Ingredients I Always Avoid in Skincare Products

Skincare ingredients to avoid in products

I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile, mainly because the clean beauty space is getting grayer, not greener. The trend right now is definitely towards clean beauty which is fantastic because it’s so important and natural technology is getting better and better. But as with any trend, there are loads of clean beauty imposters that are entering the space and trying to capitalize on the movement, labeling themselves as “clean” “nontoxic” and “natural” when in fact the are anything but.

Any easy way to sleuth out the not-so-clean brands is to shop at natural beauty stores because they take so much time researching, trying and testing the brands that they carry to make sure they meet their standards. A few of my trusty clean beauty stores are Credo Beauty, The Detox Market, Shen Beauty, Goop and Follain. Most of these stores outline a distinctive list of “dirty ingredients” that they do not accept, not even in trace amounts. Trace ingredients are interesting too because they don’t need to be on the ingredient list that consumers see, even though they are in the product.

But what happens if there is a new brand you’re itching to try, but it’s not sold at one of those natural beauty stores? Although it can feel like science class all over again, it’s important to become familiar with ingredients that are commonly used in your skincare products as preservatives, emulsifiers and thickeners so you can better understand the good, the bad, and the just plain dirty. I’ve done hours and hours of research on ingredients while developing my clean beauty line MARA, so I want to share what I’ve learned along with the ingredients I try and avoid. I say try because like most, I’m still transitioning my routine over to clean beauty. I’m also developing products for MARA that I feel are lacking in the clean space, so I too am still guilty of letting some of the ingredients below slip into my routine. I hope you find this helpful! At the very least it’s good to be informed on what you’re slathering on your body + face. Also, here is a post on all of my favorite clean beauty products!

Animal By-Products

I prefer to use vegan beauty products (with the exception of honey and beeswax) which means I avoid anything with animal fats, oils or musks. I believe that we shouldn’t be using animals for our own vanity.

BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)

BHA is in a TON on skincare products. It’s a preservative (ie what makes your skincare not go rancid) but has also been linked to causing cancer, skin irritation and is a hormone disruptor. Technology has progressed so much and there are many other ways to preserve products without using this.

BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)

BHT is also in a lot of skincare products–it’s a Toluene-based preservative that can cause skin irritation.

Chemical SPFs

Hawaii has banned chemical SPFs because they are killing coral reefs–so just imagine how the rest of the ocean is doing? Millions of people lather up with chemical SPF before swimming in the sea. They’re also not good for us, chemical sunscreens work by absorbing and redirecting the sun’s rays instead of physically blocking them. Chemical SPFs include: Benzophenone, Diphenylmethanone; Diphenyl Ketone; 119-61-9; Benzoylbenzene; Phenyl Ketone; Oxybenzone; 2-Hydroxy-4 Methoxybenzophenone; 131-57-7; Benzophenone-3; (2-Hydroxy-4-Methoxyphenyl). Avobenzone is another chemical SPF that is popping up in brands like Supergoop and is being advertised as clean, but studies show that it might be even more harmful to our environment than Oxybenzone.


This pops up in ingredient lists as Calcium Disodium EDTA, Tetrasodium EDTA, Trisodium EDTA. EDTA is a chelating agent, which means that it binds with metal ions or metallic compounds to prevent them from adhering to a surface (such as skin, hair, or clothing) or causing contamination. EDTA isn’t linked to many human health issues but this ingredient poses a threat to aquatic life because they don’t breakdown and are found in waterways, which is why it’s a no no for me + MARA.


Appears on labels as: DEA/TEA/MEA/ETA. Often contaminated with nitrosamines which are linked to cancer.

Ethylene Oxide

This one is a doozy because there are a ton of ingredients that are synthetically produced using Ethylene Oxide, which is a known carcinogen! 1,4-Dioxane, another well known carcinogen, often contaminates the Ethoxylated ingredients, but 1,4-Dioxane itself doesn’t appear on ingredient labels (remember those trace ingredients I was talking about?) To avoid Ethoxylated compounds look for these common ingredients listed on labels:

  • Ceteareth-20: This is the Polyethylene Glycol Ether of Cetearyl Alcohol and may contain potentially toxic impurities such as 1,4-Dioxane
  • Emulsifying wax: This is usually a blend of Cetearyl Alcohol and Polysorbate 60 or Ceteareth-20
  • PEGS, including PEG (Polyethylene Glycol) compounds, like PEG-100 Stearate, PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, PEG-40, and its related chemicals. (There are over 1000 PEG ingredients listed in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetics Ingredients Database)
  • Polysorbate-20, Polysorbate-40
  • Steareth-20
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES), Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, and most ingredients ending in “-eth” these are sulfates and use harsh chemicals to bind to dirt and grime to remove it.


