When it comes to our beauty products, it might seem as though the list of ingredients to avoid is growing longer by the minute—but that's not to say you should demonize every ingredient brought up. Marketing has a lot to do with it, and new science comes out all the time offering evidence-based information about what is and isn't good for your skin. Then, of course, there's personal differences too. What may cause sensitivity for you might work for someone else. It's all about education, transparency, and nuance. Still, getting to know your ingredient labels is important.
Enter: Yashi Shrestha, the research scientist and green cosmetic chemist behind clean beauty retailer NakedPoppy. She’s built a career out of spotlighting the ingredients that aren’t doing our bodies or the planet any favors. “A study by EWG notes that a woman applies about 168 different chemicals everyday,” she says. “This exposure accumulates over time and so it is important for people to opt for products that are cleaner and better for our health.”
Meet the Expert
Yashi Shrestha is the research scientist and green cosmetic chemist behind clean beauty retailer NakedPoppy. She's an expert in the field of toxic beauty ingredients.
Thanks to a slow-evolving industry, this is often an uphill battle. “Unfortunately, cosmetics and personal care products have little government oversight, which means many products, and the ingredients used in today's beauty products, are not well-regulated,” she explains. This ultimately leaves the responsibility to the consumer to know what’s health and what’s not. (And if you’ve ever tried to discern the seven-syllable words on an ingredient label, you know that this is hardly an easy task.)
The good news? “Consumers are becoming more conscious about the environmental impact of certain ingredients, and clean beauty is evolving to have more visibility into the supply chain and sourcing of ingredients,” says Shrestha. That’s a beauty trend we can definitely get behind—and in the meantime, consider this your ultimate cheat sheet on the ingredients to avoid.
Bookmark the below for your next beauty run.
Formaldehyde. Despite decades of research that classifies formaldehyde as a known carcinogen, it’s still a fairly common ingredient in hair straightening products, nail polish, eyelash glue, and an array of other cosmetics. Thankfully, some retailers (including Whole Foods, CVS, and Target) are starting to ban products that contain formaldehyde from their shelves.
But there’s a catch. “While formaldehyde has become a well-known toxic ingredient to avoid in beauty products, many don’t know about the lesser known ingredients that release formaldehyde which are formulated in cosmetics today,” says Shrestha. In other words, while it’s unlikely that you’ll see the word “formaldehyde” on an ingredient label, it might be hiding behind another name.
Formaldehyde releasers. “Bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15 are cosmetic preservatives that slowly form formaldehyde,” says Shrestha. In other words, steer clear if you can.
Synthetic fragrances. A heads-up: When an ingredient label simply says “fragrance” or “parfum,” it’s often an umbrella term for hundreds of chemicals that brands aren’t required to disclose. (That makes it a heck of a lot harder to discern what may cause a reaction.)
Phtalates. One such sneaky compound hiding under the “fragrance” umbrella? That would be phtalates, which are sometimes used to help perfume stick to skin, as well as eyelash adhesive and nail polish. That’s bad news, because phtalates have been shown to be pretty significant endocrine disruptors—in some cases facilitating early puberty in girls and boys, and reduced sperm count in men. Oh, and did we mention they’re also harmful to the environment? The EWG reports that some retailers have started to ban phtalate-containing products from their shelves, but we still recommend a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to added fragrance.
Parabens. “Butyl, propyl and ethyl parabens have been linked to hormone disruption,” notes Shrestha. These are preservatives that are found in a white variety of cosmetics—which is why many cleaner brands have taken the initiative to label their products “paraben-free.” Parabens are probably the most well-known ingredient to avoid due to a 2004 research paper that that appeared to find traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue samples. According to EU and FDA regulations, parabens in their current form are officially considered safe to use, since cosmetic products only use a very small concentration of these ingredients in their formulas (up to around 0.4 percent, though measurements do differ for each paraben). However, we say better safe than sorry. (You can read more about parabens here.)
Polyethylene glycol (PEGs). On a similar note: Polyethylene glycol, “propylene glycol (PG) and butylene glycol (BG) could potentially be petroleum derived and irritating to the skin,” says Shrestha. These are chemical thickeners and can sometimes be found in cream-based products.
Siloxanes. Also known as cyclical silicones, these compounds are found in a variety of cosmetic and skincare products—but they’re not great for the environment, and have been linked with endocrine disruption as well. (Dimethicone, on the other hand, is considered safer when used sparingly.)
Triclosan. This antimicrobial ingredient (often found in hand sanitizers and antibacterial soap) has been linked to such a significant impact on the thyroid and reproductive hormones, that it’s banned in several countries. The US has moved to ban it from antiseptic soap, but it might still show up in deodorant, mouthwash, shaving cream, and toothpaste, says the EWG.
Ethanolamines. While these compounds (which are emulsifiers found in foundation, mascara, and skincare products) are technically classified as safe for cosmetic use by the EWG, they’re also shown to be allergens—something to keep in mind if you have sensitivities to certain ingredients. They might be listed as monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA), or triethanolamine (TEA).
Oxybenzone. “This well-established endocrine disruptor can be found in many skincare products that contain sunscreen, including lotions, lip balms, cleansers, fragrance, and even baby products,” says Shrestha.
