Fact Checked
Fact Checked

This NativePath content is medically reviewed or fact-checked to ensure factually accurate information.

With strict editorial sourcing guidelines, we only link to academic research institutions, reputable media sites, and, when research is available, medically peer-reviewed studies. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to these studies.

The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace that of a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice.

9 Toxic Ingredients Lurking in Your Skin Care Products

We live in a world where we’re constantly assaulted by toxins. Never before have we been exposed to so many different types in a day. Which is why it’s essential to take care of one of your biggest detoxifying organs – your skin.

Your skin is your body’s first line of defense against illness and disease. And it’s one of the major ways your body gets rid of the buildup of toxins. But if your skin is constantly overloaded by toxic ingredients in your skin care products, it makes it hard for it to do its job.[1]

From the time you get up in the morning and start your routine, you use anywhere from 9 to 15 personal care products. That adds up to about 168 ingredients according to a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).[2]

But the number of products you use each day isn’t the issue. It’s the number of toxic ingredients in those skin care products.

Do you know the worst offenders hiding in your products?

Here are the top 9 toxins you need to protect you and your family from most.

9 Ingredients to Avoid in Your Skin Care Products

1. Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)

    Do you know that sudsy lather you get when you wash your hair?

    This classic “soapy” feel is caused by sulfates. Sulfates are harsh chemical detergents that break up oil and grease. You’ll find conflicting information about how harmful sulfates are to your health. But they can irritate your skin, eyes, and lungs. Sulfates can also make oily skin even oilier, causing breakouts. And dry skin even drier, causing contact dermatitis and eczema.[3]  

    Studies also show that SLES – formulated to be less harsh than SLS – is created by combining SLS with the chemical ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen. This combo produces a toxic compound called 1,4-dioxane. 1,4-dioxane can cause a wide range of health issues like liver and kidney damage, reproductive dysfunction, and breast cancer.[4] But you won’t find this ingredient listed on your labels because it’s considered a byproduct of manufacturing, and so the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require it.[5]

    Here’s the thing: SLS and SLES are not vital ingredients in products for them to be effective. We’ve just gotten used to that lathery feel! So, look for ones that say “sulfate-free,” especially if your skin is dry or oily.

    SLS and SLES are found in:

    • Shampoo and conditioner
    • Body wash
    • Face cleansers
    • Cosmetics
    • Shaving cream
    • Toothpaste
    • Sunscreen

    2. Phthalates

    Up next are some of the worst offenders – phthalates.

    Phthalates are a group of synthetic chemicals found in hundreds of products. They’re used to make your fragrances last longer, moisturize and soften your skin, and keep nail polish from cracking. While those sound like benefits, they come with serious risks. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, and they may damage your reproductive system by messing with your hormones.[6], [7]

    But be careful when you check product ingredients because they may not list phthalates. Companies have found a loophole.[8] They’re able to simply list “fragrance” as one of the ingredients. And fragrances often contain phthalates – but unless you know that, you could be exposing yourself to phthalates without realizing it. It’s best to look for products that actually say “phthalate-free” to be sure you’re avoiding them.

    Phthalates are found in:

    • Soap
    • Shampoos and conditioners
    • Fragrances
    • Body wash
    • Hair care products
    • Color cosmetics
    • Nail polish and treatments

    3. Parabens

      Parabens are used because they’re cheap, not because they’re good for your skin.

      Parabens are a group of chemicals used as preservatives. They’re added to prevent mold and extend the shelf life of products.

      As you can imagine, preservatives aren’t good for your highly absorbent skin!

      Parabens are also a synthetic compound called xenoestrogens that mimic the estrogen your body produces.[9] And they’re endocrine disruptors. Parabens harm reproductive organs in both men and women. And they’re linked to breast cancer.[10]

      Studies show that when parabens combine with your body’s natural human growth factor, heregulin, they become 100 times more potent. This combination can cause breast cancer cells to grow rapidly.[11]

      Parabens are found in:

      • Face moisturizers
      • Shampoo and conditioner
      • Cosmetics
      • Lotions
      • Sunscreen
      • Hair care products

      4. Synthetic fragrances

        You want to smell good. I get it. We all do. But the thing is, there’s actually nothing good about synthetic fragrances.

