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You Are What You Absorb… Skin Care Ingredients to Avoid

You Are What You Absorb… Skin Care Ingredients to Avoid

Organic skin care is no longer a bit left-field as it once was. It is becoming ever more popular and even mainstream. As with the food we eat, we’re all questioning the need for certain ingredients, additives, preservatives and also asking the really big question, ‘What are the long term effects of our bodies absorbing these substances?’

You’ve probably noticed that the mainstream cosmetics and skin care products are now advertising ‘sulfate-free’ and ‘paraben-free’. As the consumer is becoming more aware and educated, we see cosmetic companies responding accordingly. This is a very good thing. However, as a consumer we still need to be aware of potentially harmful ingredients to help make informed decisions.

When we talk about these chemicals, it’s difficult to prove that they are harmful. There is research to suggest certain reactions take place in the bodies of animals tested and certain diseases appeared. However, this article is not meant to frighten or scare anyone. What we’re trying to do is start your own questioning process:

How long will this chemical stay in my body? Will it build up over time? And if it doesn’t, how much strain is it putting on my body trying to get rid of it? Could it react badly with other chemicals in my system or the product?

This list below is by no means exhaustive and only the most common chemicals are mentioned. There are a number of other less well known ingredients which we will visit in future articles, but these are probably the ones you’ve read about in the press over the last few years.


Most people are familiar with these as they’ve been getting a lot of media coverage. Parabens are preservatives and are commonly found in cosmetics as they are cheaply produced and effective. There are many different kinds and they end in
‘paraben’, e.g. Methylparaben or propylparaben. Studies have shown that parabens can indeed penetrate the skin and mimic the hormone estrogen. They have also been found in breast tumor tissue.


This is an ingredient you won’t find on the ingredients list of products because it is a byproduct. It forms during a procedure called ethoxylation, a cheap process that companies use to add mildness to harsh ingredients. This method requires the use of ethylene oxide, a petrochemical, which generates 1,4-Dioxane as a byproduct. 1,4-Dioxane is considered a probable human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is also on California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act’s (Proposition 65) list of chemicals known or suspected by the state to cause cancer or birth defects.


Hydroquinone is a strong inhibitor of melanin production so it is commonly used as a skin lightener, in sunscreens and anti-aging products. There is concern of the toxicity of this ingredient, especially when it is overused. It has been banned in Europe for a number of years now.

Chemical sunscreens

As we have discussed in previous articles, there are two different types of sunscreen – chemical and physical. Physical sunscreens are physical blockers and reflect the sun off the skin. These are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. The chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays before they can cause the damage on the skin. These include oxybenzone, avobenzone and benzophenone which are suspected endocrine disruptors and PABA which is a suspected carcinogen.


A group of chemical compounds used in plastics, cosmetics, perfume and various other products. They can be found in perfume, fragrances in products, nail polish and hair spray amongst other products. These are endocrine disruptors and suspected carcinogens. On ingredient lists they are commonly referred to as DBP, DEHP, DMP, DEP. Steer well clear of these!

Ethanolamines: Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA)/Ethanolamine (ETA)

These can be emulsifiers, foaming agents or used to adjust the pH of a product. The National Toxicology Program found a connection between topical application of DEA and cancer in lab animals. DEA is the most suspicious with MEA and TEA also containing residual DEA.

Propylene Glycol, Polyethylene Glycol, PEDs & PEGs

Propylene Glycol is used as a humectant (moisture-sealer) and penetration enhancer. It can be derived naturally but very rarely is. It can be found in a lot of cosmetics, such as sunscreens, deodorants, moisturizers and others. It is associated with skin irritation, systemic toxicity and contact dermatitis.

Sodium Laureth Sulfate / Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

This is a surfactant used in anything that is supposed to foam. SLES and SLS are effective at cutting through grease and are cheap to synthesize. This chemical has also received a lot of media coverage and there are many companies that have removed them from their products. These cannot be metabolized by the liver, are common skin and eye irritants and are suspected to be endocrine disruptors.
The Bottom Line…

The bottom line is that the long term effects of many of these chemicals are just not known. Many of the manufacturers will say they are harmless but the research is often pointing in another direction. Of course, we have the final say in whether or not we purchase the product, but it is certainly our right to ask questions.


Sources & for more information, please visit:

Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR)

Environmental Working Group (EWG)

The Green Beauty Guide, Julie Gabriel, Health Communications, Inc., 2008

No More Dirty Looks, Siobhan O’Connor & Alexandra Spunt, First Da Capo Press, 2010

A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, Ruth Winter, M.S., 2005

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