The Worst Ingredients Found in Conventional Skincare Products

We are far from powdering our faces with lead-based powder and painting our lips with mercuric sulfide like women did in the Victorian Era, but how much safer are today's beauty products?

In fact, there are over 1,300 chemicals banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union due to questions over their safety. In comparison, the U.S. has only banned 11.

There is almost zero federal regulation of the cosmetics industry in the United States. A product can go straight from manufacturing to store shelves without any type of approval or mandatory safety testing. The Food and Drug Administration only regulates misbranding or false advertising on packages—not what actually goes inside the packages.

Eco-lifestyle experts report that on average, American women use twelve beauty products per day, which translates into the exposure of more than 168 synthetic, unregulated chemicals in cosmetics.

If you’ve ever looked at the ingredients list on a conventional skincare product package, you likely ended up more than a little confused. With so many chemical ingredients with long, scientific-sounding names, it can be extremely frustrating to get a clear idea of what is included in each product.

They’re usually the names of chemicals that have been mixed together for the formula, and it’s hard to tell what exactly they are made of straight from the ingredients label, or what they do to you. And even if you recognize some of the ingredients, how do you know which ones are safe to use?

Because there is little to no regulation of harmful ingredients in personal care products, it is up to us to choose safer products for ourselves and our families. To help you out in this area, we have prepared a list of some of the most common skincare ingredients that you should stay far away from. Keep an eye out for them when building a natural skincare routine.


Parabens are preservatives found in everything from conditioners and lotions to shaving creams and gels. If a skincare product has water in it, it probably has a paraben to keep it from growing bacteria. Examples include: methylparaben, proplyparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben.

If “paraben” is in the word, avoid it. Parabens are known as endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic estrogen in the body, which can lead to hormonal imbalances, and possibly even breast cancer. Studies have shown that they're linked to many acute and chronic health problems.

Some of these health problems are allergies, skin toxicity, biochemical changes in the body, developmental and reproductive disorders, and endocrine disruption.

For example, a recent study found concentrations of parabens, specifically methylparaben, in human breast tumors. Another study found 99% of all cancerous breast tumors contained parabens.

Polyethylene Glycols

Polyethylene Glycols (PEGs) are petroleum-based moisturizing agents often found in creams and moisturizers. PEGs improve absorption, allowing the moisturizing effects of the creams and moisturize to penetrate deep within the skin.

The problem with this is that PEGs also make it a lot easier for undesirable ingredients in our conventional skincare products to penetrate deeper into the skin. And, as PEGs are themselves often contaminated with toxins like ethylene oxide and dioxane, chances are the products containing PEGs are likely to cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation, as well as nervous system disruption and liver and kidney toxicity.

PEGs are increasingly hidden behind other, less obvious names, usually ‘polysorbates’. These are a group of nonionic surfactants that emulsify oil and water in creams, and also help to dissolve other ingredients in water. They are used in moisturizers, cleansers, and skin fresheners.


Borates are boron-containing chemical compounds. The most common of them include sodium borate (a.k.a. borax), boric acid, sodium perborate and perboric acid.

Sodium borate (also called sodium tetraborate or disodium tetraborate) is a naturally occurring mineral, which is used as a preservative and emulsifying agent to stabilize the combination of ingredients in creams and lotions.

Sodium borate and boric acid prevent or retard bacterial growth, and thus protect cosmetics and personal care products from spoilage. They are also used to alter the thickness of moisturizing products, creams, gels, and lotions.

Borates have been banned in the European Union, and the Canadian government advises individuals against using borax.

Scientists have linked borax exposure — even from cosmetics — to organ damage and serious poisonings. The National Institutes of Health has found that borax has been associated with several adverse health effects in humans. These include irritation, hormone issues, toxicity, and even death.


Triclosan, which is among the most popular toxins in cosmetics, is a very effective antibacterial chemical once used in antibacterial soaps. In 2016, it was banned from soap used in health-care settings, but it is still allowed in personal cosmetics.

Triclosan is added to many consumer products with the intention of reducing or preventing bacterial contamination. It’s in quite a few big brand cosmetics, especially skin cleansers.

Triclosan is bad news because it can cause disrupting hormone signaling, lowering of the immune system by killing the good bacteria in our gut, and uncontrolled cell growth.

As the bacteria in our gut forms 80% of our immune systems, and because the gut is responsible for producing and regulating a lot of our hormones, anything that disrupts the gut has a catastrophic effect on our physical and mental health over time.

Research has shown that triclosan sticks around in the environment long after we’ve finished using it, killing helpful algae and even accumulating in the bodies of other organisms.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

You will find SLS or SLES in most soaps and cleansers.

SLS/SLES are foaming agents used in a slew of personal care products, including skincare and cosmetics. Watch out for this ingredient in face wash and acne treatments.

Would you use the same chemicals on your body that you would use to wash your car or your garage floor? If you use products that contain SLS/SLES, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

This chemical is a surfactant, which means it helps create a foamy lather. It can also irritate the skin, lungs, and eyes and has the potential to interact with other chemicals to form carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines.

SLES can be contaminated with dioxane, a byproduct of the chemical reaction and a known carcinogen, depending on the manufacturing process. Dioxane is very difficult to excrete from the body. It is considered to cause hormone imbalances, triggering PMS and menopausal symptoms, as it is known to mimic estrogen.

Because of possible skin irritation, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board recommends SLS should not exceed 1% in any product that stays applied to the skin. However, because it is so difficult to detox this ingredient, the body can store SLS at much greater levels than is found in the products it’s derived from.

If you are concerned about the impact that the aforementioned chemicals might have on your health, switching to organic skincare and beauty products can make sure your routine is free of harmful substances.

It’s also important to keep a close eye on labels when you’re shopping. Be choosy about which products you use to keep your skin safe and looking its best. Take time and research the products you are interested in buying.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published