Toxic Ingredients in Skincare: What's Toxic and What's Fearmongering? Part 2

You can find part 1 here.

I didn't mention it in the last post but just wanted to address marketing in the natural beauty industry. Don't fall for marketing tricks by not reading ingredient lists. Just because a product has the word organic, natural, or if it says "free of...insert trending ingredient to avoid" doesn't mean it's a clean product. Often times companies will include partial information on the front to trick you into buying. It may say organic, but when you check the ingredients only a small portion is organic, or it also includes some toxic ingredients. More than ever you need to be an educated consumer to read past their misleading claims. 

Ok, on with the show :) 

PEGs (polyethylene glycol)

There are many different PEGs you can find on ingredients lists (PEG 8, PEG 20). The number relates to the absorption - the lower the number, the more easily it is absorbed into the skin. The purpose of PEGs is to moisturize, stabilize products, and enhance the penetration of other ingredients. The only toxicity concern with PEGs is that they are often contaminated with impurities like ethylene oxide and heavy metals.




Retinol is a synthetic form of vitamin A often used in anti-aging products. Other retinoids include: retinoic acid (also known as tretinoin), retinyl palmitate, and retinaldehyde. Though many will say the science proves retinol is safe, the FDA has said it is a known human reproductive toxicant, and other studies have shown evidence of tumor formation at low dosages. It also has been banned or restricted in other countries. So why is this such a popular ingredient despite these negatives?

Retinol is really an effective ingredient. It has excellent anti-aging properties, unclogs pores, and brightens skin. It works by increasing cell turnover, stimulating collagen and elastin production, fading hyperpigmentation, and helping skin stay hydrated and glowing. This is why it works well for those with cystic acne, oily skin, sun spots, and wrinkles. Sounds amazing right? Here's the problem: aside from the known toxicity issues, it can be irritating, causes sun sensitivity, and is often mixed with other known toxic ingredients. It also cannot be used when pregnant.


Butylated Compunds: BHA and BHT

Butylated compounds are used as a preservative and antioxidant. BHT is toluene based which we already know is an ingredient we want to avoid. Butylated compunds have been shown to be carcinogenic, have organ toxicity in studies, cause allergic reactions, and are suspected to be hormone disruptors. I'd definitely avoid this as there are plenty of other safer options to turn to when you need a preservative or antioxidant. 


Propylene Glycol

Propylene glycol is an alcohol that is used as a skin conditioning agent and is found in most personal care products. It is classified as a skin irritant and enhances skin absorption. It has been shown to cause dermatitis and hives, even at low dosages. This is one to use at your discretion. It's not toxic enough to be labeled as a never use ingredient but since it can cause irritation be cautious.



Also known as petroleum jelly, which everyone knows as Vaseline. It can also be labeled as mineral oil, liquid paraffin, toluene, and xylene. It is a skin conditioning agent but it also absorbs ultraviolet light. Petrolatum also contains 1,4-Dioxane, which has been listed by the World Health Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen. With so many other options to provide moisture, this one is very easily avoided.



Hydroquinone is a derivative of benzene that is often used as a skin lightening ingredient. The EPA has it listed as a known human respiratory toxicant and one or more animal studies have shown hydroquinone as toxic in low doses.

Hydroquinone works by reducing the melanin in your skin. This in turn weakens the elastin and collagen which I'm sure, is a very undesired side effect to most. It often causes skin sensitivity – mainly redness and peeling.


Synthetic colors

All those colorful bath bombs, shampoos, liquid soaps, and makeup are really pretty to look at and use. But those colors are usually synthetic, and many synthetic colors are derived from coal tar and petroleum sources. For many years we had several colorants on the market, used in food and personal care products. But every couple of years, new evidence surfaced on the toxicity of these colorants and slowly most of them have been banned. Currently, there are 7 colorants on the FDA approved list. Yellow #5 is already banned in Europe, but is still being tested in the U.S. Synthetic colors are suspected to be carcinogenic, and have been shown to be allergens and irritants. They also often contain toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead. Look for FD&C or D&C on the label to find them.


Sunscreen chemicals

This is a pretty controversial topic. Common names are benzophenone, PABA, avobenzone, homosalate and octinoxate. These work by absorbing ultraviolet light, but they are easily absorbed into the skin and have been linked to many issues. There is evidence these chemicals cause photoallergic and allergenic reactions, are endocrine disruptors, bioaccumulate in the body, and have been shown to cause cellular changes, leading to cell death and cardiovascular problems. One study found benzophene in the urine of 97% of the people tested. Instead of using these toxic skin absorbing chemicals, use a barrier type ingredient like zinc oxide and be practical about sun exposure.