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Quick Reference Guide To The WORST Skincare Ingredients

Updated: Aug 17, 2021


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What to Avoid


The skin is the largest and also one of the most important organs on our body. It performs several vital functions for the body including protecting the other vital organs, bones, muscles, ligaments, and nerves. It only makes sense to be extremely mindful of what we are putting on our skin.

Here’s Why: Up to 60% of what we put on our skin gets absorbed. That means that the products we put on our bodies affects our health and overall well being, either negatively or positively. Because the FDA does not regulate skincare, almost any ingredient can be incorporated in a formula, some of them being super dangerous to your health. A lot of ingredients found in traditional skincare products (face washes, lotions, sunscreen, etc) have now been linked to health issues such as allergies, eczema, cancer, hormonal disruption, and reproductive problems.

This is in part due to the fact that cosmetics do not need to go through a pre-market approval process before being sold in stores, e.g., regulators such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not need to assess the safety and effectiveness of the claims on the products before they’re sold.

In fact, “the FDA steps in only if people actually complain about a product because they suspect it harmed them,” shares Dr. Kathryn M. Rexrode, associate professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School. “Prior to that, the onus is on the company alone. Products are tested to make sure they don’t cause short-term problems, such as skin irritation. But they’re not tested for long-term safety.”

Something to note: many natural ingredients are synthetically produced. Synthetic equivalents are not inferior to, and are almost always chemically identical to, their “natural” counterparts. Sometimes, a synthetic version might even be better, if the chemical structure is tweaked to make it more stable or readily absorbed.






DEA (diethanolamine),MEA (Monoethanolamine), andTEA (triethanolamine)

DMDMHYDANTOIN & UREA (Imidazolidinyl)


PEG (Polyethylene glycol)








PARABENS (Methyl, Butyl, Ethyl, Propyl)




DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (Monoethanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine)


  • Foaming agents found in make up, fragrances, hair products & sunscreens.

  • DEA has been classified as a carcinogen.

  • Look out for: Cocamide DEA, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, DEA Oleth-3 Phosphate, Lauramide DEA, Myristamide DEA, Oleamide DEA, TEA-Lauryl Sulfate, Triethanolamine.

EWG Score: 7, 1-4, 5

What are they? Clear, colorless, viscous liquids with ammonia-like odors.

Usually found in products that foam like facial cleansers and soaps. They are also found in eye makeup, fragrances, hair products, and sunscreens.

These chemicals are primarily used as surfactants (foaming agents), cleansers, or preservatives.

According to the FDA, DEA and DEA-related ingredients function as emulsifiers or foaming agents in cosmetics, or to adjust a product’s pH (acidity) while TEA is used as a fragrance, pH adjuster, and emulsifying agent.

Health impact: While the FDA shares that there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of these substances in cosmetics, it is important to note that research from National Toxicology Program (NTP) did find an association between the topical application of DEA and certain DEA-related ingredients and cancer in laboratory animals.

Made Safe further reports that DEA has been classified as a carcinogen by the California Environmental Protection Agency as well as possibly carcinogenic to humans with sufficient evidence in experimental animals by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The EU has restricted its use in personal care products as well.

See if your products are on the list here, here. & here



  • Preservative found in nearly 1 out of 5 cosmetic products (shampoo, soaps, lotions, ect..)

  • Known carcinogen, skin irritations, allergic reactions, joint pain, headaches, & loss of sleep.

  • Look out for: DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol ), 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, Hydroxymethylglycinate.

EWG Score: 5

What is it? Formaldehyde, according to “is a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in making building materials and many household products.” In cosmetics, and even in some foods, this chemical, which is a known carcinogen, is used as a preservative to help prolong shelf life. And, while not all products contain the ingredient formaldehyde, some may contain and/or use formaldehyde-releasing substances.

Formaldehyde releasing substances have been found in shampoo, soaps, lotions, etc. According to data provided by the FDA, nearly 1 in 5 cosmetic products contains a substance that generates formaldehyde.

Health impact: Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen by multiple organizations such as the National Toxicology Program and IARC. This chemical has also been found to cause skin irritations and allergic reactions in some individuals. Preservatives that release formaldehyde may cause joint pain, skin allergies, headaches, and loss of sleep.

See if your products are on the list here.

