10 Ingredients to Avoid in Beauty Products

10 ingredients to avoid in beauty and cosmetic products

As promised, today I am so excited to share another post in my natural beauty series with Tata Harper! Just like with food labels, one of the toughest parts of navigating the natural beauty world is learning to read the ingredient list. There are so many chemicals to know, and what makes it even harder is that many chemicals can be listed under a bunch of different names. Conversely, some ingredients that sound bad and chemically are actually completely natural.

So, I asked Tata Harper to come up with a list of the 10 ingredients you should try to avoid in your beauty and cosmetic products. Once you look through this list and look at your product labels, you’ll be stunned to find how many of these are in the items you’re using! Of course, it might not be possible to switch out certain products, but it’s still a good idea to keep these ingredients in mind and think about how frequently you’re using products that rely heavily on them. Take it away, Tata!

Navigating the world of cosmetic products and ingredients can be confusing – there’s a lot of information out there. It’s important to do your research, so that you can be sure that what you’re putting on your skin every day is good for you (it’s really what you do every day that matters; what you use once every few months isn’t such a big deal). All of the information below comes from the Skin Deep Database from the Environmental Working Group, the Breast Cancer Fund and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and books like No More Dirty Looks by Alexandra Spunt & Siobhan O’Connor, and What’s in Your Cosmetics? by Aubrey Hampton which we keep in our office for easy reference because they are chock-full of good info. Of course, a lot of ingredient safety claims are disputed, but we believe in the precautionary principle, which basically means that if an ingredient hasn’t been proven to be totally healthy, we think it’s best to avoid it. Here are 10 to look out for: 

1. Soaps, Alcohols & Detergents

These can strip the skin of moisture and disrupt your protective hydration barrier – look for alcohol-free cleansers and toners! Alcohols are often listed as “benzyl alcohol”, “cetearyl alcohol” and “isopropyl alcohol.”

2. Synthetic Fragrance

The term “fragrance” or “parfum” is often a mask for sometimes up to 200 separate ingredients, most of which are synthetic chemicals that are kept secret due to trade-secret laws, so you’re never really sure what’s you’re putting on your skin. Many of the ingredients used in “fragrance” have been linked to allergic reactions.

3. Phthalates

These are synthetic plasticizers that are used in everything from toys to plastic bags to makeup, and they’re now infamous for being potential hormone disruptors that can affect reproductive health and fertility when used long-term. Phthalates unfortunately are often just listed under “fragrance”, so you can’t spot them, but sometimes they’re listed as their real names, like “benzylbutyl phthalate” or “diethyl phthalate.”

4. Triclosan

This ingredient is used in antibacterial soaps and hand-sanitizers, but it can be irritating to the skin, and has been linked to hormone disruption. Plus, it’s a chemical that doesn’t degrade easily, so it can be really polluting for aquatic environments (after we rinse it down our sinks).

5. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

This family of ingredients makes things foam up, like sudsy soaps and shampoos – but they can be irritating, drying and have been linked to allergic reactions and rashes.

6. PEGs (Polyethylene Glycol)

These ingredients are derived from petroleum, which is not something we want anywhere near our skin – plus, they’ve been linked to cancer and nervous system damage because they’re sometimes contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is a known carcinogen. It’s hard to know from the label whether 1,4-dioxane is involved, but it’s best to play it safe and avoid PEGs altogether.

7. Synthetic dyes / colors

These are usually labeled with letters, followed by numbers or a color, like FD&C Yellow 6 or D&C Orange 17. They’re considered to be carcinogenic in some cases, and almost always allergens – believe it or not, they’re usually derived from coal tar. Be careful, because they’re often found in processed foods & drinks as well.

8. Anything with the word “paraben” in it

There’s a large family of Paraben ingredients, like “methylparaben”, “ethylparaben” and “benzylparaben”, that are used to preserve products so they last on the shelf for a long time. Not only can they cause allergic reactions and irritations, but they’re widely known to be hormone disruptors, and have been linked to cancer too.

