Jennifer is a freelance writer and artist. She often writes about the environment, health, travel, food, and film.
Skin is your largest organ and it can absorb chemicals through its pores. While one would never even think of intentionally ingesting or inhaling toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde or acetate, many of us apply a large number of them to our bodies and faces on a daily basis.
The skin is our largest organ, and it is as susceptible to the chemicals we put on it as our livers are to our diet or our lungs are to smoking. And we expose our skin to more toxic chemicals than you may think. We live in a society that tends to put beauty and youth before knowledge and kindness, and we are constantly on the lookout for the best new product or for the miracle anti-aging cure. The problem is that we might be compromising our health with the ingredients that are found in these bottles and jars that promise youthful skin.
Luckily, in some countries it is mandatory to name all of the ingredients in packaged goods, both edible and cosmetic. However, very few people bother to even look at these ingredients, much less learn what exactly they are. Learning to look for and eliminate the harmful ingredients in both your diet and beauty regime could make great improvements in both your appearance and well-being.
Data Sources include: SkinDeep, Miessence, The Green Beauty Guide, and Drugs.com.
1. Dimethicone and Cyclomethicone (Silica)
Dimethicone and Cyclomethicone (Silica) are used as emollients to give products a silky and smooth texture. However, they are not easily absorbed by the skin, which often results in clogged pores and blackheads. Some people may end up experiencing severe side effects such as:
- Irritation to the eyes and skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Tightness in the mouth and chest
- Swelling of the face, mouth, lips, or tongue
The FDA and Cosmetic Ingredient Review have deemed silica safe for cosmetic uses in concentrations less than 15 percent, but if you have had any reactions such as those listed above, silica could be one of the causes. Its toxicological properties have not been thoroughly investigated.
2. Mineral Oils
Mineral Oils (e.g. paraffin oil and wax, liquid paraffinum, and petrolatum) are also are being used to "seal" in moisture. However, it completely seals the skin like a plastic coating and will clog and suffocate the pores. This will prevent the skin from eliminating toxins, often leading to acne and other problems. There was a fad during which women, not satisfied with La Mer and La Prairie, began slathering their faces with mineral oils. Excessive use of mineral oils on the skin will actually result in premature aging—do not believe the hype about it being beneficial and safe for the skin.
3. Propylene Glycol (PG) and Butylene Glycol
Propylene Glycol (PG) and Butylene Glycol are rancid oils that form free radicals and damage the skin. They will penetrate the skin, weakening the protein and cellular structure. PG is considered so toxic that workers in contact with it are required to wear protective gloves, clothing, and eye protection. The EPA has concluded that the brain, liver, and kidneys can be affected through skin absorption.
4. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (Coconut)
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (Coconut) is a cheap detergent and foaming agent (anionic surfactant) composed of four known carcinogens: formaldehyde, dioxane, ethylene oxide, and acetaldehyde. It also dries out the skin and causes irritation. In a study, animals exposed to SLS had damage to their eyes and nervous system, depression, difficulty breathing, and diarrhea. Some even died. Surfactants (anionic and cationic) include:
- Ammonium lauryl sulfate
- Ammonium laureth sulfate
- Disodium oleamide sulfosuccinate
- Disodium dioctyl sulfosuccinate
- Lauryl or cocoyl sarcosine
- Potassium coco hydrolysed collagen
- Sodium laureth sulfate
- Sodium cocoyl sarcosinate
- TEA (triethanolamine) lauryl sulfate
- TEA (triethanolamine) laureth sulfate
- Benzalkonium and benzethonium chloride
- Cetrimonium chloride
- Cetalkonium chloride
- Lauryl dimonium hydrolysed collagen
- Stearalkonium chloride
5. Cocoamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine
Cocoamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine is a multi-use ingredient aiding in foaming, conditioning, thickening, and anti-static. This in itself can cause stinging, redness, and even burning of sensitive skin. Since cocoamidopropyl hydroxysultaine is very effective in helping deliver the other ingredients deep into the skin, it can be even more harmful if the other ingredients it is combined with are toxic. Its toxicological properties have not been investigated at all.
