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What’s In My Lotion?! 21 Skin Care Ingredients to Avoid

Find out which skincare ingredients you need to avoid for healthy skin.

Over 60% of what you put on your skin gets absorbed. It becomes part of your system. While some ingredients make your skin, hair, and nails better, others do more harm than good. That’s why knowing which ingredients work and which ones to avoid can make or break your skincare routine.

The best way to know which products to avoid in skin care is to check the ingredients.

These 21 ingredients can damage your skin in various ways. While some only irritate your skin, others can trigger an allergic reaction. Worst of all, some of these products are known carcinogens

Overall, it’s best to avoid every skin care product that contains these ingredients.

How to Avoid Dangerous Skin Care Ingredients

  1. Always read the label: The most important thing you can do to keep the health of your skin a priority is to always read the label. If you see any harmful or suspicious ingredients there, you shouldn’t use the product.
  2. Stay away from cheap products: While price isn’t the only factor in quality, it’s often a good indicator for the quality of the ingredients inside the bottle.
  3. Stick to proven, natural ingredients: As a rule of thumb, the fewer ingredients there are in a skin care product, the better. Unless medically required, natural ingredients tend to be better for your skin than chemicals.

1. Acrylates 

(ethyl acrylate, ethyl methacrylate, and methyl methacrylate)

Acrylates can cause contact allergies, dermatitis, and irritation. However, they may even be more dangerous than that.

Some dermatologists fear that frequent use of acrylates can be carcinogenic. It’s best to avoid products containing acrylates, or at least limit their usage.

Commonly found in: artificial nail products and false eyelashes.

2. Aluminum

Aluminum is a toxic metal that can disrupt your endocrine system. Frequent use of aluminum-containing products can lead to estrogen-like effects.

Commonly found in: antiperspirant deodorant.

3. Benzalkonium Chloride

You can find this disinfectant in many household cleaning supplies. However, it’s also an ingredient in certain skin care products that acts as a preservative and surfactant.

Severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation, along with allergies are common side effects of this ingredient. If that’s not enough to make you avoid this ingredient, the regular use of antimicrobials like benzalkonium chloride can support the development of resistant bacteria in your home.

Commonly found in: deodorant, sunscreens, and moisturizers.

4. BHA & BHT

(butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydroxytoluene)

BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants that can extend product shelf life. 

While long-lasting skin care products are great in theory, BHA and BHT can disrupt your endocrine system. Plus, they’re likely carcinogenic. Dermatologists also don’t rule out the connection between these ingredients and liver damage.

Commonly found in: lipsticks, moisturizers, diaper creams, and other cosmetics.

5. Coal Tar

Coal tar is a byproduct of coal processing. It’s a known carcinogen, a skin allergen, and an all-around toxic material.

Unfortunately, coal tar can sometimes make its way into your skin care ingredient list. In short, it’s best to avoid anything that contains it.

Commonly found in: hair dyes and shampoo.

6. DEA, MEA, and TEA

(diethanolamine, monoethanolamine, and triethanolamine)

Ethanolamines like DEA, MEA, and TEA are emulsifiers in various skin care products. According to the EWG, they’re safe for cosmetic use.

However, they’re known allergens and can make your skin sensitive. It’s best to avoid them to prevent irritation.

Commonly found in: facial cleansers, soaps, eye makeup, fragrances, and sunscreen.

7. EDTA

(ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid)

EDTA is a binding agent in cosmetics. Despite EWG’s low-risk score, EDTA can often cause skin, eye, and lung irritation. It may also be toxic to your organs.

Avoiding EDTA in skin care may be the right choice for you.

Commonly found in: hair color and moisturizers.

8. Formaldehyde 

Formaldehyde has been a known carcinogen for several years. Reactions to formaldehyde can range from skin irritation to scalp burn and hair loss.

In a gas form, formaldehyde can cause dizziness and suffocation. So, putting it on your skin and letting your system absorb it can expose you to danger.

In fact, contact with formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers accounts to 8-9% of all contact dermatitis causes.

Yet, it’s still a fairly common ingredient in cosmetic products.

Fortunately, more and more retailers join the cause to ban every product with formaldehyde as an ingredient.

However, banning formaldehyde isn’t that simple.

Likely, you won’t see formaldehyde as an ingredient on the label of a product. This is because they usually don’t use the chemical in its pure form. Instead, you’ll likely see “formalin”, which is formaldehyde as a water solution.

Even if you don’t see formaldehyde or formalin on the label, that doesn’t mean that the product isn’t harmful. Certain chemicals are formaldehyde-releasing agents and are just as dangerous.

Ultimately, whether you find formaldehyde or formalin on the label, or you suspect that it’s hiding behind a different name, it’s best to avoid skin care products that may contain this toxic ingredient.

Commonly found in: nail polish, eyelash glue, hair straightening products, soaps, shampoo, lotions, and deodorants.

9. Formaldehyde Releasers

(DMDM hydantoin and urea (imidazolidinyl))

Formaldehyde releasers are just as dangerous as formaldehyde. These are commonly preservatives in skin care products that release formaldehyde over time.

Just like formaldehyde, they are carcinogenic and can cause irritation, joint pain, allergies, headaches, burns, and loss of sleep.

Since they’re not easy to recognize, this group of chemicals is harder to avoid. This list of common formaldehyde releasers can help you learn more about the exact chemical compound names.

Commonly found in: shampoos, conditioners, detergents, makeup, and lotions.

10. Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is a common active ingredient in over-the-counter drugs. It’s also found in fragrances and skin-lightening products.

