Chemicals in Your Beauty Products You Should Actually Avoid

In a twist of irony, products geared toward beauty often have some pretty ugly ingredients lurking inside. While many harmful chemicals are banned by federal regulations, a large amount are still permitted, leaving it up to the consumer to learn what to avoid.

While this process of self-education can feel daunting, a few simple tips can help you focus on the most salient chemicals to avoid. Read on for the tools you need to shop smarter, look and feel your best, and protect your health in the long run.

Chemicals to Avoid

The term “chemical” gets a bad rap, but as you might recall from that old periodic table in science class, chemicals are simply a fact of the environment and everyday life. While some chemicals are harmless, others are genuinely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. To help you make smart decisions when it comes to selecting beauty and wellness products, here’s a quick guide to the chemicals you should avoid:

  • Sulfates

One of the top offenders among chemicals to avoid are sulfates, a common component of shampoos. Most often used as a foaming agent, sulfates can also be found in toothpaste, household soaps, and detergents. It’s important to stick to sulfate-free hair care products, which are often labeled “SLS-free” on packaging. Sulfates can act as an irritant to skin and eyes, and can even affect the respiratory system.

  • Parabens

A number of studies have linked parabens to breast cancer, making this an especially important chemical to steer clear of. Frequently found in deodorants, lotions, and cosmetics, parabens function as endocrine disruptors, which means that they can alter the hormonal balance in the body, potentially leading to a host of undesirable side effects.

  • Phthalates

Aside from being annoyingly hard to pronounce, phthalates can also do a number on your internal body chemistry. Much like parabens, phthalates are endocrine disruptors, placing them in a dangerous category alongside other hormone-altering substances. Commonly found in products like nail polish and fragrances, phthalates are traditionally used to preserve the consistency of plastic.

  • Formaldehyde

Believe it or not, the same substance used to preserve dead bodies and make construction materials is still used in a number of popular beauty products. The American Cancer Society has linked formaldehyde to cancer in both animals and humans. Needless to say, despite its value in a variety of industries, formaldehyde has no business being near your skin.

  • Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

A frequent ingredient in lotions, masques, sunscreen, tanning cream, and other beauty products with a texture on the thicker side, polyethylene glycol (or PEG) can artificially alter the moisture composition of the skin. Another major issue with PEG is that it’s often contaminated with carcinogenic substances like ethylene oxide.

  • Mineral Oil

Amid the sneakiest ingredients to avoid, mineral oil sounds like it might be harmless at worst and beneficial at best. But mineral oil can have a negative impact on skin health, first by clogging pores and then by impeding the body’s ability to expel toxins. As Jennifer Lawrence’s facialist goes on to explain in Allure, “It’s derived from petroleum and does not absorb into the skin – its molecular size is simply too big. As a result, mineral oil remains on the surface of skin, making it a reflector of the sun, which can lead to more sun damage and discoloration.”

  • Diethanolamine (DEA)

Among the worst offenders in cosmetic ingredients, Diethanolamine (often abbreviated to DEA) is another beauty product ingredient that’s been linked to cancer. Originally intended for industrial uses, it’s often found in cosmetics, hair care products, and cleansing products like body wash and bubble bath. Remarkably, DEA is still a legal ingredient in many parts of the world, including the U.S. and Canada. (A list of DEA variations you might find on labels can be found on the FDA website.)

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it offers a good jumping off point for those interested in making more informed decisions and safeguarding their health. Below, we’ll take a closer look at a few key tips for selecting the right products.

Tips for Shopping Online and In-Store

Given the profusion of options available both in-store and online, choosing the best beauty and wellness products might feel like a daunting task. Fortunately, there are a number of hacks that can help you find what you need with minimal hassle. Here are a few essential tips to help you get started:

  • Always read the label. Legally, beauty products are required to list their ingredients right on the packaging. Take advantage of this transparency in order to stay informed.
  • Keep your smartphone handy. A quick internet search will allow you to look up ingredients you don’t recognize on the spot, a good habit to get into for avoiding chemicals that might be harmful to your health.
  • Look for the Leaping Bunny symbol. The Leaping Bunning certification is awarded to hair care, skin care, and cosmetic products that pass a rigorous set of standards for cruelty-free formulation. The symbol appears on products that have received the certification, typically in the vicinity of the ingredient list (you can get a peek of what it looks like here). For tech-savvy shoppers, Leaping Bunny also offers an app.
  • Review your medicine cabinet. Set aside some time to take a closer look at the products you already own. From shampoos and conditioners to toners and moisturizers, deodorants and shaving creams to toothpaste and mouthwash, leave no stone (or product) unturned. As you work your way through your makeup bag and medicine cabinet, keep your computer handy and spend a few minutes researching anything you don’t understand. While this might take a little time, it’s well worth the effort.
  • When in doubt, ask. As you review your favorite beauty products, you might find that a particular brand you enjoy uses the same chemical in several of its products. If you have a question, or if you’re not sure about a particular product or ingredient, consider reaching out to the brand’s customer service department. Beauty and wellness companies have a responsibility to their customers, and a number of brands (particularly those with nothing to hide) will be more than happy to address your concerns.

Clean Up Your Beauty Routine

As you set out to purify your beauty regimen, there are a number of valuable resources that can help you make informed decisions about which beauty products you choose to use. PETA’s Beauty Without Bunnies campaign offers a searchable database of cruelty-free cosmetic companies. Likewise, the EWG Skin Deep Cosmetics Database allows you to search by ingredient or brand, with details on potential toxins in the products you use.

By adding a bit of research to your beauty routine, you’ll be well on your way to your most beautiful self, both inside and out.