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Green Goodness
  • Writer's pictureSylvia Meo, R.D.

My Top 13 Harmful Ingredients to Look Out for When Shopping for Personal Care Products

There are so many harmful chemicals added to personal care and cosmetic products that it would be impossible for me to go through each and every one, but I can give you my Dirty "Baker’s Dozen" list of ingredients you should do your best to avoid when buying any skincare or cosmetic product. Don't get me wrong, chemicals are not always a bad thing, just like something that is natural doesn't automatically make it good for us. There are many studies that suggest it's wise to avoid certain ingredients, and many ingredients lack enough data for us to truly understand what is safe and what is not, especially over time, and when you pile on all the various forms of exposure, even when the exposure is in low-dose, it is a chronic and constant low-level exposure. We also don't know how these ingredients may interact with other substances found in other products or our environment. Furthermore, this article is in no way written to instill fear in anyone, although in certain cases some fear is legit, instead it is about providing you with the information you need in order to make the healthiest decisions for you and your family!


These are widely used preservatives that reduce the growth of microorganisms and can be found in makeup, body washes, shampoos, shaving creams, deodorants, moisturizers, etc. They can also be found in food (beer, sauces, soft drinks, jams, frozen dairy products, etc.). They possess estrogen-mimicking properties and have been found in biopsies of breast tumor tissue, linking them to an increased risk of breast cancer and fertility problems. They can also cause skin irritations, contact dermatitis and rosacea in people with paraben allergies.


This group of chemicals are used as binding agents, they make fragrances stick to the skin, but are also used to make plastic more flexible and pliable. Even the CDC (Center for Disease Control) has been warning the public about phthalates for years now. They may interfere with hormone function, increase breast cancer, cause reproductive birth defects, damage the liver, kidneys and lungs, as well as harm fish and other wildlife. You can find these in nail polish, perfumes, lotions, hair spray. BEWARE because phthalates may not actually be listed in the ingredients, but are instead added to the fragrance or perfume. Instead look for the words or label “phthalate-free” on the packaging!


This single, pretty and “fragrant” word is so misleading. You will see this little word added to the ingredient list, but this one word represents as many as 200 ingredients, 95% of them derived from petroleum products! It was created to protect a company’s “secret formula”. It’s a widely used term and can even be found in products labeled as “unscented”. Some of its ingredients can trigger hormone disruption, allergies, respiratory issues, headaches, rashes and skin irritations, etc.

Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS and SLES)

This ingredient is found in 90% of personal care products and is what makes most products we use foam, think shampoo, face cleansers, body wash and bubble baths. They are known skin, lung and eye irritants and the major concern is their potential to combine with other chemicals to form nitrosamines, a carcinogen. They are also harmful to fish and other wildlife.

Formaldehyde or Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Another preservative commonly used in cosmetic products to prevent bacteria growth. This chemical has been recognized as a human carcinogen and has been linked to different cancers, immunological and neurological toxicity; it has actually been banned for use in cosmetics in Sweden and Japan. It is found in hair products, hair straightening treatments, moisturizers, nail polish, eyelash glue and body wash. You won’t see it listed as “formaldehyde” on most labels, it hides behind the following names: DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methanamine, quarternium-15, glyoxal, oxaldehyde, bronopolol, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.

Petroleum/Toluene/Paraffin/Mineral Oil

These are chemicals derived from petroleum, coal tar sources or crude oil. Toluene is actually so potent it can dissolve paint and paint thinner. It can affect our respiratory system and cause developmental damage in the fetus. Petroleum based chemicals may be contaminated with cancer-causing impurities and also seal the skin, impeding it from breathing and functioning properly, resulting in premature aging and other skin conditions. You can find these ingredients in hair products, lip balm, lipstick, lip gloss, mascara, moisturizers, face powder, foundation, eye shadow, body wash, paraffin treatment, etc. and of course petroleum jelly (aka Vaseline).

Synthetic Colors/Coal Tar Dyes

When you see the letters FD&C or D&C (Food Drug Cosmetics) followed by colors and numbers (ex. D&C Red 27) or P-Phenylenediamine or C.I. followed by 5 digits in the ingredient list it means there are synthetic colors and dyes added in to the product that are derived from petroleum or coal tar. These are suspected to potentially cause cancer and can be contaminated with heavy metals which are toxic to the brain and are linked to ADHD in children. Some of these colors have been banned by the European Union. These can be found in hair dyes, nail polish and many cosmetics.


This chemical is commonly found in antibacterial or antimicrobial products such as deodorants, hand sanitizers, soaps, even in toothpaste. Not only is there no added benefits of washing with these types of soaps in comparison to regular water and soap, but studies have suggested that triclosan may be responsible for making bacteria antibiotic-resistant and it is a known skin irritant and endocrine disruptor, mainly affecting the thyroid and reproductive hormones. It is also harmful to fish and other wildlife.

Propylene Glycol (PG)/Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

Both PG and PEG increase penetration, in other words, all the ingredients found in the product that contains one of these two chemicals make it into your body and system much more easily. PG is practically everywhere. Anti-freeze, brake fluid, deicer, baby wipes, lotions, deodorants, toothpaste, cosmetics, sunscreen, shampoo and conditioners, etc. It’s known to cause allergic reactions, dermatitis, eczema and hives even at a concentration as low as 2%, as well as skin, liver and kidney damage. PEG is also often contaminated with heavy metals (lead), ethylene oxide (used to make mustard gas) or 1, 4-dioxane which may cause cancer. It also disrupts your skin’s ability to retain moisture, making you dry and itchy, and odds are in need of more cream or lotion which will surely contain one or both of these chemicals...see where I’m going?


These two are widely used in the food and skincare industry mainly to prevent oils from oxidizing, thus becoming rancid, so they are antioxidants, but not the healthy kind! They can be found in moisturizers, makeup, diaper creams, perfumes, and may cause cancer (BHA is a known carcinogen), hormone disruption and harm fish and wildlife.


Dark spots anyone? Yup…I’m feeling you! Maybe you tried skin lightening creams in the hopes of making them lighter or to even out your skin tone, or perhaps you tried hydroquinone cream or a product that contains some and found it works? Well reconsider. Hydroquinone is a skin lightening chemical that inhibits the production of melanin (pigment that gives your skin the dark color) that has been linked to cancer, organ toxicity and skin irritations.

Ethanolamines (MEA, DEA, TEA and Others)

These are ammonia compounds present in various products, from cosmetics to personal care and household cleaning products. They enable water-soluble and oi-soluble ingredients to blend well together. They are found in creamy and foamy products like shampoos and conditioners, soaps, shaving cream, ointments, sunscreens, most cosmetic products, and also in perfumes and dyes. They can react to form cancer-causing nitrosamines and have been linked to liver tumors. Studies have also found DEA to affect male fertility and can accumulate in the liver and kidneys causing organ toxicity, as well as accumulate in the skin. In fact, the European Union has banned the use of DEA in cosmetics.


Silicones are synthetic and have an occlusive effect which means they build up on your skin and scalp, and may impact your body’s hormones. In fact the European Union has banned their use for this reason. They also may have a negative impact on the environment due to the fact that they can accumulate in aquatic organisms. They are not to be confused with silica or silicon dioxide, a natural product, which is considered healthy and beneficial. Silicones are found in many personal care products. They help make things smooth, non-greasy, shiny, feel silky, color pigments adhere to skin, and sunscreens resist to water and sweat. You can find them (look in ingredient list for any word ending in –cone) in many cosmetics, hair color and dyes, lotions and gels (shower, body, shaving, etc.), deodorants, shampoos and conditioners.


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