Ten Ingredients To Avoid in Your Face Products

Posted by Alexandra Spunt


A quick skim of this list reads like a prescription from Dr. Obvious. Clearly nobody wants lead or petroleum on their faces, right? But if you’ve been reading this series, our blog, or our book, you know that the cosmetics industry uses all kinds of ingredients in its products—some dangerous, some just plain confusing. What many of them have in common is that that don't belong anywhere near our largest organ.

Here’s why: Many of them have pretty damning scientific data on record. They’re also not doing anything for your appearance—and in some cases they may be making matters worse. And thus, here is our mantra: If you can't be sure a product is safe, and it isn't doing your looks any favors, why bother using it? With that in mind, here’s a top-10 list of common ingredients, contaminants, and byproducts that are bad for your health and duds for your face.

1. Petroleum and related petrochemicals The danger risk for this group of ingredients ranges from a mellow yellow to code red. Petroleum distillates are toxic solvents used in mascara, hairspray, and callus treatments. But your run-of-the-mill moisturizer probably contains something like mineral oil or paraffin in it, which are not considered dangerous per se, they're just really, really bad for the environment and they suffocate the skin and may interfere with perspiration.
2. Lead-tainted lipstick In 2009 the FDA discovered that of 20 lipsticks it tested, 20 were contaminated with lead. In many cases, the lead levels exceeded those set by that same FDA for candy—and since they don’t set restrictions for cosmetics, this feels like a fair model of comparison, right? Not so according to the FDA, which claims that we don’t eat our lipstick. Lead is a neurotoxin and lipstick goes on our mouths, which combine to make this debate officially ridiculous. Go for organic small-batch lipstick lines, or kiss a beet instead.
3. Formaldehyde-leaching preservatives Our crusade for clean cosmetics started after the discovery of formaldehyde in a hair treatment (and later in our nail polish), but this known carcinogen is also “donated,” as the pros like to say, by preservatives such as quaternium-15, DMDM-hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea. That means it’s both pervasive and often unlisted, not appearing as an ingredient on labels. It's considered a human carcinogen by many health agencies worldwide, and when it’s not giving rats nose cancer, it might still be giving you a rash.
4. Fragrance It’s broken-record time, but here goes: Fragrance is in everything from your fancy perfume to your face wash. It represents a concoction of mystery ingredients, whose secrecy is protected by industry-ass-kissing trade laws. Lab studies by the EWG have shown them to contain a whole cocktail of hormone disruptors (among other things). Which is nice, since our hormones regulate, oh, everything: genital size, fertility, weight, acne, and beyond.
5. Parabens This popular preservative group used in more than 10,000 products became very controversial when their presence was discovered in the tissue of breast tumors. What that data actually means is hotly debated but studies have shown that certain parabens mimic estrogen, the female sex hormone. This could be bad news for both men and women. Look for ingredients on the label with "paraben" as a suffix to avoid these bad boys.
6. Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) These surfactants get a lot of finger wagging when we talk about shampoo: That’s because they strip out natural oils, force you to use more products, and are sometimes contaminated with a carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane. This last fact is actually making more news in China  than it is here, and carcinogens aside, they also strip your skin and scalp of their protective barriers, which we need for protection. Surfactants are also known irritants.
7. Triclosan This very powerful antimicrobial—used in everything from hand soap and face wash to deodorant and acne treatments—has a serious ugly side. For one, it stays in our bodies. There’s concern that regular exposure to the stuff may actually be creating resistant strains of bacteria and hermaphroditic marine life, just like Atrazine. It may also impact thyroid function. It's easy to find on labels. If it says triclosan, put it down.
8. Chemical Sunscreens We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again: Your best sunscreens are ones formulated from physical blockers like titanium dioxide and zinc. Popular chemical sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone is a suspected hormone disruptor that penetrates skin easily and quite possibly brings its toxic friends with. It’s also considered a common allergen that can result in a variety of unpleasant and unsightly skin reactions.
9. Hydroquinone This skin-lightning ingredient is objectionable for so many reasons: It’s incredibly toxic, it speaks to a disturbing cultural beauty standard, and it’s easily abused to detrimental effects. Exhibit A: It’s a suspected carcinogen that, according to industry “guidelines,” shouldn’t be used in formulations above 1 percent or be left on skin. But it is, and it’s available at 2 percent over the counter and 4 percent by prescription. Exhibit B: It’s banned in Europe. Exhibit C: Blue-black lesions are also a possible side effect.

10. Nanoparticles These itty-bitty particles are a new industry favorite despite how little we actually know about them or their safety. According to Dr. Michael DiBartolomeis, a toxicologist and the chief of the California Safe Cosmetics Program, a nano may be able to “get into places it shouldn’t get into—like cells or DNA.” And what else will this cat drag in? Hard to say, but some experts suspect a lot. We certainly wouldn’t want them in the same products as the nine ingredients listed above, would you?

This is a series inspired by No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, a book by Siobhan O'Connor and her Alexandra Spunt.

Read more on their blog

Illustrations by Brianna Harden