The Dirty Dozen: 12 Ingredients We Avoid & So Should You

12 Ingredients to Avoid in Your Skincare Products


We’ve come a long way from Victorian practices of washing the face with ammonia, painting the face with lead, and even ingesting arsenic to achieve translucent skin. And yet, many of our cosmetic products today are overflowing with equally harmful chemicals that science has only now caught up with.

Not everyone received the memo though. So before reaching out for that anti-aging moisturizer beckoning from a sparkly shelf, make sure to read the fine print first to steer clear of ingredients that should not touch your skin, like the following:

Usually found in skin lighteners, mercury can sneak up on you. Check the label to make sure no ingredient starts with “merc-” or disguises as “calomel,” the fancy name for mercurious chloride. Mercury has long been associated with kidney damage, memory loss (as mercury accumulates in the brain), and among pregnant women, irreversible damage to the fetus in the form of congenital abnormalities and physical deformities.
Also used for lightening skin because it inhibits melanin production (which gives your skin its dark color), hydroquinone has long been an effective antidote against hyperpigmentation. Long-term studies reveal, however, that prolonged use of hydroquinone could damage your pigment cells. In fact, as the amount of melanin in your skin decreases, your risk to UVA and UVB exposure increases.

Parabens are great at their work as preservatives because they prevent the growth of yeast, bacteria and mold in cosmetic products. But parabens have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Recent studies found that parabens, when used in combination with growth hormones normally found in breast tissue, trigger a powerful effect on cancer cells.


Phthalates are often used in moisturizers, perfumes, lotions, hair spray and nail polish. They act as plastic softeners, but in the body, they function as endocrine disruptors leading to reproductive birth defects. They have also been associated with increased risk of breast cancer.

Formaldehyde may do an excellent job in laboratories as preservatives, but don’t let it touch your skin. (In fact, occupational hazards linked to formaldehyde include nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers.) The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens considers it a human carcinogen and harmful to the immune system.

Triclosan works as an antiseptic and disinfectant, and is also good at making bacteria antibiotic-resistant, starting a vicious cycle that could eventually create super-bacteria immune to any effort to wipe them out. More than that, triclosan is a human health hazard, disrupting thyroid and reproductive hormones.

Have you heard of trinitrotoluene? What about TNT? Yes, that very same nitrogen compound mainly used as explosive. Even if you were fine with that, you may want to reconsider using any beauty product containing toluene as exposure to vapors may cause fetal defects. If you can’t find toluene in the ingredient list, look for fancy substitute names like benzene, toluol or phenylmethane.

The American environmental organization Environmental Working Group says that oxybenzone may mimic hormone activity in the body, according to a laboratory study conducted on rats. The American Academy of Dermatology, however, disagrees, citing that there is no definitive data that oxybenzone affects human health. Nonetheless, be cautious around oxybenzone, a major ingredient in sunscreen, as it may irritate sensitive skin.

Dioxane is a manufacturing by-product found in detergents, emulsifiers and foaming agents. The EWG considers it a possible human carcinogen. It may not appear as dioxane by itself but be wary of products listing PEGs, sulfates and dimethicone as they may be carriers of this ingredient.

Coal Tar
The name doesn’t have a nice marketing ring to it, so you might want to make sure the label does not contain aminophenol, phenylenediamine or diaminobenzene. This ingredient is usually found in shampoo and hair dye, and has long been identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a human carcinogen.

Ever wonder what makes cosmetic products sudsy or creamy? That’s what diethanolamine and its compounds do. Not only does it cause mild skin and eye irritation, in high doses it can cause pre-cancerous changes in the liver, thyroid and skin. It can also be damaging to fetal development as it deprives the unborn with choline, which is crucial for brain development.

You would think that after more than 100 years, we’d learn our lesson. But lead continues to be a major ingredient in cosmetics, most recently found in scary dosages in lipstick. Lead is a heavy metal and therefore any level of lead in the body is considered unsafe because it could lead to poisoning over time.

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