PEG (Polyethylene glycol)1,4-Dioxane


  • Suds creator/byproduct found in cleansers, shampoo, soaps, detergent, ect.

  • Carcinogen & respiratory toxicant.

  • Look out for: Sodium Laureth Sulfate, PEG compounds (usually listed as “PEG” followed by a number), Chemicals that end in “eth” (denotes ethoxylation), like ceteareth and oleth.

EWG Score: 3

What is it? PEG can alter and reduce the skin’s natural moisture factor. It adjusts the melting point and thickens products. It is usually found in cleansers to dissolve oil and grease.

The compound 1,4-dioxane is a trace contaminant found in products that create suds (shampoo, liquid soap, and laundry detergent). But here’s the kicker. 1,4 -dioxane isn’t necessarily “used” in cosmetics. Rather, it’s a byproduct formed when other common ingredients are mixed together during the manufacturing process. The FDA reports these ingredients include certain detergents, foaming agents, emulsifiers and solvents identifiable by the prefix, word, or syllables “PEG,” “Polyethylene,” “Polyethylene glycol,” “Polyoxyethylene,” “-eth-,” or “-oxynol-.”

Health impact: Based off the sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in animal experiments, it is a reasonable assumption for 1,4 to be a human carcinogen. The EPA has listed 1,4-dioxane as likely to be carcinogenic to humans. EWG lists it as a known human respiratory toxicant which is harmful to our health even in small doses.

See if your products are on the list here, here, here



  • Chemical used to increase durability of plastics, usually listed as "fragrance"

  • Endocrine disruption, developmental & reproductive toxicity, & cancer.

  • Look out for: phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP, fragrance, 1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid, dibutyl ester, butyl phthalate, dbp, di-n-butylphthalate, dibutyl 1,2-benzenedicarboxylate, dibutyl ester 1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid, dibutyl phthalate, dibutyl phthalate.

EWG Score: 10

What are they? Phthalates are chemicals used to increase flexibility and strength of plastics, and not often listed among the ingredients on products. They are usually found in cosmetics such as fragrance oils and listed under the term “fragrance". According to the FDA’s latest survey of cosmetics, conducted in 2010, however, DBP and DMP are now used rarely. DEP is the only phthalate still commonly used in cosmetics.

  • Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): used as a plasticizer in products such as nail polishes (to reduce cracking by making them less brittle);

  • Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP): used in hair sprays (to help avoid stiffness by allowing them to form a flexible film on the hair); and

  • Diethyl Phthalate (DEP): used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances.

Health impact: Phthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer. Although many studies make these claims, it should be noted that the FDA states long-term exposure on humans is not clear. Most studies have been done on animals, But because of the possible risks, most major companies have eliminated phthalates from their products.

See if your products are on the list here.



  • Umbrella term for 100 different chemical ingredients used in most products.

  • Endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, developmental toxins, neurotoxins.

  • Look out for: fragrance, eau de toilette, perfume, essential oil blend, and aroma. Check unscented products too!

EWG Score: 8

What is it? Fragrance is an umbrella term for 100 different chemical ingredients, so you never really know what you are actually being exposed to. It can be found in most conventional products today, ranging from shampoo to scented trash bags, to laundry detergent. Health impact: The primary health concern with this ingredient is that no one really knows its identity. They’re additives, and mostly unknown additives for that matter, that often contain endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, developmental toxins, neurotoxins, and more.

See if your products are on the list here.



  • Cleansing, foaming, lather, & bubble agents with over 100 different varieties.

  • Byproduct, nitrosamines are believed to be carcinogenic.

  • Look out for: monododecyl ester sodium salt sulfuric acid, sodium dodecyl sulfate, sodium dodecyl sulphate, sodium salt sulfuric acid, monododecyl ester, sulfuric acid monododecyl ester sodium salt, sulfuric acid, monododecyl ester, sodium salt.

EWG Score: 1-3

What are they? Sulfates are cleaning agents that remove dirt and oil. They are also responsible for making products foam, lather, and bubble. Usually found in 90% of personal-care products that foam!

There are more than 100 different varieties—some synthetic, others obtained from natural sources, like coconut or palm oils. They can also be derived from sulfur- and petroleum-based products. It is likely you can find this ingredient on most shelves in your bathroom and possibly in your pantry (it doubles as a food additive).

