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This glossary covers commonly recognized, potentially toxic ingredients in cosmetics.

We suggest definitely avoiding the “10 Major Offenders” in the first section.

The second section lists ingredients that are definitely questionable in terms of safety and to be avoided when possible.

10 Major Offenders

#1 Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS and SLES)

Found in: just about anything that foams; shampoo, body wash, face wash, hand soap, toothpaste, bubble bath.

A foaming agent used to break down water in grease. It’s so powerful that it’s also used in concrete floor cleaners, engine degreasers, and car wash detergents. A well-known skin irritant, it is rapidly absorbed and retained in the eyes, brain, heart and liver, which may result in harmful long-term effects. It can slow healing, cause cataracts in adults, and prevent children’s eyes from developing properly, corrode hair follicles and impair ability to grow hair. These surfactants that can cause skin irritation or trigger allergies. SLES is often contaminated with formaldehyde releasing 1,4-dioxane, a byproduct of a petrochemical process called ethoxylation.

#2 Petroleum/Paraffin/Mineral Oil

Found in: baby oil, lip balm, lip stick, lip gloss, mascara, moisturizers, concealer, foundation, face powder, hair gel, body wash, eye shadow, paraffin treatments, petroleum jelly, and hair conditioner

A petrochemical pollutant derived from crude oil, found in an overwhelming number of products. It seals off the skin creating a barrier which feels slick, but doesn’t allow the skin to breath, which is essential for the proper functioning of this organ. Ultimately causes slowing down skin’s function and normal cell development, resulting in premature aging and many other health and skin disorders such as contact dermatitis.

#3 Formaldehyde

Found in: nail polish, shampoo, body wash, eyelash glue, and hair products, the Brazilian Blowout and other straightening treatments

You won’t find this listed as “formaldehyde” except perhaps in a few remaining brands of nail polish.

It hides behind ingredient names such as: quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol), glyoxal and oxaldehyde.

Recognized by the EPA as a carcinogen, it’s linked to lung cancers, Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia, and myeloid leukemia. It permeates through inhalation and can also cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; reproductive and developmental toxicity; asthma; neurologic and behavioral toxicity; and immunological toxicity. It’s banned for use in cosmetics in Sweden and Japan.

#4 Hydroquinone

Found in: skin lightening creams

A skin lightening chemical that inhibits the production of melanin and is a linked to cancer, organ toxicity and skin irritation.

#5 Mercury (Thimerosal and Merthiolate)

Found in: ear and eye drops; may be used in mascara

Metallic element used as a preservative and antiseptic known to damage brain function.

#6 Parabens (Isobutylparaben, Butylparaben, Methylparaben, Propylparaben)

Found in: almost every type of personal care product

Parabens preservatives commonly used to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. They can mimic the hormone estrogen disrupting the endocrine system, which is known to play a role in the development of breast cancers. Parabens can cause skin irritation and contact dermatitis and Rosacea in individuals with paraben allergies. Studies indicate that methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with UVB leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage. These chemicals are also endocrine disruptors and have been linked to fertility problems.

#7 Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP)

Found in: Found in: synthetic fragrance, nail polish, hairspray.

A class of plasticizing chemicals used to make products more pliable or to make fragrances stick to skin. Phthalates disrupt the endocrine system and may cause birth defects. They have been linked to damage of the kidneys, lungs, and liver, as well. (see also Synthetic Fragrances)

#8 Synthetic Fragrance/Parfum

Found in: almost any type of personal care product

The synthetic fragrances used in cosmetics can have as many as 200 ingredients. There is no way to know what the chemicals are because formulas are protected under federal law’s classification of trade secrets. On the label it will simply read “fragrance.” Some problems caused by these chemicals include including hormone disruption, headaches, dizziness, rash, hyperpigmentation, violent coughing, vomiting, skin irritation—the list goes on. Don’t buy a cosmetic that has the word “fragrance” on the ingredients label. Look for labels that say, “phthalate–free”.

#9 Propylene Glycol

Found in: cosmetics, baby wipes, lotion, toothpaste, shampoo, and deodorant

Propylene Glycol will cause serious health conditions, including liver and heart damage and damage to the central nervous system if sufficient is absorbed by the body. Used in anti-freeze solutions, in brake and hydraulic fluids, as a de-icer, and as a solvent. There is no difference between the propylene glycol used in industry and that used in personal care products. It has been known to cause allergic reactions, hives and eczema.

#10 Triclosan

Found in: antibacterial products such as soap, hand sanitizer, deodorants, toothpaste, and cosmetics

Studies have shown that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor and enables bacteria to become antibiotic-resistant. The CDC states that it is found in 75% of the population’s urine. The American Medical Association advises against the use of antibacterial soap at home to prevent the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibacterial soap has been found no more effective than regular soap. Antimicrobial pesticides toxic to the aquatic environment; may also impact human reproductive systems.

If this feels like a lot to remember, get a wallet-sized shopping guide you can print and take to the store for reference.

It’s included in our FREE Toss The Toxins Toolkit!



Found in: nail polish

A volatile petrochemical solvent that is toxic to the immune system and can cause birth defects.

Benzalkonium chloride

Found in: sunscreens, moisturizers

A disinfectant used as a preservative and surfactant associated with severe skin, eye and respiratory irritation and allergies.