Triethanolamine is used to balance pH in cosmetic preparations. Triethanolamine can severely irritate the body's tissues, is corrosive to the eyes, and effects the immune and respiratory systems. It turns into a carcinogen after reacting with nitrosating agents.
7. Volatile Alcohols (Isopropyls)
Volatile Alcohols (Isopropyls) are used often to cleanse and disinfect. Though some companies may use ingredients that naturally have alcohol in them, volatile alcohols should be avoided. They irritate and dehydrate the skin by stripping it of its natural barrier and bacteria.
Methylchloroisothiazolinone is used as a preservative in cosmetics, specifically for its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. It is actually harmful if absorbed by skin. This ingredient can cause corrosion and burns to the eyes and skin. The damage to the eyes can be irreversible. It is also a nitrosating agent.
9. Phenoxyethanol (Ethylene Glycol Monophenyl Ether)
Phenoxyethanol (Ethylene Glycol Monophenyl Ether) is often used in cosmetics to kill bacteria and keep the formula stabilized. It is possible to derive this product from natural sources, but too often extremely inexpensive synthetic equivalents are used instead. Phenoxyethanol is toxic to the kidneys and bladder. It may cause problems with the reproductive system and serious damage to the eyes. In several animal studies its toxicity was apparent when, used in moderate doses, phenoxyethanl caused degeneration to the brain and nervous system as well as testicular atrophy and reproductive damage. Japan and the EU have restricted the use of this chemical in cosmetics.
10. Methyl Paraben
Methyl Paraben (an organic preservative) is used to extend shelf life and is cheaper than natural preservatives. Methyl, ethyl, butyl and propyl are chemical preservatives. They are quickly absorbed into the skin and are often the cause for eye and skin irritation, allergies, and respiratory tract problems. Mythel Paraben is the worst since it combines benzoic acid with the chemicals of the methyl group, leaving it very toxic. Traces of these parabens have been found in breast cancer cells.
Additional Common Toxic Ingredients
Talc or talcum powder has been linked to increases in the onset of ovarian cancer when there has been routine application to the genital area.
FD&C Yellow No. 6, used only to give products their color, causes allergic reactions and can trigger asthma. It is carcinogenic and banned in some countries. There are others as well, stay away from products with D&C and FD&C followed by a number.
Fragrance may be one ingredient on the list but it in itself can contain up to 4,000 separate ingredients. Allergic reactions, headaches, dizziness, skin irritation, violent coughing, and even vomiting might result.
Now I know it's difficult to find products without all of these ingredients, but there are some companies out there that are concerned and successful in offering products that don't contain toxic chemicals and use beneficial and natural ingredients in their place. Cosmetic products should not last forever—if they can, it's because the companies used ingredients to prolong the product's shelf-life for the company's benefit, not yours. Just like food, natural nutrients will go rancid but chemical preservatives are very toxic. Stay away from these toxic ingredients as well:
- Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- Butylated hudroxyanisole (BHA)
- DMDM hydantoin (contains formaldehyde)
- Germall 115 (imidazolidinyl urea)
- Germall II (diazolidinyl urea)
- Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
- Sodium sulfosuccinate
- Thiomersal (contains mercury)
It is important that the ingredients are organic because if a plant is grown in soil that contains herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals, they will be absorbed and cause damage to the nutrients in the plant.
1. Organic Aloe Vera Juice
Organic Aloe Vera Juice is an essential first aid necessity. There are over 400 species of aloe vera. It's a potent healing and regenerative agent, especially for burns, rashes, or sunburn. Aloe vera juice can also be taken internally to aid digestion and has been effective in soothing stomach ulcers and improving regularity of the colon, among other benefits.
2. Purified Water
Purified Water (triple filtered and reverse-osmosis purified) removes chemicals from water either through filters or through osmosis, which stunts the chemicals to the side leaving the remaining water chemical-free.
3. Organic Rosehip Seed Oil
Organic Rosehip Seed Oil is very high in:
- Linoleic and linolenic acid (Vit F), which are essential skin nutrients
- Vitamin A, which helps with cell regeneration, collagen, and elastin production, leading to firmer, smoother, and more elastic skin
- Essential fatty acids (Vit E), which help achieve healthy skin.
