Toxic Ingredients in Skincare: What's Toxic and What's Fearmongering? Part 1

You have certainly seen tons of articles, videos, and graphics floating around touting the dangers of many common ingredients in all kinds of products. While it is great that many are educating themselves, this has become somewhat of a problem. Many of the ingredients that are claimed to be harmful are in fact not, and many are using this unfounded fear to market to the masses. Yes there are ingredients you should definitely avoid, but not all “chemicals” are bad. Everything is made of chemicals. Even water is. That rule about not eating or using anything with words you cannot pronounce does not always work. Read on for a break down on some of this misinformation and know what you really should avoid.



Preservatives have been a hot topic for a few year,s mainly due to parabens. Now the purpose of preservatives is to prolong the shelf life if a product. Anything with water NEEDS a preservative. I will repeat that because it is so important/ ANYTHING WITH WATER NEEDS A PRESERVATIVE. Companies who make water based products and do not adequately preserve them are selling dangerous products, and you should definitely not be putting anything like that on your skin. You cannot see any bacteria or fungus growing on the product with the naked eye. The most effective preservatives out there are parabens. However, these have been shown to be endocrine disrupting, an allergen, and according to some have been connected to breast cancer. Though the research is ongoing and experts do not agree on the dangers of using parabens, many companies have opted to use alternative preservative as consumers seek to avoid them.

Phenoxyethanol is another common preservative used. It's often used by natural companies, but this is just as toxic as some parabens so it's a case of greenwashing. Phenoxyethanol has been linked to neurotoxicity and skin irritation and allergies. The FDA even put out a consumer alert warning that phenoxyethanol can depress the central nervous system and may cause vomiting and diarrhea. 

Safer preservatives include radish root ferment (Leucidal liquid), sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, benzyl alcohol, and potassium sorbate. There are several others out there that I have left out. Know that these are nowhere near as effective at preventing microbial activity as the commonly used parabens so you need to consider how long you will have the product and the method of application and the risks of contamination. Use products in smaller container so they do not last as long and try not to contaminate the product with your fingers or water if possible. 



Fragrance is a tricky ingredient. Often it is used as an umbrella term to hide tons of other ingredients. “This generic term encompasses thousands of combinations of chemicals that give consumer goods their odors, but the identity of those chemicals is rarely disclosed.” The Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains:

When you see ‘fragrance’ on a personal care product's label, read it as ‘hidden chemicals.’ A major loophole in FDA's federal law lets manufacturers of products like shampoo, lotion, and body wash include nearly any ingredient in their products under the name ‘fragrance’ without actually listing the chemical.
Companies that manufacture personal care products are required by law to list the ingredients they use, but fragrances and trade-secret formulas are exempt.”

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that the average fragrance contained 14 chemicals that were not disclosed on the label. This is the danger in having the word fragrance on the ingredients list. It is not that the fragrance itself is toxic, but they can be hiding other toxic ingredients with that word.

Fragrances are usually synthetic, but sometimes essential oils can be labeled as fragrance. There are also plant based fragrances, or isolates. Some people choose to avoid these because they are altered from plants and not truly natural but that is a personal choice. High concentrations of rancid isolates can cause skin irritation, but I can't think of any skin care products that would have such high concentrations of fragrance anyway.

My advice is if you see fragrance listed as an ingredient, you can choose to avoid it or ask the brand for clarification. If they are just using essential oils, they should be upfront. And if they aren't, take your money elsewhere.



Phthalates are commonly found in personal care products, food equipment and packaging, vinyl flooring, and fragrances. They are used to soften and increase flexibility of plastic and vinyl. Phthalates have been linked to adverse effects on the development of male reproductive system. According to the NIH The human health effects of phthalates are not yet fully known but are being studied by several government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the National Toxicology Program's Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction. Right now phthalates are listed as reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogen. High levels of exposure to some phthalates have been shown to affect the male reproductive system, especially in children. You often won't find this listed as an ingredient, as it's usually hidden under fragrance. Look for phthalate free fragrance or fragrance free products to avoid this. 



Triclosan was recently banned from antibacterial hand soaps by the FDA. It is an endocrine disrupting chemical (pesticide) that kills germs and is mostly associated with antibacterial products, but is also found in other skincare products and toothpaste. It has been associated with hormone and muscle disruption in humans. Studies have also linked triclosan to cancer, developmental defects, and liver and inhalation toxicity. This one is easy to avoid by not using antibacterial products. They are not needed to remove bacteria. All you need is water and regular soap. 



1 in 5 personal care products contain a substance that generates formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. The research is very clear on this and formaldehyde is definitely something that needs to be avoided. If you don’t want a product that contains a formaldehyde-releasing chemical, you have to play detective and scrutinize the product label. Chemicals in this category include:

  • DMDM hydantoin

  • Imidazolidinyl urea

  • Diazolidinyl urea

  • Quaternium-15

  • Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol )

  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane

  • Hydroxymethylglycinate



Toluene is a solvent used to make aviation gasoline, spray and wall paints, paint thinner, medicine, dyes, explosives, detergents, fingernail polish, spot removers, lacquers, adhesives, rubber, and antifreeze. It is also used in some printing and leather tanning processes. It is a VOC (volatile organic compound). High levels of exposure are very dangerous, though this would not be the case with personal care products. According to the NIH, exposure to low to moderate levels of toluene can cause confusion, light-headedness, dizziness, headache, fatigue, weakness, memory loss, nausea, appetite loss, coughing, wheezing, and hearing and color vision loss. With all the companies making toluene free nail polishes it's very easy to avoid this one. 


Sodium laureth sulfate

SLS is a surfactant, or cleansing agent used in soaps and cleansers. The main concern with SLS is skin and eye irritation and contamination with other more toxic ingredients. It's danger has definitely been overblown lately, as it's toxicity is pretty low, especially when compared to the other chemicals in this post. This is one to definitely avoid if you have sensitive or dry skin. 

Delilah Orpi