A few weeks ago, we brought you a list of five dangerous ingredients you should avoid in your skincare products. Unfortunately, and mostly because the cosmetics and skincare industries are largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there are many more than just five ingredients to beware of in popular drugstore products.
As noted in our previous list, the United States is actually pretty far behind the rest of the world when it comes to consumer protections against dangerous ingredients. That leaves the onus on us as consumers to remain vigilant about the ingredients that are in the products we buy. We must stay informed and use our spending habits to press companies to voluntarily remove these dangerous ingredients from their products.
To help you make more informed decisions about the products you’re buying, here are five more no-no ingredients to look out for next time you’re shopping in the cosmetics or skincare aisles.
The bad guy: Phthalates
Why it’s a no-no: These are softeners found in skin and hair care products, but the same ingredient is also used to make flexible plastic found in popular kids’ toys. Studies suggest they affect the body’s ability to regulate hormone production, namely impaired testosterone production. In 2008, Congress passed legislation to limit the amount of phthalates that can be in kids’ toys, but — believe it or not — they’re still common ingredients in our skincare products. Oftentimes, they’re hidden within the “fragrance” on a product’s ingredient list, so they might not be explicitly listed on labels.
What to look for: Unfortunately, these are tough ones to identify. Products that contain “fragrance” or “parfum” are likely to contain phthalates, as well as recyclable plastics 3 and 7. These chemicals can be sneaky, but luckily, many companies are caving to consumer pressure to ditch the harmful chemicals. Look for products that specifically are labeled “no phthalates,” ”phthalate-free,” or “no synthetic fragrance.”
The bad guy: Butylated Hydroxyanisole
Why it’s a no-no: This is a preservative that’s found in many fragrances and cosmetics, as well as exfoliating skincare products. However, these chemicals are known to be associated with endocrine disruption, organ-system toxicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity, cancer, and irritation, especially in pregnant women and children.
What to look for: Beware of misleading labels! Sometimes these chemicals hide behind abbreviations like BHA or BHT on product labels. Don’t get confused between Beta Hydroxyl Acid, another kind of BHA, which is a type of gentle natural exfoliant! Steer clear of products that contain these artificial preservatives; there are plenty of safe, natural alternatives on the market, like rosemary CO2 extract, vitamin E, or grapefruit seed extract.
The bad guy: Triclosan and trilocarban
Why it’s a no-no: Antibacterial soaps are great for clearing up and preventing breakouts on acne-prone skin. However, synthetic antibacterial chemicals can actually cause hormonal imbalances, bacterial resistance (which can lead to the development of superbugs), muscular and immune system impairment, and allergic reactions. These chemicals are so bad that the FDA actually banned them in over-the-counter products (though there are exemptions for products used in hospitals and food service).
What to look for: The FDA ban went into effect in 2016 and gave companies a year to phase trilocarban out of their products, so by now, consumers should be in the clear. Oftentimes, you can easily replace synthetic antibacterial soaps and scrubs with natural substitutions (like tea tree oil). But if you’re in charge of a food service establishment or a hospital setting, make sure you read the labels of the cleaning products you buy. You wouldn’t want to inadvertently expose your customers or patients to chemicals known to be dangerous. Luckily, these ingredients are normally labeled by name, so you don’t have to worry about code names or deceptive wording.
The bad guy: Hydroquinone
Why it’s a no-no: This is a common ingredient in skin bleaching products and shouldn’t be used without consulting a doctor first. It’s a common irritant, and can cause burning, stinging, redness, or dryness for users. Some patients even experience blistering, cracking, or ochronosis, which is the permanent disfiguration and darkening of the skin that results in a blue-black hue. Some unregulated, imported skin lighteners even contain mercury, which is poisonous and extra dangerous during pregnancy.
What to look for: This ingredient goes by a few different names. Look out for skin lighteners that contain “mercury,” “calomel,” “mercurio,” or “mercurio chloride.” If you want to lighten your skin, safety is the most important thing. Even after examining the ingredients of your products, to ensure this process is carried out safely, be sure to consult your dermatologist before moving forward with any treatment regimen.
The bad guy: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Why it’s a no-no: It’s fun to see your products foam and suds before your eyes, right? We get it, but SLS is a surfactant that’s often added to products just to have this affect, and it’s actually a harmful irritant and allergen. It’s derived from ethoxylated lauryl alcohol and in some cases, may be contaminated with potentially toxic manufacturing impurities such as 1,4-dioxane. Some companies claim you shouldn’t stress over SLS, but according to the EWG, it’s considered a hazard that’s been linked to organ toxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, skin irritation and even cancer.
What to look for: SLS is in everything from toothpaste and bubble bath to shampoo and laundry detergent. Some products will be labeled “SLS free”, but there’s a laundry list of ways SLS can be listed on ingredient lists, including as “dodecyloxy”, “polyethylene glycol”, and “Dodecyl sodium sulfate”.
This list covers just a handful of the most common and most dangerous ingredients you’ll want to avoid in your products. But the truth is, this is just the beginning. There are thousands of chemicals in skincare products and cosmetics out there with questionable health and safety standards. It’s up to us, the consumers, to take matters into our own hands and know what’s in our skincare routine.
A great way to control the ingredients in your products is to make your own at home. But if that’s not a feasible option for you, you’ll want to get into a habit of checking product labels before you buy. Luckily, there are some tools available to ease the burden of being a well-informed consumer.
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep is a comprehensive database of ingredients to avoid in your products, and even has an easy-to-use app when you’re shopping on the go. BeautyCounter and Detox Market have also compiled helpful lists of ingredients to avoid, and you can even use DermStore’s filters to shop for natural or organic products. Shopping locally, looking for ingredients that are familiar and easy to understand, and being alert to “red flags” will help you on your way to a safe, healthy skincare routine.