11 Common Harmful Ingredients in Skincare

Skincare products are extremely popular. Most women use around twelve personal care products in a single day, many of them containing different harmful ingredients mostly in the form of chemicals.

Skincare specialists have now compiled a list of the harmful ingredients that are present in beauty and skincare products. They search for them on the labels of our skincare products and analyse the connection between these ingredients and certain health problems.

In a separate piece of alarming research, it showed that the skin absorbs up to 60% of the chemicals in products. They then come into direct contact with the bloodstream. What we put on our skin should be as clean as what we eat, but most people are unaware of the situation.

Even when using small amounts of the product, many of the chemicals commonly found can have tremendous health and hormonal impact, and we are a long way from understanding the consequences.

Common harmful skincare ingredients

Most skincare products contain these harmful ingredients:

1. Parabens

Parabens are an inexpensive and common type of preservative used in many different skincare products to keep the product fresh. They also prevent the product from harbouring harmful bacteria.

Parabens resist the growth of bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms in skincare products, particularly in hot and humid conditions. Parabens are natural organic compounds, with concerns over its association with health issues.

There was a scare when parabens were found in breast tumours, but there is no conclusive evidence that the parabens caused the tumours. Skincare and cosmetic companies are facing high pressure from consumers and health practitioners who want them to reduce or remove parabens from their products.

Alternatives to parabens are probably phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, benzoic acid and benzyl alcohol.


Phenoxyethanol found in the EU can reach a concentration of up to 1.0% in all product categories. The SCCS9 recently re-confirmed that it is safe for use and no regulatory uncertainty is identified at mid to long term. The optimum pH should between 4 and 9 and, like the parabens, it has the advantage of being inexpensive. The main disadvantage is that it is incompatible with most non-ionic surfactants.

Sodium benzoate

Sodium benzoate (and benzoic acid), in combination with potassium sorbate, is also an acceptable alternative to parabens. You can see it in:

  • 2.5% in rinse-off products
  • 1.7% in oral care products
  • 0.5% in leave-on products
  • 0.06% and above is effective against yeasts and moulds

This ingredient, together with potassium sorbate, are inexpensive and are abundant in nature.

Benzyl alcohol

Benzyl alcohol is another option. Active against gram+ bacteria from 25 ppm, it is generally combined with acetic acid to better combat yeasts and moulds.

Benzyl alcohol is usually used at up to 1.0% and acetic acid (anhydrous) up to 0.6%. This combination is safest at a pH of between 3 and 5. Incompatibility is low except with the non-ionic surfactants and this combination can be sourced from nature.

2. Formaldehyde

In its pure form, formaldehyde is a colourless gas. It can’t use as a cosmetic ingredient, and usually requires water and then used as formalin. Other ingredients that slowly release formaldehyde may also be added to skincare products as preservatives.

Formaldehyde acts as an anti-bacterial preservative to reduce the growth of bacteria in the product. A minimal amount of formaldehyde is harmless. Formaldehyde is naturally present at low levels in many things, including plants, smoke and food. In low levels, it can be safely and legally used in skincare products.

Nowadays, the cosmetic industry is alternatively using formaldehyde releasers that are a time-release form of formaldehyde because they are more economically feasible. They can cause irritation to the skin. Using a single product containing a formaldehyde-releasing preservative may not pose a health risk, but that product might not be the only source of exposure. Many products that we use on a daily basis contain these ingredients.

Like formaldehyde, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are also known allergens and sensitizers. The commonly used formaldehyde-releasers to avoid are:

  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Bronopol
  • DMDM hydration
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Quaternium-15

3. Sodium lauryl sulphate/ sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)

This is a versatile ingredient, and it consists of non-volatile alcohols. Skincare products contain this ingredient because of their surfactant nature, and its many uses include skin-conditioning agents, emulsifiers, and solvents.

SLS is the ingredient that turns a squirt body wash into a smooth lather. The purpose of this chemical is basically to makes bubbles. This allows the product to cut through oil and residue and leaves your skin feeling beautifully clean.

SLS is one of the most sensitizing ingredients of all cleansing agents used in skincare products. It is a synthetic detergent, emulsifier and an anionic surface-active agent.

As an emulsifier, it helps to stabilize and thicken solutions with ingredients of differing solubility. This allows products to achieve a more uniform viscosity for easier and smoother application. It’s also common in other industries besides cosmetic use. For example, car wash detergents, engine degreasers and floor cleaners.

Natural SLS?

All natural skincare brands that use natural and organic high-quality ingredients in concentrations that nourish skin use premium quality sodium lauryl sulphate in their cleansers. This is because they know it is safe, gentle and effective, even on sensitive skin. Natural sodium lauryl sulphate originates from the flesh of sustainably harvested coconuts. It comes in seven grades, and natural skincare brands will use the highest.

