ingredients to avoid

When I tell people about my blog, one of the first things they ask is why I care so much about natural beauty. Yes, I love beautiful shades of makeup and a great, toxin free hair day. But this is so much more than aesthetic value; It’s about protecting our bodies and the environment from exposure to harmful chemicals.

It’s about sending the message to big beauty industry that they can not continue to sell products with toxic ingredients linked to cancer then hold a 5k to cure it.

Just like other grassroots movements, it starts with one person saying, ‘I want something better’.

Changing the products we put on our bodies is happening the same way. If every person switched out one of their chemical-laden personal care products for a natural one from a up-and-coming small company, think about the message that would send to a billion dollar industry.

It is sad, but in order to protect our bodies, the burden is on consumers to check the labels prior to buying. The ingredients are so controversial and some have even been banned in other countries, yet they are so commonplace that the general public assumes that they have been tested at length and are safe. Think the FDA ensures safe products on the market? Not true.

The FDA regulates the accurate labeling of a product but has no authority to require safety, monitoring, or environmental testing prior to the product reaching the consumer market. The FDA’s main informant of ingredient safety is the Cosmetic Ingredient Review. That’s a step in the right direction, you say? Not so fast. The CIR is funded by the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), funded by big industry which lobbied to prevent California from passing the Safe Cosmetic Act, in 2005, which would have required companies to label products with a warning that it may contain potentially hazardous ingredients, increasing transparency.

The chemicals that we are exposed to over a lifetime accumulates in the blood and tissue, affecting both male and female reproductive wellness. They are linked to lingering in children’s bodies, causing developmental and reproductive issues. Using one product, one time with sulfates and pthalates in it will not likely cause harm.

However, clean cosmetic advocates are concerned about what the cumulative, gradual exposure to toxins from multiple products, multiple times a day, for decades, will do to the body.  

It is tough to control your environment – you may have to walk to work in a smog-filled city or live in near busy highways.  Why encounter even more harmful elements in an already highly toxic environment?

I’ve provided a list of some of the most common toxic ingredients to avoid in your personal care products along with natural alternatives. This is, by no means, a complete list of all toxic stuff out there but it’s meant to give readers a jump start to familiarizing yourself with what to watch out for as you start to read ingredient labels.

Warning: initial “what the hell have I been putting on my skin?” shock my set in; this can be a good thing. Take this knowledge and arm yourself with it. Keep ingredient notes in your phone and pull them up when you are shopping for household and personal care items. Share the information with family and friends, suggesting natural alternatives.

Just Say No: The Toxic List

1. Petroleum

Ingredients to avoid: petrolatum, mineral oil, propylene glycol, mineral jelly, petroleum jelly (vaseline), paraffin, propylene glycol, toulene, benzene

This is an extremely cheap and common petroleum derivative which is found in the majority of drugstore skincare products. You guys…petroleum is refined crude oil. Yes. The fact that these petroleum derivatives are still present in most mass market beauty brands and even in baby products BLOWS MY MIND. Putting a fossil fuel on your body was never, and will never be, good for you or the environment. Petroleum molecules sit on top of the skin, acting as a barrier, preventing the skin from breathing. Even if there are a couple good-for-you ingredients in the mineral-oil based lotion you use, the skin can’t let in any of the benefits because the mineral oil is acting as a barrier. There is zero skin nourishment taking place.

This stuff is comedogenic (literally suffocates your skin) and can cause pimples and blackheads. While there is conflicting information about the risk of using mineral oil and cancer risk, I choose to side with common sense and not put an oil derivative, no matter how refined it is, on my skin.

Natural Alternatives: Look for ultra-moisturizing products with natural butters and oils. A couple of my favorite are coconut oil and shea butter

2. Sulfates

Ingredients to avoid: ammonium laureth sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate

These are harsh, sulfur-based synthetic detergents, many sourced from petrolatum, which strip hair and skin of moisture and oils produced by your scalp.

The most common of these is sodium laurel sulfate. We have been conditioned (pun intended) to think that squeaky clean equals better performing products and this is reason why the same chemical companies making your dish detergent and toilet cleaner love to add the same harsh lathering agents to their shampoos and body washes. They are cheap to make and provide the consumer with the lathering action they think they need. Yes, you will have the squeaky clean feeling, but all that signals is that natural oils, like sebum, (the oil produced by the scalp) has been washed away, leaving skin dry and hair dull and prone to frizz due to the ionic imbalance.

Natural Alternatives: For shampoo and body care: look for plant-based cleansers. I’ve had success with coconut oil-based formulas. For household cleaning you can make your own non-toxic cleaning solutions with plain ol’ vinegar, baking soda and essential oils. If you buy, look for plant-based cleansers like those derived from coconuts. Make sure there is a complete list of ingredients listed on the bottle; any truly natural company will be 100% transparent about what’s in their products.

3. 1,4-Dioxane

Ingredients to avoid: sulfates, parabens, crude oil-based ingredients, any ingredients with the clauses, ‘PEG’, ‘xynol’, and ‘oleth’

This chemical is a manufacturing by-product of crude oil-derived ingredients, including sulfates and phthalates. It can be removed, but many manufacturers skip this step, writing if off as low-level of exposure. After public demand, Johnson and Johnson reformulated their “No More Tears” baby shampoo to remove 1,4-Dioxane because its interaction with other chemicals in the formula resulted in formaldehyde as a byproduct. According to Center for Disease Control studies, here are the effects of long-term, repeated exposure: “The substance may have effects on the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver. This substance is possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Why risk it?