Studies show its regenerative success with skin problems such as scar tissue, burn scars, acne scars, surgical scars, stretch marks, dermatitis, psoriasis, premature aging, and UV and radiation damage. It can reduce wrinkles and improve the overall appearance of the skin's natural tone and color.
4. Organic Avocado Oil (Persea Gratissima)
Organic Avocado Oil (Persea Gratissima) is a rich and nourishing moisturizer that penetrates more deeply into the skin than any other plant, making it ideal for mature skin. It is high in:
- Vitamin A, which helps with cell regeneration.
- Vitamin D, a powerful anti-oxidant and ant-carcinogen—if you don't eat meat or fish and avoid the sun, avocados and eggs are primary sources for this essential vitamin.
- Vitamin E, considered the youth mineral due to numerous benefits for anti-aging such as reducing wrinkles and fine lines and protecting the skin from UV rays, pollution, and other free radicals.
It is also anti-bacterial and helps regulate vitamin A. Avocado oil is known to help stimulate collagen metabolism and slow down the visible signs of aging.
5. Organic Jojoba Oil (Simmondsia Chinensis)
Organic Jojoba Oil (Simmondsia Chinensis), a wax ester naturally found in skin, is the closest in composition to the skin's natural sebum, so it's very easily absorbed and rarely causes reactions. It has a very slight odor and can be used as a carrier for other ingredients and oils. Jojoba oil is rich in vitamins E and B, as well as minerals such as copper, zinc, and silicon chromium. Plus it has antimicrobial properties and nourishes and revitalizes the skin.
6. Organic Sweet Almond Oil (Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis)
Organic Sweet Almond Oil (Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis), rich in vitamin D, protein, glucosides, minerals, oleic, and fatty acids, is an excellent nourishing emollient that conditions the skin to result in younger, softer-looking skin. Sweet almond oil is particularly useful in relieving the itchy, sore, dry, and inflamed skin experienced during pregnancy.
7. Organic Grapeseed Oil( Vitis Vinifera)
Organic Grapeseed Oil (Vitis Vinifera) is easily absorbed and does not leave a greasy residue on the skin's surface. It is a light oil rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins, and GLA and low in saturated fats. Grapeseed oil helps strengthen tissue cells and has very nourishing properties.
8. Organic Tangerine Oil (Citrus Nobilis)
Organic tangerine oil (citrus nobilis) is a godsend for mothers-to-be. It's an extremely calming and refreshing oil which relieves fatigue, stress, and fluid retention while preventing stretch marks.
9. Organic Shea Butter (Butyrospermum Parkii)
Organic Shea Butter (Butyrospermum Parkii) is also very nourishing and rich. It is an excellent skin protector and effective in the treatment of scars, stretch marks, eczema, burns, acne, blemishes, severely dry skin, and chapped lips. It can also be used to repair very dry and damaged hair.
10. D-Panthenol (Vit B5)
D-Panthenol (Vit B5) is a natural humectant used in shampoos and conditioners. It binds the hair shafts and seals the surface. It is very healing and soothing.
Additional Common Nourishing Ingredients
- Non-GMO lecithin(soybean oil) is a good restoring agent. It softens and hydrates the skin thanks to its natural moisturizing factor. Non-GMO lecithin also has the capability to penetrate deeply into the skin, delivering other ingredients to the cellular level.
- Organic sugar-cane ethanol is a natural solvent for herbs and delivers beneficial ingredients deep into the skin.
- Organic unrefined beeswax (cera alba), another wax ester, is very hydrating. It increases the essential moisture in the skin and protects it.
- Organic marshmallow extract(althaeu officinalis) is traditionally used to treat inflammation. It is believed to help soothe, soften, and heal skin.
- Organic witch hazel extract is a natural astringent and anti-inflammatory derived from the steamed distillation of twigs and shrubs. Witch hazel has been used as a natural toner for over one hundred years.
- Organic calendula extract(calendula oficinalis) is extracted from marigold blossoms. It has anti-irritant, soothing, regenerative, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and healing properties.
