Ingredients to Avoid in the Beauty Industry

For years, I worked as a conventional aesthetician, not really knowing a whole lot about the ingredients and preservatives that went into the professional skin care products that I used.  I knew the basics, but didn’t understand about the smaller ingredients.  Aestheticians aren’t taught about that in school.  For us, if a professional skin care company say they are natural, we tend to believe them… at least, I used to.

Shortly after my kids were born, I started researching more into ingredients.  I had heard some bad reviews about ingredients that went into the baby products that I was using at the time, so I wanted to find out the truth.  I started following a few holistic pages on Facebook, researching ingredients, and what I found was really scary.  A lot of the ingredients that were in the products throughout our entire household and throughout my business contained ingredients there were known carcinogens, hormone disruptors, skin irritants, and environmental toxins.  Everything I was taught to believe suddenly was all wrong, and I had had no idea.

For months, I researched ingredients, tested new products and was determined to switch my entire household and spa business over to only containing completely natural, safe products.  At the time, this was not easy, and sadly, still isn’t overly easy today.  Sadly, there are no laws or regulations in North America on usage of the terms “natural” or “organic”.  A company can say their products are natural or organic in their marketing, even if they aren’t.  Some of the biggest “natural” companies out there who started off as being natural, are no longer natural (or never were to begin with), but they say that they still are, so people believe them.


Natural Beauty

It’s one of the main reasons why I created R Devine Skin Care.  I wanted to use products that I could actually trust, and that my clients could feel confident in as well.  The spa industry was majorly lacking 100% completely natural, healthy, safe products at the time, and I made it my mission to create a line that could help fill that void.  

While my skin care line is completely natural, there’s a lot of products that people need to use on a daily basis that my line does not provide – makeup, deodorant, shampoo and other hair products, toothpaste… the list goes on.  And while I’ve done my research and know exactly what ingredients I need to avoid, the average consumer does not know this information.  I’m often asked about safe sunscreens, hair products and makeup products that contain safe ingredients.  The answer I always give is to read the labels on products, because there is often a different product for everyone.  By learning to read ingredients, you learn to recognize which are safe and which ones you should avoid. If an ingredients doesn’t sound natural, chances are it isn’t natural.  But, there are some safe synthetics out there, and there are a whole lot of toxic ones as well.  So, I visited The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen Cosmetic Ingredients To Avoid and compiled a list of Ingredients to Avoid from their website.  You can use this list to determine if the products you are using on yourself and your family are safe to be using.  

As mentioned above, all of the ingredient information in this post has been used from The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, as well as David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen Cosmetic Ingredients To Avoid.

Butylated Compounds

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are used as preservatives in a variety of personal care products. Both of these chemicals are also used as preservatives in foods. These chemicals are linked to several health concerns including endocrine disruption and organ-system toxicity, and due to these concerns, BHA has been banned for use in cosmetics in the European Union.

  • On the label, look for: BHA, BHT
  • Used mainly in moisturizers and makeup as preservatives.
  • Suspected endocrine disruptors, organ-system toxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, skin irritation and may cause cancer (BHA). Harmful to fish and other wildlife.


1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen linked to organ toxicity, may be found in as many as 22 percent of the more than 25,000 cosmetics products in the Skin Deep database, but you won’t find it on ingredient labels. That’s because 1,4-dioxane is a contaminant created when common ingredients react to form the compound when mixed together.

  • On the label, look for: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), PEG compounds, chemicals that include the clauses xynol, ceteareth and oleth
  • Readily penetrates the skin.
  • Found in products that create suds (such as shampoo, liquid soap, bubble bath), hair relaxers, and others.
  • Probable carcinogen, organ-system toxicity, developmental toxicity, and skin irritation.

Coal Tar

Coal tar is a known carcinogen derived from burning coal. It is a complex mixture of hundreds of compounds, many of which are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Coal tar is used in food, textiles, cosmetics and personal care products. Experimental studies have found that application of and exposure to coal tar produce skin tumors and neurological damage.

  • On the label, look for: Coal tar solution, tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin)
  • Found in shampoos and scalp treatments, soaps, hair dyes, and lotions.
  • A known carcinogen, bioaccumulation, organ system toxicity.

MEA, DEA, TEA and others (Ethanolamine Compounds)

Ethanolamines are present in many consumer products ranging from cosmetics, personal care products and household cleaning products. Both have been linked to liver tumors. The European Commission prohibits diethanolamine (DEA) in cosmetics, to reduce contamination from carcinogenic nitrosamines.

  • On the label, look for: Triethanolamine, diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate)
  • Found in soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and dyes, lotions, shaving creams, paraffin and waxes, household cleaning products, pharmaceutical ointments, eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, blush, make-up bases, foundations, fragrances, sunscreens
  • Linked to cancer, bioaccumulation, organ system toxicity

Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used in many personal care products [1], particularly in shampoos and liquid baby soaps. These chemicals, which help prevent bacteria from growing in water-based products, can be absorbed through the skin and have been linked to allergic skin reactions and cancer.

  • On the label, look for: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)
  • Found in nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, hair gel, hair-smoothing products, baby shampoo, body soap, body wash, color cosmetics
  • Linked to cancer, skin irritation


Usually associated with use in skin lighteners, especially those products marketed to women of color, hydroquinone may also be a contaminant in other cosmetics ingredients. Linked to cancer and organ-system toxicity, it is one of the most toxic ingredients used in personal care products.