4. Parabens

Ingredients to avoid: anything ending in “-paraben”. The most common forms are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben.

These are chemical additives used to prolong the shelf life of a product and prevent microbial growth and can be absorbed by the skin, digestive system and blood. Parabens have been linked to endocrine disruption by mimicking estrogen, strengthening the suggestion of the link to reproductive toxicity and breast cancer. According to Environmental Working Group, a study found that traces of multiple types of parabens were found in breast tissue samples of 19 of 20 women with breast cancer, demonstrating that paraben molecules are in fact absorbed by the body and accumulate in breast tissue.  Another study found that higher concentrations of parabens are found in the axilla quadrant of the breast (closest to the armpit). Did I mention that parabens are major compounds in antiperspirants?

Natural Alternatives: Many natural products use natural sources of tocopherol (vitamin E) as a preservative which I use in many of my DIY recipes. Grapefruit seed extract and rosemary oil also have antimicrobial properties. Most natural products have a shorter shelf life than dirty products and this is a good thing. Think of it like the benefits of eating fresh food versus frozen

5. Synthetic and Coal Tar Dyes

Ingredients to avoid:  “FD&C” or “D&C” colors or “C.I.” followed by a five digit number

These dyes, petroleum-derived chemical cocktails, are everywhere from our food, toothpaste to eyeshadow. Some dyes identified as carcinogenic have been banned by the FDA but there are many still in use, like Yellow #5, which is banned in some European countries due to its link to cancer, ADHD, and migranes.

Natural alternatives: look for fruit and vegetable-pigmented cosmetics or mineral colors such as Titanium Dioxide and Iron Oxides (make sure it’s non-nanoparticle)

6. Phthalates

Ingredients to avoid: Sodium laureth sulfate, PEG compounds, chemicals that include xynol, ceteareth and oleth, BPA, Diethyl phthalate (DEP), Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), fragrance

These chemicals, also referred to as plasticizers, are different classes of chemicals that are so ubiquitous, used in everything from detergents, carpeting, cosmetics, to perfumes and air freshener to hold synthetic fragrances and are also added to most plastics, including childrens toys, furniture, and carpeting to make products softer and more durable. There has been a growing amount of concern surrounding children’s vulnerability to phthalates, interrupting hormones and affecting reproductive ability in adulthood. These chemicals are also known to mimic hormones, raising concern about increased breast cancer risk. As a result of this research, three types of phthalates were banned by congress in 2008, and are also banned in in the EU  and other countries. However, since there are thousands of chemicals in this class, manufacturers now replace the banned type of phthalate with another type that’s just as concerning.

Natural alternatives: Reduce risk of exposure to phthalates by eliminating plastics from your home and choosing products in glass packaging, when possible. Use unscented products or products using naturally-derived fragrance from essential oils.

7. Synthetic Fragrance

Ingredients to avoid: just ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’

What’s in the ingredient “fragrance”? Tulips, lilies, roses? Not at all. These are cheap synthetic chemicals manufactured to smell as close to a rose as the lab can get, without the cost of using actual roses.  There are now 3,000 different chemicals of different classes (everything from phthalates, sulfates, parabens, and more) that can be classified as fragrance and you don’t get to know what you are spritzing on your neck. This is because companies are not required to disclose the chemicals in their products if it is considered to fit under the umbrella of ‘fragrance’ because it is protected as trade secret, essentially the intellectual property of the company.

Natural Alternatives: Pure essential oils scent natural products. Any truly natural company will indicate whether the scent is sourced from essential oils. If only ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ is listed, it is most likely synthetically-derived and not a natural, green item.

8 & 9. Oxybenzone and Benzophenone in Sunscreen

Commonly used in most conventional sunscreens, these chemicals penetrate the skin, enter the bloodstream and mimic estrogen. These can also trigger allergic reactions and harm delicate aquatic life.

Natural alternatives: Mineral sunblocks made with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and can be used, but clarify that they are larger, non-nanoparticle. Small nanoparticles can be absorbed by the skin and possibly enter bloodstream.

10. Triclosan

This chemical is a harsh antibacterial added to soaps, household cleaners, even toothpaste and thousands of other products found around the house. Exposure is so common that it found in the blood, urine and breast tissue of people around the globe. Studies show that there is no added benefit to triclosan over plain soap and water. In fact, a study by the FDA found that the widespread use of triclosan has also contributed to the evolution of “superbugs”, bacteria that is resistant to antibacterials, now a major public health concern. Even the America Medical Association recommends not using triclosan at home. And with this antibacterial being washed down the drain and into waterways, it is killing aquatic life, toxic to many plant species. Update- triclosan is now banned in Minnesota and others states are looking to do the same! *clap clap*

Natural Alternatives: Stick with warm water and bar soap, like Dr. Bronners with tea tree, a natural antibacterial.


When in doubt about an ingredient or a product, look it up using Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database for more information about potential health risks. I’ve also compiled a great Resources page with links to videos, books and other websites that offer more information about toxic chemicals and how to create a non-toxic beauty routine and home!

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