        Synthetic fragrances are one of the most common contact allergens. The problem is, there’s no way for you to know what’s causing the allergy. There can be as many as 200 different chemicals in just one fragrance. And the fragrance industry has a stock of 3,100 chemical ingredients made from artificial materials and compounds – often petrochemicals.[12]

        Petrochemicals are made from petroleum, which is crude oil. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be putting anything with crude oil on my skin. Your skin absorbs these toxic chemicals from your products. So they can accumulate in your body and cause all sorts of health issues from central nervous system disorders to cancer to hormone disruption. Especially concerning for pregnant women, the harmful effects of these chemicals in cosmetics and beauty products are linked to birth defects.[13]

        Synthetic fragrances are found in:

        • Lotions
        • Shampoo and conditioner
        • Sunscreen
        • Body spray and body wash
        • Perfume and cologne
        • Deodorant
        • Face cleansers and moisturizers
        • Cosmetics

        5. Triclosan and Triclocarban

          Triclosan and Triclocarban have gotten a bad rap recently – and for good reason.

          Triclosan and Triclocarban are used as an antimicrobial in your products. They’re also a known carcinogen and can cause reproductive and endocrine dysfunction.[14]

          There was a time when you could find these toxic chemicals in a ton of products. Fortunately, in 2016 – effective September 2017 – the FDA made a final ruling that products containing triclosan and triclocarban are no longer allowed to be marketed. It states that they’re “not generally recognized as safe and effective and are misbranded.” [15]

          Companies had a year to remove these toxic chemicals from their products or take them off the market. This means that if you bought any of your personal care products before September 2018, they could still have these toxic chemicals in them. So make sure to check those labels.

          Triclosan and Triclocarban are found in:

          • Hand sanitizers
          • Body wash
          • Soap
          • Shampoo and conditioner
          • Toothpaste
          • Deodorant
          • Shaving cream

          6. Formaldehyde

            Let’s keep this poisonous toxin in chemistry labs and out of our beauty cabinets.

            Formaldehyde is used as a preservative in products. It’s classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer – part of the World Health Organization.[16] Cancer researchers predict that one in three people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.[17] I know statistics like this are alarming but use them to motivate yourself to seriously reduce your exposure to carcinogens.

            One in five cosmetic products has formaldehyde or ingredients that release formaldehyde according to the FDA.[18] This makes it tricky to know if your products have formaldehyde in them because it’s not usually listed as “formaldehyde” in the ingredients. So you need to become a bit of a detective when reading those labels.

            Here’s a list from the EWG of seven harmful ingredients to look for: [19]

            • DMDM hydantoin
            • Imidazolidinyl urea
            • Diazolidinyl urea
            • Quaternium-15
            • Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)
            • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
            • Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate

            Formaldehyde is found in:

            • Shampoo and conditioner
            • Body wash
            • Lotion
            • Nail care products
            • Face cleansers and moisturizers
            • Hair care products

            7. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)

              Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene are two really long names that basically mean they make your products last longer.

              Both BHA and BHT are used as preservatives and antioxidants. They’re commonly used to extend the shelf life of personal care products. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that BHA and BHT are “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” [20]

              There’s also strong evidence that they can disrupt your endocrine system by messing with your hormones.[21] Some research says that BHA and BHT are toxic to your cells. Even with this research, there are still conflicting opinions about the safety of BHA and BHT.[22] But there’s enough to raise concern, so it’s probably best to avoid them or limit your exposure.

              BHA and BHT are found in:

              • Shampoo and conditioner
              • Face moisturizers and face masks
              • Face serums
              • Shaving cream
              • Fragrance

              8. Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA)

                DEA, TEA, and MEA often go hand-in-hand with sulfates, so if your products foam up, chances are you’ll find at least one of these chemicals in them.