This ingredient is a known organ toxicity hazard. Its links to cancer and skin irritations give you all the more reason to avoid it.

Commonly found in: skin-lightening creams.

11. Lead

While lead occurs naturally in many environments, it’s no reason to introduce it to your system through your skin.

The FDA is still working on a limit to define unsafe levels of lead in blood. However, lead has been linked to cancer, and damage to kidneys, blood, and nervous system.

That’s why this is an ingredient in skin care that’s always good to avoid.

Commonly found in: lipstick, eye shadows, shampoos, lotions, and compact powders.

12. Methylisothiazolinone

Methylisothiazolinone is a preservative in cosmetics. Despite its relatively small concentration, it can cause a lot of irritation.

If you have sensitive skin, methylisothiazolinone can cause itching, burning, and even hives. It’s best to avoid this skincare ingredient altogether.

Commonly found in: shampoos and cleansers.

13. Mineral Oil

Some harmful skin care ingredients don’t necessarily cause irritation or cancer. Yet you should still avoid them because they damage the quality of your skin.

 A great example of this is mineral oil. This petroleum by-product coats your skin and clogs your pores. If your skin can’t breathe, it can’t eliminate toxins. And you’ll likely develop acne.

Commonly found in: creams, lotions, ointments, and cosmetics.

These skincare ingredients can even cause cancer, so it's worth avoiding them.

14. Oxybenzone and Avobenzone

Oxybenzone and avobenzone have been deemed Category III by the FDA. While they may be legal to produce and distribute, we don’t know a lot about the safety of these ingredients.

Both of these chemicals may cause skin irritation, allergies, and other negative reactions.

If possible avoid sunscreen with these two ingredients. 

Top tip: if you want incredible sunscreen with safe-for-skin ingredients, try the Skinbetter Sunbetter SPF75 lotion.

Commonly found in: sunscreen.

15. Parabens

(methyl, butyl, ethyl, propyl)

Unfortunately, parabens aren’t always labeled on skin care products. They’re common preservatives. However, they may cause hormone imbalance through regular use.

If you see a paraben on the label, it’s best to avoid that product.

Commonly found in: deodorants and moisturizers.

16. PEG

(polyethylene glycol)

They use polyethylene glycol to thicken skin care products and adjust their melting point. However, when it comes into contact with your skin, it can interfere with your skin’s moisture factor and dry your skin out.

Commonly found in: cleansers

17. Phthalates

Phthalates aren’t usually listed as ingredients on labels. And if they are, they’re usually only referred to as “fragrance”.

These chemicals can cause irritation, even if you don’t have particularly sensitive skin.

Commonly found in: fragrance oils.

18. Siloxanes

Certain skin care products include ingredients that end in “-siloxane” or “-methicone”. Stay away from these chemicals.

They’re officially harmful to fish and other wildlife, so they can’t be good for you either. Siloxanes are suspected to disrupt your endocrine system and act as a reproductive toxicant.

Commonly found in: moisturizers and lotions.

19. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

You can thank these detergents for making your skin care products foam. From toothpaste to cleansers, SLS and SLES are easy to find on labels.

They’re also responsible for drying your skin out. If you have dry skin, avoid foaming cleansers and every skin care product with SLS or SLES as an ingredient.

Commonly found in: almost all personal care products that foam.

SLS may not be harmful in toothpaste, but it dries your skin out.

20. Synthetic Fragrances

If you see anything synthetic or artificial on a label, avoid it at all costs. Hundreds to thousands of different chemicals make up these substances. And they’re often aren’t on the label. So, you can never be sure what exactly the synthetic product contains.

This unknown factor is reason enough to stay away from anything synthetic. Yet, synthetic fragrances are easy to find everywhere. From the candles you burn to the scented trash bags you use.

For skin care products, fragrances can cause irritation and allergic reactions.

Commonly found in: personal care products and household products (air freshener, candles).

21. Triclosan

Apart from the usual skin, eye, and lung irritation, this synthetic antibacterial agent can disrupt your endocrine system. It can mess with your thyroid function and impact your reproductive and non-reproductive organs.

What’s worse is, it can even degrade into a form of dioxin (which has been linked to cancer).

In skin care products, triclosan is a preservative. However, you should preserve your health instead and avoid anything that includes triclosan on the label. 

Commonly found in: liquid soap, soap bars, and toothpastes.

Why Does the FDA Approve These?

If it causes irritation, burning, allergic reactions, and even cancer, why would the FDA approve potentially dangerous skin care products?

The answer is, they don’t approve of them.

Legally, cosmetic products don’t need to be approved by the FDA as scrutinously as medicine. While some ingredients and chemicals are on the FDA’s radar, there simply aren’t enough resources to examine everything.

The FDA does extend its jurisdiction to new ingredients. However, how you define new ingredients isn’t exactly straightforward. A lot of chemicals can be grandfathered in as “old ingredients” and skip FDA approval.

While some dermatologists lobby for a change, others fear rising prices of cosmetics as an outcome of tighter regulations.

Choose Products with Safe Skin Care Ingredients

Buying skin care products often feels like walking a minefield.

You need to choose products that fit your skin type. And you need to avoid harmful ingredients. And most importantly, the cream or lotion you buy needs to perform well to give you clear and healthy skin.

As board-certified dermatologists, we know the struggle. 

That’s why we founded BIALife. Our mission is to simplify skin care for you and create personalized product recommendations that restore your skin’s glow.

Give your skin the best chance without any harmful ingredients by becoming a BIALife member!

With love, Janelle & Shasa

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