Top 5 Ingredients to Avoid in Skin Care Products

Most of us read food labels religiously, but many people purchase skin and hair care products without paying any attention to their ingredients. This is a grave error, as many products used on the skin and hair contain ingredients which are toxic and harmful. Even more disturbing is that many ingredients which are banned or restricted in the EU and Canada are approved for use without restriction in the US. Reading skincare labels can be a bit like touring a chemistry textbook, so it is helpful to know how to read the labels.

Labels on skincare products in the US must adhere to strict FDA guidelines for labeling. These guidelines include rules on what font sizes can be used, which information is included on the label, and how ingredient names should be listed. All skincare ingredients must be listed using the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) names. This can make label reading a bit of an adventure, as it requires the most natural ingredients, such as Shea Butter, to be listed using a combination of Latin and chemical identifiers. You should never see “Shea Butter” listed on a label, but will instead see it listed as “Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter).” The INCI name for processed table salt, sea salt, Celtic salt and Himalayan salt are all “Sodium Chloride” with no indicator of the salt’s origin or mineral content. Most cosmetic and body care manufacturers expand the INCI names to identify the type of salt used and to identify which ingredients are organic. I always figure the amount of detail provided on a label is a good indicator of a manufacturer’s commitment to quality and to only using natural ingredients.

Why is it important to be concerned about the ingredients in skin care products? Because your skin is basically a huge bidirectional sponge that absorbs anything placed on it. According to a study conducted by Chemical Safe Skincare Research in 2006, the average woman absorbs more than five pounds of toxins from her bath, body and skin care products every single year. Yes … that said FIVE POUNDS. The effect that five pounds of toxic material has on your body is hard to estimate, but many of the toxic chemicals used in body care products are known endocrine disruptors, reproductive hormonal disruptors, allergens, gene modifiers, and more. Some of these chemicals have an indefinite after life in the body, meaning the body has no effective means of eliminating these synthetic toxins and the toxic residues remain in body tissues for decades. The prolonged exposure to chemicals which the body cannot effectively eliminate has never been thoroughly studied, but this exposure is expected to be partially to blame to the increasing rise in allergies, autoimmune disorders, and other health problems. Using toxin-free products on our skin and hair is obviously very important.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) did a study which found the average person in the US uses 15 body, skin and hair products daily. (I’m struggling with this estimate. Do you believe it? I use a handmade soap and little else. The amount of toxins absorbed through the skin and lungs from the daily use of 15 products is downright scary!) The EWG estimates that one in five products used on the skin contains an ingredient which is a suspected carcinogen. This means that most people in the US use at least three products on a daily basis which contain a potential carcinogen. Believe it or not, many of the ingredients used in skincare products – and approved for use by the FDA – undergo little or no testing prior to approval. 

Following is a list of the top five ingredients I refuse to put on my body or to allow my family to use. (I did not include Triclosan in this list because I already wrote a post about it. See The Dangers of Triclosan for more info on that ingredient.):

Artificial Fragrances

Artificial fragrances can contain a wide variety of harmful ingredients. These ingredients may include phthalates, petrochemicals, benzene, toluene, xylene, methanol, and others. Chief among these are phthalates. Phthalates have been proved to be endocrine disruptors and are also highly suspected of being carcinogenic. The additional danger of the chemicals used in artificial fragrances is that they are absorbed through the skin AND are inhaled. Items which are inhaled reach the bloodstream much more rapidly than those which are absorbed through the skin. A study conducted by the Environmental Working Group found that most perfumes and colognes contain harmful or suspect chemicals which are not included in the ingredients listed on the label. How do companies get away with not listing ingredients in skin care products? Because fragrances are exempt from all FDA labeling laws. The reason for the exemption is that fragrance blends are “proprietary” and it would cause undue harm to companies to have to list these ingredients and share their “secret formula” with others. The danger and harm caused to us is apparently irrelevant.

The best option for fragrances in body care products is essential oils. Essential Oils are the plant oils that give flowers and herbs their scent. They are 100% natural and have many health benefits. When reading labels in search of Essential Oils, look for INCI names such as “Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil” for Lavender Essential Oil; “Santalum Album (Sandalwood) Oil” for Sandalwood Essential Oil; and “Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil” for Sweet Orange Essential Oil.

Sodium Lauryl and Sodium Laureth Sulfate

Sodium Lauryl and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (commonly referred to as “SLS) are artificial foaming agents that are included in liquid soaps, toothpastes, shampoos, bubble baths, body washes, liquid dishwashing soap, laundry soap and more. They are one of the most commonly used harmful chemicals in mainstream body care products. These chemicals are top on the list of products which I absolutely refuse to allow in my home. They are known skin irritants, hormone and endocrine disruptors and are suspected carcinogens and gene mutagens. Any chemical capable of mutating genes deserves our attention. Sulfates are such a strong skin irritant that they are commonly used by labs to create skin irritation used to test products designed to treat skin irritation. They are regarded as “safe” when used in body products only because they are diluted. In my practice, I find that many cases of eczema and psoriasis improve very quickly once the use of products containing sulfates are eliminated. SLS is also used as a laxative in some medical products and is known to cause diarrhea when consumed. (One more reason to never let children use mainstream toothpaste. Kiss My Face Kids’ Berry Smart Toothpaste is a great alternative that kids love.)

A special concern with SLS is that our body is not designed to remove these toxins from our tissues once they are absorbed. They therefore remain in our tissues – potentially doing harm – a very long time. These chemicals have been found in brain, eye and liver tissues of cadavers of people who quit using sulfates as many as fifteen years prior to death. Over 16,000 studies published in PubMed have shown SLS to be an irritant, to be toxic to internal organs, to cause reproductive problems, to potentially cause development issues in babies and children, to be a neurotoxin and endocrine distruptor, to cause cellular changes, to cause gene mutation and to possibly cause cancer.

