Dirty Ingredients to Avoid in Beauty

While the term "clean beauty" doesn't have a formal definition it's a movement that means different things to different people. However, we can all agree on a few things - it's taking a second look at our beauty and personal care products and eliminating certain potentially harmful, carcinogenic and inflammatory ingredients. 

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Think Dirty + Environmental Working Group 

A few helpful tools are the Think Dirty app or the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Database. They are both databases that you can look up or scan products ranging from skin and hair care, makeup, personal care and even baby products. The products are ranked from a 0-10, 0 being the cleanest and 10 being the dirtiest. It's a great way to get familiar with ingredients that could be potentially toxic. 

While I do think they are great guides and a good place to start, I will warn it's not a perfect system and understanding ingredients is important to know which are actually toxic and what is simply not suitable for your skin type. For example, glycolic acid is ranked as a 5 because in some sensitive skin types it can cause a mild skin irritation. However, glycolic acid is not a toxic ingredient at all, it's a completely natural acid made out of sugar cane. Since the ingredient has an acidic ph tingling on the skin is normal and is simply the nature of the ingredient. So keep those things in mind when you search for a product that not everything is toxic, but just might not be suitable for your skin type. 

The Top Beauty Ingredient Offenders

I created this list as a way to educate and familiarize yourself with certain harmful, toxic and skin-irritating ingredients when reading labels on beauty and personal care products. 

#1. Parabens

Function + Source:
A preservative derived from petroleum that prevents bacteria and mold from forming.

Other Names:
Propylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, isobutylparaben

Where It's Found:
EVERYTHING from hair products, toothpaste, body lotions/washes, skin care, deodorants, baby products, makeup and topical medications.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Parabens have the ability to mimic estrogen and disrupt estrogen receptors. This can lead to a decrease in fertility and research has said it may play a role in breast cancer development. It can also cause irritation or contact dermatitis.

#2. Synthetic Fragrance + Phthalates

Function + Source:
To give a product an "appealing" scent and enhances the user experience and hides the smell of chemicals in the product. 95% of synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals. According to the Environmental Working Group in over 70% of fragrances, there is an ingredient called "phthalates." (pronounced thal-ates).  Phthalates help the fragrance stick to the skin and last longer. I will note essential oils are not considered fragrance and are required to be listed as the full name on the ingredient list, example - Lavandula Officinalis is the latin word for lavender. 

Other Names:
Fragrance, parfum, perfume

Where It's Found:
EVERYWHERE and even places like some "natural" brands. Hair products, body lotions/washes, deodorants, baby products, makeup, household cleaning products, hand soap, aloe vera gels, dish soap, laundry detergent, scented tampons + pads, fruity smelling liquid medications and of course perfume and body sprays.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Synthetic fragrance is a known skin irritant and according to American Academy of Dermatology the #1 cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. As for phthalates you generally won't see word this on an ingredient list. It is an ingredient within an ingredient. You guessed it, hidden in the word "fragrance!" It's linked to dermatitis, birth defects, breast cancer, diabetes.

#3. Synthetic Colors/Dyes

Function + Source:
To give a product an appealing color for user experience. (Completly pointless! Why does anyone need a blue moisturizer?!) Often made from a mixture of many chemicals including coal tar - a derivative from petroleum.

Other Names: 
Blue 1, Green 3, FD&C Yellow 6 to name a few but there are many

Where it's Found:
Hair products, skin care products, body lotions/washes, aloe vera gels, baby products, there are a ton dyes in makeup, household cleaning products, laundry detergent, dish soap, hand soap, and medications - pills + liquids.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Coal tar is a known carcinogen and aluminum and other heavy metals are toxic to the brain.

#4. Sulfates

Function + Source:
Creates foam and suds to make the user feel "clean."

Other Names:
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)

Where It's Found:
Anything that suds, bubbles or foams. Facial cleansers, body wash, baby wash, shampoo, toothpaste, dish soap, hand soap, laundry detergent, floor cleaner.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Can cause dermatitis

#5. Formaldehyde Releasers

Function + Source:
They help products penetrate deeper into the skin, sometimes uses as a moisturizing agent and are synthetically/chemically made.

Other Names:
DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol), glyoxal and oxaldehyde and queaternium-15

Where It's Found:
Aloe vera gels, Brazilian Blowout, eyelash glue, skin care products, mascara, body lotion/washes, baby products, lip products, hair products, deodorants, men's shaving products, nail polish and sunless tanning products.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. It can be irritating to the skin and scalp and cause allergic reactions.

