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Chemicals to Avoid in Beauty Care Products

It might seem a little obvious that we’d want to avoid putting chemicals into and onto our bodies. After all, when you hear the word ‘chemicals’ you may think hazard symbols and people in white jumpsuits and goggles putting out a fire in a scientific lab. Yet every day, we use hundreds of chemicals in beauty care alone, most of which we don’t even realize we’re using.

According to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group, on average, women use 12 products a day, containing 168 different chemicals. Even men, who typically use fewer products per day, still use 85 chemicals on their bodies. So are all of these chemicals harmful? Are beauty care products being regulated? The shorter is yes - many of these chemicals have been found to be harmful. And no - the FDA has been very slow in regulating the use of these materials. Since the 1930s, the FDA has only banned 9 chemicals out of the 12,000 being used. Yes, you read that right - 9! Yet over 40 other countries have banned at least 1,400 chemicals found in cosmetics.

While there are advocacy groups pushing for more regulation of the ingredients used in the beauty industry, it’s important to know which ones to look out for in the meantime and how they may be negatively affecting your health. Here are a few of the top ones to keep an eye out for the next time you’re shopping the beauty care isle:


More and more we’re seeing products labelled as “paraben free”. But what are parabens and why were they being removed from products in the first place? Parabens are synthetic materials used as preservatives. Basically, they make things stay on the shelf longer. Studies have shown that they are linked to several potential health problems including allergies, endocrine system disruption, reproductive disorders, and more.


Phthalates are used as a softener for plastic. They have been linked to developmental toxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption and breast cancer. Many phthalates have been banned from cosmetics in the European Union, however, they are still contained in U.S. products. They are also seen as DEP, DBP, DEHP and sometimes as a component of “fragrance” on labels.


Sulfates are detergents that create that oh-so-luscious bubbly lather in things like shampoos, body washes and toothpaste. Although they have not been proven to be linked to any serious health problems (as opposed to previous thought), it does strip the body of its natural moisture and oils which can cause skin and eye irritation, dryness, and acne. It’s also commonly listed as SLS and SLES on ingredient lists.


The thing about listing ‘fragrance’ on an ingredient list is that it is really non-specific and considered a huge loophole in the industry. Manufacturers aren’t required to list the chemicals comprising its ‘fragrance’ since they are considered trade secrets. However, it can contain many undisclosed and unspecified toxic ingredients which have been shown to cause allergies, disrupt hormones, trigger asthma and be linked to cancer, birth defects and nervous-system disorders. Be wary of anything that says “natural fragrance”, “fragrance-free” or “unscented” as well, as they still may contain harmful substances.

Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives (FRPs)

Formaldehyde has been known for quite some time now to be a carcinogen and harsh skin irritator. However, it is still allowed to be used in beauty care products in the U.S., despite it being banned and regulated in other countries such as Japan, Sweden, Canada and the European Union. This one is tricky to find on labels, as it can be written as any of the following: quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol), glyoxal, etc…yikes!

Unfortunately, these are only a few of the staggering amounts of chemicals used in our everyday products. So as a general rule of thumb, if it looks like a chemical and quacks like a chemical, it probably is one! Stick with ingredient lists you can read and can be sure are safe.

Photo by: Suzy Hazelwood

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