Worried about toxic skincare ingredients? Your skin is the largest organ in your body and what you place on your skin goes much deeper than the surface. The cosmetic industry uses thousands of synthetic chemicals in its products. As well as being toxic for the environment, unsurprisingly, many skin care ingredients are toxic for your overall health and well-being.

Some of these products will enter your body via the blood stream and one in eight of those ingredients are likely to be industrial chemicals (plasticizers, degreasers and surfactants), cancer causing (carcinogenic), hormone disruptors, pesticides or reproductive toxins. Endocrine disruptors are another name for these substances which can be man-made and natural that may interfere the hormone and cell signalling system.

In this article we will focus on some common man-made compounds that are added to many of the products in our beauty and personal hygiene regimes.  The disturbing news is that although these ingredients are used in many products intended for skin care they are not well regulated.  Although there are many studies identifying the dangers of long term use, this information is not widely publicised in the mainstream press and the use of these dangerous chemicals is fiercely defended by the companies who stand to lose significant amount of money if these chemicals were banned.
Time to take matters into our own hands and educate ourselves on the dangers lurking in our beauty products. Substances used in industrial floor cleaners might not be the best to use on your face.

1. Parabens

toxic_skincare_ingredients_1Parabens are the most widely used in personal care products and the cosmetic industry as a preservative to prevent microorganism growth. They easily penetrate the skin and an estimated 75 to 90 per cent of cosmetics contain parabens.
Derived from petrochemicals, parabens are able to bypass our normal metabolic processes which would ordinarily breakdown such contaminants, and are able to enter the blood stream and our internal organs entirely intact.

It has been estimated that women are exposed to 50mg per day of parabens from cosmetics. The concern with parabens is that they mimic or act like hormones, particularly oestrogen, the primary female sex hormone.

The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has placed parabens in the top category of priority substances on evidence that it interferes with hormone function. It has been detected in human breast cancer tissues (Darbe, 2004) suggesting a possible association between its presence in cosmetics and cancer, a recent study actually finding that parabens can spur the growth of certain types of breast cancer cells.

The U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found four different parabens in human urine samples in low level paraben containing products. Studies also indicate that methylparaben reacts with UVB leading to increased aging and DNA damage.

Males are not necessary safe either as parabens may interfere with male reproductive functions. In 2011, the Danish Government banned the use of some parabens to children up to the age of 3 years old. The American Chemical Society estimates that parabens are in about 85% of personal care products – everything from deodorants to shaving cream.

The other bad news is that they are also found in some pharmaceuticals, baked goods, syrups, some jams and preserves.

2. Phthalates

Conventional skincare ingredients have many many ingredients that are known to be unhealthy,

Conventional skincare ingredients have many many ingredients that are known to be unhealthy,

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products to soften plastics. The main phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products are contained in hair spray, nail polish, deodorants, lotions and perfumes. They are known to be endocrine (hormone) disruptors and have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer, early puberty in girls, endometriosis, reproductive birth defects in males and females as well as reduced fertility in males. They have been linked to obesity and can also act on the thyroid.

Unfortunately, the use of phthalates is not disclosed on many products: for instance their use in fragrances is cited as a proprietary secret, hence the non disclosure. Phthalates are banned in the EU and California in children’s toys.

It seems ludicrous that they are not banned in everything.

Conventional skincare ingredients have many many ingredients that are known to be unhealthy,

3. Triclosan

This chemical is classified as a pesticide and can be found in antibacterial soaps, deodorants toothpastes, laundry detergent and facial tissues. It limits the growth of bacteria and mould but can affect the body’s hormonal system especially the thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones regulate cell metabolism and can therefore potentially disrupt normal breast development.

Tricolsan has been found in breast feeding mothers. A study done by the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found 75% of the subjects tested contained traces of triclosan in urinary testing . This research proves that tricolsan can pass through the skin.

Extensive use of tricolsan in consumer products may contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and as such, the Canadian Medical Association has called for a ban on anti-bacterial products.  Triclosan is considered by Environment Canada as non-degradable, and inherently toxic to aquatic organisms. It is worth considering that small amounts in each product can create a build-up within your body.

