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In-depth, informed beauty reviews and advice from a professional makeup artist & lover of all things natural and organic

  • Writer's pictureShelley Scott


In my previous post I shared some of the online resources I use to investigate skincare & makeup ingredients to find out how safe and how effective they are. In this post I thought I'd just do a quick summary for anyone who is new to ingredients-investigation about some of the most common questionable ingredients to look out for.

I think you could spend your entire life delving into the research behind these ingredients and find arguments on both sides about their toxicity or how irritating to skin they are. But, for anyone who prefers to err on the side of caution and wants to avoid any ingredients that have a bad rap altogether, then hopefully this will be helpful.

Rather than list all of the associated dangers & research behind each ingredient, I've tried just to include a little summary and if you'd like to find out more about any of them, use my previous post 'Know your ingredients part 1' to find online resources that go into greater detail about cosmetic ingredients.

If you really can't be bothered to read labels & research products then at a very basic level my top 3 to avoid would be products containing fragrance / parfum (particularly if you have sensitive skin), parabens and SLS / SLES (see below) and there's also the 'Think Dirty' app which you can download to your phone & just scan products to tell you about their ingredients. Although they can't possibly review all products on the market, it's a good place to start combined with the list below.

Hope you find it useful x

* This list is not exhaustive!

Parabens: Widely used preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast in cosmetic products associated with increased risk of breast cancer. The ingredient will be listed with the word paraben on the end e.g. methyparaben.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) / Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES): Found in more than 90 percent of personal care and cleaning products (think foaming products) and are linked to a whole host of medical problems and diseases.

Fragrance / Parfum: In almost everything & often associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.

Synthetic colours: FD&C or D&C on labels represent artificial colors. Deemed by many a human carcinogenic.

Phthalates: The main phthalates in cosmetics are dibutyl phthalate in nail polish, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, and dimethyl phthalate in hair spray. They have been been linked to increased risk of breast cancer. Unfortunately, it is not disclosed on every product as it’s often added to fragrances

Triclosan: Usually in toothpastes, antibacterial soaps & deodorants. Some studies suggest it contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRP’s): Deemed as a human carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC)


Toluene: A petrochemical derived from petroleum or coal tar sources. You may see it on labels listed as benzene, toluol, phenylmethane, methylbenzene. Toluene is a potent solvent able to dissolve paint and paint thinner.

Propylene glycol: Associated with causing dermatitis as well as hives in humans

Sunscreen chemicals: Suggested to be endocrine disruptors (chemicals that can interfere with your hormones) and also potentially cause cellular damage and cancer in the body. Often listed as benzophenone, PABA, avobenzone, homosalate and ethoxycinnmate.

Oxybenzone: Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens that accumulates in fatty tissues and is linked to allergies, hormone disruption, cellular damage, low birth weight.

Lead: Known carcinogen found in lipstick and hair dye, but never listed because it’s a contaminant, not an ingredient.

Mercury: Known allergen that has been lined to impaired brain development. Found in mascara and some eyedrops.

Mineral oil: By-product of petroleum that’s used in baby oil, moisturizers, styling gels. It creates a film that supposedly impairs the skin’s ability to release toxins.

Coal Tar: Used in dry skin treatments, anti-lice and anti-dandruff shampoos, also listed as a colour plus number, i.e. FD&C Red No. 6.

DEA/TEA/MEA: Suspected carcinogens used as emulsifiers and foaming agents for shampoos, body washes, soaps.

Ethoxylated surfactants and 1,4-dioxane: Never listed because it’s a by-product made from adding carcinogenic ethylene oxide to make other chemicals less harsh. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found 1,4-dioxane in 57 percent of baby washes in the U.S. Avoid any ingredients containing the letters "eth."

Hydroquinone: Used for lightening skin and becoming a trendy 'ingredient' in dark spot treatments. Rated most toxic on the EWG’s Skin Deep database, and linked to cancer and reproductive toxicity.

Phthalates: Plasticizers banned in the EU and California in children’s toys, but present in many fragrances, perfumes, deodorants, lotions. Linked to endocrine disruption, liver/kidney/lung damage, cancer.

Polyethylene glycol (PEG): Penetration enhancer used in many products, it’s often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, both known carcinogens.

Talc: Similar to asbestos in composition, it’s found in baby powder, eye shadow, blush, deodorant. Linked to ovarian cancer and respiratory problems.

Titanium Dioxide: A possible carcinogenic

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA): A preservative banned in the EU. Concerns about organ-system toxicity and endocrine disruption.

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