The Harmful Ingredients in Skincare Products to Avoid

by Sep 26, 2018

Getting your head around which harmful ingredients in skincare products to avoid is enough to give anyone a headache. There are hundreds of chemicals that go into the production of beauty products and personal care products. Most of them are not good for you or your skin.

In Australia, like most of the rest of the world, there isn’t much in the way of rules or regulations on which ingredients can be used in skincare. There is no pre-market testing for health and safety. On top of that, there is no assessment done on how one ingredient interacts with another making them even more toxic.

In essence, the beauty industry is a self-regulating one.

Regulations are much stricter in Europe, where about 1300 chemicals are banned from use in the industry.

That’s not the case in Australia. No one has your back and you need to do your own homework.

Saying that, if you live in Europe, don’t think you are off the hook. I’m in Europe right now and I can tell you the industry has a long way to go before it is cleaned up too. It’s effectively up to us to work out what is good and what isn’t.

Below I give you some quick tips so you can quickly grasp which ingredients in skincare products to avoid without enroling for a PhD in chemistry!

beauty and skincare products to avoid

A guide to ingredients in skincare products to avoid


1. Avoid the supermarket or pharmacy

Buying a skincare or personal care product in a mainstream supermarket or pharmacy is not a great idea. You may find the odd good product but it’s best to steer clear until you have gained more confidence. Supermarket brands are usually inconsistent. One product in a range might be good but another not so much. The ‘Thank You’ and ‘Ecostore’ brands both fall into this category. By the end of this blog though, you will be able to work the good from the bad!

2. Avoid long ingredient lists with unpronounceable chemicals

The better and most natural products will include latin-named ingredients with English translations such as Cocos nucifera (Coconut) oil.

A red flag is usually a long list of synthetic ingredients with unpronounceable chemical names, such as methylisothiazolinone.  

3. Examine the top five ingredients

With mainstream products, you usually don’t need to scroll much further than the top of the list to find a problematic toxic ingredient.

Water is commonly the first ingredient listed because it’s the main ingredient. Yet move a little beyond that and you will commonly find Sodium Lauryl Sulphate or Sodium Laureth Sulphate, otherwise known as SLS or SLES. They are surfactants and effectively detergents that irritate the skin and damage the skin barrier. They are especially problematic if you have any kind of skin complaint.

The formulation of SLES generates a nasty by-product called 1,4-dioxane. It does not need to be listed as an ingredient on product labels because it’s deemed a contaminant. The chemical easily penetrates the skin and is considered a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Stay clear of it!

Surfactants are used to form a lather in your soap or shampoo. If your pseudo-eco product is forming a lather really easily it’s probably a good sign that it has SLS or some other surfactant in there.

The next most commonly found ingredient is Cocamidopropyl betaine. It was awarded the dubious distinction of ‘Allergen of the Year’ by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2004. It is known to cause allergic contact dermatitis.

If you don’t identify either of the above on your list then check to see if you can find a paraben. Parabens are commonly used cheap preservatives that kill bacteria and fungi and come in many forms (methylparaben, ethylparaben, p-propylparaben etc).

The use of parabens is linked to increased oestrogenic activity in the body as well as reduced testosterone activity and hence are considered a hormone disruptor at very low, chronic doses. They can play havoc with your hormonal system and are even linked to breast cancer.

By looking for products labelled SLS or paraben-free you can avoid these big hitters but this is by no means a guarantee of low toxicity. You still need to dig some more.

4. Buy Phthalate or Fragrance-Free Products

Phthalates are added to nearly all synthetic fragrances to ‘fix’ the scent, making it last longer. The problem is they are also linked to hormone disruption in the body.

Synthetic fragrances can contain hundreds of chemicals, and none of them are listed on the packaging. They don’t need to be as they are deemed ‘trade secrets’.

However, the label may say phthalate-free or fragrance-free.

A simple way to check is to scroll to the bottom of the ingredients list and look for fragrance or ‘parfum’.

If there is no “asterisk” clarifying that the fragrance is made from essential oils, it’s a red flag.

If fragrance or ‘parfum’ is included in the list but the product is also labelled as phthalate-free it may be OK. For me though, this adds another level of complexity to label checking.

Phthalate-free synthetic fragrances do exist but they are few and far between. To be certain of low toxicity you need to check with the manufacturer as to what synthetic chemicals are used.

