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Harmful Ingredients in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

Written by Irina Webb

Toxic ChemicalsHarmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products are unfortunately plentiful. This list of harmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products contains 62 chemicals. The list of harmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products uses the following terms: persistent in wildlife, which means it does not break down easily in the environment, and bioaccumulative in humans, which means it builds up in our bodies. The list of harmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products is based on information from the Skin Deep database compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

  • 1,4-DIOXANE: a carcinogen, a kidney toxicant, neurotoxicant, and respiratory toxicant; pollutes drinking water, air, and soil; a by-product of ethoxylation, a cheap shortcut process many companies use
  • 2-BROMO-2-NITROPROPANE-1,3-DIOL: a formaldehyde-releasing preservative (see FORMALDEHYDE), may break down into nitrosamines (see NITROSAMINES) in a product; gastrointestinal, immune system, skin, and liver toxicant
  • ACRYLAMIDE: a carcinogenic impurity of polyacrylamide, polyquaternium-7, polyacrylic acid
  • ALCOHOL DENAT.: ethyl alcohol (ethanol) with a denaturing agent making it poisonous to drink; carcinogenic, toxic, may cause birth defects
  • ALUMINUM POWDER: used as a colorant; a known human nervous system toxicant and an allergen
  • AMINOMETHYL PROPANOL: a skin, eye, lung irritant; may break down into carcinogenic nitrosamines (see NITROSAMINES)
  • AMMONIUM LAURETH SULFATE: may be contaminated with carcinogenic ethylene oxide (see ETHYLENE OXIDE) and 1,4-dioxane (see 1,4-DIOXANE)
  • BENZENE: a known human carcinogen, banned in European Union and Canada, an impurity of toluene (see TOLUENE)
  • BENZO[A]PYRENE: a carcinogen, hormone disruptor, persistent and bioaccumulative; may be impurity of hydrogenated palm oil, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, and coal tar
  • BENZYL ALCOHOL: often synthetically created; may cause contact allergy; subject to concentration or use limitations
  • BHT (BUTYLATED HYDROXYTOLUENE): a fragrance or masking ingredient; skin, eye, lung irritant; immune system toxicant
  • BUTYLENE GLYCOL: used as a solvent and conditioning agent; a skin, eye, and lung irritant
  • CETEARETH-20: an emulsifying agent; may be contaminated with carcinogenic ethylene oxide (see ETHYLENE OXIDE) and 1,4-dioxane (see 1,4-DIOXANE)
  • CETETH-20: a cleansing and solubilizing agent; may be contaminated with carcinogenic ethylene oxide (see ETHYLENE OXIDE) and 1,4-dioxane (see 1,4-DIOXANE)
  • CHLOROFORM: banned in cosmetics in US, European Union, and Canada; carcinogenic, persistent and bioaccumulative; a possible impurity of triclosan (see TRICLOSAN)
  • CITRUS GRANDIS (GRAPEFRUIT) SEED EXTRACT: may be contaminated with triclosan (see TRICLOSAN) and methylparaben (see PARABENS)
  • COAL TAR: an antidandruff agent, a cosmetic biocide, a denaturant; obtained as a by-product in the destructive distillation of coal; a known carcinogen; banned in European Union and Canada; may be contaminated with benzo[a]pyrene, another carcinogen
  • COCAMIDE DEA:  a chemically modified form of coconut oil, a foaming agent; carcinogen; may break down into Nitrosamines (see NITROSAMINES)
  • COCAMIDOPROPYL BETAINE: a synthetic surfactant; a contact allergen; may break down into Nitrosamines (see NITROSAMINES)
  • COLORANTS: FD&C and D&C colors are coal tar derivatives, tested on animals due to their carcinogenic properties
  • DIAZOLIDINYL UREA: a formaldehyde-releasing preservative (see FORMALDEHYDE)
  • DIBUTYL PHTHALATES (DBP): used in nail polish or a part of “fragrance”; a reproductive and developmental toxicant; banned in European Union; in animal studies, exposure to DBP during gestation causes infertility; prenatal exposure to DBP associated with reproductive organs mutation in baby boys
