11 Common Harmful Skincare Ingredients And Their Natural Alternatives

When it comes to skincare products, one of the most crucial points to note is the ingredient list. Why so? Because in thousands of products that we are exposed to, harmful skincare ingredients hide under different names and promised benefits. Today, we explore some common harmful skincare ingredients that might be lurking in our most basic beauty products.

Parabens

Next, let us talk about another harmful skincare ingredient – in fact, they are surrounded by much controversy. None other than parabens, these are basically chemical preservatives that are very common in the beauty industry.

TRUE OR FALSE? 

Possible carcinogenicity

TRUE

breasts cancer ribbon

Some researches have found that when absorbed in moderate amounts, parabens could very well prove to be toxic! Researches have also found that parabens mimic estrogen, a hormone thought to cause breast cancer. With similar properties, it is possible that parabens can also cause breast cancer when used on a regular basis. Although many would claim that the risk of cancer from the usage of parabens is low or non-existent, the fact still stands that parabens remain in the blood when absorbed and with its possible carcinogenicity, it could very well be a cause of cancer.

Why do manufacturers still use them?

The most simple and true answer would be that parabens are the cheapest but yet most effective choice as a preservative. Furthermore, parabens are declared safe for human usage, which basically gives manufacturers the “all-clear” usage pass.

Look out for – ingredient names that end with “-paraben”, “methyl-“, “ethyl-“.

A Natural Alternative

Most would agree that the closest alternative would be essential oils such as clove, tea leaf and thyme. With their anti-bacterial qualities, essential oils can serve as a healthier ingredient to prolong the life of a product.

Formaldehyde

Being a known human carcinogen, this is one harmful skincare ingredient you should definitely keep an eye out for. Often lurking in products under a different name, formaldehyde is usually used as a preservative in skincare and other cosmetics. Even though it has been used at relatively low levels, the skincare ingredient can still prove harmful to us in the long run.

TRUE OR FALSE?

a) Skin irritation

TRUE

eyes irritation children

Formaldehyde is known for skin irritation when used in beauty products, such as scalp burns. The ingredient aggravates the skin and also irritates other parts of the body like the eyes and the nose.

b) Causes cancer

TRUE

This harmful skincare ingredient has been proven a carcinogen and is related to skin and pancreatic cancer, as well as a possible cause of leukaemia.

Why do manufacturers still use them?

Formaldehyde is able to act as a preservative as it prevents the growth of bacteria in the product. Besides, formaldehyde is not added directly to the skincare product. It is usually released over time by a water solution called formalin that is usually added instead of formaldehyde. Additionally, formaldehyde is widely believed to be harmless when used in minimal amounts.

Look out for – formaldehyde, formalin, bromopol, glyoxal

A Natural Alternative

Similar to parabens, formaldehyde is a preservative and hence can be replaced with the same alternatives as parabens. As mentioned above, essential oils are a great and healthier choice as a preservative rather than parabens or formaldehyde.

Sodium Dodecyl Sulfate

shampoo SLS foam

Also commonly known as Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS), this harmful skincare ingredient is another one to be cautious of in the beauty industry. Mostly present in shampoos, cleansers and bubble baths, this cosmetic ingredient is a known irritant but yet still widely used in products.

TRUE OR FALSE?

a) Skin Irritant

TRUE

dandruff

As mentioned, SLS is a known skin irritant that can cause dry and flaking skin, allergies and redness. This is due to its harsh nature as a detergent that would remove natural oils from your skin when used. The use of SLS also results in dermatitis, dandruff and other skin issues, and proves to be particularly hazardous to people with sensitive skin.

b) Has no link to cancer

FALSE

Although not much evidence has been found to concretely prove that SLS is cancerous, it is worth noting that SLS does have possible links to cancer, with its potential to create a carcinogen called nitrosamines. This happens when SLS is mixed with another chemical called triethanolamine, which is also used in skincare products.

Why do manufacturers still use them?

SLS acts as a surfactant, meaning it traps dirt and makes it easy to rinse off. This gives a fresh and clean feeling when used in cleansers and soaps. Not only that, SLS creates a rich lather that most of us would enjoy when we are bathing.

Look out for – Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium lauryl sulfate, Sodium dodecyl sulfate

A Natural Alternative

soapwort

As its name suggests, soapwort is nature’s own soap. This natural ingredient is gentle but yet cleanses the skin, making it a great alternative to SLS.

Alcohol

Alcohol hand sainitizer

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.