BenzophenoneA possible human carcinogen and hormone disruptor used as a fragrance ingredient and to absorb ultraviolet light.

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Found in: plastic bottles, lining of aluminum food cans, possibly in eyeshadow and styling gel

A hormone disruptor that may also alter DNA, used in plastics and resins.


Found in: fragrance, hair color

A solvent used to control viscosity, or a “fragrance” additive. It irritates skin and may cause cancer and reproductive toxicity. (See also Synthetic Fragrance)


Synthetic antioxidants used to extend shelf life. They are likely carcinogens and hormone disruptors, and may cause liver damage. Found in: lipsticks, moisturizers, diaper creams, and other cosmetics.

Bismuth Oxychloride

Found in: mineral powder makeup

While this may not be a truly toxic ingredient, it is an irritant to about 80% of people causing irritation and sensitization such as redness, itching, rashes and inflammation. Because of its molecular crystalline shape, many people experience itching from this ingredient, particularly when they sweat.


Found in: cosmetics with reddish dyes and colorings

It’s an insect based ingredient. Crushed beetles to be specific. Companies use it for color instead of other FD & C, Coal Tar derived ingredients which are considered toxic. Vegans and those with allergies or sensitivities to insects and/or their bites should steer clear of items containing carmine.

Coal Tar (Aminophenol, Diaminobenzene, Phenylenediamine)

Found in: hair dye, shampoo, colorant in cosmetics

Coal tar tar ingredients are known carcinogens. It is used as a colorant and an anti-dandruff agent.

Cyclomethicone and Dimethicone

Found in: skin care, foundation, tinted moisturizer

Ingredients Cyclomethicone or those ending in -siloxane are known endocrine disrupters which can harm reproductive and immune systems. They have the potential to bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms. Dimethicone contains residual amounts of -siloxane toxic ingredients.

Diazolidinyl Urea and Imidazolidinyl Urea

Found in skin, body and hair products, antiperspirants and nail polish

These formaldehyde-forming preservatives can cause joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches, chest pain, chronic fatigue, dizziness, insomnia and asthma. They can also weaken the immune system and can even cause cancer.

DEA, MEA and TEA (Diethanolamine, Cocamide and Triethanolamine)

Found in: in most personal care products that foam, including bubble baths, body washes, shampoos, soaps and facial cleansers. Also in hair dyes, mascara, foundation, fragrances, sunscreens, dry cleaning solvents, paint.

Ingredients which are linked with kidney, liver, and other organ damage according to several government-funded research studies. They can cause hormone disruption, irritation of the eyes, skin, respiratory tract, sore throat, asthma and allergic contact dermatitis. surfactants and pH adjuster linked to allergies, skin toxicity, hormone disruption, and inhibited fetal brain development.

EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid)

Found in: hair color, moisturizers

A binding agent added to cosmetics to improve stability. May be toxic to organs.

Methyl cellosolve (or methoxyethanol)

Found in: anti-aging creams

Fragrance ingredient and solvent that is an irritant and a possible neurotoxin, developmental toxin, and cause of DNA mutations that could lead to cancer.

Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone

Found in: shampoo, conditioner, body wash

A chemical preservatives that are among the most common irritants, sensitizers and causes of contact skin allergies.


Found in: sunscreen, moisturizers, foundation and lipsticks with SPF

Sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber linked to irritation, sensitization and allergies, and possible hormone disruption.


Found in: cosmetics, skin care and hair care

This ingredient is widely used as a preservative and an alternative to parabens. It’s still a controversial ingredient because isn’t of major concern for most people, though some do have skin, eye or throat reactions to it. The EU considers this toxic when used in products for the mouth area.

Polyethylene glycol (PEG compounds)

Found in: shampoo, body wash, bubble bath, foaming cleansers, creams, sunscreen

Used in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers. Depending on manufacturing processes, PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which are both carcinogens. It’s purpose is to dissolve oil and grease. PEG’s can strip the natural oils of the skin leaving the immune system vulnerable. They are also potentially carcinogenic. A by-product of manufacturing that is a probable human carcinogen (a known animal carcinogen) as well as toxic to organs and the respiratory system, and a skin irritant. Likely to be present where ethoxylated ingredients like sodium laureth sulfate, PEGs, and ceteareth are listed on ingredient labels.

PVP/VA copolymer

Found in: hairspray and cosmetics

Petroleum derived and considered toxic.


Found in: hair color

A colorant and fragrance ingredient that is a skin irritant, toxic to the immune system and organs, and suspected to cause hormone disruption.

Retinyl palmitate and Retinol (Vitamin A)

Found in: anti-aging and blemish control skin care

A nutrient that may damage DNA and speed the growth of skin tumors when used topically. Reports are very mixed on this topic though.

Synthetic Color

Found in: cosmetics

Used to make cosmetics “pretty,” synthetic colors, along with synthetic hair dyes, should be avoided as many can be carcinogenic. They will be labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number. Example: FD&C Red No. 6 / D&C Green No. 6.


Found in: cosmetic powders, eyeshadow, blush, baby powder

Its particles are similar to asbestos and data suggests that it can cause tumors in the lungs as probable respiratory toxin in large amounts.