                They’re harsh detergents used as emollients and thickening agents in cosmetics and skin care products. Similar to 1,4-dioxane, toxic impurities called nitrosamines form when DEA, TEA, or MEA mix with certain chemical ingredients.[23] You’ll find nitrosamines in just about every type of personal care product.

                Nitrosamines are irritating to your skin and cause allergic reactions. There’s also solid evidence linking nitrosamines to cancer and reproductive dysfunction. These toxins build up in the liver and bladder and cause chronic health issues.[24] One study shows that they may even interfere with the body’s ability to absorb choline, which is needed for fetal brain development.[25]

                DEA, TEA, and MEA are found in:

                • Soaps
                • Shampoos and conditioners
                • Lotion
                • Shaving cream
                • *Nitrosamines are found in nearly all products with synthetic ingredients

                9. Propylene glycol (PG)

                  Last, but certainly not least of the offenders you should avoid, is propylene glycol.

                  Propylene glycol is synthetic alcohol used in cosmetic and beauty products to enhance their conditioning effect. It helps your skin soak up the product – which also makes it easier for your skin to soak up toxins.[26] For some people, it can dry your skin out, similar to SLS and SLES.

                  There’s some controversy over just how harmful PG is to your health. Partly because it’s also an ingredient used in the non-toxic version of antifreeze.[27] And for me, that’s a very good reason to be leery about using products with PG on my skin. In small amounts, it can irritate your eyes, skin, and lungs. But in larger amounts, studies show that its toxic effect can cause damage to your central nervous system, liver, and kidneys.[28]

                  The research on the safety of PG is limited and conflicting. But there’s enough concern about its potentially harmful effects that you should add it to your list of skin care ingredients to avoid.

                  PG is found in:

                  • Face cleansers and moisturizers
                  • Shampoos and conditioners
                  • Sunscreen
                  • Hair gel
                  • Cosmetics

                  How Do Your Personal Care Products Rank?

                  The reality is, you can’t avoid every synthetic ingredient out there, but you can limit your exposure to them by knowing what ingredients to look for in skin care. If you’re ever in doubt about the ingredients in your products, check them out.

                  I like to use the Think Dirty app. All you have to do is scan the barcode of a product and it gives you helpful information about it. This is what my wife and I use to find our own personal care products. It’s a really easy way to find out if there are toxic ingredients in your products. And it gives you cleaner alternatives.

                  It’s good to be informed about what you put on your skin so you can make the best decisions for your health. Are you surprised by how many of these harmful toxins are in your personal care products?

                  Join our community today by signing up for our newsletter. It’s where you’ll get all my insider tips on healthy living – like the best non-toxic products for your skin – delivered right to your inbox!


                  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279255/

                  2. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/2004/06/15/exposures-add-up-survey-results/

                  3. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/706089/SODIUM_LAURETH_SULFATE/

                  4. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/dioxane.pdf

                  5. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-laws-regulations/fda-authority-over-cosmetics-how-cosmetics-are-not-fda-approved-are-fda-regulated

                  6. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/phthalates

                  7. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/2005/08/25/phthalates/

                  8. http://www.safecosmetics.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Not-So-Sexy-report.pdf

                  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4858398/

                  10. https://www.ewg.org/californiacosmetics/parabens

                  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4858398/

                  12. http://www.safecosmetics.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Not-So-Sexy-report.pdf

                  13. http://www.safecosmetics.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Not-So-Sexy-report.pdf

                  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404651/

                  15. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/09/06/2016-21337/safety-and-effectiveness-of-consumer-antiseptics-topical-antimicrobial-drug-products-for

                  16. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/formaldehyde.html

                  17. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics

                  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20236159

                  19. https://www.ewg.org/research/exposing-cosmetics-cover/formaldehyde-releasers

                  20. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles/butylatedhydroxyanisole.pdf

                  21. http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/700740/BHA/

                  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4462476/

                  23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404651/

                  24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4690057/

                  25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2430108/

                  26. http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/705315/PROPYLENE_GLYCOL/#

                  27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4341412/

                  28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4341412/

                  More Skin, Hair & Nails

                  popular articles

                  Medical Disclaimer
                  This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

                  Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

                  Comments must be approved before appearing