#6. Talc or Talcum Powder

Function + Source: 
Helps to absorb moisture and keep things dry. It's a clay mineral composed of hydrated magnesium silicate and in the asbestos family. 

Other Names:
Talc, talcum power

Where It's Found:
Baby powder, latex gloves with powder, diaper rash cream, powdered cosmetics - loose and pressed powders, blush, and eyeshadow.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Linked to ovarian cancer. Tiny particles specifically in facial powder form can be inhaled and stick to lungs.

#7. Triclosan

Function + Source:
An anti-bacterial agent

Other Names:
Triclosan, Microban, Irgasan, Biofresh, Lexol-300, Ster-Zac and Cloxifenolum

Where It's Found:
Antibacterial products like hand soap, kitchen sprays, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, cosmetics and deodorants

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Studies have shown triclosan enables bacteria to become antibiotic resistant and endocrine disruptor. 

#8. Propylene Glycol

Function + Source:
Derived from petroleum it's used as a skin moisturizer, skin conditioning agent and a carrier in fragrance oils. It also helps products penetrate deeper into the skin. It's the same ingredient used in antifreeze and brake fluid.

Other Names:
Propylene glycol, 1,2-dihydroxypropane, 1,2-propanediol, methyl glycol, and trimethyl glycol

Where It's Found:
Cosmetics, skin care products, lotions, baby wipes, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Highly irritating to the skin. Linked to cancer, developmental/reproductive issues, endocrine disruptor, liver and kidney damage.

#9.  Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) + Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

Function + Source:
A synthetic antioxidant used as a preservative

Other Names:
3-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole and 2-tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole. Also known as BOA, tert-butyl-4-hydroxyanisole, (1,1-dimethylethyl)-4-methoxyphenol, tert-butyl-4-methoxyphenol, antioxyne B, and under various trade names

Where It's Found:
Food, lipsticks, and moisturizers among other cosmetics.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Possible human carcinogen and endocrine disruptor.

#10. Oxybenzone + Octinoxate

Function + Source:
Synthetic chemical sunscreen active ingredient

Other Names:
benzophenone-3, Octyl methoxycinnamate, Methanone,  methoxybenzophenone, 2-Propenoic acid, 3-(4-methoxyphenyl)-, 2-ethylhexyl ester

Where It's Found:
Body and face sunscreens including baby sun products.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
This easily absorbed chemical sunscreen ingredient can lead to skin irritations. It can generate cell-damaging free radicals when exposed to the sun. Oxybenzone specifically is a suspected hormone disruptor that mimics, blocks and alters hormone levels.

#11. PEG Compounds

Function + Source:
Petroleum Based compound used as a thickener, emollient or helps products penetrate faster.

Other Names:
Polyethylene glycol. The word PEG followed by a number which means the lower the number the more easily the product penetrates into the skin.

Where It's Found:
Commonly used in moisturizers, hair dye, sunscreen, and shampoo.

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
The ingredient itself may be only slightly irritating to the skin, but since it helps to penetrate other potentially harmful ingredients easier, that is what could be the issue.

#12. Hydroquinone

Function + Source:
Skin lightener or bleach

Other Names:
Hydroquinone or tocopheryl acetate

Where It's Found:
Skin brightening, whitening or lightening products, prescription strength hydroquinone

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Increasing the risk of skin cancer

#13. Ethanolamines (MEA/DEA/TEA)

Function + Source:
It's an ammonia compound used as a surfactant, emollient and pH adjuster

Other Names:
Monoethanolamine, diethanolamine, and triethanolamine

Where It's Found:
Hair dyes, mascara, dry cleaning solvents, perfume/cologne, sunscreens, foundations

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Linked to allergies, skin toxicity, hormone disruption, and inhibited fetal brain development. 

#14. Retinoids

Function + Source:
A derivative of vitamin A which is an antioxidant. The first FDA approved ingredient to treat wrinkles. It speeds cell turn over, helps heal acne, softens fine lines and wrinkles, lightens pigmentation.

Other Names:
Tretinoin, Retinol and Retinyl Palmitate

Where It's Found:
Sunscreen, moisturizers, facial serums

Why It's Potentially Harmful:
Reproductive toxicity WHILE pregnant. They damage skin cell DNA and speed the growth of skin cancers WHEN EXPOSED TO SUNLIGHT. However, they are safe and amazingly effective if used properly at night only and washed off in the morning. Avoid retinyl palmitate in sunscreens.