Stay Away From These: Harmful Ingredients in Cosmetic Products

We have all read those mile-long ingredient lists on the back of our facial creams or shampoos. But how much of it do we actually understand? What is harmful, what shouldn’t be there, what to avoid? You don’t need to be a certified chemist to answer all those questions. What you need to do is read our guide on the top most harmful ingredients in skincare and haircare products and have it handy for your next shopping trip.

Let’s start our list with the most common ingredient everyone has heard about:

  1. Parabens

Even though most people have heard the word and the slogan “Paraben-Free” has been widely used in advertisements, not everyone knows what parabens actually are or how can they be harmful to you. Parabens are a chemical compound used to preserve cosmetic products fresh and prevent them from collecting various bacteria. According to a 2004 research, parabens have been found in breast cancer tumor cells. Further investigations on the matter by the FDA and the European regulation organs deemed parabens safe to use in the current small amount. Even though parabens don’t actually cause cancer, they can cause irritations and allergic reactions for people with sensitive skin.

Word of advice: On labels, parabens can be listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, parahydroxybenzoate. Be sure to read carefully the names of the ingredients.

  1. PEG

PEG is a much more obscure term. It stands for polyethylene glycol which is a mixture of ingredients that result in a thick and sticky liquid. In cosmetics, PEGs are used for three main purposes – to lubricate and soften the skin, to help other ingredients penetrate deeper, and to help oil and water-based mixtures blend better together. Of the three, the most significant for human health effect of PEGs, is their penetration power. How can that be harmful to you? PEGs are used to enhance the absorption of different substances and carry them deeper into the skin. Those substances, though, may include bacteria and different contaminants. Research has determined that PEGs are especially dangerous when applied over broken or injured skin. During the creation process of polyethylene glycol, there is a high risk of contaminating the substance with other toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and poisonous gases. All of those can be carried deep into your skin and absorbed by your organism resulting in a series of health problems.

Word of advice: On labels, PEGs are listed as such usually followed by a number. It can be PEG-2, PEG-5, PEG-40, and so on. The best advice we can give you is to avoid PEGs at all costs, no matter how big or small the number is.

  1. Formaldehyde

After decades of research, the toxic side of this substance is well known. Consumers these days are aware of the carcinogenic effects the gas can have. And yet, formaldehyde-releasing ingredients are still used in small amounts in the cosmetic industry to act as barriers against the development of various bacteria. In small amounts, exposure to this gas is harmless. However, except in cosmetic products, formaldehyde can be found in other places like plants, food, smoke. That makes it a tricky task to calculate the exact amount of exposure to it a person receives daily. That’s why it’s best avoided whenever possible.

Word of advice: It is very rare to see the word “formaldehyde” written on a label as such. Instead, you may stumble upon words like bronopol, quaternium-15, diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea. These are all names of substances slowly releasing formaldehyde over time.

  1. Sulphates/ Sulfates

Sulfates are what make your shower gel so soft and leathery, gliding against your skin and filling the bathroom with colorful bubbles. They make your hair squeak from cleanliness. Basically, sulfates can be found in all washing cosmetic products. Yes, in toothpaste, too. And despite their undisputable cleaning properties, sulfates have many unwanted side effects. They are irritating for the eyes, nose, mouth. They are quite abrasive stripping away the skin’s natural oily barrier and leaving it open for various bacterial infections. They are very dehydrating, making the skin dry and flaky and the hair brittle and frizzy. They have been known to cause allergic reactions and clog pores, making the skin prone to acne.

Word of advice: Sometimes, manufacturers use abbreviations instead of complicated names on the labels. For example, SLS is Sodium Lauryl Sulphate. SLES is Sodium Laureth Sulphate. There are a few other sulfate ingredients used widely in cosmetics and their names all start with the word Sodium: Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate, Sodium Lauroyl Isoethionate, Sodium Lauroyl Taurate, Sodium Cocoyl Isoethionate, Sodium Lauroyl Methyl Isoethionate, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate. You don’t need to remember them all. Keep it as a rule of thumb to avoid labels listing sodium-starting ingredients.

  1. Synthetic colors

Artificial colors are everywhere. Food, medicine, cosmetic products, household cleaning supplies, candles… the list can go on and on and it will become very long and very scary. Synthetic coloring uses different chemical compounds to reach the desired color. A color like purple has up to 50 different chemicals in it. Vivid and vibrant colors look attractive and, according to science, can even affect our moods. But there is a dark side to synthetic colors. They are often made using substances like tar, arsenic, lead, petroleum. The damage these can cause varies in degree from mild skin irritation, through clogged pores and outbreaks, to allergic reactions and the absorption of toxins directly in your organism causing much more serious health issues.

  1. Synthetic fragrances

Sometimes, a list of ingredients can contain just the word “perfume” or “fragrance”. While that is not disturbing to read, you should know that behind a simple word like “fragrance” hides a blend of various chemicals used to give the product its specific scent. And the chemicals used in that blend can be harmful and have a serious impact on the body. Acetaldehyde is one chemical compound used in creating a scent. But the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as potentially carcinogenic for humans and it has been known to affect the nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems as well as the kidneys. Phthalates are another group of chemical compounds known to have a disruptive effect on the endocrine system. As well as harmful to people, phthalates are very harmful to the environment, too.

Word of advice: It is almost impossible to list all the chemicals that are used in creating artificial aromas in one article. The truth is that regulation over that matter from all responsible organs is almost non-existent yet. The best way to avoid products with potentially harmful artificial scents is to stay away if there’s no additional information on the label beside the words “fragrance” or “perfume”.

This is our list of top 6 ingredients to avoid at all costs when shopping for personal care products. And because we know many names are difficult to remember, we’ve gone and created a printable table for you which you can download and use every time you are not sure about a product or ingredient. Stay healthy, stay safe.