Toxic Ingredients in Skincare - A Dermatologist's Toxic Ingredient Checker
Time to read 24 min
Time to read 24 min
Many ingredients may be restricted or banned in skin care and cosmetic products because they are thought to be toxic, unsafe or hazardous. Some people refer to these toxic chemicals in cosmetics as the dirty dozen, but in reality there are more than 12 types of ingredients to avoid. This article is a toxic ingredients checker that will tell you which ingredients are bad for the environment, and which ingredients are harmful to humans and exactly why they are harmful.
I am a dermatologist that has written many books on skin care ingredients and a monthly column for dermatologists for over 20 years. I will tell you my views on these ingredients and when you should avoid them.
The ingredients on this list are often restricted or banned in clean skin care products. The problem is- the clean beauty standard varies from brand to brand so you need to educate yourself to know the truth.
This is a list of ingredients that many claim are toxic. I encourage you to read the corresponding sections on each because there is more to the story and there are many scientific things to consider about each of these before avoiding them.
Are these really toxic and unsafe? Keep reading to learn more.
Below is a the list of Ingredients that I suggest you avoid in skin care a and personal care products from a toxicity standpoint.
There are many reasons to read product labels and avoid ingredients that can be found in the “How Chemicals in Cosmetics Can Be Harmful” Section below.
If we are considering only ingredients that are dangerous to health, this is my list of toxic ingredients that I tell my patients to avoid. This list does not consider allergies, gluten sensitivity and other issues that only effect a subset of people. These are ingredients that everyone should avoid. To find specifics on each ingredient, read that ingredient section later in this blog.
List of Ingredients in Skincare That May Not Be Safe:
There are other ingredients that have concerning from a health standpoints, but the ingredients on the above list have the most data to support avoiding them.
The definition of toxic is a poison. Poisons cause illness and death of a living organisms. In some cases, ingredients can be harmful but not technically poisonous- one example is an ingredient that causes comedones or one that irritates skin or causes a skin allergy. Skincare ingredients may also be harmful to the environment. I do not really like the word toxic to describe skincare ingredients that are harmful, because all harmful ingredients are not poison. I am using the word toxic because that is what people commonly call these ingredients- even though it is not scientifically correct in every situation.
I will go through various ingredients and explain why they are considered toxic or harmful.
Chemicals in cosmetics can cause many issues. These are often lumped together as “toxic” or “harmful” or “ingredients in skincare to avoid” but there are subcategories of dangers that should be considered.
These are the different ways that chemicals and ingredients in skincare can be harmful. They may cause one or more of the following undesired consequences:
I will discuss the individual health risks of each ingredient in a different section of this blog.
When you think about ingredient safety, I believe we need to divide this into two categories:
When evaluating ingredient safety in skincare and cosmetics, it's important to make a distinction between human health hazards and environmental impact. Just because an ingredient raises environmental concerns does not necessarily mean it is toxic to human health when applied topically. Conversely, some botanically-derived ingredients may be eco-friendly while still causing allergic reactions or other adverse effects in sensitive individuals. Safety for humans and safety for the planet are two separate issues that should be considered independently.
Environmental risks of ingredients can be further divided into subcategories like danger to marine life, pesticide use, water usage, sustainability, and overall ecosystem harm. For example, plastic microbeads in exfoliants pose no risk to human health but can accumulate in water supplies and be ingested by wildlife. Petrolatum's environmental issues stem from the oil drilling and refining process rather than any inherent toxicity of the purified ingredient itself. Growing water-intensive crops like almonds and pomegranates for natural extracts can strain limited water resources in drought-prone regions. And the pesticides used on botanical farms for green tea, chamomile, and other plant actives may run off and pollute local ecosystems.
When certain ingredients get labeled as "toxic," it is important to evaluate whether the concerns are related to topical human health, environmental impact, or both. An ingredient derived from petrochemicals, like petrolatum, may produce negligible adverse effects on the skin while still contributing to climate change globally. On the flip side, a botanical oil may be grown organically but can cause skin irritation or allergies in those with sensitivities. Assessing safety involves scrutinizing an ingredient from both the human health and environmental sustainability perspectives. Relying on broad toxicity claims often oversimplifies complex, nuanced issues in cosmetic science and toxicology. A more rigorous, multifaceted analysis is required.
The health risks and dangers of skincare ingredients vary by which skincare ingredient we are discussing. You may or may not be at risk for these issues, so do not just lump all these ingredients into the “harmful so avoid them” category. Know what the dangers and specifics are for each ingredient before avoiding them. For example, retinoids can cause skin irritation, but you do not need to avoid them because these side effects only occur when they are used incorrectly.
Below I will divide up the health risks of ingredients into categories by the organs affected.