Octinoxate. This common sunscreen ingredient was thought originally to be harmful to coral reefs, and although that may have been recently proven false, it's still somewhat irritating to sensitive skin.
Homosalate. “This is another chemical that’s commonly used in sunscreens as a UV absorber,” says Shrestha. While regulations are starting to wisen up to octinoxate and oxybenzone, homosalate is still pretty commonly used. Read your labels!
Toluene. This chemical (which also goes by the name of Butylated Hydroxytoluene, or BHT), is a big no-no: It’s linked with brain toxicity and can be especially dangerous during pregnancy. While it’s banned in the EU and Southeast Asia (as well as by a few retailers in the US), you can still find it nail polish, nail treatments and hair dye.
Talc. While talcum powder (often used as a smoothing agent in mineral makeup) is generally safe, it also has the potential to be contaminated with asbestos, which is a known carcinogen and instigator of lung disease.
PFAs and PFCs. Remember how we said that the term “fragrance” can potentially be hiding hundreds of chemicals? Well, PFAs are a class of thousands. “They’re fluorinated chemicals that have been found in sunscreens, hair products, and shaving creams,” says Shrestha. “They’re linked to serious health effects, including cancer, thyroid disease, and even reduced effectiveness of vaccines.”
If you commonly use waterproof mascara or eyeliner, take note: PFCs are big culprits here, because they’re water repellents.
Teflon. Teflon is one specific PFA worth calling out—it’s the brand name for Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), and is sometimes added to cosmetics to improve the texture. But like other PFAs, it’s linked to hormone disruption and reproductive issues.
Resorcinol. “This common ingredient in hair color and bleaching products has been linked to skin irritation and immune system dysfunction,” says Shrestha. “In animal studies, resorcinol can disrupt normal thyroid function.”
Carbon black. The EWG has flagged this pigment (which is often found in mascara and eyeliner) because of its possible link to cancer with regard to inhalation (not topical application). For what it’s worth, the FDA has put some limits on the amounts used—but it’s still widely found in cosmetics at retailers everywhere.
This Is Not About Fear
Knowledge is power—and you can feel good about taking steps to better understand exactly what you’re putting on your body. Think of this list as a jumping-off point for anyone curious about learning more about sketchy ingredients and clean beauty as whole. We recommend doing your own research on all of the ingredients above, then making a decision that feels right for you.
“Given the lack of regulations and federal oversight on what ingredients are allowed in beauty products, it’s important for consumers to seek out and demand products that are clean,” says Shrestha. “This not only drives innovation for brands creating better products, but also increases accountability so that consumers don’t have to spend time doing research on ingredients to ensure safety.” In other words, get comfortable calling brands on their BS—all in the name of a safer beauty industry for all.
Leso V, Macrini MC, Russo F, Iavicoli I. Formaldehyde exposure and epigenetic effects: a systematic review. Appl. Sci. 2020, 10, 2319. doi:10.3390/app10072319
Malinauskiene L, Blaziene A, Chomiciene A, Isaksson M. Formaldehyde may be found in cosmetic products even when unlabelled. Open Med (Wars). 2015;10(1):323‐328. doi:10.1515/med-2015-0047
Pinkas A, Gonçalves CL, Aschner M. Neurotoxicity of fragrance compounds: a review. Environ Res. 2017;158:342‐349. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2017.06.035
Parlett LE, Calafat AM, Swan SH. Women's exposure to phthalates in relation to use of personal care products. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2013;23(2):197‐206. doi:10.1038/jes.2012.105
Tefre de Renzy-Martin K, Frederiksen H, Christensen JS, et al. Current exposure of 200 pregnant Danish women to phthalates, parabens and phenols. Reproduction. 2014;147(4):443‐453. doi:10.1530/REP-13-0461
Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, Coldham NG, Sauer MJ, Pope GS. Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. J Appl Toxicol. 2004;24(1):5‐13. doi:10.1002/jat.958
Helm JS, Nishioka M, Brody JG, Rudel RA, Dodson RE. Measurement of endocrine disrupting and asthma-associated chemicals in hair products used by Black women. Environ Res. 2018;165:448-458. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.03.030
Weatherly LM, Gosse JA. Triclosan exposure, transformation, and human health effects. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2017;20(8):447‐469. doi:10.1080/10937404.2017.1399306
Nguyen HL, Yiannias JA. Contact dermatitis to medications and skin products. Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2019;56(1):41‐59. doi:10.1007/s12016-018-8705-0
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Public health statement for Toluene. Updated January 21, 2015.
Tran TH, Steffen JE, Clancy KM, Bird T, Egilman DS. Talc, asbestos, and epidemiology: corporate influence and scientific incognizance. Epidemiology. 2019;30(6):783-788. doi:10.1097/EDE.0000000000001091
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Basic information on PFAS.
Johnson PI, Le A, Materna B. Cosmetics Containing Ingredients Linked to Cancer or Reproductive Harm: Data Reported to the California Safe Cosmetics Program, 2009-2015. Richmond, CA: California Department of Public Health, Occupational Health Branch. 2016.