TRUE OR FALSE?

a) Improves skin health

FALSE

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.

b) Decrease in blemishes

FALSE

Many people with oily skin would be tempted to use alcohol-based products since they claim to prevent pimples caused by oily skin, only to find an increase in blemishes due to damage was done by the alcohol.

c) Degreasing

FALSE

There’s even worse news for people with oily skin: Alcohol makes it worse. Expect oilier, shiny skin that eventually becomes dull and marked with blemishes. While it is true that these alcohols do quickly degrease the skin with a matte finish, they would eventually create havoc on the skin when used in the long run, rendering the degreasing effect useless.

Why do manufacturers use them?

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

A Natural Alternative

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.

Fragrance

fragrance

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!

TRUE OR FALSE

“Natural” aroma

FALSE

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.

Look out for – Fragrance, perfume, parfum, aroma.

A Natural Alternative

Essential Oil

The answer would, of course, be 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!

Petrolatum

lip balm

Most of us would have encountered this ingredient before since it is mainly used in lip balms and moisturizers. While petroleum jelly may be safe for human usage, its main ingredient – petrolatum – is definitely not as safe as it seems.

TRUE OR FALSE

a) Safe for human usage

FALSE

While refined petrolatum might be approved for human usage, there are still risks of contamination when using this ingredient. Amidst the cheap imitations and mass production, you can never be sure of how much care went into refining the ingredients.

b) Moisturising properties

FALSE

Most beauty companies would assure you of the moisturizing properties associated with petrolatum-based products, but the truth is slightly different. Yes, petrolatum creates a barrier that retains moisture, but it also prevents the skin from absorbing external moisture, hence suffocating the skin and eventually drying it out.

Why do manufacturers use them?

Petrolatum-based products are fast-acting, giving quick but temporary results. When used, this harmful skincare ingredient gives the illusion that the skin is soft and hydrated, yet in reality, the skin is dried out under the thick barrier formed.

Look out for – Mineral oil, Paraffin wax, Benzene, names that end with ‘-eth’

A Natural Alternative

If you are looking for a natural moisturizer, coconut oil is a good place to start! Not only does it retain moisture, coconut oil is also light on the skin and can be used for all skin types. Bonus: It has also been found to have anti-oxidant properties to reverse skin age!

Coal Tar

lip stick

Have you ever wondered about the diverse range of colours available for cosmetics? Well, the harsh truth is, that shade of shocking pink lipstick is definitely not natural, and neither are the ingredients used. Most artificial colours are made from coal tar, which is definitely a harmful skincare ingredient on most lists.

TRUE OR FALSE

a) Not carcinogenic

FALSE

Studies have shown that coal tar is a carcinogen. Even though minimal amounts are used in cosmetics and deemed “safe”, there has never been a study done on the long-term use of the harmful skin care ingredient when applied externally.

b) Harmful to skin health

TRUE

Coal tar itself is an extremely heavy substance. Needless to say, coal-based ingredients would weigh down on your skin, causing irritation and inducing acne and allergic breakouts.

Why do manufacturers use them?

The constant demand for new and fresher range of colours have led companies in a search for substances that can meet the consumers’ desires. Coal tar is the answer to many companies as it provides the base for vibrant and brighter colours that draw in consumers like bees to honey.

What to look out for – FD&C or D&C, chemical colours ( BLUE 1, GREEN 3, etc.)

A Natural Alternative

Natural dyes might not have the same range of vibrant and crazy colours, but it definitely is a better choice when it boils down to ingredients. Dyes derived from plants may just surprise you with the range of colours available!

Hydroquinone

This is one sneaky harmful ingredient hiding behind said benefits. Commonly found in lightening products, hydroquinone promises to lighten those dark and stubborn blemishes on the skin. But at what price?

TRUE OR FALSE?

a) Lightens skin

TRUE…YET FALSE

whitening skin

This skincare ingredient uses a harmful manner to achieve its results, namely, by reducing melanin in the skin. This may sound harmless but it actually has an enormous impact on the skin health. Basically, hydroquinone destroys your skin through its forced and harsh alteration of the skin, leading to skin problems, more blemishes, and even pre-aging.

b) Skin irritation

TRUE

Just as with many of the harmful skincare ingredients on the list, hydroquinone irritates the skin, possibly causing more blemishes than removing.

c) No side effects

FALSE

Hydroquinone is a possible cause of a skin disease called “ochronosis”, where patches of black or blue are left on the skin..permanently. Not to mention, hydroquinone is also a possible carcinogen and may contain other toxic substances.

Why do manufacturers use it?

