Top 12 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid in Beauty & Personal Care Products

Avoid these toxic ingredients when you are buying personal care products like shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste, as well as makeup, nail polish and other beauty products.


Toxic Ingredients to Avoid in Beauty Products

Let’s do a little experiment: Go grab your favorite shampoo, deodorant, eye shadow or whatever personal care product you can get your hands on quickly.

Turn the package over and take a look at the ingredients list. Chances are it’s pretty long and filled with a lot of unusual, scientific sounding names. 

I know – reading ingredient labels is not something most people do for fun! Yet, understanding toxic ingredients is an important step in identifying natural, non-toxic beauty and personal care products

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Why It Matters

Finding beauty and body care products that you can trust to be non-toxic can be tricky. Just because something says natural or paraben-free on the label doesn’t mean it’s safe or eco-friendly.

In fact, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), one in three personal care products contain at least one ingredient classified as a possible human carcinogen. On top of that, many chemicals used in personal care products cause endocrine disruption, respiratory irritation and allergic reactions. 

Don’t worry, you won’t have to go get a degree in chemistry and memorize a long list safe ingredients. But understanding the worst chemical ingredients to AVOID will help a lot.

In addition, you can use the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to research products and look for trusted certifications on product labels. And you’ll find lots more info about non-toxic beauty products and favorite brands on the blog

lotion on hands - top ingredients to avoid in skin care

Toxic Ingredients to Avoid in Beauty & Personal Care Products

Nasty ingredients can be found in all types of personal care and beauty products – from skin care and bath products, toothpaste and deodorant, hair care and nail products, as well as lipstick, eye shadow and most other makeup products. This includes products for babies and kids (find safe baby care products here), as well as for adults. 

Let’s take a look a the the top 12 worst toxic ingredients to skip when buying personal care, cosmetics and beauty products:

Parabens

  • Used for: Preservatives used to inhibit bacteria and mold growth
  • Seen on label: methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben
  • Health Concerns: Endocrine system disruptors linked to developmental and reproductive problems, as well as breast cancer
  • Found in: A wide variety of personal care products including shampoos, cleansers, deodorants and makeup

Fragrance

  • Used for: Adding scent to products and to mask unpleasant odors
  • Seen on label: fragrance or parfum
  • Health Concerns: Fragrance can be a mix of 100s of undisclosed chemicals including phthalates, which are endocrine disruptors and other ingredients that may cause allergic reactions.
  • Found in: Many personal care and beauty products, including perfumes.
  • Note: Fragrance is a complicated and evolving subject. Some brands list “fragrance” but state that it is all natural or paraben-free. Preferably, companies will be 100% transparent, but you may need to ask questions to get to the bottom of it. 

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing ingredients

  • Used for: Preservatives to kill bacteria
  • Seen on label: quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, bronopol, formaldehyde resin
  • Health Concerns: Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. Formaldehyde-releasers are preservatives that slowly form formaldehyde and release it into the environement. Formaldehyde can also trigger allergic skin reactions. 
  • Found in: Many personal care products including shampoo, body wash, soaps, nail polish, and air fresheners

Related: All the ingredients to AVOID in shampoo

foaming soap in hands at sink - top ingredients to avoid

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate & Sodium Laureth Sulfate

  • Used for: To produce foam and lather in a product
  • Seen on label: sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and laureth sulfate (SLES) 
  • Health Concerns: Both SLS and SLES can cause skin irritation or allergies. SLES is an ethoxylated ingredient known to produce 1,4 Dioxane, which is classified as a human carcinogen.
  • Found in: Shampoos, shower gels, facial cleansers 

Polyethylene Glycol (PEGs)

  • Used for: Thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers
  • Seen on label: polyethylene glycol, ceteareth
  • Health Concerns: Ethoxylated ingredients frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, and which readily penetrates the skin and is linked to cancer. Polyethylene has also been noted as a skin irritant.
  • Found in: Deodorant, makeup, styling gel, shaving cream and many other products

