It should come as no surprise to most beauty enthusiasts that cosmetics and personal care products are made from numerous chemicals.  There has been a recent swell of discussion suggesting that some of the ingredients included in our products are dangerous.   In this post I offer my “lookout list” warning about the top 10 substances you should try to avoid.

It is important to note that these substances are legal and regulators in do not consider them dangerous when used in cosmetics.  However, many of these substances are classed as carcinogens, which are substances or agents that causes cancer. In my opinion, they should be avoided when at all possible. While hard evidence is still lacking about long term use of products containing the substances mentioned below, it certainly can’t hurt to be vigilant in reading the ingredient listing when purchasing new products.

I have audited all the shampoo, conditioner and soap products in my house to ensure my children are not in contact with any of these substances.  Reality check:  Am I going to immediately purge my makeup collection of all items that contain said substances?  No, I will not.  What I can commit to is considering this information when making future purchases, and I will be sure to research products in more detail. 

Note:   While I may be a nerd, I am not a science boffin, nor do I have access to one.  Please conduct your own thorough research to ensure you make well informed choices for you and your family.


Methylisothiazoline (MIT) has been suspected of impairing the way that nerve cells communicate with each other.   Look for it mainly in shampoos.  If you put this substance in insecticide, the EPA requires that those “exposed to methylisothiazoline products must wear long-sleeved shirt and long pants, chemical resistant gloves, and shoes plus socks.” I’m not sure how you can wash your hair with it safely, so best to avoid it.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (and its cousin sodium laureth sulfate) appear in lots of “foamy” products, including soaps, shampoos, and even toothpaste. This substance is approved for use but is known to be irritating to the skin. It’s the same stuff mechanics use to degrease engines. 

Phthalates are used in many cosmetics and perfumes.  There are numerous chemicals in this family and while government regulations allow them in cosmetics and perfumes, the EPA has published a toxicity summary on these ingredients and even states that exposure of young ones to these phthalates is “of concern for children’s health.”

Coal tar is a less common ingredient, but it has been linked to cancer. Look for it in hair dyes, anti-dandruff and specialty shampoos, and some anti-itch products.

Petroleum distillates are a category of products produced by the petroleum industry and are often used in mascara, foundation, lipstick, lip balms, and perfume. Petroleum distillates may contain impurities and are suspected carcinogens.

PEG (polyethylene glycol) or PPG (polypropylene glycol) are two chemicals that appear in numerous cosmetics although they are known to be harmful. The government allows these ingredients in cosmetics because small amounts of the substances are thought to be relatively safe. PEG is an ingredient in antifreeze and is regulated by the EPA, although it is considered of “low toxicity.”

Dyes, often labeled as FD&C or D&C with a color and number (such as FD&C Red No 3). These are synthetic colorings that are frequently used in color cosmetics (blush, foundation, nail polish, hair dye and so on) and even in food. Some of these dyes are known to be carcinogenic.

Parabens, of which there are many: Methyl, Propyl, Butyl, and Ethyl.  Parabens refer to a class of chemical ingredients which help cosmetic products stay fresh by inhibiting the growth of germs. Some parabens block UV radiation and are used in sunscreens.  It is believed that certain parabens are irritating to the skin.

Formaldehyde seems like an obvious substance to avoid, but this chemical is widely used in everything from embalming fluid to fabric softeners and is included in some cosmetics.  Formaldehyde is reported by the US National Toxicology Program as a substance “known to be a human carcinogen.” It may appear in shampoo, bubble baths, shower gels, antibacterial cleansers, nail hardeners, and liquid hand wash products.

Fragrance is a seemingly harmless term on a product label may be most dangerous of all since manufacturers can use it as a catch-all to describe any or all “masking agents” intended to camouflage an undesirable odor in the product. The FDA allows manufacturers to call certain ingredients “fragrances,” “flavors,” or “other ingredients” without disclosing them as a type of trade secret. This means that a whole laundry list of chemicals may get an exemption from disclosure so you do not know what you are using!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you avoid these products, hadn’t ever heard of them, or really don’t mind consuming them.  Leave a comment!