Top 6 toxic ingredients in skincare products

Top 6 toxic ingredients to avoid in skincare products

Why does it matter what you put on your skin?

If I were to ask you: between what you eat and what you put on your skin, what can be more dangerous? What would you answer?

It turns out that putting some chemicals on your skin may actually be worse than eating them. This is because when you eat something, the enzymes in your saliva and stomach help to break it down and flush it out of your body. However, around 60% of the chemicals you put on your skin are absorbed straight into your bloodstream without much filtering. They go directly to your organs. There, some of these chemicals accumulate because they haven’t been broken down by the necessary enzymes. 1

Unfortunately, in many countries (like the US), cosmetics and their raw ingredients are not subject to review or independent pre-market approval (unlike food or drugs). This means that there are no mandatory testing for these products. According to Dr Jean Munro, medical director of The Breakspear Hospital, Hertfordshire: ‘There is no question that people are being damaged by their cosmetics. How can they not be? So many things are put into cosmetics now that are carcinogenic and it is allowed because cosmetics are not considered to be as serious as drugs or food.” 2

The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that approximately 70,000 chemicals are in common use across the world with 1,000 new chemicals being introduced every year. Of all the chemicals used in cosmetics, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has reported that nearly 900 are toxic – although other groups say this figure is under-estimated. 2

To protect themselves from these chemicals, many women choose to buy natural products. However, there are no regulation and official definitions about what a natural product actually is. A “natural” product can contain bad chemicals, including cancer-linked toxins! Only certified products follow rules that regulate ingredients and the way products are processed. These rules are different depending on the name of the certification, but in general, they do guarantee that most ingredients are of natural origin (for more information on certifications, check out this link).

Some people (like me ^^) also choose to make their own skincare. This allows them to control 100% of the ingredients in their skincare products. If you are interested in trying it, check out my free online course by clicking here. Don’t worry, DIY is quite easy and it doesn’t take as long as you may think!

Top 6 toxic ingredients to avoid in skincare products

6 Toxic Ingredients you should avoid

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS) – irritant substances linked to potent carcinogens

Sodium lauryl sulfate is a cheap synthetic chemical used in thousands of cosmetic products, as well as in industrial cleaners. It is used for its ability to create lather, for its efficient removal of oil from the skin, and in part for its thickening effect. It is present in many shampoos, toothpastes, body washes and cleansers, make-up foundations, liquid hand soaps and more!  Similar to Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) are Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate (ALS), two detergents with high foaming ability. They are similar to SLS, with similar risks.

According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep, research studies on SLS have shown that it can cause skin and eye irritation. So if you have dandruff, dermatitis, or other irritated tissues or skin, it could be due to SLS. 4

SLS may also cause organ/reproductive toxicity 4  and it has also been linked to potent carcinogens, such as nitrosamines, that are formed when SLS is combined with other chemicals commonly used in shampoos. 1

Phthalates – endocrine disruptors

Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that soften plastics. They appear in many products, from baby toys to construction materials and cosmetics. They evaporate easily and can enter the body through inhalation, dermal exposure or food. For instance, a 2012 Swedish study of children found that phthalates from PVC flooring were taken up into their bodies, showing that children can ingest phthalates not only from food but also by breathing and through the skin. 7

Among many other side effects, phthalates may cause:

  • asthma and allergies, as well as other chronic diseases in children 7
  • anti-androgenicity, wich may lead to low libido, male genital birth defects and impaired reproductive function in adult males 9, especially when fetuses and babies are exposed 10
  • obesity and type II diabetes 11
  • breast cancer 12
  • attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, neurodevelopmental issues and behavioral issues 12

Phthalates are not always indicated on product labels and the best way to (partly) avoid them is to prefer glass over plastic containers and buy products that do not contain fragrance. That being said, because phthalates are transported over long distances by wind, it results in a worldwide diffusion. Some were even found in isolated areas of the Amazonian rainforest! 14 15

Fragrance – undisclosed cocktail of chemicals

In a way, the term “Fragrance” refers to some of the nastiest toxic chemicals in skincare products, for one very simple reason: fragrances are made of a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals and are considered “trade secrets”. As such, there is no legal requirement to disclose their full list of ingredients on product labels. For instance, fragrances can contain phthalates or styrene, a substance anticipated to be a human carcinogen 16,  but because fragrance ingredients are not clearly listed on product labels, it’s impossible to know exactly what you are applying on your skin.

Fragrance mixes have also been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system. 17

Parabens – endocrine disruptors

Parabens are a preservative widely used in the cosmetics industry. They are easily absorbed into the skin and have been linked to breast cancer, reproductive health problems and hormonal disruptions. They have also been linked to ecological harm, as low levels of butylparaben can kill coral, according to laboratory tests. In the US, the FDA limits the levels of parabens allowed in foods and beverages, but it does not regulate these chemicals in cosmetics and body care products. 18

Triclosan and triclocarban – endocrine disruptors

Triclosan and triclocarban are antibacterial chemicals and known endocrine disruptors found in cosmetics, soap, deodorant, sponges, toothpaste, cutting boards, shoes, towels and clothes. 

