. Could be true since AHA’s aid in rejuvenating the skin.
High concentrates of AHAs are used in professional cosmetic peels. At home products that contain alpha hydroxy acids include moisturizers, cleansers, toners, and masks.
Antioxidants - skincare ingredients we love
What about antioxidants for your skin?
Are antioxidants good for your skin or
You see them listed everywhere from diets products to skincare products and in lotions and body washes.
Antioxidants are vitamins and minerals which can prevent or slow free radical harm. Products with antioxidants for your skin help correct signs of aging and promote healthy looking skin.
And what exactly is a free radical, you might be thinking?
Free radicals are molecules produced when the body breaks down certain foods or are produced by environmental causes like tobacco smoke, pollution, poison, and radiation to name a few.
These free radicals scavenge the body, looking to damage cells, protein, and DNA. Free radicals can cause aging, tissue damage, and certain diseases.
By consuming or using products with antioxidants, you are in essence fighting the oxidation or free radical damage, which is a good thing!
Look for antioxidants such as beta carotene, lycopene and vitamins C, E and A.
These are powerhouse antioxidants you want to see listed in the ingredients of your cosmetics and skincare products because they can help fight the damaging effects of free radicals.
For more information on antioxidants, check out this awesome article, ‘Five Super Anti-Aging Antioxidants Your Skin Needs’ over at paulaschoice.com.
Peptides - skincare ingredients we love
Let’s move on to the ‘what is a peptide?’ question…
Peptides are short chains of amino acids linked together.
And what exactly are amino acids?
Oh I should have paid closer attention in 9th grade biology!
Amino acids can be defined as the smallest unit of protein. They are made up of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen molecules.
What does that mean in skincare?
You want peptides for increasing collagen production. When you increase collagen, your skin gets thicker which, in turn, reduces the appearance of wrinkles.
And we all know that collagen is what helps keep skin plump and supple.
Parabens, sulfates, and mineral oil -
skincare ingredients to avoid
We discussed PABAs and explained why PABAs may not be great for your skin, but how about other ingredients?
Many natural or organic skin/hair/cosmetic lines boast ‘free from parabens, sulfates, mineral oil’.
Why do I want my products to be free from those things?
Read on fellow beauty lovers and learn.
I knew parabens, sulfates, and mineral oils were bad, but I didn’t understand where they came from or why we should avoid them.
Now let’s discuss parabens.
Are parabens really that bad?
Used to preserve cosmetics and skincare products, parabens are chemicals found in shampoos, moisturizers, shaving gels, topical pharmaceuticals like creams, spray tanning products and toothpaste.
Parabens are mostly non-irritating to people with normal skin although they can cause irritation to those with allergies.
There was a scientific study linking parabens to breast cancer however, the results of the study were not completely conclusive.
Parabens may lower the sperm count of males.
How? Because your skin absorbs, on average, about 60% of chemicals you put on it.
Pregnant women who use paraben-containing products run the risk of passing along the harmful chemicals to their unborn babies. That’s something to think about!
Sulfates are found in personal care products like toothpaste, soap, shampoo. Sulfates are to thank for that rich lather I love when shampooing my hair. Sulfates thicken products and are cheap. They dissolve oil and dirt, key components when using shampoo and soaps.
The two commonly found sulfates in beauty products are sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), both responsible for dying out hair and skin, sometimes even leading to hair loss from drying out hair follicles.
If you are like me and color your hair, sulfates are to thank for stripping the color, sending you straight back to your colorist again and again.
Petroleum (crude oil)-based products includes mineral oil, paraffin, and propylene glycol, all commonly found in beauty products.
Propylene glycol is an ingredient found in products like antifreeze, laundry detergent, and paint. You might also find it shampoo conditioner.
Petroleum is a key component in gasoline, styrofoam, lubricating oils, and lipgloss.
Another commonly listed ingredient, mineral oil, can be found in many foundations, cleansers, and moisturizers.
What’s the harm with a little oil derived from fossil fuel?
For starters, mineral oil blocks pores and mineral oils breathe. The result is pimples, maybe a rash, and clogged pores.
Phthalates - skincare ingredients to avoid
Defined on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website as follows:
‘Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break…’
Phthalates are used as additives in an assortment of products, including PVC products, construction materials and fragrance, nail polish, deodorant and body lotion.
The same chemicals used to make plastics harder to break, aren’t banned by the FDA, and by law, skincare and cosmetics manufacturers can make products we put on our face and on our bodies with these chemicals.
Plastics are known to produce toxic chemicals and exposure to the toxins from plastics are linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, and endocrine disruption, to name a few.
Phthalates imitate hormones and in laboratory tests, scientists discovered reproductive and neurological damage.
I’m glad I did my research and learned a little more about cosmetic and skincare ingredients.
I picked up a few products laying around my bathroom and read the ingredient lists. I’m disappointed and a little shocked to see mineral oil, sulfates, and phthalates in many of the lotions and creams I have in the house.
The good news is there are many companies that are utilizing organic and natural plants in their products.
These companies are becoming easier to find as consumers turn away from harmful elements and demand healthy ingredients.