Health Impact:

They are known to be irritating (not allergenic) to skin and eyes, and prematurely cleansing the dye from your hair. The main concern stems from the nitrosamines which are common by-products of the sulfation process. 90% of nitrosamines are believed to be carcinogenic.

See if your product is on the list here & here.



  • Black pigment powder found in most eye makeup.

  • It is on the FDA's banned list-yet it is still in cosmetics.

  • Increased cases of cancer, neurodevelopmental effects in offspring, harm lung function in healthy humans, and impacted hormone production in vitro.

  • Look out for: carbon black, D&C Black No. 2 (CI 77266), furnace black, thermal black. acetylene black, animal bone charcoal, carbon black, lampblack, carbon black (uncertified d&c black no. 2), channel black, pigment black 6, and pigment black 7.

EWG Score: 10

What is it? Carbon black (Uncertified D&C Black No. 2) is a black pigmented powder most commonly found in eyeliner, mascara, eyelash glue, etc. It’s what gives your mascara that dark sleek look. It was added to the FDA’s list of banned toxic ingredients, but is still found in cosmetic products.

Health impact: Though some argue that in small doses (concentration of less than 10%) carbon black may not be a serious health concern, more studies are finding that carbon black may in fact be linked to increased cases of cancer, neurodevelopmental effects in offspring, harm lung function in healthy humans, and impacted hormone production in vitro.

See if your products are on the list here.



  • Moisturizing agent found in balms, lotions, lip products, and makeup remover.

  • Harmful due to poor refining which creates PAHs-known carcinogen & skin irritant.

  • Look our for: white petroleum soft paraffin, mineral oil, paraffin oil, white mineral oil, and liquid paraffin.

EWG Score: 1-4

What is it? Refined properly petroleum jelly, also known as mineral oil, isn’t harmful to our health. Unfortunately, in the United States, it is common for most mineral oils to NOT be refined properly, creating the potential for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. You are most likely to find petroleum jelly/mineral oil in balms, lotions, lip products, and makeup remover.

What are PAHs? According to the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, PAHs “are a group of more than 100 chemical compounds that are prevalent in the environment and food. They are formed from the combustion of organic materials.”

Health impact: Several individual PAHs, as well as other chemical mixtures containing PAHs, have been classified as human carcinogens and are known skin irritants.

See if your products are on the list here, here, or here.



  • UV filter found in most chemical sunscreens, SPF lotions, lip balm, & makeup.

  • Endocrine disruptor, alters thyroid function, negative birth outcomes, reduced male fertility, and possible cancer.

  • Look for mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

  • Look our for: oxybenzone, benzophenone-3, (2-hydroxy-4-methoxyphenyl)phenyl- methanone, (2-hydroxy-4-methoxyphenyl)phenylmethanone, 2-benzoyl-5-methoxyphenol, 2-hydroxy-4-methoxybenzophenone, 4-08-00-02442, 4-methoxy-2-hydroxybenzophenone, advastab 45, ai3-23644, anuvex, b3, benzophenone, 2-hydroxy-4-methoxy-, benzophenone-3, brn 1913145, ccris 1078, chimassorb 90, cyasorb uv 9, cyasorb uv 9 light absorber, durascreen, einecs 205-031-5, escalol 567, hmbp, hsdb 4503, methanone, mob, mod, nci-c60957, nsc 7778, nsc-7778, ongrostab hmb, oxibenzona, oxibenzonum, oxybenzon, oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), oxybenzone 6, oxybenzonum, solaquin, spectra-sorb uv 9, sunscreen uv-15, syntase 62, uf 3, usaf cy-9, uv 9, uvinul 9, uvinul m40, and uvistat 24.

EWG Score: 8

What is it? Oxybenzone helps to protect your skin against UV rays, such as UVB rays and UVA rays. Oxybenzone is most often found in sunscreen, but can also be in SPF lotions, lip balm, and makeup. If you’re using a tinted moisturizer or foundation with SPF, it likely has chemical UV filters

Health impact: More research needs to be done but oxybenzone has been found to be an endocrine-disrupting compound and has been shown to alter thyroid function. Note: Hawaii has banned oxybenzone from sunscreens because of its harmful effects on the coral reef, specifically its bleaching properties.

