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12 Potentially Toxic Ingredients That Can Be Found in Beauty Products

We talked to top dermatologists about potentially problematic chemicals and ingredients that can be found in beauty or skin care products.

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Beauty product ingredients

Beauty products can sometimes contain hundreds of chemicals and compounds that may or may not be toxic to the body. Some of these include skin irritants and even endocrine disruptors—which are thought to interfere with the body’s hormonal system and potentially have developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune adverse effects, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In general, the Food and Drug Administration does not require beauty products to be approved before they can be sold, although they must be safe and companies have a legal responsibility to make sure their products are indeed safe when used as recommended.

We asked top dermatologists about certain chemicals and ingredients that can be found in popular beauty products and whether it makes sense to try to avoid them.

12-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Triclosan

This antimicrobial chemical, which was first introduced as a pesticide, has made its way into personal care items since the 1960s. "Triclosan is added to soaps and washes and even some clothing or cookware to reduce bacteria in products," says Dendy Engelman, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist. Now, because of its potential impact on skin cancer and thyroid hormones (seen in animal studies but not confirmed in humans); its possible contribution to antibiotic-resistant germs; and because it's no more effective than regular soap at killing germs, the FDA has banned soaps and other antiseptic products from using the ingredient. "Dial, Clearasil, and Bath & Body Works have had products containing this ingredient," she adds. "Crest Pro-Health toothpaste and Mrs. Meyer's avoid this ingredient."

04-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Fragrance

Sure, synthetic fragrances might make your products smell pleasant, but they're one of the top contenders to cause an allergic reaction to your skin. "Fragrances are usually made up of other harmful chemicals, like parabens, benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and more that are linked to cancer and nervous system issues," explains Dr. Engelman. "Short term, they can cause irritation and redness on the applied area." She recommends looking for these terms to clue you in that a product contains a fragrance: Parfum, perfume, linalool, limonene, eugenol, citronellol, geraniol or cinnamal. Fragrance-free products are mostly labeled as so. "Eight Hour Cream Skin Protectant Fragrance Free is a great way to boost moisture and strengthen the skin barrier without putting yourself at risk," says Dr. Engelman.

01-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Phthalates

These chemicals, commonly found in nail polishes, hair sprays, deodorants, perfumes, and moisturizing lotions, are meant to keep products soft and flexible. That's great, but phthalates may also carry health risks. "There have been reports of phthalates being linked to various cancers, including breast, liver, kidney and lung, though no causal relationship has been proven," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Keep your eyes peeled for products that contain terms including the term "phthalate" to be safe. You also may find many newer products on the market that contain the term "phthalate-free"—stock up on those. "Restorea is a great brand that avoids all phthalates," adds Dr. Engelman.

02-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Parabens

"Parabens are preservatives used in skincare products to prevent contamination of products while they are sitting on the shelves," explains Dr. Zeichner. "Without preservatives, product ingredients, like fresh fruit, will become contaminated with bacteria and viruses and become broken down over time." So what's the problem? Dr. Zeichner says reports have come out (though none conclusive) that link parabens to breast cancer, as well their negative impact on the body's endocrine system. Parabens are also a common catalyst for skin allergies. "The good news is there are a variety of paraben-free skin-care products available," he says. "Some may include grape seed extract, which is nature's parabens, and offer similar benefits." (Here is more information about parabens from the FDA .)

03-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Avobenzone

Avobenzone is one of two chemical UVA filters (the other, oxybenzone) approved in the U.S. Recent research found avobenzone, along with three other sunscreen ingredients (ecamsule, octocrylene, and oxybenzone), is absorbed through the skin and into the body. In a small 2019 study published in JAMA, researchers found one day of sunscreen use—applying roughly 1 ounce every two hours when in the sun—led to an increase of avobenzone levels in the bloodstream that exceeds the FDA’s testing threshold (0.5 ng/ml).

However, the FDA cautions the findings do not suggest that these ingredients are unsafe. Rather, more research is needed on absorption testing and on the safety of repeated use of these ingredients. The agency encourages the continued use of sunscreen products and practicing sun safety behaviors to protect against skin cancer. If you still feel uneasy about using sunscreen with these ingredients, opt for a mineral-based sunscreen that contains zinc oxide. 