  • DIOXINS: a carcinogenic impurity of triclosan; a hormone disruptor; persistent and bioaccumulative; a priority pollutant on the EPA Clean Water Act list
  • DISODIUM LAURETH SULFOSUCCINATE: a foam booster; may be contaminated with ethylene oxide (see ETHYLENE OXIDE) and 1,4-dioxane (see 1,4-DIOXANE)
  • DMDM HYDANTOIN: a formaldehyde-releasing preservative (see FORMALDEHYDE)
  • ETHYLENE OXIDE:  a known human carcinogen; banned in Canada and European Union; EWG rates it 10 for the harmful health impact on a scale from 0 to 10 (10 being the most harmful); associated with cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization; not an ingredient but a contaminant of ingredients such as Polysorbate-20, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, PEG-100 Stearate, Ceteareth-20, Ceteth-20, Polysorbate-60, Laureth-7, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Steareth-21 and others
  • FERRIC AMMONIUM FERROCYANIDE: a synthetic colorant; restricted by FDA, an environmental toxin
  • FORMALDEHYDE: a carcinogenic impurity released by cosmetic preservatives, such as diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, and others; causes dermatitis; banned in Japan and Sweden; in the U.S., 20% of cosmetics and personal care products contain a formaldehyde-releaser
  • FRAGRANCE: an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients containing hormone-disrupting phthalates, allergens, and diethyl phthalate linked to sperm damage
  • HYDROGENATED PALM OIL: a skin conditioning agent; may be contaminated with benzo[a]pyrene (see BENZO[A]PYRENE)
  • HYDROQUINONE: a skin bleaching agent, a hair colorant; banned in European Union and Canada; may cause a bluish black discoloration of certain tissues; a skin and respiratory organ toxicity; an allergen; may also be an impurity found in “tocophe” group of chemicals (e.g. Tocopheryl Acetate)
  • IMIDAZOLIDINYL UREA: a formaldehyde-releasing preservative (see FORMALDEHYDE)
  • LAURAMIDE DEA:  a foam booster; may break down into Nitrosamines  (see NITROSAMINES)
  • LEAD: carcinogenic; persistent and bioaccumulative; banned by FDA to be used around eyes; used in hair colorants; an impurity found in hydrogenated cottonseed oil, sodium hexametaphosphate, hydrogenated cottonseed glyceride
  • LECITHIN: a skin conditioning substance, an emulsifying agent; may break down into Nitrosamines (see NITROSAMINES)
  • MERCURY: a non-reproductive organ toxicant; persistent and bioaccumulative; as a cosmetics ingredient banned in Canada, Japan, European Union, and US, but may be an impurity in hydrogenated cottonseed oil and hydrogenated cottonseed glyceride
  • METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE: a preservative causing allergic reactions; skin, lung, and eye irritatant; may be neurotoxic; restricted in Canada and Japan; subject to concentration and use limitations
  • NITROMETHANE: an anticorrosive agent found in aerosol hair sprays; a carcinogen; persistent and bioaccumulative
  • NITROSAMINES: a carcinogenic contaminant; no repercussions for US manufacturers contaminating their products with nitrosamines; very common, nearly every kind of personal care product and cosmetics can contain nitrosamines as various compounds break down over time and recombine into nitrosamines
  • OLEAMIDE DEA: a foam booster; may be contaminated with Nitrosamines (see NITROSAMINES)
  • PAHs: a group of chemicals occurring naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline; carcinogenic; banned in the European Union and Canada
  • PETROLATUM (PETROLIUM JELLY): a semisolid mixture of hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum; may be contaminated with PAHs (see PAHs)
  • PHENACETIN: used as a fever-reducing drug but banned in drugs in 1983; stabilizing function in cosmetics; a known carcinogen
  • PHENOLPHTHALEIN: used in hair relaxers, shampoos and conditioners; a carcinogen; a hormone disruptor
  • PHENONIP: a mix of preservatives Phenoxyethanol (see PHENOXYETHANOL), Methylparaben (see PARABENS), Ethylparaben (see PARABENS), Butylparaben (see PARABENS), Propylparaben (see PARABENS), and Isobutylparaben (see PARABENS)