9. DEA’s (like DEA sodium lauryl sulfate, DEA oleamide condensate)

These synthetic ingredients are penetration enhancers, and also help to make products sudsy – they can be irritating to the skin, but their danger really comes with prolonged or repeated exposure – they’ve been deemed carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

10. Mineral Oil

Often found in soaps, makeup, lotions and sometimes even baby products, mineral oil is pore-clogging and affects the skin’s natural detoxification process. It’s a petroleum byproduct, and can slow down the natural processes that keep the skin youthful and healthy, like cell turnover.

Thank you for sharing these tips, Tata! Are you guys surprised by these ingredients? Are there any others you avoid at all costs?

Stay tuned for the next post in our natural beauty series: the biggest myths about natural beauty! And don’t forget to check out Tata’s entire line of completely natural skincare products here (I swear by them!).

Image: Background photo from Chanel’s 2010 Rouge Coco campaign. And yes, pretty as they are, Chanel lipsticks definitely have many of these ingredients!

Leave a Comment


  1. 1.9.14

    This is so helpful, thank you! I honestly had no idea that there were such harmful products in beauty items, I will be checking my labels tonight :)

  2. 1.9.14

    I absolutely love this post – these are ingredients I’ve been avoiding for years since we learn so much about them in school. I’m glad it’s being shared so more people are aware of what’s in the products they’re using. I know some may think they’re hard to avoid, but I assure you, there are wonderful products out there (at very reasonable prices) that are free of these ingredients.

  3. 1.9.14
    jillian said:

    great tips! pinning this and re-evaluating my makeup collection! xo jillian – cornflake dreams

  4. 1.9.14
    Nancy said:

    What a great post! Simplifying and working on my skin care and beauty routine is one of my resolutions for 2014, so this is a perfect post for me. I feel like for many of us we have become aware of the importance of reading food labels and paying attention to what food (or chemicals eek!) we digest. But one thing I have yet to really fully pay attention to is what I put on my skin and body, which I am starting to learn is just as important! Thanks so much for sharing this, I definetly need to spend some time looking at my products and what ingredients are truly in them.

  5. 1.9.14
    Alyssa said:

    This is so great, Victoria! I have to admit, I don’t pay enough attention to my beauty products. I try to buy organic/all natural, but I’m sure some things slip through the cracks!

  6. 1.9.14

    oh my gosh, a little scary because i’m pretty sure nearly all my makeup products have at least one of these ingredients in them. i really avoid parabens and am definitely much better about reading the labels for my skincare products vs. makeup. thanks so much for sharing, i will definitely keep this in mind when i am buying makeup in the future :)

    Molly {Dreams in HD}

  7. 1.9.14
    Tami said:

    I love your blog! Equally exciting and informational, pretty and down-to-earth.Thanks for the daily eye candy.

    • 1.10.14
      Victoria McGinley said:

      Thank you so much, Tami! Such a nice compliment :)

  8. 1.9.14

    Great tips! For curly haired girls like myself, eliminating shampoos and conditioners that have sulfates really helps too, especially with dry, brittle hair.

    • 1.10.14
      Victoria McGinley said:

      Agreed! That and (for me at least) not washing my hair as much. It makes my waves look so much better than when I used to wash every single day!

  9. 1.9.14

    Thanks for this list! I need to write it down and keep it with me when I go shopping.

  10. 1.9.14

    This is fascinating, because so many of these “no no” chemicals are ones used so widespread in drug development – particularly detergents and PEG.

    I switched over to RMS Beauty, Tarte, and Jane Iredale makeup a year ago and my skin has been so grateful for it.

    • 1.10.14
      Victoria McGinley said:

      That is interesting. It’s funny to think about things being carcinogenic…used to treat a disease cased by carcinogens. Ohhhh western medicine.

  11. 1.9.14
    Ginet said:

    Good to know! Pinning!

  12. 1.9.14
    Nina said:

    This is why I LOVE Tata Harper!

  13. 1.10.14
    Rose said:

    But I love Chanel lipsticks! I did look into ‘natural’ lipsticks but I find them to have poor staying power and less sophisticated colours.

    Any tried and true brands sans these ingredients you can recommend?


    • 1.10.14
      Victoria McGinley said:

      I swear by Ilia! All their products are amazing, and I especially like their cheek tints too. You can shop them here or here.

      Also, I’ve never tried their lipsticks, but I ADORE Vapour Organic Beauty’s foundations, so I wouldn’t be surprised if their lip colors were equally as good!