- Organic rosehips extract has trans-retinoic acids combined with unsaturated essential fatty acids, which makes it effective in treating and regenerating damaged skin. It can help reduce scarring, stretch marks, dermatitis, fine lines and wrinkles, burns, chicken pox and acne scarring, eczema scarring, psoriasis scarring, and hyper-pigmentation. It is an excellent oil to re-hydrate, soothe, tone, and refine the skin.
- Organic neroli (citrus aurantuim amara) carries an intense scent and is best used sparingly or mixed with jojoba oil. It can be used by all skin types and is particularly beneficial for fragile, mature, or dry skin.
- Organic lavender (lavendula angustifolia) has been known to improve circulation, which actually helps in reducing cellulite and water retention. For skin troubled with acne, lavender's antiseptic and antibiotic properties can help. Its regenerative, calming, and healing properties are suitable for all skin types.
- Grapefruit extract is a potent antibacterial and anti-fungal agent that can heal and soothe. However, watch out for this one and make sure it is only real grapefruit extract. Companies often want to avoid shelf-life liabilities and opt for industrial "grapefruit extracts" that have harmful additives such as benzethonium chloride. So it depends on the product.
- Olive extract is perfect for removing make-up. It is high in vitamin E and full of anti-oxidants. It is an excellent skin protector and helps prevent wrinkles.
- Vitamin E (tocopherol acetate) has very high amounts of essential fats and antioxidants, which help slough away dead skin cells and replace them with healthy new cells to leave moisturized, soft, and smooth skin. It also in an anti-inflammatory agent.
- Natural gum, found in various trees (e.g. acacia, tropical, and asian) and plants, is a natural thickener, emollient, binder, and skin softener.
I admit that I'm not perfect when it comes to completely avoiding products with harmful ingredients, but I do try. Sometimes going with what you have in your kitchen works best and is more rewarding. There are many great, easy-to-find, all-natural beauty concoctions and recipes on the Internet. I have a friend who goes by the rule, "If I can't eat it, I won't put it on my skin." Which is food for thought if you find you are having problems.
Where to Purchase Safe, Organic Skincare Products?
- Miessence is the world's first Certified Organic Skincare range.
- Organic Apoteke has really effective, all organic products that yield great results.
- Snowberry is like the Creme de la Mer of organic products.
- Aubrey Organics are all natural and completely devoid of synthetic ingredients.
- Melvita has a wide range of excellent essential oils
Thanks for reading!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
pala on July 24, 2015:
i can not tolarate sun screen lotion. i am extremly sentive person. i try oil of oly and others stuff it did not work well. i heard fresh alovera gel from leaves its really good for suns screen when you go out. my question is this ok to use this fresh gel. i am weating for the answer. thanks.
gina on July 24, 2015:
can i use fresh alovera gel from leaves when i go to outside. i mean it will be very natural sun screen lotion. i cant' tolaratr sun screen lotion. please let me know. thanks.
milli on December 13, 2014:
went to this article because I was confused
now am more to very confused
Johne158 on October 06, 2014:
Farmville farms even include free gift that is especially designed for the neighbors on their farm visit. eecbgcddbdce
Kristen on August 13, 2014:
This article is not credible what so ever. Many of the "toxic" chemicals stated are only toxic under certain circumstances that the user may not expose them to. Also, many of the items listed as "bad" are needed for products that are composed of both water and oil. Any product with water in it NEEDS a preservative due to bacteria growth. Vitamins, Rosemary etc., are NOT preservatives. Lotions, face creams, serums, liquid soaps, moisturizer etc., should have some type of preservative in order for them to not breed harmful bacteria.
To the author of this article, please get your facts straight and do more research prior to posting an article regarding "harmful ingredients" in skin care.
Cindy on July 05, 2014:
Propylene Glycol is not an oil, it is an alcohol. Chemically completely different from an oil. Please get your facts straight before publishing.
maria castellon on June 20, 2014:
I wuld like touse these product aswell but i wuld like to get all the info in spanish i hardly understand in english pls help me thanks a lot
Jenny on June 17, 2014:
I'm curious about Aloe Vera.