  • PHENOXYETHANOL: a preservative; restricted in Japan; in European Union considered harmful only for products used on the lips and around the mouth; skin, eye, lung irritant
  • PLACENTA ENZYMES: derived from the uterus of slaughtered animals; widely used in skin creams, shampoos, and masks; may be contaminated with progesterone, estrogen, and estrone
  • POLYSORBATE-20: a surfactant and emulsifier used in cleaners and personal care products; may be contaminated with carcinogenic Ethylene Oxide (see ETHYLENE OXIDE) and 1,4-Dioxane (see 1,4-DIOXANE
  • PROPYLENE GLYCOL: an organic alcohol commonly used as a skin conditioning agent; may cause an allergic contact dermatitis and itchiness; irritation may happen at propylene glycol concentrations as low as 2%
  • QUATERNIUM-15: a formaldehyde-releasing preservative (see FORMALDEHYDE), skin, eye, lung irritant
  • RETINYL PALMITATE (VITAMIN A PALMITATE): a synthetic vitamin A; restricted in cosmetics use in Canada; according to FDA studies, when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions and daily skin application of vitamin A creams may build up in the woman’s body a high enough level of Vitamin A that may be toxic to a fetus
  • SELENIUM SULFIDE: an antidandruff and hair conditioning agent; banned in European Union and Japan; a carcinogen; persistent and bioaccumulative;
  • SODIUM BENZOATE: when combined with ascorbic acid, benzene may be formed (see BENZENE)
  • SODIUM HYDROXYLMETHYLGLYCINATE: a formaldehyde-releasing preservative (see FORMALDEHYDE)
  • SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE (SLSE): an emulsifying and foaming agent; may be contaminated with carcinogenic Ethylene Oxide (see ETHYLENE OXIDE) and 1,4-Dioxane (see 1,4-DIOXANE)
  • SODIUM LAUROYL SARCOSINATE: a foaming agent, a skin and hair conditioning agent; restricted in cosmetics in Japan; can break down into Nitrosamines (see NITROSAMINES)
  • SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE (SLS): an emulsifying and foaming agent; an eye, skin (eczema), and lung irritant
  • SODIUM PCA: a skin and hair conditioning agent; can break down into Nitrosamines (see NITROSAMINES)
  • TALC: may be contaminated with asbestos fibers causing respiratory toxicity and cancer; asbestos-free talc is still toxic and carcinogenic
  • TOLUENE: a petrochemical solvent and paint thinner; in cosmetics used in nail polish; reproductive system toxin; damage to fetus
  • TRICLOSAN: an antibacterial agent and preservative in personal care and home-cleaning products; persistent and bioaccumulative; a hormone disruptor; a skin, lung, and eyes irritant; may be contaminated with chloroform (see CHLOROFORM) and dioxins (see DIOXINS)

4 thoughts on “Harmful Ingredients in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products”

  1. I found a VEGAN nail polish at Sephora! It’s free from the 3Ts, the major bad guys in nail polish. I forget the brand name, but go to Sephora and ask for it. This is now the ONLY polish I use, even though I’m no longer pregnant.
    When I was pregnant, I also switched to an aluminum-free deodorant, which I’m sticking to now.

    1. Thank you, Alina, for your comments. I’m glad that you’ve been trying decrease yours and your baby’s exposure to toxins! You have to be careful though some nail polish producers make false claims that eventually get revealed by independent testers. I favor OPI, the most common nail polish used in nail salons. OPI used to be the most toxic nail polish. However, as a result of powerful campaign done by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, today OPI is free of the toxic trio: DBP, toluene, and formaldehyde. For more information about that go to

    1. Hi Rebecca: I have not had a chance to look into PCA skin products. There are not enough hours in a day. I am planning to launch monthly Q&A calls starting in early November. You will be able to submit your question when I send an announcement. Please sign up here to receive the email. Thanks!

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