5 Ingredients to Avoid

By Rona Berg / July 17, 2013

An X-ray of Sweet pea flowers

Most of us have heard about the pivotal 2004 study linking parabens to breast cancer. Whether you find it credible or not, enough do so that parabens (butyl-, propyl-, methyl-, and ethylparaben) are now considered to be “ingredients non grata” by most mainstream beauty companies. Sulfates (sodium lauryl-, sodium laureth-, ammonium laureth-, and sodium myreth-sulfate) are harsh detergents that most of us have heard of–and many haircare companies have eliminated–as well.

Why is it so important to avoid potentially harmful ingredients in beauty and personal-care? If the molecule is small enough–and most are, since penetrability has been a selling point in the beauty industry for years–it can penetrate the skin and enter directly into the bloodstream. Here are a few of our least favorite ingredients, and we will continue to bring you news and updates on others as well.

The Trouble with Silicone (and Other Petrochemicals)

Petroleum-based products like mineral oil, petrolatum, dimethicone, sodium laureth sulfate, ethylene glycol, butylene glycol, propylene glycol, are now commonly used in mainstream skin- and haircare products. They were first introduced to the consumer mass market at the end of WWII, when there was a surplus resulting from military manufacture.

Apparently someone came up with the bright idea to add this excess of cheap synthetic manufacturing materials into skin- and haircare, and sell it to women. Ever since, silicones (ingredients ending in -cone) have been a common lubricant in moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners and hairstyling aids because they add “slip” to products and shine to hair.

Unfortunately, silicone can also lead to a dry, itchy scalp; make hair look dull and damaged; and possibly even lead to hair loss with long-term use, by clogging the hair follicle and stifling growth. Silicones and other petrochemicals can clog pores, strip skin of its natural oils, and contain impurities that may be carcinogenic.

Plant-based alternatives achieve the same good results without the bad, and there are great brands that cross all price lines. So tell me, why wouldn’t you use them?

Can You Pronounce Phthlate?

Found in a vast range of personal-care products–including nail polish, perfume and hairspray–and used to stabilize synthetic fragrances and soften plastic, phthalates (DBP, DEP, DMP) have been linked to infertility and cancer. But, since fragrance is considered a proprietary ingredient (some fragrance formulations can contain dozens of ingredients or more) manufacturers aren’t required to list its components on the ingredient label. Synthetic fragrance or parfum may contain phthalates. If you want to avoid them entirely, stick to products fragranced with natural essential oils.

In 2008, the Consumer Product and Safety Act banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys and “child-care articles” that children put in their mouths. If they are potentially harmful enough to be banned for children, why is it OK for grown women to use them every day?

 Undercover with 1,4 Dioxane

Our own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers 1,4 Dioxane a probable human carcinogen, yet it is not listed on the ingredient label because it is a byproduct of the manufacturing process. Here is a good tip-off: avoid ingredients with “-eths” (ic, ceteareth 20), “PEG,” “PE,” “-xynol” (ie, “octoxynol”).

Formaldehyde is a Secret Ingredient

You won’t find this on the label, either, but ingredients like quaternium 15, diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, DEA, MEA, TEA, can release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that can trigger asthma and irritate skin, stomach and liver.

Colorful Synthetic Dyes

The EPA lists coal tar derivatives as human respiratory toxins, and those are what you get when you use makeup, skincare, haircare, or bodycare products that contain FD&C or D&C colors, ie, D&C Red 30 Lake, FD&C Blue 1. They may also be skin irritants, allergens and potentially carcinogenic.


Rona Berg

Rona Berg

Editor-In-Chief at Organic Spa Magazine
Longtime journalist, author and current editor-in-chief of Organic Spa Media, Rona Berg is the former Editorial Director of ELLE and Deputy Style Editor for the New York Times Magazine, and she has contributed to and been quoted in dozens of publications. She co-chairs the Personal Care Committee of the non-profit Green Spa Network, is a Charter Advisory Board Member of the Nutritional Aesthetics Alliance, best-selling author of Beauty: The New Basics and Fast Beauty (Workman Publishing), and is a frequent speaker and guest on radio and television and at conferences around the globe.
Rona Berg

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