10 Toxic Chemicals to Avoid in Your Beauty Products

I started making natural beauty products when I realized just how many toxic chemicals were in my favorite mass-produced cosmetics. It’s incredible to me how much we can’t rely on the Food & Drug Administration to police the cosmetic industry here in the US. The European Union has banned over 1,300 chemicals from being used in cosmetics, compared to the FDA’s paltry 11. 

The 10 chemicals below — including formaldehyde, people!! — are not currently banned by the FDA. Thankfully, we have resources like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database, where you can read more about the chemicals below (and many others), plus toxicity ratings for over 60,000 beauty products. I’ve included their ratings of each ingredient below — 0 is harmless and 10 is highly hazardous. Do yourself a favor and chuck out any beauty products that contain these:

1. BUTYLATES (BHA & BHT) — These endocrine-disrupting preservatives are found in food and beauty products, including cereals, cookies, shaving creams, deodorants, and antiperspirants. According to its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), prolonged exposure to or repeated ingestion of BHT may affect the liver, kidneys, thyroid, and central nervous system. EWG Score: 6-7

2. COAL TAR — Derived from burning coal, coal tar is primarily used as a colorant in hair dyes and textiles. It contains a mix of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chemical compounds deemed by the EPA to be environmental pollutants and carcinogens. This might be hidden in ingredient labels as tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, or petroleum benzin. EWG Score: 10

3. ETHANOLAMINES (DEA, MEA, TEA) — Ethanolamines are used in soaps, shampoos, lotions, paraffin waxes, and makeup as emulsifiers or foaming agents. These chemicals have been on lists of known carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program for decades. Look out for ingredients that say DEA, MEA, and/or TEA, especially cocamide DEA and diethanolamine. EWG Score: 5-10

4. FORMALDEHYDE — Used in many nail polishes, hair-straightening treatments, and nail and eyelash glues, formaldehyde is most infamous as an embalming chemical. If that’s not enough to creep you out, it’s recognized as a human carcinogen by the United States National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But the FDA still permits it and many formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) in our beauty products. Look out for FRPs quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) on labels. EWG Score: 10

5. FRAGRANCE — If you see the word “fragrance” or “parfum” on a beauty label, with no description of what’s in that fragrance, put it down and walk away. Because fragrance recipes are considered “trade secrets,” cosmetic manufacturers do not have to disclose what’s in their fragrances. Many of them are created from petrochemicals and contain phthalates (see below). Fragrance oils can irritate the skin, strip it of its natural protection, give the wearer headaches or asthma attacks, and have negative effects on the reproductive system. EWG Score: 8

6. OXYBENZONE — UV light inhibitor oxybenzone and its sibling benzophenone are common in sunscreens. The ironic thing about these two chemicals is that they cause photoallergic reactions — they release chemicals into your body, which sunlight converts into toxins, which your body then has to fight off. This will typically result in a rash or increase your chance of getting sunburn. EWG Score: 8

7. PARABENS — These tricky chemical preservatives sneak themselves into a lot of otherwise “natural” beauty products – even LUSH (I know, I’m heartbroken too). As endocrine disruptors, effects of continued paraben use are as mild as rashes and as lethal as cancer. Hundreds of scientific studies have linked parabens to cancer, and topical parabens have been found in human breast tumors. AVOID THEM AT ALL COSTS. They’ll show up on labels as butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. EWG Score: 7

8. PHTHALATES (DBP, DEHP, DEP & DMP) Endocrine disruptors commonly found in manmade fragrances and nail polishes. The most common is dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a plastisizer that prevents nail polishes from becoming brittle. The European Union classifies DBP as very toxic to aquatic organisms. In humans, DBP has shown to cause developmental defects and impair fertitlity. EWG RATING: 10

9. TALC Primarily found in baby and body powders, talc (talcum powder) is similar in compesition to asbestos and can even be contaminated with asbestiform fibers, which are rated 7 by EWG. This poses a risk of respiratory toxicity and cancer. Even non-asbestos talc has shown to be toxic and carcinogenic. EWG Score: 3-7

10. TRICLOSAN You’ll find this in many antibacterial gels, hand washes, and lotions, even though the EPA has registered it as a pesticide. Scientific studies have shown triclosan to be an endocrine disruptor even at very low doses. EWG Score: 7

Want to learn more about how to avoid toxic chemicals in your cosmetics, and how to make your own 100% natural, 100% safe beauty products at home? Get my eBook, DIY Natural Beauty on a Budget.