10 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid

10 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid

The chemicals that we are exposed to over a lifetime can accumulate in the blood and breast tissue, affecting everything from hormone levels to reproductive wellness, and is especially harmful to children.

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.   The companies manufacturing these products were not required to conduct long term heath and safety studies; that would delay the product launch meaning a loss of billions. But the evidence has been building for decades – that the toxic ingredients we’ve been introduced to through these personal care products stay in our systems and wreak havoc.

And why do companies put these ingredients in their products? Because they are CHEAP AS FUCK to manufacture. Many of them are even chemical byproducts from industrial processes that they have found a way to profit from by adding them as fillers.

Here’s a list of ingredients to avoid in your personal care products along with natural alternatives to choose.

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/Petrolatum 

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: Look for plant-based cleansers (often coconut-derived). I use shampoo from brands like Rahua, Acure and Shea Moisture.

3. 1,4-Dioxane

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

The FDA does not require this to be listed as an ingredient so refer to the list, above, to avoid. 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.

But these are the effects of long-term, repeated exposure reported by the CDC: “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 tocopherol (vitamin E) as a natural 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 packaged.

5. Synthetic Dyes 

Ingredients to avoid:  “FD&C” or “D&C” colors.

These petroleum-derived dyes 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 natural or mineral colors or dyes such as Titanium Dioxide, Iron Oxides, Iron Oxide, Tin Oxide, and Ultramarines.

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 of different classes are used in detergents, cosmetics, perfumes and air freshener to hold hold to synthetic fragrances and also are also added to plastics to make them softer and durable. Phthalates have been banned in in the EU  along with nine other countries like Mexico and Japan. There has been a growing amount of concern surrounding children’s vulnerability to phthalates, interrupting hormones affecting their reproductive ability in adulthood. These chemicals are also known to mimic hormones, raising concern about increased breast cancer risk.

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

7. Synthetic Fragrance

Ingredients to avoid:  ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’

If the word ‘fragrance’ is in the list of ingredients, it is a HUGE RED FLAG and should actually say “a shit ton of chemicals that we don’t have to list”. Because fragrance is not regulated by the FDA, a company is not required to disclose the ingredients in their formula so phthalates and synthetic chemicals are hidden under the ‘fragrance’ umbrella. There is an average of

Natural Alternatives: Essential oils blends scent most 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.

8 & 9. Oxybenzone and Benzophenone

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

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

10. Triclosan

Update: The FDA finally banned triclosan from antibacterial soaps, but is still used in loads of other products, so read those labels!

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 AMA 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.

Natural Alternatives: Stick with warm water and bar soap, like Dr. Bronners with Tea tree, a natural antibacterial. If you must use a hand sanitizer, make sure that the active ingredient is alcohol.


The Think Dirty App is one of my most used apps! Scan products with your phone to see the safety of a product. Each ingrdient is listed with a toxicity rating, explaining why. The app also automatically suggests safer products.

And when in doubt about an ingredient in a product, check Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website and check out their research and studies.

Ready to clean out your bathroom shelf? Learn how to dispose of products in an envrionmentally responsible way.