According to studies, for example in this:
PAP = Papilloma (benign tumour / wart)
CIS = Carcinoma in situ (non-invasive cancer)
CAR = Carcinoma (invasive and spreading cancer)
ALL NEAO = All neoplasms (pre-cancerous skin lesions)
Aloe gel (i.e. the 'safe' filleted type used in many 'natural' sunscreens), with UV irradiance, was associated with higher rate of skin tumours in mice compared with no cream, and a control cream.
*In other words, when in contact with UV light, aloe vera causes photo-damage on skin.*
Historically, aloe would be rubbed on wounds like a graze. The act of sunlight produced potent free radicals that acted like an antispetic. This stopped bacterial infection and lead to it getting a reputation as "soothing", "protective" and "healing".
I want to find a natural sunscreen in the UK that doesn't contain aloe vera or denatured/ethyl/benzyl alcohol (which is also bad for the skin) and it's really hard!
Lynelle Salz on May 05, 2014:
As a beauty therapist, I feel it is my duty to care for the skin that I treat. How can we as professionals in the personal care industry, turn a blind eye to the lathering of toxic or even carcinogenic chemicals on our clients skin?
I couldn't... so I opened my own professional home salon and spent 5 long, frustrating years looking for an Australian Organic skincare range that I could ethically use. I needed to know in my heart that I WAS helping them to achieve healthy skin and not long term health problems...Thanks to 'Larissa Bright Aromatherapy', that search is over! Larissa has developed the most divine 100% Organic and Vegan skin, bath and body range that is so affordable, everyone can use it.
Anyways, I so appreciate the read - I did my thesis during my Study for my qualifications as a beauty therapist on 'Toxic Beauty' - Loved the research, and love yours too. Feel free to visit www.mybeautifulbits.com/toxicbeauty if you'd like to have a read :-)
Felicia on May 01, 2014:
Is it "Methyl" paraben that is the worst/most toxic? Because your article said "Mythl" paraben. Are those two different types or is it a misprint?
Sweets on March 18, 2014:
Melvita has great products but I got home and noticed ammonium lauryl sulfate in their body wash. I made the mistake and bought it without checking. Organic companies still might sneak crap into one of their products.
Anne on March 16, 2014:
There are some brands in the US which sound like they are organic and often seemingly contain organic ingredients but are not certified organic?! Examples are 100% Pure and Dr Alkalitis (sp?). They also often seem to have a celebrity or 'hollywood favourite' status associated with them - can't help but wonder if they are just jumping on the natural bandwagon but are not 100% authentic?
skinoxygenproducts.com on March 01, 2014:
I use the products from skinoxygenproducts.com and find it to be the best because it is made in America and goes by the guidelines for safe products by europe japan australia and canada
Karen K. on February 21, 2014:
This is exactly why I switched to using European products, one in particular, Arbonne International. A 38-year old Swiss company of botanically-based skin care/cosmetics/health & wellness products. They are free of parabens, pthlalates, petrolatum, mineral oil, formaldehyde, animal by-products/fillers, and more. I have seen a huge improvement in the hydration, texture and overall firmness of my face. Not only do I feel safe using Arbonne's products, but I absolutely love how effective they are.
I fell in love with these products so much so that I became an independent consultant for the company. If you are interested in trying out some samples, I am willing to mail them out free of charge. I love sharing these products with people because I see how happy so many women are after using them. Many of our products are used in healing eczema, psoriasis, dry skin, oily skin, breakouts, etc. Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in hearing more about them.
Micheal crudg from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on April 18, 2013:
Hey I can see some spammers here and there :P; Anyway I found your hub really informative. I often buy these type of organic products from Commercial Road Boutique near my place. They supply a wide range of natural skincare products throughout Australia
Robert Smith on March 07, 2013:
Thanks for sharing information about best ingredients for your Skincare.
Metta on June 04, 2012:
Celadon Road is a company offering the highest quality organic and all-natural products for skin care for you, your family and pets! Www.celadonroad.com or www.myceladonroad.com/Metta