Beyond Parabens: 7 Common Cosmetics Ingredients You Need to Avoid

Makeup brushes in a container, surrounded by cosmetics

Raphael Lovaski / Unsplash

Consumer choice is a powerful thing. Say "jump or I'll spend my cash somewhere else" and you'll set executives scrambling to use one another as makeshift human trampolines. It's for this reason and this reason alone—at least for the major corporations—that we're seeing such a proliferation of products cheerily proclaiming that they're BPA-free. Well, parabens are the bisphenol-A of the beauty industry, from the scary headlines to the happy proclamations that beam at you when a product has kicked them to the curb.

But as we mentioned before, parabens aren't the only nasty no-no to avoid. Here are seven other toxic ingredients that regularly hitch a ride on cosmetics and skincare products. Pay heed to these red flags the next time you're out cruising with your shopping cart—who knows, perhaps some well-dressed man will approach you to ask if Bill from Accounting could perform some aerial acrobatics for your pleasure.

1. Fragrance

Bottle of perfume in a window sill
 21 swan / Unsplash

Examine the fine print of most personal-care product labels and you're bound to find "fragrance" (or, if you want to get fancy, "parfum") jostling for room with its multisyllabic brethren. Because they're considered trade secrets, fragrances fall into a colossal loophole in federal law that doesn't require companies to disclose the potentially hundreds of chemicals in a single product's olfactory-tickling formula.

This simple term can obscure hinky substances tied to myriad health problems, from allergies to endocrine disruption. In 2002, three-quarters of the 72 products tested by the Environmental Working Group contained phthalates, plasticizer chemicals linked to birth defects, feminization of infant boys, liver and kidney damage, and infertility. None of the products, which included brands like Cover Girl, Pantene, Dove, L'Oréal, and Revlon, had the word "phthalates" listed on their bottles, which is even more insidious.

2. Polyethylene glycol

Polyethylene glycol, better known by its acronym, PEG, isn't a single ingredient but a class of ethylene glycol polymers that moisturize, keep products stable, and enhance the penetration of other ingredients, both good and bad. PEGs are typically followed by a number correlating to how many units of ethylene glycol they comprise, in the form of say PEG-4 or PEG-100; the lower the number, the more easily the compound is absorbed into the skin.

While PEGs can be mild irritants, they're less than desirable primarily because they help traffic funky chemicals across your epidermis, including a slug of impurities they're often contaminated with. According to a report in the International Journal of Toxicology by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, pollutants found in various PEG compounds include ethylene oxide (used to manufacture mustard gas), 1,4-dioxane, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and heavy metals (lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, cadmium, arsenic).

View Article Sources
  1. "'Trade Secret' Ingredients." U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

  2. Johnson, W., and Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. “Final Report on the Safety Assessment of PEG-25 Propylene Glycol Stearate, PEG-75 Propylene Glycol Stearate, PEG-120 Propylene Glycol Stearate, PEG-10 Propylene Glycol, PEG-8 Propylene Glycol Cocoate, and PEG-55 Propylene Glycol Oleate.” International Journal of Toxicology, vol. 20 Suppl 4, 2001, pp. 13–26., doi:10.1080/10915810152902556