Toxic Skin Care Ingredients: What to Know and What to Avoid

Welcome to April on the i {heart} skin blog! After discussing aging all last month, I've chosen this month to blog about skin care and cosmetic ingredients as they pertain to the environment. We'll talk all about the good, bad and ugly of what goes into your products and what you can do to make sure you chose clean products and ingredients that are safe for your skin. Let's dive in shall we?

Today's topic focuses on skin care ingredients. There's a lot of talk these days about "clean" or "green" beauty and with good reason. More and more, consumers are becoming savvy about the ingredients that are in their cosmetics. As the demand for more natural beauty products increases, more and more brands are hitting the market to meet this demand, which is great.

However, with this on-slaught of new products, comes a lot of "green-washing." Green-washing refers to when a company emphasizes the natural or clean properties of their product regardless of how legitimately clean the product actually is. Marketing companies know that consumers love hearing that their product is paraben-free, non-toxic, free of dyes and perfumes, etc. But that doesn't mean you're getting the whole story. A good example I heard of this recently was a product exclaiming that they were free of one particular toxic chemical, while another toxic chemical was still sitting high on the ingredient deck. Yikes. So how do you know what's good and what's not so good?

What's in a label?

When shopping for any product you consume, you should always take a glimpse at the label. The FDA requires that all cosmetics be labeled with their ingredient list, in order of concentration. Any ingredient 1% or more, must be listed with the exception of color ingredients, which are listed last. There are other requirements, but this is the most important to know, as it will help you decode and determine what's actually going onto your face. Ingredients are typically listed by their scientific or Latin name, although many labels will also list the English word as well. This link is a great resource for learning what names ingredients appear under.

Something else worth noting, despite the strict standards for labeling, the FDA does not have quite so stringent standards when it comes to what is allowed to be used in a product and what is not. For example in Europe, the EU has banned or restricted 450 tested and monitored products. The United States has banned only nine. The government does not actually require health studies or pre-market testing in order for a product to be sold. And of the 10,500+ ingredients that have been determined by the FDA, only 15% have actually been evaluated for safety. Also, yikes. The takeaway here is: don't expect government regulations to be the gatekeeper.

So what should you avoid?

This is were it gets a little tricker. Today I'm just going to talk about a few common controversial ingredients, but reasons for avoiding certain things may vary based on your own philosophies and concerns. As always, I recommend doing a little of your own your research beyond what we cover here.

When we talk about toxic ingredients, a common phrase that comes up is "The Dirty Dozen." Lest we get overwhelmed by all the information out there, this is a good place to start. The dirty dozen is based on a 2010 Canadian study, which cited these 12 chemicals and compounds as ones consumers should avoid. It's also important to know there are still a lot of unknowns. I recommend reading up and then deciding for yourself.

The Dirty Dozen:

-BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT(butylated hydroxytoluene)

-Coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colors listed as "CI" followed by a five-digit number

-Diethanolamine (DEA), cocamide DEA, and lauramide DEA

-Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

-Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives


-Parfum (Fragrance)

-Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

-Petrolatum (aka petroleum jelly or Vaseline)


-Sodium Laureth Sulfate


The ingredients that comprise the dirty dozen are labeled as such primarily based on suspected claims that they can disrupt the endocrine system and interfere with hormones. Others are seen as potentially cancer-causing. Some cause irritation to the skin. Others like Parfum are problematic because they are not regulated and could be any number of things from a natural fruit oil to a hazardous synthetic chemical. To read more specifics on each ingredient, check out this article.

Helpful Ways to Check Your Products

Do ingredient labels make your head spin? It's okay. I feel the same. Some things to pay attention to are the concentration of ingredients - the higher they are on the list, the higher percentage in your product. You'll also want to look at active v. inactive ingredients. Watch for fillers like water to see how much quality product you are actually getting.

Know that sometimes one ingredient can have many names. As I mentioned up top, it is not uncommon for ingredients to be listed by their Latin or scientific name. Vitamin E for example might show up as Tocopherol Acetate or Vitamin C as L-Ascorbic Acid. I recommend learning a few of these ingredient names and looking for them in your products, next time you are checking labels.

Still confused or want to eliminate some of the guess work? There are a few nifty apps that will actually scan your products for you and give you a rating as to how "clean" they are. Think Dirty, Cosmetique, Skin Deep and Ingredient Watch are just a few to look for, and I'm sure more will be released in the future. You can also find large databases of this type of information online.

Another way to avoid bad chemicals in your product is to find companies or skin care lines that are committed to a clean product and shop accordingly. At i {heart} skin, I only buy my product from companies I have researched and trust to bring in to my treatment room. Many clean beauty products can be found in your local natural grocer or there are even entire stores dedicated to these products that you can shop, instead of having to go to the drugstore and read every label.

Also, Don't Panic If you're feeling like me the first time I received this information (and started checking my products), you might be feeling a bit depressed or overwhelmed. Don't freak out. Recognize that just because a product is listed as potentially toxic, doesn't necessarily mean that it is. Blurred lines for labeling fragrances can sometimes land otherwise clean products with a dirty label.

Additionally, not all chemicals are bad! I've also noticed that some ingredients like salicylic acid are sometimes listed in the "dirty" category. Most estheticians would actually recommend salicylic acid for treating acne and breakout prone skin. Point being, not every ingredient is worth losing sleep over. Some chemicals are in products to preserve them and keep them from turning or growing bacteria. Other chemicals, have actual benefits to your skin.This is another time when it's great to do a little research or reach out to a skin care professional and ask questions.

Cleaning up your beauty routine can be an ongoing and evolving process. If you feel strongly that you shouldn't use a product, toss it and swap it out. But if you're on the fence or just invested in a product, vow to yourself to use it up and in the meantime, research a better substitute.

Still have questions or need help decoding your product labels? Reach out anytime at iheartskindenver @

<3 Jenny

About the blog:

This is a blog about everyday skin health. As an esthetician I strive to provide comprehensive skin care advice and knowledge to anyone who wants to know more.

Read on and please don't hesitate to reach out! I love educating people about their skin and am always happy to respond to questions.

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