5 Ingredients You Don’t Want Near Your Face


The recent hype about natural, organic beauty products might have you wondering if you should take the leap into cleaner cosmetics. Since about 60 percent of what we put ON our skin (including makeup, lotions, fragrances, oils and balms) makes its way into our bodies, it’s smart to pick products with ingredients that aren’t potentially harmful. In the largely unregulated cosmetics industry—there hasn’t been federal legislation regarding beauty and personal care products since 1938, and the United States only bans or restricts 11 ingredients while the European Union has restrictions on 1,328—we have to be our own advocates by reading labels, asking questions and staying informed.

But if you’re just venturing into the clean cosmetics world, it can be overwhelming to decipher between good-for-you additives and not-so-great ingredients. Instead of losing all hope of luxe products that make you as giddy as when you first swiped on your mom’s red lipstick, resigning to rinsing your hair with filtered water and using beets as lip tints, read on to find out five ingredients you should start avoiding—and what cleaner products you can use instead.

1. Parabens 

You’ve probably heard of these estrogen-mimicking ingredients. They’re a low-cost preservative so they appear in 85 percent of cosmetics, from shampoo and face wash to body lotion and anti-aging treatments. While the evidence is still inconclusive, parabens have been found in the tissue of breast tumors, can cause allergic reactions and are considered carcinogenic in high doses. Look at your cosmetic bottle labels for ingredients with “paraben” as a suffix—and then put those bottles back. 

What to try instead: Pick a brand that avoids them. Try Drunk ElephantJohn Masters Organics, Dr. Hauschka, One Love Organics and Dr. Bronner’s. They all make body, face and hair care with non-toxic ingredients you can trust.

2. Formaldehyde 

The Brazilian Blowout scare that hit the news a year ago brought formaldehyde’s dangers to our attention. Even when it’s not added intentionally, formaldehyde appears as a component in other preservatives and is known to cause cancer in large doses. It can also give you a rash, so avoid products with quaternium-15, DMDM-hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea or diazolidinyl urea on their labels.

What to try instead: Acure Organics, Rahua Beauty, Yarok and Sans hair care are full of ingredients that are great for nourishing your hair and scalp.

3. Petroleum and Other Petrochemicals 

Not only are these bad for the environment, but they also can mess with how much you sweat, causing clogged pores, rashes and acne. Check your labels for petroleum distillates, which are found in your mascara and hairspray, mineral oils and paraffins. Lip balms and treatments that contain petroleum jelly should stay on their shelves too, since their water-repellant nature ultimately suffocates pores.

What to try instead: RMS Beauty, Juice Beauty and 100% Pure all carry great clean mascaras. Intelligent Nutrients and Josh Rosebrook make strong-hold hairsprays. Try Waxlene or CV Skinlabs’ Restorative Skin Balm, both beeswax-based, if you’re in need of a new holy-grail lip treatment.

4. Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) 

You’ve probably heard of these as they’re present in any product that foams, from shampoo to face wash. SLSs and SLESs strip hair and skin of natural oils and protective barriers, which can lead to dandruff, flaky skin, acne and quicker aging. Sometimes they’re also contaminated with a carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane, so it’s best to look for products sans sulphates.

What to try instead: Oil-based products can create foam too! Try Dr. Bronner’s, Meow Meow Tweet or Chargrin Valley Soap & Salve, all high-performing soaps without a drying effect.

5. Fragrance or Parfum

Fragrances aren’t regulated because they fall under trade secret law, meaning companies don’t have to reveal their ingredient list lest they give a competitor insight into how to duplicate it. It also means that the FDA can’t determine what’s in those fragrances, leaving the consumer open to even ingredients that are banned in other forms—and more often than not, they’re comprised of endocrine-disrupting ingredients that can cause everything from migraines and skin rashes to respiratory issues and birth defects.

What to try instead: Look for products that are scented with essential oils, like La Bella Figura’s or Osmia Organics. Or create your own DIY signature scent with a carrier oil and your choice of essential oils. Want a more traditional, luxe perfume experience? Try LURK or Strange Invisibles perfumes.


Want to learn more about clean cosmetics? See how your products rate on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database website or smartphone app

Now let’s hear from you, TEG readers! What ingredients do you avoid and what do you use instead?