Human autopsy analysis has revealed that triclosan bioaccumulates in liver and adipose (fat) tissue. 19

Both chemicals have been shown to interfere with thyroid signaling and male and female sex hormone signaling. Lab studies also showed that they can potentially cause reproductive abnormalities in animals. 20

They have also been found in freshwater samples, especially in lakes and downstream from wastewater treatment plants, in concentrations known to be harmful to wildlife 21 22

In 2016, the FDA banned the use of triclosan and triclocarban in consumer soaps.

Ethanolamines (MEA, DEA, & TEA)— irritants linked to carcinogens

Ethanolamines are ammonia compounds used in cosmetics as emulsifiers or foaming agents. You’ll see these listed on the ingredient label as “MEA, DEA, & TEA,” abbreviations for monoethanolamine, diethanolamine, and triethanolamine.

They are mild skin and eye irritants and can also react with other ingredients in cosmetic products to form nitrosamines, potent carcinogenic chemicals that are linked to many types of cancers.

DEA is not permitted to be used in cosmetics and personal care products sold in the European Union. 23

Top 6 toxic ingredients in skincare products

For more toxic chemicals in conventional products, check out my blog posts:

Personally, I always find writing an “ingredients-to-avoid”  type of post quite depressing. There are many, many studies on the side effects of the chemicals I mentioned in the article (trust me, I read a lot of them!). And I don’t think customers should be the ones spending time reading these studies, plus reviews and labels, to make sure that what they buy is safe for them. This is the government’s role, they should protect customers! But since they consider that cosmetics can’t harm us as much as food and drinks, the industry is not regulated… and people like you and I must do our research before buying a new product.

What do you think? Do you believe these ingredients should continue to be allowed in cosmetics?

Make your own skincare – Click the below image to learn online at your own pace

make your own skincare online course

Disclaimer:  Any recommendations are based on personal, not professional, opinion only.  All information on the Mademoiselle Organic blog is meant for educational and informational purposes only. For information on how to use this site, please read my Blog Policy page.



  1. Dr  Mercola, July 10. 2010, accessed on 29/01/2017, “Deadly and Dangerous Shampoos, Toothpastes, and Detergents: Could 16,000 Studies Be Wrong About SLS?”, 
  2.  Amelia Hill, Sunday 7 April 2002, “Make-up kit holds hidden danger of cancer”,
  3.  Amelia Hill, Sunday 7 April 2002, “Make-up kit holds hidden danger of cancer”,
  4. EWG, accessed on 29/01/2017, SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE,
  5. EWG, accessed on 29/01/2017, SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE,
  6. Dr  Mercola, July 10. 2010, accessed on 29/01/2017, “Deadly and Dangerous Shampoos, Toothpastes, and Detergents: Could 16,000 Studies Be Wrong About SLS?”, 
  7. Science News, May 23, 2012, “Phthalates in PVC floors taken up by the body in infants”,
  8. Science News, May 23, 2012, “Phthalates in PVC floors taken up by the body in infants”,
  9.  Océane Albert, Bernard Jégou, published 29 September 2013,  “A critical assessment of the endocrine susceptibility of the human testis to phthalates from fetal life to adulthood”,
  10. Julia R. Barret, August 2005, “Phthalates and Baby Boys: Potential Disruption of Human Genital Development”,
  11. Science Daily, June 2012, “Phthalate, environmental chemical is linked to higher rates of childhood obesity”,
  12. Amy Westervelt, 11 February 2015, “Phthalates are everywhere, and the health risks are worrying. How bad are they really?”,
  13. Amy Westervelt, 11 February 2015, “Phthalates are everywhere, and the health risks are worrying. How bad are they really?”,
  14. Alain Lenoir, Raphaël Boulay, Alain Dejean, Axel Touchard, Virginie Cuvillier-Hot, Mars 2016, “Phthalate pollution in an Amazonian rainforest”,
  15. Le Monde, 12/12/2016, “La pollution aux phtalates atteint aussi les réserves naturelles présumées vierges.”
  16. EWG blog, Tina Sigurdson, August 7, 2014, “Expert Panel Confirms that Fragrance Ingredient Can Cause Cancer”,
  17. EWG database, accessed on 29/01/2017, “Fragrance”,
  19. Geens, T., Neels, H., & Covaci, A. (2012). Distribution of bisphenol-A, triclosan and n-nonylphenol in human adipose tissue, liver and brain. Chemosphere, 87(7), 796–802.
  20. EWG blog, Johanna Congleton, January 6, 2014, “Chemicals that should disappear from cosmetics”,
  21. Brausch, J. M., & Rand, G. M. (2011). A review of personal care products in the aquatic environment: Environmental concentrations and toxicity. Chemosphere, 82(11), 1518–1532.
  22. Venkatesan, A. K., Pycke, B. F. G., Barber, L. B., Lee, K. E., & Halden, R. U. (2012). Occurrence of triclosan, triclocarban, and its lesser chlorinated congeners in Minnesota freshwater sediments collected near wastewater treatment plants. J Hazard Mater, 229-230, 29–35
  23. Cosmetics Info, accessed on 29/01/2017, Ethanolamine,

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