Okay, formaldehyde should be a no brainer–it’s been banned by the EU and poses a bevy of human health risks. However formaldehyde is rarely listed as an ingredient, but Formaldehyde “releasers” or “donors” are often listed on ingredient labels. Stay away from:

  • Dmdm Hydantoin
  • Diazolidinyl Urea
  • Imidazolidinyl Urea
  • Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin
  • Quaternium-15
  • Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate
  • 2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-Diol
  • Polyoxymethylene Urea
  • 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3 Dioxane
  • Glyoxal
  • Methenamine
  • Benzylhemiformal



This one is hard because who doesn’t love things that smell good! When you see the word fragrance listed on a product, that word alone can have up to 1000 other ingredients connected with it, many of which are synthetic and not safe. There are such things as natural fragrances and I always opt for those instead!


Glycols are very popular in mainstream skincare formulations. On the label as Polypropylene, Propylene, polyethylene glycols and Butylene Glycol. These are synthetic chemicals used to attract moisture to the skin, and help keep products stable. I avoid ALL PEGs. PEGs are commonly found in products claiming to be clean and natural, but PEGs (which stands for polyethylene glycols) are petroleum-based compounds that are widely used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers. It’s very hard to ensure that these aren’t contaminated with other ingredients like ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, both of which pose some serious health risks and because polyethylene glycols enhance the ability of these toxins to penetrate skin, it’s that much easier for them to enter your bloodstream.


This ingredient inhibits melanin synthesis and typically pops up in products that aim to lighten skin (like lightening dark spots.) However hydroquinone can irritate the skin and cause even more discoloration and is also a metabolite of the carcinogen benzene.

Methyl Cellosolve or 2-Methyloxyethanol

The EU has a pretty good pulse on what’s terrible for us, so when they ban an ingredient, I listen. This is one of them– a solvent that is commonly used as an additive in fragrances that can have negative effects on our central nervous systems, blood, bone marrow, kidneys and liver!

Methylisothiazolinone & Methylchloroisothiazolinone

Another set banned in the EU for leave on cosmetics and only allowed in small doses for rinse off products. They’re toxic to the nervous system and can cause skin allergies.


These are very interesting to me. Nano-sized ingredients are just like they sound, super super small and ultra fine, which sounds amazing with skincare… right? The scary part is that these nanoparticles are so small, they can pass through permeable membranes in our bodies, which means they can cross over easily into our brain and other organs. I’m interested in learning more about these ingredients to see if there are positive nanoparticle ingredients that benefit our skin + drift into our other organs and benefit those as well. But for now, they’re a no. Look for them on ingredient lists as: Nano-sized Zinc or Titanium Dioxide, Fullerenes, Nanotubes, Liposomes, and Quantum Dots.


Easily one of the more buzzy clean beauty words right now, parabens are another synthetic preservative used to prevent mold and bacteria from growing. Many parabens are linked to hormone disruption and can pop up in products as: Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben.

Petroleum and Paraffin

My theory, if it belongs in a car then it shouldn’t be anywhere near your face. Easy enough, right? Petrolatum is a semisolid mixture derived from processed petroleum. Mineral Oil, Paraffin Wax, Liquid Paraffin, and several other ingredients are also petroleum distillation byproducts. The concerns with these ingredients are unsustainable sourcing and possible PAHs contamination. PAHs (which stands for Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons) are linked to cancer.


Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products, such as toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils… and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes and other fragrance preparations. OMG gross right. They help reduce nail polish from cracking, make hair spray feel less rigid and are a common solvent in fragrances. Certain phthalates like Dibutyl Phthalate, aka DBP, or DEHP, and DEP appear on product labels, but most typically remain unlisted, hiding under the term “fragrance.


I have a problem with silicones, usually on an ingredient list as Dimethicone. These tend to be found in many smoothing products like primers and foundations and I truly believe they are a big reason why people suffer from breakouts. Silicones are known to “improve” skin texture–they fill in wrinkles and pores and help dry hair but in my opinion, it’s like putting a coat of wax on your face. Silicones clog pores! They also don’t biodegrade well and are no bueno for our environment.


A solvent that is toxic to our immune systems, can cause birth defects and is normally in nail polishes.

Triclosan and Triclocarban

A common antibacterial and preservative that doesn’t break down in the environment and is linked to hormone disruption.

Remember green beauty is a journey and it’s about finding products with efficacy. And also just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s necessarily amazing for you or better than something that’s synthetic. I’ll be doing a post on safe synthetics soon so stay tuned!

Okay that ends my rant on dirty ingredients. Do you use clean beauty products? Let me know your favorites below!


You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *