Toxic Cosmetic Ingredients? Not Pretty!

by Emma Peters January 10, 2015

Would you choose to  knowingly apply carcinogens to your skin?

Of course not! But it’s not like any of the toxic cosmetic ingredients that are listed on the back of your favorite shampoo or your daily moisturiser are going to be written in big bold red letters with a warning sign attached. You almost have to be a scientific genius to have the faintest clue about what a product is made up of.

toxic cosmetic ingredients

Manufacturers say “Sure, there may be some troubling ingredients at first glance but the way that they are being produced and the amount that is used is not harmful to humans.” Well that sounds good, doesn’t it? But what about when you layer that product with another one containing similar ingredients. Then another. You’re being subjected to the layering effect which may add up to way more than the “safe” recommended amount. They haven’t thought that far ahead now, have they. Or what about different ingredients that when combined create a different chemical altogether possibly forming an even more dangerous toxin.

I don’t mean to scare anyone or put you off your cosmetics altogether. I believe that knowledge is power and that learning a little about what ingredients to avoid can go a long way to restoring health and hopefully eventually eradicating them from the ingredients list once and for all.

Most of you are too busy to hunt down the names of the chemicals you should avoid, so I will give you a quick lesson in the worst of the worst and you can take it from there. When you start reading labels you may be surprised at the sheer volume of products known to have these ingredients and compounds.

Here are the top toxic cosmetic ingredients to avoid

1,4 Dioxane

This is a tricky one because it doesn’t appear on labels. It’s formed as a byproduct of mixing ethylene oxide to other ingredients to make them less harsh. For example, Sodium Laurel sulfate is quite harsh on the skin but when mixed with ethelyne oxide, it becomes less so, creating Sodium Laureth sulfate. This is commonly found in products containing suds such as shampoos, liquid soaps and bubble bath. This is carcinogenic which means possible cancer causing, also potentially causes organ-system toxicity, and an irritant. Women tend to use several if not more products per day, so the risk of layering products containing this dangerous chemical is serious. Everyone should avoid this and in particular, pregnant women, infants and teenagers should steer clear of products that may contain 1,4 Dioxane. Ingredients to be wary of are PEG usually followed by a number, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethelene, and ingredients ending in “eth”  and “xynol”


As a group these chemicals are calledEthanol amines. They are used in a wide variety of household and cosmetic products as emulsifiers and pH balancers. They’re found in mascaras, foundations, blush, eyeshadows, eyeliners, fragrances, sunscreens, lotions, cleansers, hair dyes, household cleaners to name a few. The health concerns here are: Cancer, organ-system toxicity possibly affecting male reproductive health as well as accumulating in the liver and kidneys. Be on the look out for: Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethalomine (TEA),  Monoethalomine (MEA), Ethanolomine (ETA)


This is of the highest concern according to the EWG Skin Deep website who gives it a 10/10 score for toxicity. This is another of those hidden chemicals not always listed in the ingredients as it’s released by a number of preservatives. If you think about it, it’s what’s used to embalm dead people… It has been known to be found in nail polish, a wide variety of body and hair care products, hair growth products, antiperspirant. Health concerns are: Cancer, Immune system toxicity, allergen and irritant. Look out for: Formalin, Formic aldehyde, Merthaldehyde, methanal, Methyl aldehyde, oxomethane, oxymethylene. It can also be released by other ingredients such as DMDM hydantion, quaternium-15, diaxolidinyl urea.

Synthetic Fragrance

Fragrance is a mixture of natural and synthetic chemicals used to give a product a pleasant smell. Fragrance in and of itself isn’t an ingredient but a collection of possibly hundreds of undisclosed chemicals. Due to “trade secret” laws, companies aren’t required to name what is in “fragrance”. In fact lots of companies aren’t aware of what goes into the said fragrance as the pre-made perfume can come from a separate company. Not to say that absolutely ALL products containing fragrance are harmful, just be prepared to do some research into the products you are using. The most obvious is perfume, but most products used on the body and in the home contain some form of fragrance including your lotions, haircare, skincare and makeup. Health concerns are potentially numerous because of the unknown ingredients and because it can be inhaled, ingested and absorbed through the skin. Some ingredients may be allergens, neurotoxins or skin irritants. Fragrance commonly contains phthalates which are potent endocrine disruptors. Everyone should avoid synthetic fragrance if they can especially  infants, pregnant women, adolescents and menopausal women. Look out for: Fragrance, perfume, parfum.