As a dermatologist, I understand concerns about potential endocrine or hormone disruption from ingredients in skin care products. However, there are some important points to understand about how these ingredients would actually affect hormone levels in the body.
For a topical ingredient to truly disrupt estrogen or other hormone levels, it must be absorbed through the skin barrier and penetrate deep into the dermis to enter the bloodstream in significant amounts over an extended period of time. This is quite difficult to achieve with healthy, intact skin. Brief or occasional use of a product with trace amounts of a concerning ingredient is highly unlikely to result in enough absorption to cause systemic effects. Even daily use of a facial cream or lotion is generally insignificant compared to total estrogen levels in the bloodstream.
The ingredients of highest concern are those scientifically proven to bind to estrogen receptors in the body and act similarly to natural estrogens. However, absorption studies show minimal penetration past the outer skin layers, even with repeated use. Of far greater concern would be with a product all over the body under an occlusive moisturizer for hours at a time, day after day.(This is called “slugging” on Tik Tok ). This type of excessive exposure over large skin surface areas could potentially allow more significant absorption. Use of penetration enhancers in skin care products can also increase ingredient absorption.
While adults are unlikely to experience endocrine effects from brief topical exposures, infants and small children have higher skin permeability and larger surface area to body weight ratios. Parents should take care to limit their children's exposure to products with concerning ingredients like parabens or phthalates. Overall, be aware of ingredients in your skin care products, but don't panic about brief topical use. Rinse-off products has the least concern because of short contact time with the skin. This is why some ingredients that are ban ed in moisturizers are allowing in rinse off products like cleansers. Look to the science and avoid excessive, prolonged application to large skin areas, especially in babies and children.
The liver is the organ that processes toxin so it can be one of the first organs to be injured by toxins, especially those that are ingested. Assuming that a topically applied personal care product can get into the bloodstream, these are the ingredients that may have deleterious effects on the liver if used in large amounts over large areas of the body for extended amounts of time:
Allyl heptanoate is used as a fragrance ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products. There is limited data on its toxicity, but one study found it can cause liver injury in rats at very high doses.
Butoxyethanol is a solvent used in cosmetics. At high exposures over a long period of time, it has been linked to liver toxicity in animal studies. However, at the low levels used in cosmetics, it is not thought to pose a significant risk.
Methoxyethanol is used as a solvent in some cosmetics. Studies have shown it can cause liver, kidney and reproductive toxicity at high exposures. For this reason, many companies have removed it from their products.
Styrene/styrene acrylates copolymer is a film-forming agent used in cosmetics. Current data does not indicate this ingredient causes liver toxicity.
Tibetene (musk tibetene) is a synthetic musk used as a fragrance. There are limited toxicity data, but no evidence currently links it to liver damage.
This class of commonly used ingredients are used as surfactants, fragrances, and emulsifying agents,
Ethanolamines can cause allergic reactions and may form carcinogenic nitrosamines when combined with certain preservatives.
However, if ethanolamines are in rinse-off products and not used with nitrogen-containing compounds, they can be considered safe.
While some clean beauty standards restrict or attempt to limit the use of ethanolamines, others allow them without restriction, as shown the table below.
Interestingly, the standards for ethanolamines do not always align with the ratings provided by the EWG.
Members of this family include:
Let us help you design a skincare regimen:
Ethanolamines have been associated with allergic reactions, but not everyone will react to them.
One study found that TEA in 2.5% petrolatum had a 0.4% positive patch test rate in humans, which was related more to irritation than allergy. Cocamide DEA allergy is seen in those with hand dermatitis due to hand cleansers but is more commonly seen in metalworkers. For this reason, these ethanolamines are usually found in rinse-off products to decrease exposure time.
The main issue with ethanolamines is that when they are formulated with certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen, they form nitrosamines, such as nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), which are carcinogenic. The European Commission prohibits DEA in cosmetics due to concerns about the formation of these carcinogenic nitrosamines. Some standards limit ethanolamines to rinse-off products. The CIR panel concluded that diethanolamine and its 16 salts are safe if they are not used in cosmetic products in which N-nitroso compounds can be formed, and that TEA and TE-related compounds are safe if they are not used in cosmetic products in which N-nitroso compounds can be formed. The FDA states that there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of these substances in cosmetics.
The safety issues surrounding the use of ethanolamines in skincare routines emphasize the importance of using products that are compatible with each other. Using ethanolamines in a rinse-off product is one solution, as is ensuring that no other products in the skincare routine contain N-nitroso compounds that can combine with ethanolamines to form nitrosamines.
Ethanolamines are safe to used in skin care products if:
Ingredients that are safe can combine with other ingredients in the routine such as nitrogen-containing compounds and turn into something harmful. This is why every ingredient in your skin care routine matters.
Let us help you build a safe skin care routine that is right for your Baumann Skin Type.
