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Controversial Ingredients in Common Skincare Products

Controversial Ingredients in Common Skincare Products

My last post summarized ways to determine whether a skincare product is truly natural or totally bogus (  Today I’ll take this a step further and list specific examples of controversial chemicals found in common skincare products.  This list is not all inclusive but includes many of the most prevalent ingredients and why they’re believed to be harmful.  I should note that most of these claims have not been definitively proven but are suspected strongly enough to raise serious concern.


  • Where it’s found: Shampoo, liquid soaps and bubble baths (things that produce bubbles).  This is a tricky one because it’s a common contaminant produced during manufacturing, not necessarily an intentional ingredient.  Therefore, it’s seldom listed on labels even though it can be found in an estimated 20-40% of skincare products.
  • Why it’s bad: It’s suspected to cause cancer and birth defects.  It’s also been linked to allergies, immune system, respiratory and kidney problems.

Ceteareth (often followed by a number) –

  • Where it’s found: Moisturizers, hair and tanning products
  • What it’s used for: It acts as an emulsifier to bind ingredients and help them penetrate your skin
  • Why it’s bad: This is a suspected carcinogen specifically linked to breast caner

Coal Tar (sometimes specified as P-Phenylenediamine)

  • Where it’s found: Hair dyes and some products for dandruff and scaly skin conditions such as dermatitis
  • Why it’s bad: This is a suspected carcinogen.  It’s also been linked to nosebleeds, coughing, rashes and blindness.

Ethanolamines – including Di-(DEA), Mono- (MEA) and Tri- (TEA)

  • Where they’re found: Primarily in soaps
  • What they’re used for: They help dissolve dirt and grease
  • Why they’re bad: They’re hormone disruptors that have been linked to cancer.


  • Where it’s found: Everything from perfume to hand lotion to dish soap
  • Why it’s bad: The biggest problem with fragrance is that we have no idea what’s actually in it.  Due to trade secret laws, cosmetic brands don’t have to list ingredients used as fragrance.  Over 3,000 chemicals are currently approved fragrance ingredients, 2/3’s of which have never been tested.  In 2010 the Environmental Working Group tested 17 common perfumes and found an average of 10 allergic ingredients and 4 hormone disrupters per scent.  More than half contained Diethyl phthalate which is linked to birth defects and ADD.  And since companies don’t have to specify which chemicals they’re using, you don’t even know what you’re dealing with.

Glycol – including propylene (PG), polyethylene (PEG), butylene, ethylene and diethylene

  • Where it’s found: Moisturizers, toothpaste and deodorant
  • What it’s used for: They help ingredients to penetrate your skin
  • Why it’s bad: Associated with skin irritations including rashes, hives and allergic reactions.  Also believed to cause kidney and liver damage.


  • Where it’s found: Hair dyes and skin lightening products
  • What it’s used for: This is a bleaching agent used to lighten skin imperfections and hair
  • Why it’s bad: This is another suspected carcinogen.  It’s also linked to ochronosis – a condition where the skin gets dark, thick and sometimes forms yellow or brown spots.  It’s one of very few products the FDA has considered banning which is saying a lot.

Imidazolidinyl Urea – other derivatives of urea include DMDM-hydantoin and quarternium-15

  • Where it’s found: This is a common preservative used in a wide range of products including hair products, moisturizers, makeup, etc.
  • What it’s used for: This antimicrobial chemicals that provide an alternative to parabens, look for it on products that proclaim “paraben free”
  • Why it’s bad: Well for starters urea is secreted from urine which is just gross.  Besides that it can cause significant skin irritations, hurt your liver, disrupt your gastrointestinal tract and can even release formaldehyde in your products.


  • Where it’s found: Sunscreen
  • What it’s used for: To block UV rays
  • Why it’s bad: PABA has been linked to DNA damage and increased free radical.  It can ironically increase your chance of cancer, exactly what you’re trying to avoid by using it!

Parabens – methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- and butyl-

  • Where they’re found: These are the most common preservatives in skincare.  They can be found in over 75% of products ranging from deodorant to makeup to body wash
  • What they’re used for: They are antimicrobial agents that stop bacteria and increase shelf life.
  • Why they’re bad: Parabens mimic estrogen in your body and wreak havoc on our endocrine (hormonal) system.  They’re commonly found in the tissue of breast tumors and may cause uterine abnormalities.


  • Where it’s found: This is another synthetic preservative found in a wide range of skincare products
  • What it’s used for: This has been touted as a safer alternative to parabens, but these claims are questionable.  Pick your poison
  • Why it’s bad: This has also been linked to hormone disruption as well as DNA damage, reproductive harm and bladder problems.


  • Where they’re found: Hairspray, nail polish and some soaps and shampoos
  • What they’re used for: Designed to help scents last longer
  • Why they’re bad: Linked to cancer, hormone disruption and infertility.  They’re particularly harmful to children.

Sulfates – Including sodium laurel/eth sulfate, aluminum laurel/eth sulfate and anything that sounds similar

  • Where they’re found: Sulfates can be found in over 90% of shampoos as well as many soaps, toothpastes, shaving creams and moisturizers
  • What they’re used for: These are foaming agents designed to give products a nice lather and to help rinse dirt
  • Why they’re bad: Where do I start?  Sulfates have been linked to cancer, fertility problems and hormone disruption.  They’re also known to irritate your eyes, skin and hair and is can produce/be contaminated by 1,4-dioxane – another nasty carcinogen.

This list is meant to alert you to some of the most common controversial ingredients in skincare products.  However, the skincare industry uses thousands of ingredients so this list is far from complete.  For a more general guide to choosing safe products see:  Or if you’re interested in making products of your own, here are some of my favorites:  If reading about all these nasty toxins is starting to freak you out, I can totally relate.  I seriously considered whether or not to submit this post because my hope is to empower people, not scare them.  Please know that there are lots of good, healthy, safe products available – you just have to learn how to identify them.  Hopefully these posts help you sort through all the false claims and find products that are good for you, your family and our planet!

This post was inspired by the book, Skinny Bitch: Home, Beauty & Style by Kim Barnouin:  This book is a self proclaimed “no nonsense guide to cutting the crap out of your life for a better body and a better world”.  It’s full of information about the hidden toxins infiltrating every aspect of modern life and what you can do to avoid them.  It will probably freak you out, but it’s a good read nonetheless.

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