A word of warning: unscented is not the same as fragrance-free!

Fragrances are often used to mask the scent of other chemicals in a product. So ‘unscented’ does not mean phthalate or fragrance-free.

RELATED: 10 Best Apps to Becoming an Eco-Conscious Consumer

5. Phenoxyethanol-Free

When I pick up a product that is claiming to be green, along with clarification on the use of essential oils for fragrance, I always check for the preservative phenoxyethanol.

I’ve lost count of the number of pseudo-eco products that pass all my other tests but fail on this one. It’s usually found towards the bottom of the ingredients list.

I spoke about preservatives earlier when talking about parabens. Any product that contains water (and this is almost all products) will need a preservative to stop the growth of bacteria and fungi. These preservatives act like antibiotics, killing or altering the existing bacteria on your skin and disrupting your skins natural protective barrier.

Phenoxyethanol is one such preservative and it is often used in low concentrations, even in some organic products. It’s a potential allergen and is also linked to organ system toxicity. Hormone-disrupting chemicals by their very nature work at low doses so I avoid them at all costs.

6. Check for Synthetic Colours

Another clue as to the toxicity of ingredients is to look for synthetic dyes or colours derived from coal tar or petroleum.

These are easily identified by coding such as Red 33 Lake or CI 17200. Many of these coal tar dyes are banned in Europe as they are suspected human carcinogens and are also linked to organ system toxicity but they are allowed in Australian products.

They are also known skin irritants and are linked to ADHD in children.

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harmful ingredients in skincare products

7. Download the EWG and/or Chemical Maze apps

Now if your product passes all of these tests, have a look at the rest of the ingredients list. Check for any unpronounceable chemicals (for e.g. methylisothiazolinone). To do this, I usually use the EWG app (free) and/or the Chemical Maze app.

If you get the all clear the product is yours!

8. Buy Certified Organic Products or DIY

To avoid all of these steps you could just make your own products or buy certified organic products.

It is rare to find 100% certified organic skincare products. This is because most products contain water which needs a preservative to keep the bacteria and fungi away. Organic preservatives that work are unheard of. This is why you usually only see certified organic products that contain say 90% organic ingredients. That remaining 10% may make a big difference especially if you have problematic skin.

If you have been on the eco-conscious path for a while and want to go one better seek out 100% certified organic products. The key is finding products that do not use water. They do exist but they are rare.

Confused? Let’s recap!

1. Don’t buy products in the supermarket or pharmacy.

2. Avoid long ingredient lists with unpronounceable names.

3. Avoid SLS, SLES, parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrances.

4. Avoid cocamidopropyl betaine and phenoxyethanol.

5. Avoid synthetic colours (look for codes).

6. Download the EWG and/or Chemical Maze apps.

7. Buy certified organic products or make your own.

Take note! Don’t assume that a product that is naturally-derived or natural, is always good for you.

Pigments used as dyes in cosmetics such as lipstick or mascara, for example, usually contain lead; a highly toxic heavy metal, as they are extracted from the ground. You can read more about that on this blog.

Essential oils (all the rage right now!) are sometimes concentrated tens to hundreds of times stronger than they are found in nature. They must be used wisely especially in children and animals. Essential oils are not for everybody as they, like any substance, can also cause reactions.

Where to shop for non-toxic skincare products?

I never buy skincare products in a supermarket. Instead, I try where ever possible to buy and support local businesses.

I currently use Mokosh because they are 100% certified organic and made in WA.

I also find my local farmers’ market a great spot to pick up natural soaps and other bits and pieces.

Great online shops include the Dandelion Ecostore and Honestly Natural.

If you follow these guidelines you will find shopping for skincare and personal care products a whole lot quicker and easier. Find a brand you love and stick to it. If you need help working it all out or an unsure about a product or two, get in touch – I offer eco consults by phone and you can book here.

Hi, I’m Una. Eco-Lifestyle Coach & Scientist

Una Phelan environmental scientist and eco-lifestyle coach

I create healthy homes and lifestyles that change lives for the better.

When you need straightforward, simple information, I will give it to you. I can cut through the science to give you practical tips for taking charge of your health, your home and workplace.

This means it’s easier for you to get on the right track to an econscious lifestyle.

Whether it’s online or in person, I’ll guide you every step of the way.

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