Parabens are a class of preservatives that have been used in cosmetics and skincare products for decades. They help prevent microbial growth and extend product shelf life.
However, concerns emerged in the late 1990s about endocrine effects and allergenicity. But a closer look at the research reveals the toxicity concerns may have been exaggerated for some types of parabens. While some consumers avoid parabens, many replacements that are used as preservatives instead of parabens have their own toxicity concerns and may not be safer alternatives.
There are several types of parabens, some are safer than others. The most prevalent forms are methylparaben (MP), ethylparaben (EP), propylparaben (PP), and butylparaben (BP).
Concerns have been raised about their potential endocrine disrupting effects at high doses relating to estrogenic activity and anti-androgenic effects. This stirred anxiety that parabens could increase breast cancer risk.
Let look at each type of paraben because they have different affinity for the estrogen receptor which means they have different risk levels.
Butylparaben can bind to estrogen receptors more than the others on this list except for isobutylparaben, but its estrogenic activity is extremely weak and far below ingredients considered safe like genistein.
Isobutylparaben binds estrogen receptors the most of the parabens on this toxic ingredient list.
Methylparaben has a poor ability to bind the estrogen receptor and has no evidence of estrogenic effects.
Propylparaben also displays only negligible estrogenic activity in studies establishing its general safety.
Of highest concern are butylparaben and isobutylparaben due to longer alkyl chains and potentially greater estrogen receptor binding. I advise that if you are concerned about parabens, are pregnant, or are choosing a product for a small child, avoid products containing those specific paraben ingredients until additional research is conducted that shows they are safe- especially if you plan to use these on a large area such as the entire body or for long periods of time.
While some parabens exhibit minor estrogenic effects in lab tests, their potency is thousands of times lower than natural estrogen. There is no proof these low levels lead to adverse effects in humans from cosmetic use.
Current evidence cannot yet demonstrate any clear breast cancer risk from topical paraben use on healthy skin. Given the evidence so far, most parabens appear to pose low health risks at proper usage levels. The toxicity concerns that surfaced decades ago seem less significant given current knowledge. More research on paraben safety and substitute preservatives is warranted. (30-39)
Phthalates like diethylphthalate (DEP) and dimethylphthalate (DMP) are commonly used in cosmetics as solvents and fragrance carriers. The banned dibutylphthalate (DBP) was once used in nail polishes. Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) may be present due to packaging contamination.
Phthalates themselves do not easily penetrate skin, but are metabolized into monoesters that can enter the bloodstream. While they demonstrate weak estrogen effects, phthalates exhibit strong anti-androgenic properties and may disrupt thyroid hormones.
Links between DBP and increased breast cancer risks come from exposures above cosmetic use levels. Associations between DBP metabolites and reduced sperm quality need further study to relate to cosmetic exposures.
Of greatest concern are prenatal and infant phthalate exposures. Developmental and neurodevelopmental effects, precocious puberty, metabolic changes, and genital malformations have been reported. Reproductive toxicity like delayed puberty, endometriosis, and pregnancy issues may also occur after DEHP exposure.
However, human data on dose levels leading to adverse outcomes is limited. Continued investigation into phthalate presence from packaging and cumulative exposures is warranted. Future epidemiological and multigenerational studies should focus on DEP and DMP metabolites to clarify their endocrine disrupting capacities.
Petrolatum, also known as petroleum jelly, has been used in skincare for over a century due to its effective moisturizing properties.
Examples of ingredients that are petroleum based are:
Some older studies linked petrolatum use, especially on the lips, to increased cancer risk. This was hypothesized to be due to the product's shininess concentrating solar radiation on the skin rather than any inherent carcinogenicity. Current research has not found any evidence that properly refined medical grade petrolatum is carcinogenic when used appropriately in skincare formulations. Any cancer risk from shiny ointments is likely minimized with sunscreen use.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates mineral oil a 1-2 and but rates petrolatum a 2-5 due to fears of cancer, allergy, and reproductive toxicity that don't seem to have compelling data behind them based on my research. Still, many consumers view petroleum-derived ingredients as unsafe due to their origin. In truth, highly purified forms have been used safely in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals for decades with no issues.
The biggest concerns today around petrolatum are environmental, as petroleum production can damage ecosystems and accelerate climate change. It's important to note petroleum will continue to be drilled for fuel regardless of cosmetic use. Byproducts like petrolatum in skincare do not necessarily increase petroleum production itself.
Since petrolatum is already widely produced, using it does not directly lead to more environmental harm. In summary, properly refined medical grade petrolatum appears to be safe for topical skincare use based on current evidence. But eco-conscious consumers may still wish to avoid it. There are many natural oils that can be used instead! Transparency from manufacturers on processing methods and sourcing is important to evaluate risks and benefits.