In 2019, the FDA released research that showed widely used chemical UV filters, which have been linked to hormone disruption, negative birth outcomes, reduced male fertility, and possibly cancer, are absorbed in the body in substantial amounts right after application. And in 2020, the FDA released new research that reveals six chemical UV filters are detectable on the skin and in the bloodstream weeks after application.

Blood tests showed concentrations of oxybenzone were more than 180 times the FDA’s level of concern after a single application, and soared to more than 500 times after 4 days of regular use.

*Important Note*

Sunscreens come in two different forms: chemical and mineral filters. The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule.

Mineral sunscreens create a barrier on the surface of the skin to physically bounce or reflect the sun’s rays away from the skin, which means they do not penetrate the skin.

To find mineral-only sunscreens, you need to check the ingredients. Even sunscreens labeled as “mineral sunscreens” may contain both mineral and chemical UV filters. Look for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

See if your products are on the list here.



  • Prevents oxidation and free radical formation. Found in lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, deodorant, fragrance, and creams.

  • Endocrine disruptors, possible carcinogens, and skin irritants.

  • Look out for: butylhydroxyanisol, (1,1-dimethylethyl)-4-methoxy- phenol, bha, butylated hydroxyanisole, butylhydroxyanisol, phenol, tert-butyl-4-methoxyphenol, 2,6-bis(1,1-dimethylethyl)-4-methyl- phenol, 2,6-di-tert-butyl-4-methylphenol, 2,6-di-t-butyl-p-cresol, 2,6-di-tert-butyl-p-cresol, bht, butylated hydroxytoluene, dbpc, dibutylhydroxytoluene, phenol.

EWG Score: BHT: 3 BHA: 5-6

What are they? BHT and BHA are closely related compounds that are used in food, cosmetics, and industrial fluids as preservatives to prevent oxidation and free radical formation. You'll find BHT and BHA in lip products, hair products, makeup, sunscreen, deodorant, fragrance, and creams.

Health impact: BHA/BHT are both known endocrine disruptors, possible carcinogens, and skin irritants. The National Toxicology Program reports that BHA is assumed to be carcinogenic to humans. In addition, the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has also listed BHA as a Category 1 priority substance, based on evidence that it interferes with hormone function.

See if your products are on the list here & here.



PARABENS (Methyl, Butyl, Ethyl, Propyl)


  • Most widely used preservative in cosmetics.

  • Endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic estrogen in the body and can lead to hormonal imbalances, and possibly even breast cancer.

  • Controversy: parabens are quickly absorbed and flushed out. Long term effects are unclear.

  • Look for:

  • PROPYLPARABEN: Often found in ‘fragrance’ products such as perfume.

  • BUTYLPARABEN: Fragrance Ingredient; Preservative; Masking (used to disguise natural scent of an ingredient)

  • ISOBUTYLPARABEN: Used as a preservative in products

  • METHYLPARABEN: Fragrance Ingredient; Preservative

  • POLYPARABEN: Fragrance Ingredient; Preservative; Perfuming

EWG Score: 3-10

What is it? Parabens are one of the most common ingredients found in cosmetic products today. Parabens are most widely used as a preservative in cosmetic products.

Health impact: Parabens are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic estrogen in the body and can lead to hormonal imbalances, and possibly even breast cancer. Studies have detected parabens in samples of cancerous breast tissue. Studies have also shown an increase of parabens in the urine of pregnant women who used more personal-care products containing parabens.

The Controversy: Parabens are readily absorbed by your body and flushed out, but it is still unclear if they pose any long-term health risks. In 2005, the FDA reopened an investigation on parabens and came to the same conclusion: Since parabens are typically used in concentrations far below what they deem safe (up to 25 percent is safe; typical levels in products are between 0.01 to 0.3 percent), they don't believe there is enough evidence to be concerned about their use in cosmetics.

See if your products are on the list here, here, here, here, here.



  • Antimicrobial agent found in soaps and toothpaste.

  • Disrupt thyroid function, dioxin, liver fibrosis, cancer, and hormone disruption, as well as to the development of bacterial superbugs.

