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Top 15 Dangerous Ingredients in Skin Care

Top 15 Dangerous Ingredients in Skin Care

Isn’t it astonishing that cosmetics do not require approval before they hit the market’s shelves? I had a hard time swallowing that until I read it straight from the Web site of the FDA (the agency that regulates the cosmetics industry).

“Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act, cosmetics and their ingredients are not required to undergo approval before they are sold to the public. … This means that manufacturers may use any ingredient or raw material, except for color additives and a few prohibited substances, to market a product without a government review or approval.”

Yikes. Well, there are those few prohibited substances. Thank goodness they saw to banning (a meager) 10 ingredients–as compared to 1,100 ingredients banned in cosmetics by the European Union. And while it’s good to know that the FDA is protecting us from mercury compounds and chloroform–what about the long list of other problem ingredients that are prohibited elsewhere but allowed in American beauty products?

When Natural Solutions magazine was considering products for their Beauty with a Conscience Awards 2008–highlighting the safest, greenest beauty products in the marketplace–they came up with a list of the top ingredients to avoid in personal care products. They worked closely with Whole Foods Market, whose personal care team has been developing the Whole Foods Premium Bodycare Quality Standards has listed 250 unacceptable ingredients for Premium Body Care. You know it’s a topsy-turvy world when retailers are having to do the work that the FDA isn’t interested in.

Here are the winners, or perhaps we should call them the losers, of their research–The Formidable 15: Toxic Ingredients to Avoid in Skincare.

1. SYNTHETIC FRAGRANCES often contain phthalates (pronounced THAY-lates), synthetic chemicals commonly used to stabilize fragrances and make plastic more pliable. These endocrine disrupters mimic hormones and may alter genital development. Avoid products that list fragrance as an ingredient unless the label states that it’s derived from essentials oils, or look for a phthalate-free label on the packaging.

2. PARABENS, ubiquitous in skincare, preserve other ingredients and extend a product’s shelf life–but these antimicrobial chemicals also have hormone-disrupting effects.

3. UREAS, formally known as diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, or DMDM hydantoin and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, are preservatives that have the potential to release formaldehyde in very small amounts and are a primary cause of contact dermatitis.

4. 1,4-DIOXANE, a chemical carcinogen, is created when ingredients are processed with petroleum-derived ethylene oxide. Common ethoxylated compounds include sodium laureth sulfate and polyethylene glycol (often listed as PEG). To avoid it, skip any product with the following ingredients: myreth, oleth, laureth, ceteareth (or any other -eth), PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, or oxynol.

5. PETROCHEMICALS are derived from crude oil. Petroleum-based ingredients such as petrolatum, mineral oil, and paraffin (derived from nonrenewable sources) form a barrier when applied to the skin that does not allow it to breathe and can clog pores.

6. MEA/DEA/TEA are “amines” (ammonia compounds) and can form harmful nitrosamines when they come in contact with nitrates. Used as foaming agents, synthetic stabilizers, and to adjust the pH of cosmetics, they can cause allergic reactions, eye irritation, and dryness of the hair and skin.

7. SULFATES, such as sodium lauryl and sodium laureth, are harsh detergents that give cleansers, soaps, and shampoos their latherability. Often derived from petroleum, sulfates can also come from coconut and other vegetable oils that can be contaminated with pesticides. Sulfates can cause eye irritation and skin rashes.

8. CHEMICAL SUNSCREENS, such as oxybenzone and octylmethoxycinnamate, have been shown to disrupt endocrine activity. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are safer alternatives.

9. QUATS, such as benzalkonium chloride, steardimonium chloride, cetrimonium bromide, and cetrimonium chloride, give a positive charge to conditioners in order to prevent static. They are necessary for conditioners, but we have allowed only the mildest quats in our Beauty With a Conscience standard: guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride, hydroxypropyltrimonium oligosaccharide, and SugaQuats.

10. ANTIBACTERIAL COMPOUNDS, such as triclosan and chlorphenesin, do not break down in the environment and may contribute to bacterial resistance.

11. SYNTHETIC POLYMERS, such as sodium polyacrylate and carbomer, come from petroleum and give viscosity to skincare products. They are highly processed and their manufacture creates toxic by-products.

12. SYNTHETIC COLORS are made from coal tar. They contain heavy metal salts that may deposit toxins onto the skin, causing skin sensitivity and irritation. Animal studies have shown almost all of them to be carcinogenic. They will be labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number.

13. CHELATORS, such as disodium EDTA and tetrasodium EDTA, are used in personal care products to remove impurities from low-quality raw materials. They do not readily biodegrade in the environment.

14. NANOS are a new technology with inconclusive but potentially hazardous study results. Research suggests that when tiny nano particles penetrate the skin, they may cause cell damage.

15. ANIMAL TESTING: A grim history of cruelty to animals lies behind many cosmetic ingredients. But scientists are developing new technologies to test cosmetics before a European Union ban on animal testing begins in March 2009.

Natural Solutions: Vibrant Health, Balanced Living offers its readers the latest news on health conditions, herbs and supplements, natural beauty products, healing foods and conscious living. Click here for a free sample issue.

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Mel, selected from Natural Solutions magazine

Natural Solutions: Vibrant Health, Balanced Living offers its readers the latest news on health conditions, herbs and supplements, natural beauty products, healing foods and conscious living.


+ add your own
6:52PM PDT on Aug 20, 2014

Thank you for sharing! Good thing there are proper skin tips that can really helps us achieve a healthy, glowing and younger looking skin!

5:53AM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

Wrinkles would be healthier, but contemporary culture pressures us to look young as long as possible...

7:10PM PST on Jan 9, 2013

It's amazing what manufacturers believe they can get away with! Unless it's prohibited by health regulations, skin care products may legally contain toxic ingredients. That's one of the reasons why I decided to join Arbonne.

A few months ago, I was simply oblivious. If there's a risk with an ingredient, shouldn't it be removed from trade? Don't put your health at risk!

Check out

6:11PM PST on Jan 23, 2012

SLS has been the subject of a mud-slinging campaign which was spread through the internet and alternative health outlets. It was very difficult to trace its source but it was finally tracked back to a manufacturer of a rival surfactant which shamelessly exploited people's good intentions to sell more of its stuff.

5:57PM PST on Jan 23, 2012

Guys, check your sources before you get all hot and bothered:

1:43PM PST on Dec 9, 2011

Hi, thanks for sharing this resource so everyone can research the truth about the ingredients in the products they use. This article helped me on a product review I was going.. can't thank you enough! Here's the review if anyone's interested.

Thanks again! this is a really helpful website :)

-Tiffany Williams

7:24AM PDT on Jun 10, 2011

I just looked at all my old Hair products and they all contain Parabens! (I have to admit it's hard to give them up because they smell so good!) I;ve made it my goal to only use 'good for you' products though- anyone know any great smelling shampoos?!

Skin Care Wise- I'm obsessed with Ex Supermodel's Carol Alt's line! And chap-stick (I was addicted) I love Burt's Bees

1:27PM PST on Jan 26, 2011

it is very scary.... I have tried searching and it is very difficult to find things in local markets to get products to avoid them.

6:42PM PST on Jan 24, 2011

Try Naturopathica products...they are fabulous !

11:25PM PST on Mar 2, 2010

It's scary how ubiquitous toxins are. I use soap from the health food store. My skin is softer that way.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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