05-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Sulfates

Sulfates are commonly used surfactants, which are ingredients that cleanse the skin and hair in cleansers and shampoos, explains Dr. Zeichner. They're found in more than 90 percent of personal care and cleaning products, like detergents. "Sulfates such as SLS (sodium laurel sulfate) are known irritants at high concentrations and are even used as the positive control group in experiments to evaluate how irritating products are." This is why you may be starting to see more sulfate-free skin- and hair-care products hitting the market. A great sulfate-free cleanser Dr. Zeichner recommends is Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Facial Cleanser, as the entire skincare line contains only naturally derived ingredients.

06-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Formaldehyde

This colorless, flammable gas is commonly used to make home-building products such as adhesives for wood, particleboard, furniture paneling, and cabinets. It's also an ingredient in some beauty products, including hair treatments and even nail polishes. "This chemical has been linked to cancer as well as other nervous system issues, like chest pain, coughing, trouble breathing, and respiratory irritations," says Dr. Engelman. "Some hair-straightening procedures use this chemical during the process and some nail polishes still contain formaldehyde, putting your body and salon workers at risk." She recommends looking for nail polishes labeled "3-Free" or "5-Free," as these are formaldehyde-free. "Jinsoon nail polishes are a great brand without formaldehyde," she adds.

07-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Hydroquinone

In cosmetics, hydroquinone is used as an antioxidant or fragrance, and it's even a skin bleaching agent. "This frequent skin irritant is associated with altered immune function and increased incidence of certain malignancies in animals," says Craig Kraffert, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Medford Derm with locations in California and Oregon and president of Amarte. (Check out these home remedies for skin irritation.) However, quantitatively, the use of hydroquinone in cosmetics is unlikely to result in chronic illness, such as kidney cancer, according to a study in the International Journal of Toxicology

For those on the fence about the chemical, "Arbutin, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring cousin to hydroquinone with excellent brightening properties and an irritancy profile that's not linked to malignancies," says Dr. Kraffert. Derm-approved products that swap hydroquinone out for arbutin include Kate Somerville Complexion Correction Daily Discoloration Perfector and Amarte Aqua Lotion.

08-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

P-phenylenediamine

Also known as PPD, P-phenylenediamine has been used in permanent hair coloring since the late 1800s; however, it has been banned in France and Germany (though the European Union has since allowed its use). In the U.S., it's FDA-approved for hair dying. However, the FDA suggests if you're allergic to it, check the ingredient list on the hair dye label and don't get "black henna" tattoos, which are more likely to contain PPD. "PPD is a frequent contact allergen," says Dr. Kraffert, and black henna tattoos "rely on direct application of PPD to the skin." Cases of severe contact allergy continue to occur frequently, sometimes with permanent negative consequences.

09-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Microbeads

Those microbead scrubs and cosmetics you love to use are slowly being phased out and banned in the U.S. "Microbeads are used as physical exfoliants in cleansing products and do a fair job; however, the problem with microbeads is that they linger in the environment for many decades and have been linked to potential biosphere disruptions in aquatic environments," warns Dr. Kraffert. (Are you making any other exfoliant mistakes?) "The good news is there are lots of natural exfoliants that actually work better—without the environmental baggage."

10-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Toluene

This petrochemical is mainly used to dissolve paint and paint thinner, but it's also a common ingredient in nail polishes and treatments, as well as hair-bleaching products. The problem is that exposure to high levels of this chemical could lead to respiratory problems, as well as kidney and liver damage, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). (Keep your nails healthy with these 14 tips.)

11-Toxic Ingredients Found in Your Beauty ProductsMatthew Cohen/Rd.com

Propylene glycol

You might find this ingredient listed on the back of many of your beauty products, including hair sprays, makeup, conditioners and shampoos, moisturizers, and even sunscreen. Propylene glycol is typically used as a skin-conditioning agent, however, it's been linked to allergy-induced conditions such as dermatitis and hives, cautions EWG.

Sources
  • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “Endocrine Disruptors”
  • Dendy Engelman, MD, New York City-based celebrity dermatologist
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Safety and Effectiveness of Consumer Antiseptics; Topical Antimicrobial Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use”
  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City
  • JAMA: “Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial”
  • FDA: “Spotlight on CDER Science: New FDA Study Shines Light on Sunscreen Absorption”
  • FDA: “Cosmetics Facts”
  • Craig Kraffert, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Medford Derm with locations in California and Oregon and president of Amarte
  • Environmental Working Group: “Toulene”
  • EWG: “Propylene glycol”
Medically reviewed by Jessica Wu, MD, on February 27, 2020