Beauty / Health and wellbeing | 25.02.2016

Danger! Cosmetic ingredients you should avoid like the plague


In years to come, I believe we’ll look back at some of the cosmetic ingredients that we apply to our skin, hair, nails, lips and eyelashes on a daily basis and shake our heads in disbelief. 

In my opinion, the only reason some of these toxic cosmetic ingredients are still legal is due to apathy and inadequate research on their harmful effects to human health. That, and governments are pretty slow to move on regulating highly profitable industries. 

Remember, not too long ago we used to think smoking was glamorous and harmless to health. In our grandmother's day, no one batted an eyelid at heaping a few teaspoons of highly processed sugar into their cup of tea. Going back even further, it was de rigueur to use white lead mixed with mercury on the face to give a fashionable pale white glow. 

Pale, translucent skin was all the rage during the Renaissance, so it was common practice to apply powders to the face that contained a lead-based ingredient called Venetian Ceruse, also known as Spirits of Saturn. It was a 16th century skin whitener that has the inconvenient side-effect of causing lead poisoning. 

Queen Elizabeth I was one of it’s biggest fans and was rumoured to have died of blood poisoning as a result of using lead-based face powder.

The things we do for beauty. 

I believe some cosmetic ingredients are just as damaging to health and in even more wide ranging ways than the chemicals in a cigarette, but they are so prolific and our governments are so slow to ban them, that it’s up to us as consumers to educate ourselves about which cosmetic ingredients are potentially too toxic to risk exposing yourself and your family to on a regular basis.

If you can't be bothered reading up on all the potentially toxic cosmetic ingredients filling billions of bottles on millions of shelves around the world (who has the time?), just go for what you know is safe. Cosmetic ingredients that are certified organic, natural and botanical are usually your best best, though even some of those may cause reactions in those with sensitivities and allergies.

Just because it's natural, doesn't mean it will be right for everyone. But I’ll put my money on a nourishing plant extract over a chemical that I can’t read let alone pronounce any day. 

I bet you would too. 

If you do want to educate yourself about what's out there and what to avoid, you can start with five of the worst, which all happen to start with a P – which makes it easy to remember next time you’re reading a label. 

The 5 Ps of toxic cosmetic chemicals: back away now!

1. Phthalates  

Phthalates are plasticising chemicals commonly found in cosmetics (perfumes, hair spray, nail polish, deodorants, and body lotions), as well as plastic packaging and toys. They are usually not listed on labels. Health effects include disruption to the endocrine system, damage to the liver/kidneys, birth defects, decreased sperm counts and early breast development in girls and boys. According to the Environmental Working Group, pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phthalate and everyone should avoid products with 'fragrance' indicating a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates. 

2. Parabens 

Prefixes include: Methyl, Butyl, Ethyl, Propyl, Isopropyl. Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives widely found in cosmetics, deodorants and other skin care products and they are not always listed on labels. Parabens have been found in breast cancer tumours. The US Centre for Disease Control has detected parabens in virtually all Americans bodies. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, longer chain parabens like propyl and butyl paraben and their branched counterparts, isopropyl and isobutylparabens, may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders. 


Full name: Polyethylene Glycols. PEGs are potentially carcinogenic petroleum ingredients that are a family of conditioning and cleaning agents that can alter the skin’s natural moisture factor. They go by many names and are found in everything including personal care, baby care and sunscreens. PEGS are made by ethoxylating propylene glycol. Dangerous levels of dioxin have been found as a by-product of the ethoxylation process. Can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which the US government considers a probably carcinogen which readily penetrates the skin.  

4. Parfum

A.k.a. fragrance. Any mixture of fragrance ingredients used in cosmetics, even in products labelled as ‘unscented’. Can trigger allergies and asthma. Some are linked to cancer and neurotoxicity.

5. Petrolatum

A.k.a petroleum jelly or mineral oil, this is used in hair products for shine and as a moisture barrier in lip balms, lipsticks and moisturisers. Petroleum products can be contaminated with carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The European Union considers it a carcinogen and restricts its use in cosmetics.  

Do you regularly use skincare or beauty products containing any of these cosmetic ingredients or do you do a Forrest Gump and run a mile when you see a product that contains them?


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