  • On the label, look for: Hydroquinone, tocopheral acetate, tocopheral, tocopheral linoleate, other ingredients with the root “toco”
  • Found in skin lighteners, facial and skin cleansers, facial moisturizers, hair conditioners, nail glue
  • Linked to cancer, organ-system toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity

Lead and Other Heavy Metals

Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, chromium and iron are found in a wide variety of personal care products including lipstick, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner and nail color. Some metals are intentionally added as ingredients, while others are contaminants. Exposure to metals has been linked to health concerns including reproductive, immune and nervous system toxicity.  

  • On the label, look for: Lead acetate, chromium, thimerosal, hydrogenated cotton seed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate. Note: products that contain contaminant metals will not list them on ingredient labels
  • Found in lip products, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner, nail color, foundations, sunscreens, eye shadows, blush, concealer, moisturizers, eye drops
  • Linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity, bioaccumulation


Nitrosamines are impurities that can show up in a wide array of cosmetics ingredients—including diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA)—and products. The U.K.’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform characterizes nitrosamines as toxic in more animal species than any other category of chemical carcinogen. While common in cosmetics, nitrosamines are not listed on product labels because they are impurities, but avoiding products with DEA and TEA is a start.

  • On the label, look for: DEA or TEA can indicate the possible presence of nitrosamines
  • Found in nearly every kind of personal care product
  • Linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity


Octinoxate, also called Octyl methoxycinnamate or (OMC), is a UV filter. It can be absorbed rapidly through skin. Octinoxate has been detected in human urine, blood and breast milk, which indicates that humans are systemically exposed to this compound. Octinoxate is an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and can disrupt thyroid function.

  • On the label, look for: Octinoxate,o methoxycinnamate (OMC), parsol, parsol MCX, parsol MOX, escalol, 2-ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate
  • Found in hair color products and shampoos, sunscreen, lipstick, nail polish, skin creams
  • Linked to endocrine disruption, persistence and bioaccumulation, ecotoxicology, organ system toxicity.


Parabens are used to prevent the growth of microbes in cosmetics products and can be absorbed through skin, blood and the digestive system. Parabens have been found in biopsies from breast tumors at concentrations similar to those found in consumer products. Parabens may be found in a wide variety of products including shampoos, lotions, deodorants, scrubs and eye makeup, and are found in nearly all urine samples from U.S. adults regardless of ethnic, socioeconomic or geographic backgrounds. Adolescents and adult females had higher levels of methylparaben and propylparaben in their urine than did males of similar ages.

  • On the label, look for: Ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, other ingredients ending in –paraben
  • Found in shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial and shower cleansers and scrubs
  • Linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity.


One billion tons of phthalates are produced worldwide each year. Phthalates are a class of several different chemicals that have various uses in consumer products: they soften vinyl plastics and are responsible for the smell of new vinyl shower curtains; some are used in food packaging; and others are common components of fragrances in air fresheners, perfumes, detergents, cleaning products and more. They’re used in cosmetics to hold color and scents, and have also been found in nail polish and treatments.

  • On the label, look for: phthalate, DEP, DBP, fragrance
  • Found in color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, body washes and hair care products, nail polish and treatment
  • Linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, bioaccumulation.

Synethetics Musks

Synthetic musks are chemicals added as scents to personal care products, including perfumes, lotions and many cosmetics. Studies consistently show that some of these compounds may disrupt hormone systems or trigger skin sensitization when exposed to UV light. Synthetic musks have been detected in breast milk, body fat and the cord blood of newborn babies.

  • On the label, look for: fragrance, musk ketone, musk xylene, galaxolide, tonalide
  • Found in fragrance, musk ketone, musk xylene, galaxolide, tonalide
  • Linked to endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity, bioaccumulation


Petrolatum is a mineral oil jelly (i.e. petroleum jelly).  It is used as a barrier to lock moisture in the skin in a variety of moisturizers and also in hair care products to make your hair shine.

  • On the label, look for: Mineral oil, petroleum
  • Found in moisturizers, lip balms, first aid products and hair products
  • Linked to cancer, skin irritation and allergies


Toluene is a toxic chemical used in in nail products and hair dyes. Exposure to toluene can result in temporary effects such as headaches, dizziness and cracked skin, as well as more serious effects such as reproductive damage and respiratory complications.

  • On the label, look for: Toluene
  • Found in nail polish, nail treatment, hair dyes
  • Linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, irritation, bioaccumulation


Triclosan is a commonly used antimicrobial agent that accumulates in our bodies and has been linked to hormone disruption and the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibodies and antibacterial products. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified triclosan in the urine of 75 percent people tested. Triclosan also impacts the environment, ending up in lakes, rivers and other water sources, where it is toxic to aquatic life.

  • On the label, look for: Triclosan
  • Found in antibacterial soaps and detergents, toothpaste and tooth whitening products, antiperspirants/deodorants, shaving products, creams, color cosmetics
  • Linked to endocrine disruption, allergies and immunotoxicity, bioaccumulation, organ system toxicity, irritation

About Rachel Devine

Rachel Devine is a multi award-winning holistic aesthetician and the founder and skin care formulator of R Devine Organic Skin Care.