Triclosan

  • Used for: Antimicrobial ingredient
  • Seen on label: triclosan or triclocarbon
  • Health Concerns: Linked to endocrine disruption, including proper functioning of thyroid and reproductive hormones. Also toxic to the aquatic environment. 
  • Found in: Toothpaste, deodorant, liquid soap and more

Related: All the ingredients to AVOID in toothpaste

lipstick tubes - ingredients to avoid in cosmetics

BHA and BHT

  • Used for: Synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives
  • Seen on label: butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) or butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Health Concerns: Possible human carcinogen, especially for products used on lips
  • Found in: Lipsticks and other cosmetics, moisturizers and shaving cream

Ethanolamines 

  • Used for: Makes products creamy or sudsy and as a PH-adjuster
  • Seen on label: diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), monoethanolamine (MEA)
  • Health Concerns: Can react with other chemicals to form carcinogenic nitrosamines. Can also cause skin and eye irritation. 
  • Found in: Shampoo, bubble bath, moisturizers, and sunscreens

Oxybenzone

  • Used for: Sunscreen protection and ultraviolet (UV) light absorber
  • Seen on label: oxybenzone
  • Health Concerns: Linked to endocrine discruption as well as photoallergic reactions and irritation
  • Found in: Sunscreen products
nail polish - ingredients to avoid

Dibutyl phthalate and toluene

  • Used for: Solvents and plasticizers 
  • Seen on label: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, benzene, methylbenzene, toluol
  • Health Concerns: Phthalates are reproductive and developmental toxicants, and toluenes are neurotoxins.
  • Found in: Nail polish (dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde are considered the toxic trio in nail polish). Toluene is also found in hair dye.

Coal tar dyes

  • Used for: Coloring hair 
  • Seen on label: P-phenylenediamine (PPD)
  • Health Concerns: Linked to cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as eye irritant and allergic reactions
  • Found in: Hair dye (permanent, semi-permanent and temporary) 
  • Note: These dyes used to be made from coal, but are now pertroleum-derived.

Hydroquinone 

  • Used for: Skin bleaching
  • Seen on label: hydroquinone
  • Health Concerns: Can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, leading to “disfiguring and irreversible” blue-black lesions on exposed skin
  • Found in: Skin lightening creams

Have you seen these toxic ingredients on any products you use? Which ones are the hardest for you to avoid?

green & healthy wishes Micaela signature

P.S. Be sure to check out my Non-Toxic Product Guides for Personal Care & Beauty Products!

14 Comments

  1. This is a great list. It can get overwhelming when you’re reading an ingredient list and trying to decipher how safe/unsafe each ingredient is. I love having a short list, of 12 ingredients, that I definitely want to avoid.

    1. Yes, my goal is to limit the overwhelm – so I hope it helps!

  2. I make most from scratch but still super useful to finally have a guide to consult ! Gonna save it on my favourites so I can find it easily next time I am in the hunt for good products (I have a terrible memory ahah)

  3. Thanks for sharing this! Avoiding toxins in our products is so hard but so important.

  4. It is really insane that these ingredients are allowed in beauty products at all. I’ve made it a habit of always reading the ingredients for anything I buy. This list is a good reference guide for what to avoid. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I know – it is insane! Hoping for better laws eventually….meanwhile understanding how to read labels helps!

  5. Awesome list. It’s so frustrating how confusing these companies make buying products but I’m so thankful for the Cosmetics Database and Think Dirty.

  6. I usually make my own remedies but this is a really useful list I am going to bookmark for further references. Thank you so much!

  7. Thank you so much for the list. Now I can show this to my girlfriend and properly explain why products with Sodium Lauryl Sulfate should be avoided. I too got to know about many other ingredients that I’ll try to use less from now on.

  8. becky moe says:

    Is PHENOXYETHANOL, LAURYL GLUCOSIDE okay or more like safe to use? And what the heck dose FRAGARIA ANANASSA ? thank you i am new to all this

    1. Yes, I believe those ingredients are all safe. Phenoxyethanol is a bit controversial but used in very small amounts I’ve been told it’s very safe. FRAGARIA ANANASSA is strawberry seed oil – no worries there!

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