4. Sodium Laureth Sulfate

toxic_skincare_ingredients_2Sodium Laureth Sulfate, sometimes known as SLES or SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate), is a former industrial degreaser, used mostly in the cosmetics industry as a cleansing agent, often in foaming cosmetics, such as shampoos, cleansers, mascara, acne cream, shower gels and bubble bath as well as the common dish soap. It is often contaminated with the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane: an unwanted by-product of an ingredient processing method used to reduce the risk of skin irritation for petroleum-based ingredients. Though 1,4-dioxane can easily be removed from products before they are sold, its widespread presence in products indicates that many manufacturers fail to take this simple step.

SLES/SLS is another non-degradable chemical, remaining in the environment for a long time. They are also known to be skin, lung and eye irritants. In a U.S study of personal care products marketed as “natural” or “organic” (uncertified), 46 out of 100 products contained 1,4-dioxane.

5. Fragrance/Parfum

This term was created to protect a company’s “secret formula”, but is actually a catchall term often used for a complex mix of dozens of chemicals. Up to 3000 chemicals are used as fragrances, many are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines and asthma symptoms.

In a 2010 Environmental Defence report, laboratory analysis of top-selling colognes identified an average of 14 chemicals per product not listed on the label including multiple chemicals that can interfere with hormone function or that can trigger allergic reactions.

Some fragrance ingredients are not perfuming agents themselves but enhance the performance of perfuming agents by making the scent linger, these include phthalates, having been linked to reduced sperm count in men, insulin resistance, obesity, and other health effects as mentioned above.

6. PEGs

Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in the cosmetic industry in cream based products acting as thickeners, softeners and moisture-carriers. They function as penetration enhancers, allowing greater absorption capabilities. Depending on manufacturing processes, PEGs may contain potential toxic impurities such as ethylene oxide and the cancer causing 1,4-dioxane. 1,4-dioxine can be stripped from cosmetics by a vacuum process, but there is no easy way for the consumer to determine if this has been done in their product.

Ethylene oxide is nephrotoxic (kidney damaging) particularly if applied to damaged skin. It is used in suppository’s, laxatives, eye drops ointments, spray deodorant, even as a paint preservative for the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian, China, personal lubricants, toothpastes and paintball fills.

Propylene Glycol (PG) is a related chemical, functioning similar to PEGs as penetration enhancer. It is a form of mineral oil, an alcohol produced by a fermentation process involving carbohydrates. Industrial PG is used in anti-freeze and brake fluid. The pharmaceutical grade of PG is less concentrated and therefore considered less problematic. Research is however conflicting even though the World Health Organisation considers it safe. It has been cited as causing skin, liver and kidney damage. It has been flagged in Canada as a “moderate human health priority”.

7. Petrolatum

toxiclipstickHave you ever thought about that the word petrol is contained in petroleum jelly?

Petrolatum is known as a mineral oil jelly, used to lock moisture in the skin. The European Union classifies petrolatum as a carcinogen and “can only be used in the cosmetics industry if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen”. The concern involves the potential for contamination with polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a known carcinogen.

Petroleum pops up in so many cosmetics products, with names including mineral oil, xylene, toluene, coal tar and liquid paraffin. From nail polish to shampoos, naphthalene to lipsticks, they have been known to increase the risk of breast cancer.

Fashion colours in cosmetics aren’t so healthy either

Synthetic colours as seen in those lovely arrays of lipstick colours, are often made from coal tars. Hair colours often contain p-phenylenediame, a coal tar dye found in greater proportions in the darker dyes. They are often listed as numbers. One particular research paper found that women who have a long term use of hair dyes can develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Conflicting evidence also exists that there is no relation to hair dyes and cancer.

8. Siloxanes

Siloxanes are silicon-based compounds used to soften, smooth and moisten. Faster drying hair products and smoother gliding deodorant creams and moisturizers contain these silicones. Bioaccumulation, endocrine disruption, uterine tumours, immune system harm, neurotransmitter disruption and reproductive toxicity have been linked to siloxanes.

9. BHT and BHA

Butylated hydroxytoluene and Butylated hydroxyanisole, act as preservatives contained in some lipsticks and moisturizers and are widely used as food preservatives. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies BHA as a possible human carcinogen and a hormone disrupter by the European Commission of Endocrine Disruption. It is toxic to aquatic life and has a potential to bioaccumulate. Long-term exposure to BHT is toxic to mice and rats affecting the liver, thyroid, kidneys and lungs. It can act as a tumour promoter and may mimic oestrogen as well as preventing expression of male sex hormones.