The cheaper and more common “natural” alternatives to SLES, such as decyl glucoside, sodium cocoyl isethionate and sodium cocoyl glutamate are put together in a sulphuric acid reaction, and then sodium hydroxide neutralises it. This reacts with the natural sebum in the skin and clogs the pores. It can also irritate and cause a burning sensation on the skin, especially for those who are prone to acne and those with sensitive skin. Still, most companies use cheap SLS because it’s an inexpensive ingredient that creates a good “lather” effect.

The alternatives to sodium lauryl sulphate would be

  • Ingredients that contain vitamin E
  • Ingredients with antiseptic properties
  • Anti-inflammatory ingredients
  • Those high in allantoin
  • Hydrolyzed wheat benzoic acid
  • Benzyl benzoate

4. Petrolatum

Petrolatum is a rich emollient and FDA-approved skin protectant. It is one of the best ingredients for dry skin, including around the eyes. Cosmetics contain a highly-purified form of this ingredient, so there’s no risk of exposure to unwanted chemicals. A pure form of petrolatum is Vaseline.

For some unknown and unsubstantiated reasons, and despite research to the contrary, petrolatum has gained a negative image when it comes to skincare. Topical application of petrolatum can soothe and beautifully moisturize the skin’s outer layer. Extensive data has shown petrolatum to be a gentle, safe and effective ingredient.

Natural products are difficult to find, therefore expectations of sourcing a natural and organic form of petrolatum are just a pipedream.

Alternative sources are:

  • Waxelene: This feels like Vaseline, but contains soy oil, beeswax, and vitamin E.
  • Alba UN Petroleum: This contains a healthy amount of coconut oil to soothe and heal dry skin.
  • RMS Beauty Raw Coconut Cream: This multi-use product is the raw material of coconut oil, so it contains living enzymes and nutrients that can nourish the skin.
  • Jao Brand Goe Oil: This is not like your average Vaseline-type ointment. It looks and feels similar but contains oils and butters. This product has a great smell.

5. Coal tar

Coal tar can treat itching, scaling and flaking caused by psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis. The proposed mechanism is the interference of the C-fibre nerve transmission of substance P. Substance P is a generalized cytokine that researchers associated with any anti-inflammatory condition, especially in the case of the skin.

Coal tar belongs to the group of drugs known as the keratoplastics class. It works by causing the skin to shed dead cells and by slowing down the growth of skin cells.

It is believed that almost 10,000 different compounds make up coal tar but only 400 or so are identified. The main compounds making up crude coal tar are 48% hydrocarbons, 42% carbon and 10% water. In its natural form coal tar is a thick, light black, viscous liquid with a characteristic smell.

According to the research, coal tar may irritate, redden or dry the skin. However, the FDA maintains that OTC products containing coal tar in concentrations between 0.5% and 5% are safe and effective for psoriasis, and there is no scientific evidence that the tar in OTC products is carcinogenic.

6. Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is an aromatic compound in skincare products that acts as a skin lightening agent. It bleaches the skin and can be helpful in the treatment of different forms of hyperpigmentation. It decreases the number of melanocytes present. Melanocytes are the cells that form melanin, which is what produces the skin’s colour. It helps hyperpigmentation which includes acne scars, age spots, freckles, melisma, and post-inflammatory marks from psoriasis and eczema.

Instead of using a chemical agent like hydroquinone, alternative natural skin-lightening products are available. These include one or more of the following:


Vitamins A and C in anti-aging products helps brighten the skin and improve the overall skin tone. When used over time, antioxidants may also help in hyperpigmentation.

Plant-based acids.

Contrary to popular belief, acids aren’t always chemically based. Instead, many are plant-based. For hyperpigmentation, you can try kojic acid or ellagic acids. These work by slowing down the skin’s melanin production.

Vitamin B3.

Generally labelled as “niacinamide,” this ingredient has the potential to prevent darker areas of pigmentation from rising to the surface of the skin.

7. Triclosan

Triclosan is useful in skincare products because of its antibacterial and antifungal properties. It was first used in hospital cleansers decades ago. People began to recognize how effective it was as an antimicrobial agent and started adding it to several other products.

However, according to the Food and Drug Administration, there is little evidence that the antimicrobial effects of triclosan provide any additional benefit over other regular products.

As an alternative to triclosan, the greatest opportunity is for probiotics, since there is no alternative to triclosan currently in use. Western European markets are already saturated with salicylic acid as the key active ingredient in antibacterial skincare products, which limits the potential market penetration of probiotics.

8. Oxybenzone

Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3 or BP-3) is an organic compound that is useful in stabilizing and strengthening the colour and scent of skincare products, but its most important use is in the form of sunblock. It absorbs UV Beta and UV Alpha rays and is common in regular lotion sunscreens and makeup foundations with an SPF. It easily dissolves into lotions and creams, producing an easily absorbed product which protects the skin from the sun.

Unfortunately, the debate about the safe use of oxybenzone is still ongoing. One of the biggest concerns in the medical community about the widespread use of the compound comes from the fact that the body easily absorbs it. This absorption raises concerns that oxybenzone may accumulate in the body, eventually leading to potentially toxic levels which may affect the endocrine system.

