10 Harmful skin care ingredients to avoid

Have you ever looked at a list of ingredients on your favorite foundation or moisturizer? Chances are, you only recognize a couple of them (Aqua is water, right?!) and that’s sort of scary. Most of the complex scientific ingredients are pretty safe, even if they’re very hard to pronounce. However, there are some ingredients that may be harmful to you and to the environment, and they’re more prevalent than you think. Keep reading for ten harmful skin care ingredients that you’ll be shocked to find out are used in some popular beauty products.


Parabens have created quite a buzz in recent years, and you may have even heard of them – but do you know what they are? Basically, parabens are preservatives that are used widely in makeup and hair care products (like shampoo and conditioner), to help them maintain a longer shelf life. Parabens prevent the growth of bacteria, which is great when you’d rather not get an eye infection from your mascara. However, FDA studies have linked parabens to breast cancer, skin cancer, and other skin problems. Although the FDA hasn’t definitively concluded that parabens are harmful, it’s probably much better to be on the safe side. Plus, nowadays there are tons of products labeled as ‘paraben-free’, so it’s easy to choose the healthy alternative.


If you’re anything like us, all you’ve heard about sulfates is that many shampoos nowadays don’t have them (and want everyone to know). So, what are they? Sodium lauryl sulfate, more commonly known as sulfate, is a harsh chemical commonly found in toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, and even in foundation. It’s used to make these products foam, but it can be the cause of acne, skin irritation, and even liver damage. On top of that, it’s harmful to sea life, such as fish, when it enters the ocean through our drainage. You’re probably better off without it!


Like the stuff you preserve dead bodies with? That was our initial reaction too. Gross. Just like formaldehyde preserves dead bodies from bacteria that will cause decomposition, it’s also used in beauty products (such as nail polish and eyelash glue) for the same purpose: extending the shelf life. While we probably don’t need to tell you how gross that is, studies have also shown that the inhalation of the chemical has been linked to cancer. The tricky part about formaldehyde is that it’s not always listed in the ingredients, because it’s actually a byproduct. To stay on the safe side, always do your research on the ingredient list before making a purchase.


Deet is a chemical found in mosquito repellants, and (surprise, surprise) it’s just as toxic to humans as it is to those revolting little vampire flies. Long exposure of deet can even melt plastic! Studies have also shown that deet kills brain cells in rats (sad). We know what you’re thinking – it’s actually a difficult choice to make: deet or the mosquitos. Luckily, there are tons of non-toxic mosquito repellants on the market too – our favorite from Mountain Equipment Co-op has eucalyptus oil and lemongrass in it, so not only are you bite-free, you smell like a spa. Win-win!


It makes sense to package skin care products in plastic, right? It’s cheap, durable, and recyclable. Especially if you’re as clumsy as us, glass is definitely out of the question, and metal is expensive and inconvenient (plus, who wants their lipstick to smell like metal?). Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Many cheap plastics have a product called BPA, which is a chemical that leaks out over time – straight into your skin care product. BPA has been linked to cancer, plus it increases estrogen – which some of us have more than enough of, thanks. If you truly can’t separate from your plastic-bottled favorite products, transfer them to a cool glass container or jar once you take them home. They’ll last just as long, and they’ll make your makeup counter look way more chic!


Yeah, what? We know this one sounds very vague, and it sort of is. Man-made chemical fragrances (as in, they’re synthetic and not naturally-occurring) are found in many beauty and skin care brands on the market. Just like BPA, fragrances can disrupt hormones (we’re good on the estrogen, thanks) – they’re also huge allergens and can even trigger asthma. Plus, none of us want to be that person in the office who overdoes it on the odors.


Hydroquinone is a bleaching product, meant to lighten skin. While skin lightening isn’t as popular in the beauty regimes of the western hemisphere, people everywhere use it to fix skin tone problems such as hyperpigmentation. Not only can hydroquinone cause a skin disease that turns your skin black (goodbye, chicken fajita lunch) some illegally imported brands even have quantities of mercury. You know, the red stuff in thermometers that’s poisonous? Yeah, that. We’ll stick with the skin we’ve got.


Yeah, we had to look this one up too. Turns out, it’s basically one of the ubiquitous agents used in antibacterial stuff. Hand soap, gels, and deodorant – you name it. The problem with it is that it can actually encourage bacteria to become stronger and more resistant to chemicals – which increases our risk of infection. This can lower your immune system, and possibly increase your allergies. On top of that, it can interfere with your hormones (why does every product try to mess with our estrogen? Seriously!). We’ll stick with the tea tree oil, thanks.


We really tried to stick to the stuff that’s three syllables or less, guys. Oxybenzone is a chemical found in sunscreen, but it’s super disruptive to hormone systems. It’s been linked to endometriosis in women, and reduced sperm counts in men. This chemical basically wants no one to have kids. It’s also been linked to breast cancer (due to the hormone stuff, we’re guessing) and even melanoma! In a sunscreen product! So be careful.

Petroleum products

Petroleum: it’s not just for your car! In fact, the companies that produce petroleum products actually make all of it in the same factory – that means that your Vaseline is created right next to engine oil and fuel. The cross-contamination can end up with the petroleum that you put on your body actually having impurities that are carcinogenic. On a far less terrifying note, it can also cause irritation. At the end of the day, we’re all going to face some confusing labels – just make sure to do your research and go for the shortest ingredient list you can find – the simpler, the better!

Do you know other harmful skin care ingredients to avoid?

Stay beautiful!

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