10. UV Filters

UV Filters can either be physical UV blockers or chemical.

PABA, avobenzone, ethoxycinnmate, benzophenone and oxybenzone are some of the known chemical UV blockers, whilst zinc oxide and titanium dioxide form a film on top of the skin that reflects the UV light and are classified as physical blockers.

PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) is known for allergic reactions such as contact dermatitis; it releases free radicals, damages DNA and can have oestrogenic activity. Fortunately for us, it is being used less in sunscreens these days but you should check just in case.

Oxybenzone has been linked to skin irritation and allergies, hormone disruption and low birth weights in baby girls. The U.S Centres for Disease Control found it present in the urine of 97% of people they tested.

All of the chemical sunscreens have side effects, and for further information please visit The Environmental Working Group site. It is geared to the American market but the information is still great.

Following the Environmental Protection Agency’s table of physical and chemical UV blockers, the physical blockers are not only the safest but also one of the most protective, as long as they do not contain nanoparticles.

Sunscreen products we like are Wotnot, Soleo and SurfMud.

11. Formaldehyde

Ingredients list depicting many toxic ingredients

The Bad Ingredients List

ingredients of a skin care product showing many toxic ingredents

The Very Ugly Ingredients List

ingredients list showing no toxic skincare ingredients

The Good Ingredients List







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Having spent two years of my life in a dissection lab, I know all about the smell of formaldehyde. Even back in 1984, I knew it was carcinogenic and I can certainly understand why staff in nail salons wear masks, as most nail polishes contain it.

Formaldehyde is linked to leukaemia, other cancers and liver damage. Eye lash glue, hair smoothing and straightening products often contain it but it might not be listed as that but rather DMDM hydantonin, Bronopol, 5-Bromo- 5-nitro-1, Diazolidinyl urea, Imidazolidinyl urea or maybe Quanternium-15.

Other ingredients to watch out for:

A couple of other ingredients to consider are DEA or diethanolamine and its related ingredients MEA and TEA. TEA is a fragrance ingredient and emulsifier. These ingredients can react with other chemicals to form carcinogenic nitrosamines. The breakdown of some preservatives in cosmetics can release nitrites to form nitrosamines. Other health concerns include toxicity, allergic reactions and bioaccumulation. In animals, small doses caused cell mutation. BPA, a compound found in plastic can leach into your skin care products. It is an oestrogen mimicker, being absorbed into the skin disrupting those hormones.

Naturally occurring ingredients found in cosmetics that are still considered very dangerous are lead, mercury and aluminium. I haven’t covered these in this article but you can read our blog on toxic metals in tattoos.

In Australia, cosmetics are regulated by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), a division of the Department of Health and Ageing. Labelling of the ingredients are the legislation requirements for Australian made products as well as imported products. It appears that far more needs to be done about regulating the use of them.

New preservatives are replacing parabens by some manufactures but these to seem to have negative outcomes. The good news is that due to more awareness, once very common toxic chemicals have been removed from some major brands. Banned or restricted products are still contained in others as well as those considered dubious.

Resources for healthy skin care

What about healthy and natural skincare ingredients? For a well-researched list on 61,000 products, albeit an American site, please visit Environmental Working Group. For a little compelling research that might make you consider changing to the “light side” 100 Latina teenagers were tested after three days of no cosmetic usage, and found decent reductions in toxicity through urine testing.

Your estimated exposure to some of these chemicals could be low, however, research is showing that some toxins become accumulative. Intake cannot be gauged so small amounts used infrequently might be something to consider. It has also become evident that epigenetic transgenerational inheritance can occur. Here is an article on pesticides such as DDT, a banned pesticide and not used in Australia for years that is still showing up in present day breast milk. You can read a transcript of the programme on ABC Catalyst called “Our Chemical Lives” discussing hormone disruption here.  A peer reviewed paper discusses gene expression alterations of ovarian cells in rats with exposure to DDT.

As 12.5% of women are being diagnosed with breast cancer, protecting your skin and therefore your body from harmful toxins might be a way to decrease this high percentage as well as protect our environment.


We care about what you put in and on your skin

Sign up and receive your free detox guideWe care what is in your skin and on your skin so we have a created a detox guide called “Sink The Ink” that will help your body further remove these particles. Download it from our website home page.

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