7 Harmful Skincare Ingredients to Avoid

These days, it’s common to hear chatter about the importance of what we put into our bodies – with lots of focus on balanced, healthy diets, avoiding processed foods and sugar and eating organic whenever possible. But what about what we put onto our bodies? Most people don’t realize that one of the main ways we receive nutrients in our body is transdermally – taken in systemically through our skin and then into our bloodstream. The epidermis, or skin, is our largest organ, and it absorbs up to 60% of what we put onto it. In other words, products we apply can actually affect our overall health and well-being, in both negative and positive ways.

Since the FDA does not regulate skincare products in the US, almost any ingredient (good or bad) can be added to the face washes, lotions, sunscreens, wrinkle creams and cosmetics that we put on our skin daily – some that are even considered to be dangerous. Many ingredients found in personal care products have been identified as triggers of allergic reactions, eczema, cancer, hormonal disruption and reproductive issues. So, to clean up our beauty cabinets and ensure that what we’re putting on our body is as pure as what we’re putting in it, check out seven key chemicals to avoid in our skincare regimes below.


Aluminum is a toxic metal that can alter our estrogen, disrupting the way our endocrine system functions. It is most commonly found in antiperspirant deodorants intended to keep us from sweating.1 When applied frequently and left on the skin under our arms and near our breasts, aluminum can be absorbed and create estrogen-like (hormonal) effects. Because estrogen can promote the growth of breast cancer cells, some scientists have suggested that aluminum-based compounds in antiperspirants may contribute to the development of breast cancer.2

DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine)

These solvents, emulsifiers and wetting agents can be found in most skincare products that foam, like facial cleansers and soaps. They can also be found in common beauty products such as eye makeup, fragrances, hair products and sunscreens. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for DEA states that it can cause skin and eye irritation, may cause blood, liver and kidney damage, and may also form cancer-causing nitrosamines.3


Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparabens are used as preservatives and can be found in most unnatural skincare products such as moisturizers and deodorants, and most of the time, they won’t even be labeled. These ingredients can contribute to hormone imbalance, causing fertility and reproductive issues, and have also been linked to breast and other cancers. Interestingly enough, they have been banned in Europe since 2003, but here in the US, we can still find them everywhere.4

Synthetic Fragrances & Perfumes

Seeing anything that’s labeled as synthetic or artificial is always a red flag. Especially in the form of fragrance or perfumes which are often made up of hundreds of different ingredients that are not identified or listed on the label. Synthetic fragrance can be found in most cosmetic and skincare products – even household items like candles, air fresheners and scented trash bags. In 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified such ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins. Thankfully, they can easily be replaced with essential oils.5

PEG (Polyethylene glycol)

PEG, used to thicken products and keep them from drying out, can alter and reduce the natural moisture in our skin. PEG can be found in cleaners as a way of getting rid of facial oil and grease. According to the MSDS, this chemical “may be toxic to the central nervous system,” “may cause reproductive and fetal effects” and “prolonged exposure can produce target organs damage.”5

DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea and Imidazolidinyl Urea 

These preservatives can be found in many personal products such as skincare and cosmetic products, shampoos and conditioners and detergents that have been found to release formaldehyde. Exposure to formaldehyde may cause joint pain, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections, chronic fatigue, dizziness and loss of sleep. Such compounds can be disguised as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, Diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea and Quaternium 15 as well.5


Also banned in Europe, phthalates are a group of chemicals that are used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastics (think vinyl) in cosmetics and help them attach to our skin better. These are most commonly found in deodorants, lotions, fragrances and hairsprays. Lab tests have shown that phthalates are carcinogens that can affect the liver, kidneys, lungs, reproductive system, and increase the risk of stillbirths.5 Congress has actually banned several types of phthalates already from children’s products.4

“When I started making enough money to afford high-end, fancy skincare products with sexy bottles and impressive claims, I decided to give them a try. As a result, my skin acted up and got irritated… Some products and masks can be too aggressive and irritating for certain skin types. I believe the more simple, natural, and easy the skincare regime, the better off your skin will be.” — Jennifer Aniston

To read more about "What's in Your Beauty Products," see here.