  • Look for: 2,4,4'-trichloro-2'-hydroxy diphenyl ether, 5-chloro-2-(2,4-dichlorophenoxy)- phenol, 5-chloro-2-(2,4-dichlorophenoxy)phenol, phenol, 5-chloro-2-(2,4-dichlorophenoxy)-, phenol, 5chloro2(2,4dichlorophenoxy), and triclosan

EWG Score: 7

What is it? A synthetic antibacterial agent found in hand and body soaps and toothpastes.

Health Impact: Triclosan may disrupt thyroid function and can degrade into a form of dioxin, a class of chemicals linked to a broad range of toxicities including cancer. Several studies have linked triclosan to liver fibrosis, cancer, and hormone disruption, as well as to the development of bacterial superbugs. .Triclosan is known to be absorbed into the body and is traceable in human urine samples.

In 2016, it was banned from soap used in health-care settings, but is still allowed in personal cosmetics.

The Controversy: Most of these studies have been done on animals, not humans. The FDA is currently reviewing the safety of triclosan after several new studies have found troublesome health concerns. The agency also noted that there is no evidence supporting the claim that antibacterial body washes and soaps are any more effective than regular soap and water. In fact, the FDA has asked manufacturers to prove that antibacterial hand soaps and body washes containing the chemical are safe for long-term use and are more effective.

See if your product is on the list here.



  • Used in antiperspirants to stop sweat.

  • Linked to breast cancer, kidney disease, and memory issues.

  • Controversy: Researchers cannot link the aluminum in underarm products to any of the associated issues. More rsearch is needed.

  • Look for: aluminium hydroxychloride, aluminum chlorhydrate, aluminum chlorhydrate 50% solution, aluminum chlorhydroxide, aluminum chloride hydroxide, aluminum chloride hydroxide (al2cl(oh)5), aluminum chloride, basic, aluminum chlorohydrate, aluminum chlorohydrol, aluminum oxychloride, basic aluminum chloride, and dialuminium chloride pentahydroxide.

EWG Score: 2-3

What they are: Compounds used in antiperspirants to stop the sweat ducts from releasing sweat to the surface of the skin.

Health Impacts: Studies have linked aluminum chloride or aluminum chlorhydrate to an increase in breast cancer cells, since the compound mimics estrogen in the body. It may build up in the body over time. Kidney disease is also an issue since they help the body get rid of the aluminum. And memory problems (like dementia and Alzheimer's) are also associated. Research has shown that high levels of aluminum in the body is associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

The controversy: Researchers cannot prove the aluminum in antiperspirants cause any of these issues. Medications and environmental factors are thought to be that main contributor of aluminum.

See if your products are on the list here.



  • Moisturizing agent found in creams and lotions.

  • Benefits: locks in moisture, softens skin, improves barrier function.

  • Side effects: Clogs pores, no clear answer from science.

  • Controversy: Mineral oil has skincare benefits, but if it is not properly refined, it can cause way more damage. The refining process is unclear and assumed to be cosmetic grade.

  • It is recommended to swap to pure face oils such as argan, grape or chamomile.

  • Look for: deobase, heavy mineral oil, light mineral oil, liquid paraffin, liquid petrolatum, mineral oil, mineral oil hydrocarbon solvent (petroleum); mineral oil (saturated parrafin oil), paraffin oil, paraffin oils, paraffinum liquidum, petroleum white mineral oil, prolatum oil, and white mineral oil, petroleum.

EWG Score: 1-3

What is it? A moisturizing agent sourced from petroleum, usually found in creams, lotions, ointments, and cosmetics.

Health Impacts: Locks moisture in, softens skin, improves skin barrier function.

Side Effects: Clogs pores-not the mineral oil itself, but it is occlusive so it can trap other ingredients on the epidermis which can lead to clogged pores.

The controversy: Most cosmetic mineral oil is highly refined and cosmetic grade, BUT it isn't guaranteed. A 2011 study found mineral oil to be the largest contaminant present in the human body (researchers found about one gram of mineral oil hydrocarbons in each person studied). The study concluded that the presence in human fat tissue is likely due to accumulation over time from cosmetics-based exposure. Plus, untreated or mildly treated mineral oils are listed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.

Since science seems to be so back and forth on mineral oil, most professionals recommend making the easy swap to hydrating and soothing pure face oils like argan, chamomile, or grape seed, which are widely available in drugstores and department stores.

See if your products are on the list here.


Wondering which ingredients you should use?

Find out here.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments.