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Ingredient Watch List: What's In Your Skincare?


Skincare formulas need a synergy of components in order to work. Each ingredient has a job —either to benefit the skin or to increase the efficiency of the product.

However, not all skincare is created equal and it's really important to read labels before you buy. Unless you're buying from small, clean beauty brands, most products are mass-produced. This means that the amount of beneficial ingredients that make it into the finished product after the manufacturing process are minuscule.

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Add this to the amount of preservatives, sulfates, silicones and other synthetic ingredients found in some skincare, and you have to wonder —is this really any good for my skin at all? In fact, if you're not reading product ingredient lists your skincare products could be damaging your skin.

Next time you are buying skincare products, here are just a few of the ingredients you should avoid. Also, download the handy PDF at the end of the post to keep i your phone!


Surfactants are known to disrupt the lipid bilayers. Lipid bilayers play a major role in maintaining the skin's barrier function. When they are compromised the cells become more permeable and vulnerable, making the skin susceptible to environmental damage, water loss and allergens. Surfactants can also damage the lipid structures themselves, causing a reduction of fats within the external skin layers.

Surfactants are used in skincare for cleansing, foaming, thickening, emulsifying, solubilising, antimicrobial and other effects. There are four types of surfactants, non-ionic, anionic, cationic and amphoteric. The most common types used in skincare are anionic and amphoteric. Below are some examples of anionic detergents you may find in your face wash, plus your shampoo, bubble bath and shower gels;





Below are some examples of amphoteric detergents, often found alongside the above are considered milder and less irritating;




Cocoamidopropyl betaine is created by mixing raw coconut and dimethylaminopropylamine (try saying that after a few wines!) It can be found in many natural and organic personal care products. Brands will often use the words "coconut-based cleanser". But CAPB can also have side effects. It can be found in a lot of "SLS-free" products or "tear-free" baby shampoos.


Parabens are synthetic preservatives used in cosmetics and personal care products since the 1950s. They prolong the shelf life of beauty products, preventing the growth of mould and bacteria.

The safety of parabens is a highly debatable topic, with some saying they are harmless and others - including studies say otherwise.

The problem with parabens is that they are estrogen-mimicking and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC's). A class of chemicals that mimic, block or interfere with the production, metabolism or action of hormones in the body. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology detected parabens in breast tumour tissue.

Look for these ingredients in skincare labels:



PEGs are class of synthetic polymers. Polyethylene is the most common form of plastic, and when combined with GLYCOL it becomes a thick, sticky liquid used in lots of skincare and beauty products as emollients, emulsifiers and to help deliver other ingredients into the skin. Some PEGs however, should be avoided in skincare due to the risk of toxic and carcinogenic contamination.


The term "parfum" and "fragrance" on product labels were originally created to protect perfume formulations which were considered a closely guarded trade secret. These days, however, it has become a labelling loophole where manufacturers can hide a multitude of potentially harmful ingredients.

Synthetic fragrances found in cosmetics can have as many as 200 ingredients. Current UK cosmetic legislation allows toxic and carcinogenic ingredients to be listed this way. There is no way to know what the chemicals are since on the label it will simply say "fragrance." You will see this listed in lots of skincare products, cosmetics and household cleaners. They can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions in eczema sufferers.


Alcohols are widely used in skincare products to keep them stable and to help other ingredients penetrate the skin. Some of these alcohols can be incredibly drying and irritating because they disrupt the skin barrier function, leaving the skin vulnerable to the elements and moisture loss. They can also stimulate oil production which could lead to breakouts in oily-prone skin.

Alcohols are used in tons of beauty and personal care products, especially face wash and cleansers. In skincare, there are two types of alcohols known as 'good' alcohols and 'bad' alcohols. The good ones are known as fatty alcohols which have emollient properties, giving products a silky texture and keeping ingredients stable.

These alcohols are generally classified as safe. But there are ongoing studies into fatty alcohols causing contact dermatitis. You will find fatty alcohols in creams, lotions, ointments, hair conditioner, balms, etc.

Examples of good alcohols in skincare include:

  • Cetyl alcohol

  • Stearyl alcohol

  • Cetearyl alcohol

Examples of bad alcohols in skincare include:

  • Benzyl alcohol

  • SD alcohol

  • Denatured alcohol (alcohol DENAT.)

  • Ethyl alcohol

  • Isopropyl alcohol

  • Methanol/Methyl alcohol

Other Damaging Ingredients To Avoid


Ethanolamines are a group of ammonia compounds used in products that foam, including bubble baths, body washes, shampoos, soaps, and facial cleansers. They're also found in a wide range of cosmetics, fragrances, hair care products, hair dyes and sunscreens. The most serious concern about these ingredients is that they may increase the risk of cancer, especially with repeated and prolonged use.

  1. Diethanolamine (DEA) — Found in soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and dyes, lotions, shaving creams, paraffin and waxes, household cleaning products, pharmaceutical ointments, eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, blush, make-up bases, foundations, fragrances, sunscreens.

  2. Monoethanolamine (MEA) — A chemical used in hair dyes marketed to the consumer as "natural" because, unlike ammonia, it is odourless and less corrosive.

  3. Triethanolamine (TEA) — Often used in cosmetics to adjust the pH, and used with many fatty acids to convert acid to salt (stearate), which then becomes the base for a cleanser. TEA causes allergic reactions including eye problems, dryness of hair and skin, and could be toxic if absorbed into the body over a long period of time.


Petroleum jelly products, like Vaseline, are occlusive, meaning they form a barrier on top of the skin. This sound like a great way to treat dry skin as it prevents moisture loss. But occlusive ingredients like petroleum jelly, mineral oil and dimethicone also prevent moisture from getting in, thus creating the very condition they claim to alleviate! They can also trap sebum and bacteria, causing clogged pores and breakouts, and prevent the skin from expelling toxins.


These are the most commonly used preservatives after parabens. They are well established as a primary cause of contact dermatitis by The American Academy of Dermatology. Two trade names for these chemicals are Germall II and Germall 115. Neither of these chemicals contains a good antifungal agent and must be combined with other preservatives. Germall 115 releases formaldehyde at just over 10°. These chemicals are both considered toxic by the EWG's Skin Deep database.


Take a look at your hand cleansers, face washes, toothpaste, home cleaners, etc., and I'm sure you will see this ingredient on the label. Used as an antibacterial and antifungal agent, triclosan gained popularity over the past few decades as we demanded more germ-killing products. Today, it’s the most commonly used antibacterial ingredient in personal care products worldwide. But scientists at the FDA are revisiting the safety of this ingredient, as it was found in animal studies to interfere with hormone levels and spur the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. Since we’re already facing a rise of superbugs that are resistant to our current arsenal of antibiotics—the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced in 2013 that at least 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections. Triclosan also presents an environmental hazard, as it takes a very long time to break down. It’s been found in decades-old sludge at the bottom of lakes, in sewage, wastewater, surface water, and sediments. It’s highly toxic to algae and other aquatic organisms and has been detected at high concentrations in earthworms.


A chemical used in hair conditioners and creams. Stearalkonium chloride was developed by the fabric industry as an antistatic agent and fabric softener. It is a lot cheaper and easier to use in hair conditioning formulas than proteins or natural moisturising ingredients, which do help hair health. This chemical is considered a known human toxicant and allergen by the EWG's Skin Deep database.


BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are synthetic antioxidants used as a preservative in cosmetics, skincare and food.

Considered a 'likely carcinogen' by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, BHA is added to cosmetics like lipstick and eyeshadow that contain fats and oils. In studies, animals exposed to BHA developed stomach and liver damage and complications with their thyroid and reproductive organs. The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption studies revealed strong evidence that BHA is a human endocrine disruptor. Typically shown as E320 on food labels this ingredient scores a 5-7 on the EWG's Skin Deep database.

BHT is a toluene-based ingredient used to preserve food and cosmetics. Often labelled as E321 on food packaging. BHT was not found to cause cancer but did cause liver and kidney damage, as well as other toxic effects.


Colorants are used in many beauty products especially makeup. You have probably seen CI 42090, CI 73360, etc. at the end of ingredient lists. Or, on US-based products, FD&C YELLOW 5 or YELLOW 5 LAKE. Most colours are considered 'low hazard' by The EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database.

Certifications mean that colorants are rigorously tested, but potential effects they may have with prolonged exposure are not known. For example, coal-tar-based dyes such as FD&C Blue 1, CI 42090, most commonly found in toothpaste, and FD&C Green 3 (CI 42053), commonly found in mouthwash, have been found to be carcinogenic in animal studies when injected under the skin.

Need more help with your skincare ingredients? Download The Bad Ingredients List handy pdf.

Download PDF • 40KB


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Welcome to my little piece of cyberspace! I'm Gabrielle, and I show women how to cut through the marketing BS, understand skincare labels, find non-toxic beauty products —and achieve their skin glow goals!

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