Safe alternatives of oxybenzone are the following:

  • Non-nano zinc oxide or Non-nano titanium dioxide, which are both UV resistant. These are the common substitutes in sunscreens for the chemicals of known concerns listed above.
  • Cover up and find shade. This can be an excellent way to protect your skin from damaging sun rays.
  • Avoid the strongest sun. Go outside early in the morning and in the later afternoon when the sun is not at its strongest to avoid the most intense sun exposure.
  • Look for the MADE SAFE seal on packages.

9. Phthalates

Phthalates work as softeners in skincare products. Several research studies have proved that phthalates have some harmful effects on hormones.

If you want to avoid these chemicals, it’s not easy. Manufacturers aren’t required to list the specific chemicals that make up fragrances, and those fragrances can often contain phthalates, which help make smells last longer.

Alternatives to phthalates:

  • Diethyl Phthalate (CAS 84-66-2) which is useful as a solvent and a fixative in fragrances as the alternative to diethyl phthalate in personal care products.
  • Di Propylene Glycol is an excellent, inexpensive and odourless alternative. It is a better solvent than propylene glycol.
  • Isopropyl Myristate also represents a well-known option.
  • Benzyl Benzoate
  • Resins

10. Fragrances

The fragrance does not just refer to perfumes; any product that smells good would most likely have fragrance added to it, and chances are, it’s all chemicals. These include labels such as fragrance, perfrume, parfum, or aroma.

You’d notice some label their aromas as “natural”. However, not all “natural” scents are completely natural. In fact, most scents are made from chemicals derived from petroleum or coal which irritate the nose and the skin. Some can even cause allergic reactions and can be dangerous for people with respiratory issues.

Why do manufacturers use them?

Companies use artificial fragrances because it is a lot cheaper than extracting natural scents. Not only so, most people would be attracted to a product that smells good, which is why companies would go to the effort to add fragrances to products in an attempt to draw in customers.

What’s more, most cosmetic and skincare products do not smell good on its own either, therefore creating a need for fragrances to cover up any unpleasant smells.

For a natural alternative, best to use natural scents. These are namely essential oils that are extracted from natural ingredients such as flowers and would be a healthier choice as a fragrance.

Note of caution:

It is actually advised that products without scents are the best, especially for those with allergies. Natural scents might also contain allergens that could still cause an allergic reaction. But if you’re somebody who loves fragrances and has no allergy issues, do feel free to go ahead with natural scents!

11. Alcohol

It may come as a surprise to some to find that alcohol is actually considered a harmful skincare ingredient since it is widely used in the beauty industry. Not all alcohols are harmful to us, however. The ones in question here are what we call “drying” alcohols. Some people might claim that products containing these “drying” alcohols do show results and therefore is not harmful to the skin.

Prolonged usage of alcohol will leave the skin dry and flake as it eats away at the skin surface. This unnecessary stress on the skin will lead to the interruption of the skin renewal cycle, hence resulting in an extremely unhealthy skin condition.

There are market indications that alcohol should be used for people with oily skin types, since these type of skincare claim to prevent pimples caused by oily skin. However, most find an increase in blemishes due to damage was done by the alcohol instead of getting better.

Alcohol in cosmetics

To ensure a smooth finish to a product, manufacturers often utilise alcohol as a solvent to mix different ingredients together. The low evaporation point of alcohol also makes it particularly useful in certain cosmetics that require drying fast. Despite its many negative effects, alcohol does help the skin to absorb products better, which is why it is used in some creams and lotions.

Identify “drying” Alcohols through Ethanol, SD alcohol, Methanol, Denatured alcohol, Ethyl Alcohol. You can read in more detail of alcohol in skincare here.

As mentioned above, not all of the alcohols used in the beauty industry are harmful. In fact, a natural alternative to the harmful skincare ingredient is actually a healthier version of alcohols. These are called “fatty” alcohols and are derived from natural fats and oils. These “fatty” alcohols do not damage skin and would, in fact, help to moisturise and nourish skin!

Word of caution: People with sensitive skin should still be wary of any alcohol based products, “drying” or “fatty” as they might still do damage to the skin.

In conclusion

The products used in skincare products are chemical carcinogens. Try to avoid eating these chemicals which may disturb the GIT as well as other parts of the system. These products have many harmful factors which may have negative effects, therefore it’s a good idea to take precautionary steps to avoid excessive usage.

It is true that it’s mostly the aromatic compounds that are a cause of cancer. Most skincare products have them as an almost mandatory part of their ingredients. Research shows us that these compounds are carcinogenic and should be tested and analysed for all harmful factors before being used in skincare products.

Use organic and natural alternatives which are available. Because these products are today a necessary part of our daily lives we cannot avoid them totally, but we can limit their use and avoid their worst impacts. Try to use them as little as possible

All in all, for great looking skin, consume a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables which are easily available and have no side effects.