As mentioned, the harmful skincare ingredient does lighten the skin when removing melanin, giving the illusion that the chemical is working its magic, therefore attracting more consumers.

Look out for – Hydroquinone or tocopheryl acetate

A Natural Alternative

A good source of natural skin lightening ingredients would be from the plant’s extracts. Consider using bearberry extract as an alternative ingredient, which contains a substance named arbutin that has a similar lightening effect on the skin!

Triclosan

You’ll be surprised at how many products this harmful skincare ingredient is used in. Found in soaps and detergents to even some skincare products, triclosan is an ingredient under much scrutiny over its use and effects.

TRUE OR FALSE?

a) Toxic to the body

TRUE

According to researchers, triclosan has been found linked to several allergies such as skin and eye irritation and is related to hormone disruption in the bodies. Not only so, it runs the risk of being contaminated with other toxic substances such as chloroform.

b) Environmental hazard

TRUE

First off, triclosan accumulates in the environment due to its slow breakdown. It is also a potentially toxic substance to marine life and would most likely adversely affect the ecosystem.

Why do manufacturers use it?

Despite the negative connotations associated with the harmful skincare ingredient, many manufacturers still utilize triclosan due to its strong anti-bacterial properties. As an effective bacterial killer, the harmful skincare ingredient could be used as a strong preservative in cosmetics to prolong shelf life and prevent the growth of mold or bacteria. It is often used in soaps as an anti-bacterial to kill off germs.

What to look out for – Triclosan (TSC), triclocarban (TCC)

A Natural Alternative

honey for skincare

This may come as a surprise, but honey is actually a great alternative to triclosan! Firstly, the anti-bacterial properties of honey are comparable to that of triclosan and secondly, honey is completely natural! You can even use honey in daily skincare for cleansing and moisturizing.

Oxybenzone

applying sunscreen on the face

Sunblock, or sunscreen, is a must-have for everyone who lives in a country with plenty of sunlight. Known as oxybenzone, this harmful skincare ingredient is mainly used in sunscreen products and chances are, most of us would have been exposed to it by now.

TRUE OR FALSE?

a) Mild to little skin allergies

FALSE

Sunscreen is something that has to be applied frequently and hence would have to be gentle on the skin. However, oxybenzone has been found to cause severe skin allergies, redness and irritation.

b) Hormone disruptor

TRUE

Studies have shown that oxybenzone mimic the hormone estrogen, and could cause hormone disruption leading to more serious problems.

Why do manufacturers still use it?

Most importantly, oxybenzone does provide coverage and protection from UV rays. The substance is also easily absorbed into the skin without the typical stickiness and residue left behind by some sunscreens, hence making it high in demand among consumers.

Look out for – Oxybenzone, “benzophenone-3”, “BP-3”

A Natural Alternative

coconut oil

Coconut oil not only works as a natural moisturizer, it can be also applied as a natural sunscreen. The SPF coverage might not be as powerful as oxybenzone but coconut oil is definitely healthier and would block out harmful sun rays while keeping your skin radiant and moisturized.

Phthalates

This harmful skincare ingredient is what we call a plasticiser, used in skincare products and cosmetics to keep it soft and pliable. Used over a wide range of skincare products and cosmetics, phthalates have been surrounded by scepticism and rumors after concerns were expressed about the effects of constant exposure to the ingredient.

TRUE OR FALSE?

a) Hormone disrupters

TRUE

Usage of phthalates have been found to disrupt hormones, especially in men and children, and possibly cause adverse effects to the reproductive system.

b) Linked to many health issues

TRUE

The harmful skincare ingredient might not be directly linked to any diseases but it has been found to have relations with quite a few health issues, such as diabetes, ADHD and even cancer.

Why do manufacturers still use it?

broken make up

Most consumers would choose products that are durable and not brittle. In order to meet these demands, most manufacturers turn to phthalates to make cosmetics flexible and less easy to break.

Look out for – Phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP, fragrance

A Natural Alternative

As of now, there is no clear and concise alternative for the skincare ingredient, but there are other healthier polymers that are currently used in place of phthalates. For now, it would be advisable to simply avoid anything containing phthalates.

Be a wise consumer

As the saying goes, “all that glitters is not gold”. Before buying any products, it would always be wise to double check the ingredients used, no matter how tempting the results sound. Some products may sound too good to be true and do provide results, but over time eventually prove detrimental to not just your skin condition but also your health. With so many types of skincare available and the sheer number of ingredients, it can be difficult to pick out what exactly is healthy and what is not.