Ingredients To Avoid In Skincare Products

It was a little over two years ago when I started really paying attention to the ingredients in the skincare products I used everyday. The skin is our body’s largest organ, and some of what we place on top of the outer layer is ultimately absorbed into our bodily systems. Skincare products are things we use on a regular basis, so the ingredients in them are important to consider.

A question I’m often asked from those looking to begin their non-toxic skincare and makeup journey is “what ingredients should I avoid?” Being aware of what penetrates the skin can help you avoid skin irritation as well as the potential health issues that can arise from toxic chemicals and harmful ingredients in skincare and cosmetic products. While I probably could have made this list even longer, I decided to focus on the main ones I look out for (Follain’s Restricted Ingredient List is a great resource as well). Here are some of the ingredients to avoid in skincare products. 

Ingredients To Avoid in Skincare Products

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

This ingredient is commonly called a surfactant. It allows the oil and water molecules of many skincare and cosmetic products, such as soap or face wash, to bind together all the other compounds. It’s mostly found in products that foam, so look out for it when shopping for shampoo, face cleansing foam, or liquid foaming soap. 

This ingredient results in harm to the skin because it weakens the defense mechanism of the outer layer of the dermis. It has an irritating effect on the skin and can cause red, itchy, or dry patches. This study shows that 3 and a half out of 7 people suffered from skin irritation when exposed to this compound. 


Known as one of the main endocrine disruptors, this synthetic antimicrobial agent mimics and interferes with the body’s hormones (endocrine system). You can find it in soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, body wash, and many face washes. It was even banned from antibacterial soap by the FDA in 2016. 

Triclosan can inflame your colon, causes thyroid problems, and has been linked with adverse birth outcomes in epidemiological studies. It is best to avoid this endocrine disrupter and beware of the compounds present in your personal care products. 


This ingredient is widely found in sunscreens and deodorants and has been linked to a variety of health issues. It is a toxic metal-based compound that functions as an endocrine disruptor. It is known to interfere with the well-being of the central and peripheral nervous system. 

Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, hormonal disruption, brain disorders, oxidative damage in the skin, and neurotoxicity are the health issues most associated with this ingredient. This study details some of those effects in greater detail. 


A glycol commonly found in products listed with “fragrance.” Potential health issues from exposure include reduced fertility, low birth weight and skin irritation.

Coal Tar Dye, known as P-Phenylenediamine

This compound is actually a mixture of many other chemicals derived from petroleum. The main concern with this ingredient is its potential to cause cancer. It can also be contaminated with moderate levels of heavy metals. Which means, it could have a toxic effect on the brain as Aluminium does. 

They are often found in lipsticks, hair dye, and tinted anti-aging or moisturizing creams. This study actually linked it to skin irritation besides the other health risks. 


Formaldehyde is a clear, effectively flammable gas. Manufacturers use it in anti-aging cream, moisturizer, toner, nail polish and eyelash glue. It is used as a preservative for the other compounds, but its side effects on your skin are not worth the later expiration date.

Its effects include watery eyes, difficulty in breathing, skin irritation, and burning in the nose when inhaled. The International Agency for Research on Cancer actually classified it as a human carcinogen. It has also been linked to developmental toxicity, asthma, and as a potential allergy trigger. Read more about it here on this piece by the American Cancer Society. 


Another one of the many endocrine disruptors is Phthalates. This compound can be found in things like synthetic fragrance and hairsprays. The potential side effects of being exposed to this aggressive ingredient include breast cancer and reproductive birth defects in both males and females. This study goes in-depth about the effects. 

It is difficult to spot this compound in many personal care and cosmetic products thanks to the way it’s often hidden inside the “fragrance” label. Fragrance ingredients do not need to be listed individually on cosmetic labels, because they are considered “trade secrets.” This is a way for companies to conceal potentially harmful ingredients in their products. Your best bet to avoid it is to ask your preferred brands about it and stick to cosmetic companies you trust when shopping for new skincare products. 

Polyethylene glycols (Also known as PEG)

Skincare manufacturer use polyethylene glycols as softeners, thickeners, moisture-providing agents, skin penetration enhancers, and are also surfactants. Its raw materials implemented to develop these polyethylene glycol compounds can often be derived from gas or coal, making them a hazard to your skin and body. They usually appear as PEG on labels. PEGs can be found in everything from hair products to foundations.

Producers use ethylene oxide in PEG which risks cross-contamination on a regular basis. These non-intentionally added ingredients are linked to multiple types of cancer. Check the link to read more on this subject. 

Mineral oil

The word “mineral” might make it sound fine, but mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum distillation. Indeed, the same petroleum your car uses as its main fuel. You will find it in creams, lotions, face masks, and other skincare products. 

This ingredient coats your skin, therefore clogging pores and not allowing your cutis to breathe. This clogging increases your chances of suffering from acne and other dermis-related disorders. Read more about it in this study. 


Parabens are mainly used as a preservative to prevent a product from spoiling however there are studies that show parabens are a hormone disruptor. They have been linked to reproductive issues and an increased risk of breast cancer. They can be found in everything from makeup to moisturizers, however many brands have found effective alternatives to parabens to prevent microbial growth or preservative free products that have a shorter shelf life than something with parabens.

Did you notice any of these ingredients in your everyday skincare or makeup products? 

I hope this list has helped you recognize some potentially harmful and toxic ingredients in skincare and beauty products. It can be overwhelming to constantly try and read ingredient lists for every new skincare product. I like to shop brands and stores where I know the standards for the product ingredients like Follain, products labeled Clean at Sephora, and Credo Beauty to name a few.

The exciting thing is there are tons of amazing clean beauty and skincare brands (I realize the word “clean” also has no standard definition across the industry which creates confusion as well). I have discovered so many incredible brands over the last few years from haircare to skincare and makeup (and I have shared many of them here!). Here’s a few blog posts you may be interested in (and some of my favorite clean skincare products at the moment).

My Favorite Natural Deodorants

Two Amazing Products For Dry Skin and Fine Lines

My Top 5 Holy Grail Products from Sephora

9 Black Owned Clean Beauty Brands

My Favorite Clean Haircare Products

My Current Clean Beauty Skincare Routine

Disclosure: if you buy something through my links, I may earn an affiliate commission. Thank you for your support of this blog.

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  1. Casey wrote:

    I really enjoy this blog and have a lot of respect for you, but this feels like some really unfortunate fear-mongering. “Clean” beauty is a marketing tactic developed by brands. I highly recommend reading some of what Caroline Hirons, Dr. Ranella Hirsch, and Charlotte Palermino have shared regarding this topic – it might change your perspective.

    3.31.21 | Reply
    • Jess wrote:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Casey. That was definitely not my intention which is also why I mentioned that the word clean has no definition or standard across the industry. I will definitely take a look at what you’ve shared. I focused this post on ingredients where there is science and research associated with the claims. Ultimately it’s up to the consumer to make their own decisions.

      3.31.21 | Reply
    • LynnW wrote:

      I have to agree with Casey on this one. Also enjoy your blog very much and the variety of content.

      3.31.21 | Reply
      • Olivia wrote:

        Glad to see this discussion! Jess, longtime follower here. The YouTube channel Lab Muffin Beauty Science has a good video about clean beauty and ingredient safety (even touching on some of the above listed ingredients)– this was a helpful introduction to the topic for me.

        4.21.21 | Reply