Phenoxyethanol is an ether alcohol used as a preservative in many cosmetics and personal care products. It exhibits antimicrobial activity against bacteria and yeasts. Phenoxyethanol is also used as a fragrance ingredient that may not be listed on labels. This underscores the need for companies to disclose if their products contain it.
Some glycol ethers like ethylene glycol ethyl ether have shown toxic effects on reproduction and are banned in Europe.
However, phenoxyethanol has different chemical properties and has not been classified as a reproductive toxicant.
The EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded in 2016 that phenoxyethanol is safe for use as a preservative up to 1% concentration, including in products for children. Adverse effects in animal studies occurred at much higher exposure levels than typical cosmetic use. Despite widespread use, phenoxyethanol rarely causes sensitization reactions and is considered one of the better tolerated preservatives.
While phenoxyethanol can be irritating at higher concentrations, it appears to pose minimal health risks when used properly at 1% or less. However, the lack of required labeling makes it difficult for consumers to identify its presence. Companies should disclose if phenoxyethanol is used so people can make informed choices. More transparency from manufacturers is needed.
Polyethylene glycol (PEG) is a petroleum-derived compound used widely in cosmetics for its ability to act as an emollient, emulsifier, humectant, and penetration enhancer. PEGs are designated by a number that denotes their approximate molecular weight, such as PEG-100 or PEG-6. PEGs are also often chemically bonded with other molecules like in PEG-100 stearate.
They can help other products and ingredients absorb better. Lower molecular weight PEGs can more readily penetrate the skin.
While PEGs have a history of safe use in topical products when formulated properly, the manufacturing process can potentially generate hazardous contaminants. Carcinogens like 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide may form as byproducts or impurities. Ethylene oxide's severe toxicity is demonstrated by its former use as a nerve gas in WWI.
Rigorous purification processes are essential to ensure cosmetic-grade PEGs are free from these dangerous contaminants. Though small amounts may form during production, typical exposure from usage in cosmetics does not appear to pose a major cancer risk. However, some retailers have restrictions on PEGs - they are limited by Sephora and Ulta but allowed by Walgreens and Target.
Ultimately, transparency from manufacturers on quality control and purity testing is important to verify the safety of any PEG-containing product. Disclosure of production details enables consumers to make informed choices when selecting cosmetics with these common petroleum-derived compounds.
Styrene is used in some cosmetics, including in synthetic fragrances and plastic packaging. The limited studies in humans suggest high levels of occupational styrene exposure may increase the risk of certain cancers, particularly of the lymph and blood cells. However, the human evidence is not definitive and comes from workers exposed to very high styrene levels. We don't know if styrene exposure from using cosmetics poses any cancer risk, since the levels are much lower. While we need more research on its safety, styrene is present in very small amounts in skincare. (40,41) formulations themselves. My advice would be to minimize exposure where possible by choosing products not listing styrene in the ingredients and avoiding unnecessary fragrance.
Natural products are not inherently safer than synthetic products. Many so-called "natural" skincare products contain ingredients that can be just as harmful as synthetic ingredients. For example, cocamide DEA is a surfactant derived from coconut oil that is commonly found in products marketed as "natural" or "green". However, cocamide DEA can react with other ingredients to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.
The problem is that there are no regulations governing the use of the term "natural" on product labels. Manufacturers of personal care products are not required to disclose all ingredients, so it's impossible to know everything that is in a product labeled "natural." These products often contain toxic fragrances, dyes, preservatives, and allergens despite their natural image.
Botanical-based ingredients like thymol sound safe but are known allergens. Vague terms like "fragrance" can mask a cocktail of over 100 hazardous chemicals linked to health risks like endocrine disruption, respiratory issues, and cancer. Even "natural fragrances" can cause allergic reactions since there are no safety standards. Other ambiguous ingredients to watch out for are "surfactants" and "preservatives."
Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT) are common preservatives in natural cleaners but their use is restricted in many countries due to health concerns. Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) is a surfactant that can create a carcinogenic byproduct called 1,4 dioxane. Even natural citrus and pine oil cleaners can react to form formaldehyde.
The bottom line is that natural does not equal safe. You should be wary of all ingredients, whether natural or synthetic, to make informed choices about product safety.
Tips to protect yourself from harmful skincare ingredients and chemicals:
Only trust data from reputable sources (see list below)
Don't rely on clean beauty standards because they vary and are not consistent
List of reputable sources on which ingredients and skincare products are safe:
Consultants on equity and inclusion in beauty safety research (making sure all Fitzpatrick Skin Types are included in cosmetic research) such as equitywellness.org.
Let our group of dermatologists guide you on developing a safe and effective skin care routine for your skin type. It all starts by identifying which Baumann Skin Type you are.