In fragrance, phthalates are used as dispersers and to prolong the scent. In nail polish they serve to make it more flexible and chip resistant. Again, not necessarily listed on the label. It may be hiding in a fragrance or perfume. Nail polish, hair products body product may contain phthalates. As well as a slew of household products and plastics. Health concerns are: Suspected carcinogen, endocrine disruptor, meaning they interfere with the production of hormones. DBP has been found to cause anatomical birth defects to baby boys(!!) and has been correlated to lower sperm count and decreased fertility. Everyone  should avoid phthalates if they can especially pregnant and lactating women, infants, children, adolescents, menopausal women. Look out for: Fragrance; mostly but not always contains phthalates. Also look for DBP,  DEHP, 1,2 benzenedicarboxylate (and variations of), dibutyl/diethyl esther (and variations of). A proactive thing to do is contact the manufacturer  to find out is if the product is phthalate free, or contains no synthetic fragrance.

Lead, Mercury

These metals may appear as contaminants in certain products. Mercury is an active ingredient of thimerosal which is used as a preservative in mascara. Lead has been found in a very high portion of lipsticks on the market. Thimerosal in mascara. Lead acetate can be found in some hair dyes. These metals are both highly toxic and wether ingested or absorbed into the skin can lead to numerous health issues including depression, brain damage, miscarriage, problems with the nervous system. Thimerosal. But unfortunately mercury and lead aren’t normally listed as ingredients themselves because they are contaminants.


These are cheap preservatives used in most cosmetics to prolong the shelf life of the product. They can be found pretty much in everything from makeup, haircare, skincare to deodorant. (Parabens have also been found in breast cancer tissue) These are believed to be an Endocrine disruptior. Possibly mimicking estrogenic effects. Everyone should avoid these, especially women of child bearing age, infants, adolescents and menopausal women. What to look out for: Methyl/ Propyl/ Butyl/ Isobutyl/ Isopropyl Paraben, Hydrobenzoic acid or hydroxybenzoate or ester.

Sodium Laurel Sulphate, Sodium Laureth Sulphate

This is an inexpensive foaming agent used to cut through oil and is found all over the place. Soap, shampoo, body wash toothpaste, bubble bath baby wash, mascara etc. The biggest concern with SLS and SLES as mentioned earlier is contamination with 1,4 dioxane as well as ethelyne oxide. They are a common skin irritant. May be endocrine disruptors. What to look out for: Sodium lauryl/leaureth sulphate, sodium dodecyl sulphate, sodium salt sulfuric acid PEG lauryl sulphate


A potent solvent and paint thinner found in nail polishes, nail hardener, some fragrance though it will not be listed. Believe it or not in some dental composites as I found out recently while researching what to get my teeth filled with- but that’s another story! This is a potent neurotoxin, immune system toxicity, it’s a bone marrow toxin, possible link to leukemia and blood cancer, may cause damage to a developing fetus. Everyone should avoid this nasty chemical, especially pregnant women. Be ware of toluene, toluol, methylbenzene, phenylmethane.

This seams like a really daunting list looking back at it but don’t worry, you don’t have to memorize it all for instant recall when you go shopping for your shampoo. There are lots of reputable brands that care about the quality of their product, your health and our planet. You just need to know who they are.

Start paying a little more attention to what you are using on your face and body. It won’t be easy to eliminate all of these nasty ingredients from your beauty products, but it isn’t impossible.

The same way many of you began slowly buying more organic produce over the non-organic; you can begin replacing your old “chemical” stuff for healthier more environmentally friendly products. The number of natural and organic products is growing daily, so making a switch has never been easier. There are even some amazing DIY recipes to try at home.

Emma Peters
Emma Peters

Emma Peters, organic makeup artist, creative director and founder of Belle & Sage, is committed to leading the conversation around beauty and wellness. With over twenty years of experience as a make-up artist, she knows you don’t have to sacrifice quality for clean.

She’ll help you find the what, learn the why, nail the how, and everything in between.

Letting you know more, wear better, and start making beautiful choices: from the inside, out.

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