      Jane Iredale is a fantastic natural brand. I use her eyeshadows and cheek products a lot. The colors are based on minerals, so for powders, I’ve found them to be super saturated and long lasting. Maybe it’d translate to lipstick as well?

      Finally, Kjaer Weis is a brand I have not tried, but they were featured in GOOP a while back and their packaging is crazy good (though they’re extremely pricey!).

  14. 1.10.14
    Megan said:

    I am loving this post! I’ve been on the hunt for safe but effective skincare and this list of ingredients is a great refernce. Tata Harper seems to have a great product!

    I’ll be sending some linkage your way on my blog. :)


  15. 1.23.14

    I’m from Oqibo Professional Skincare and hope you don’t mind but wanted to join the conversation.

    We have daily face to face and telephone conversations with many of our clients about what ingredients go into their skincare products and indeed into ours.

    No wonder when we consider that there is a huge minefield of ingredients data, information and research presented in a seemingly endless number of ways.

    Information is disseminated so quickly and widely that the real truth and science behind many ingredients gets lost. It’s no wonder that so many skin care purchases are done so with little real understanding of what goes into them and onto your skin.

    I thought it may be helpful to share some of the tips we give our clients when help or advice is needed so here goes:

    1- Natural does not always mean that the ingredients are good for skin or good for you. It’s a catch-all term and offers no real insight as to effect or efficacy. Arsenic, Lead and Mercury are all natural and whilst the Victorian Pharmacists of the day may have advocated their use, modern day chemists certainly would not!

    2 – Not all Alcohols are created equally nor are they all bad. Some are present naturally as a bi-product of an extraction method, others are plant derived and offer truly softening and skin nourishing effects or they may simply be present at very low levels to help keep a product stable and preserved. Bacteria is most definitely an unwanted ingredient.

    3 – The inter-relationship between ingredients is vitally important. Alone, they can sound scary or ‘bad’ but understanding how these relationships work, and why that’s important to the efficacy of the product, is key.

    4 – Not all ingredient groups can be classified in the same way. For example parabens get their fair share of bad press, and not without some scientific grounding but they cannot all be grouped together under the same heading. Education has told us that not all fats are bad, nor are health foods all healthy, it comes back to levels, application and effect. You may like to know that you can consume more parabens in your morning handful of superfood blueberries than is in the average skincare product! Education about the differing types of ingredient groups is vital in viewing the whole picture.

    5 – Mineral Oil is the ingredient we most often receive questions about and the most common question is “does it block pores”. Our answer is always no. It’s a commonly held belief that it does but it’s the inter-relationshio with other ingredients, coupled with approach and application, rather than the mineral oil itself that can block pores or cause irritation. It’s large molecular structure means that it sits on the surface of the skin, providing a barrier, so can be used to help a product glide more easily or can help lock in vital moisture. As an ingredient, it is non-sensitising, non-irritating and will not interfere with the skins own natural processes.

    We are truly passionate about skin health and great products and believe that we need more of these open conversations and critical discussions to help dispel the myths and support would-be purchasers to choose their products confidently without confusion.

    Thanks for letting us joint he conversation, we’d love to chat more if anyone has any burning questions!

    Bye for now – N


    • 1.24.14
      Victoria McGinley said:

      Hi N — I definitely appreciate your comment and taking the time to respond. I agree with several of your points (like the term natural being bandied about — it’s a mess in both the beauty and food industries), and disagree with others. Like you said, I think it really all comes down to education. As consumers, it’s ultimately up to us to look into these issues, hear viewpoints, decide for ourselves what we are comfortable with, and make decisions from there.

      • 1.27.14

        Hi Victoria,
        You too, thanks so much for letting us get involved in the conversation and for your reply.

        Empowering ourselves as individuals and consumers is absolutely the key thing we can do to help turn the tide of shame and disempowerment that is so often yet almost imperceptibly pervasive.

        We are really keen to start and keep these conversations going, to help support a better and more open information exchange. If there are any topics we can support you with or if there is something we can tackle over on our blog, let us know, we’d be really happy to do so!

        Thanks again,


  16. 5.23.20
    Bee said:

    Amazing considering their cleanser has benzyl alcohol.