You do have alternatives. There are now many toothpastes and shampoos on the market which do not contain sulfates. My favorites include Aubrey Organics Shampoos (the main type I use) and XyliWhite Toothpastes. I also really like Burt’s Bees Peppermint and Rosemary Body Wash. (Yes, I am aware the Burt’s Bees company was purchased by the Clorox Company. Part of the sale agreement was that the Burt’s Bees philosophy and recipes would not be compromised. So far, their products have remained very pure, although minor changes in ingredients have been made. I will keep tracking their recipes and let you know if that changes.)

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)

BHA is commonly used as a preservative in skin and body products in the US, but is banned by the European Union. (It is also commonly used in food and food packaging.) BHA has been designated to be a very probable carcinogen in humans. It is also known to cause pigment loss of the skin, which is a particular problem for dark-skinned individuals. (It is a common ingredient in skin lightening products. Please use plain lemon juice instead.) BHA has been shown to negatively affect the levels of thyroid hormones in the body, to potentially interfere with reproductive development and the production of reproductive hormones, and to cause liver damage and stomach cancers.


Parabens are a commonly used preservative which may be listed on labels preceded by Ethyl-, Methyl-, Propyl-, Isopropyl-, Butyl-, or as Isobutylparabens. Unfortunately, parabens are used in products for both external and internal use, and are a common preservative in pharmaceuticals. PLEASE read labels carefully when purchasing liquid supplements. One of the most popular brands used by many natural practitioners commonly uses parabens as a preservative in their liquid supplements. I find this very disturbing and refuse to use their products as a result. Parabens are known estrogen imitators and are also suspected of being endocrine disruptors and the cause of reproductive problems and developmental disorders. The high use of parabens is a suspected reason (along with the hormones used in meat production) that little girls are menstruating at extremely young ages. Parabens are also suspected of causing lowered sperm counts in men, which makes sense since they are an estrogen imitator and may reduce the levels of testosterone in males.

Parabens cannot yet be said to cause breast cancer, but their estrogenic activity may be a contributing factor. A study done in 2004 found parabens present in over 90% of human breast cancer tumors. That is sufficient reason for me to avoid this chemical at all costs and to protect my children from it.

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

Polyethylene Glycol has many different uses in cosmetics and is commonly found in cleansers, lotions, creams, lip balms, shaving creams, body washes, shampoos, oral pain gels, bar soap, baby wipes, contact lens solution, eye drops, toothpaste, hair care products, etc., etc., etc. It is also commonly used as a laxative and in purgative products used prior to colonoscopies, and is the main ingredient in most spray-on oven cleaners. In terms of topical effects, it is known to strip the skin of its protective sebum and other oils, leaving the body susceptible to invaders the skin’s own sebum is designed to protect us from. Think about it … do you really want to expose your face to the same degreaser used to clean ovens? Me neither.

The risks of PEG are many. Some studies have linked PEG to kidney damage when it is taken internally (in products such as Miralax) or when it is used on areas of broken skin. Experiments done by the National Toxicology Program showed that PEG created increased risk of leukemia and uterine, breast and brain cancers. PEG is also known to be commonly contaminated with a known carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane. It is very easy to remove 1,4-dioxane from PEG, but most cosmetic manufacturers won’t spend the tiny bit of money the decontamination process would cost, nor are they required to. PEG is also known to contain high amounts of heavy metals. Heavy metal contamination is known to cause neurological, autoimmune and kidney issues and should be avoided at all costs.

So what are your options? Read labels very carefully. Two companies which I trust implicitly are Aubrey Organics and Pangea Organics. Both companies use all-natural ingredients to make products that actually work. I also highly recommend purchasing the book A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients so that you can look up ingredients and learn more about them.

If you would like to try making your own skin care products, please click the link at the right to purchase my book, Skincare from the Ground Up.

If you’d like to see a list of skin and body care products that I recommend, please visit: Recommended Products and then click the “All Natural Body Care Link” to the right.

If you have skin challenges you would like to address using a holistic approach, please contact me or call 317.489.0909 to schedule a consultation. I will work with you to identify the causes of your skin challenges and will help you create a plan to reverse them naturally.


Have you switched from over-the-counter products to more natural products? What effect did it have for you? Please share!


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Dr. Pamela Reilly is a Naturopathic Physician dedicated to helping people improve their health and eliminate symptoms using natural, integrative methods. She has over 25 years of experience and has helped men, women and children improve their health using a holistic, client-centered focus. She sees clients in Indianapolis, does house calls, and also conducts consultations via Skype or telephone. Please feel free to contact her or visit her Consultations page for more information. Dr. Pamela speaks nationwide on a wide variety of health topics and welcomes speaking invitations.

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5 Responses to Top 5 Ingredients to Avoid in Skin Care Products

  1. Chelsea says:

    Thank you for the insightful read! I still struggle with finding face and hair products that work, don’t break the bank, and are organic… Even though I expend so much effort to ensure what I put in my body is clean. Your article has convinced me to make the switch and give my body a break from all of those harmful chemicals one and for all!

  2. […] dyes and a variety of artificial chemicals and foaming agents. The artificial foaming agent sodium lauryl sulfate is a known irritant with suspected mutagenic properties that is known to remain in the […]

  3. […] reducing your toxic load. For more information on eliminating toxins from skin care products, read Top Five Ingredients to Avoid in Skin Care Products. […]

  4. […] skin irritants which are also known to cause dry skin. For more information on these products, read Top Five Ingredients to Avoid in Skin Care Products. […]

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