Ten Synthetic Personal Care Ingredients to Avoid

People are exposed to a myriad of toxic chemicals everyday often from unsuspecting sources, including personal care products. While it is hard to believe that anything that can be applied to or absorbed into the body through skin, hair or nails could contain harmful ingredients, no premarket safety testing is required for the cosmetics industry.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “nearly 90 percent of the 10,500 ingredients FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has determined are used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR), the FDA, or any other publicly accountable institution.” While chemicals continue to be used, recent studies have found links between additives in beauty products and health problems such as the feminization of male babies and breast tumor tissue.

Synthetic Ingredients to Avoid

An average of 126 ingredients are applied to the skin daily and are subsequently absorbed into the body. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), “preservatives in cosmetics and skin care products are the second-most-common cause of skin reactions.” Aubrey Hampton, founder of Aubrey Organics and author of What’s in Your Cosmetics?, identifies ten chemicals consumers should avoid in the Natural Ingredients Dictionary:


  • parabens – Used to inhibit microbial growth and extend shelf life in body care products, cosmetics and food, this chemical can cause allergic reactions and rashes. Studies indicate parabens are estrogenic and may also increase the risk for breast tumors, disrupt hormones and be connected to reproductive problems. Look for methyl-, propyl-, butyl- and ethylparaben on labels.
  • diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) – These ammonia compounds are used as emulsifiers and foaming agents, and can create allergic reactions, irritate eyes, and dry out hair and skin. When used in products containing nitrates, DEA and TEA can form a by-product that causes cancer.
  • diazolidinyl UREA and imidazolidinyl UREA – Widely used despite the fact that the AAD has found them to cause allergic skin reactions, both of these chemicals are known to release formaldehyde, which can be toxic.
  • sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate (SLS) – A detergent used as a cleaning and foaming agent in shampoo and toothpaste, SLS is often made from petroleum and can be disguised on labels with the phrase “comes from coconuts.” CIR acknowledges that this substance can cause eye and skin irritation.
  • petroleum jelly – An inexpensive substance used to soothe skin. It can disrupt the body’s self-moisturizing ability leading to dryness and chapping, the same problems it is designed to alleviate. Many people have experienced this reaction when using petroleum-based lip balms.
  • propylene glycol – PEG or PPG as this substances is often labeled, is used for moisture retention. It can cause allergic reactions, hives and eczema.
  • PVP/VA copolymer – A chemical found in hairsprays, styling products and other cosmetics, PVP/VA copolymer is made from petroleum. If particles are inhaled, it can cause damage to the lungs in sensitive individuals.
  • stearalkonium chloride – An alternative to proteins and herbals used in hair conditioners and creams, it was originally developed as a fabric softener. It is a toxic ammonium compound that can cause allergic reactions.
  • synthetic colors – Synthetic colors used to create cosmetic shades and hair dyes can be carcinogenic. Avoid products that list FD&C or D&C followed by a number in the ingredients list.
  • synthetic fragrances – Also known as phthalates, these chemicals have been shown to cause birth defects and low sperm count in adult men. Synthetic fragrances can also cause such things as headaches, dizziness, rashes and skin irritation. Look for the following labels on ingredient lists: “fragrance,” DEHP, DINP, BzBP, DBP, DEP or DMP.

Cosmetic Chemicals Environmental Impact

Beyond the health risks that cosmetic chemicals pose, these ingredients also have an adverse affect on the environment. According to the EWG, ingredients from personal care products are absorbed into the body through the skin and end up in human waste or are washed down the drain when people shower, or wash the face. A number of studies have found these chemicals in rivers and streams, and have linked them to disruptions in the hormones in fish.

In addition to the impact to aquatic wildlife, these additives are also related to oil consumption. The same refineries that produce gas also manufacture petroleum-based preservatives used in body care products, some of which can be made from a petrochemical waste called coal tar. Avoid ingredients made from petroleum to protect the body and environment.

While synthetic additives in body care products are cause for concern, there are a number of things people can do to avoid these ingredients including use fewer products, research cosmetics using the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, read labels and choose non-toxic formulations. By making more educated purchases, consumers can minimize the number of chemicals absorbed by the body, and reduce potential health and environmental risks.