How to identify dangerous ingredients in your beauty products?

Welcome to your first day of BEAUTYschool.  I am wildly excited about this blogging series in particular because this is a place for YOU to learn, and for me to teach through my writing. BEAUTYschool is a place for conscious women, like you, to find out the answers to your burning natural beauty questions without a sales pitch, product review, or makeup look. This is purely information to guide you on a clearer green beauty path. This information will be easy to digest, simple to look at (because lets be honest, we are all skimmers at heart).  This article in particular may be long, but is a good resource to keep on hand. 

I hope you enjoy this series, and  I encourage you to  suggest topics, ask questions and beg for more. 

Ingredient ABC's

What you will learn ( scroll down & navigate to answer your questions quickly):

What ingredients you should avoid at all costs? What is an atom, compound ester & derivative of an ingredient? What safe ingredients have a dangerous sounding name? & how to efficiently and successfully successfully read a product label.



What ingredients should I avoid at all costs?

1. Coal Tar:
A chemical derivative of coal, coat tar is found in dry skin and anti-redness treatments, bath soaks, anti lice and anti dandruff shampoos. Coal tar is also found in chemical hair dyes. It has been banned in the European Union since 2004 because it is known as a carcinogen.

It can also be listed as: coal tar, FD&C, D&C colour plus a number (eg. FD&C Red No.6 or D&C Green No.5)

aka: diethanolamine, triethanolamine, monoethanolamine, cocaminde DEA
Used as emulsifiers and foaming agents, these chemicals are found in shampoo, face and body washes, and makeup. These fast absorbing suspected carcinogens can combine with nitrates to cause cancer-causing nitrosamines. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing if products contain nitrosamines, because disclosure of the by-production of nitrosamines is not required by any governing agency.

These can also be listed as: DEA, TEA, MEA, coco\amide DEA, lauramide DEA, oleamide diethanolamine. 

3. Ethoxylated surfactants and 1, 4-dioxane:
This chemical is never listed on labels, yet in many beauty products. This is because it is a contaminant, or by-product, not an ingredient. 1,4-dioxane has been identified by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen. The contamination results when ethylene oxide (known as a breast carcinogen) is added to sodium lauryl sulfate to make sodium laureate sulfate. Found in products such as hair relaxers, shampoos, children's soaps and body washes. The Environmental Working Group found 57 percent of baby soaps in the United States were contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.

Look for ingredients containing the letters eth, this is a red flag. Watch for: polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxythylene, oxynol, ceteareth, oleth, -xynol, PEG, or any other eths.

4. Formaldehyde: 
Classified as a probable carcinogenic immune system toxicant and a skin irritant. This ingredient is found as either an additive or a contaminant in nail products; hair colouring; false eyelash adhesive; shampoos; and other cosmetics. It has been banned for use in beauty products in the European Union.

Look for: formaldehyde, formalin, formic aldehyde, methanal, methyl aldehyde, oxomethane, oxymethylene, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, and imidazolidinyl urea. 

5.   Fragrance/ Perfume:
If you see the ingredient “fragrance” this means “hidden chemicals”, according to The Environmental Working Group. Companies are not required to list the ingredients that make up the scent in their product, but the Environmental Working Group and Greenpeace have found high levels of phalates and artificial musks in products they have tested. Fragrance can also be the cause of headaches, dizziness, asthma, allergies and effects on the central nervous system.

Look for: Fragrance, perfume, parfum. Instead, pick products that are scent-free or use essential oils. 

6. Hydroquinone: 
Hydroquinone is used as a skin lightening agent in treatments and creams. Hydroquinone will decrease the production of melanin in the skin and increase the skins sensitivity to harmful UVA and UVB. This ingredient is banned in the UK, and is rated a ten (most toxic) on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. It is linked to cancer, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, developmental organ toxicity, and reproductive toxicity. 

7. Lead:
Lead has been found in many lipstick, but never listed as an ingredients because it is a contaminant. It can also be found in hair dye, listed as “lead acetate”. Lead is a proven neurotoxin, a known carcinogen, and a hormone disruptor.

Lead is most likely unlisted on the ingredients - make sure to do your brand research!

8. Mercury:
Mercury is a heavy metal that can be found in some mascaras and other beauty products, like eyedrops, as well as in topical medications and vaccines. Mercury is a known allergen, linked to neurological impairment, and negatively affects brain development.

Look for: thimerosol, mercuric oxide, phenyl mercuric acetate, phenyl mercuric benzoate, mercurochrome. 

9. Mineral oil:
Found in many liquid cosmetics, mineral oil is a by-product of petroleum processing. It is a clean colourless oil, the main ingredient in baby oil. It is like a plastic wrap on the skin, preventing the skin to release toxins. 

10. Parabens:
Parabens are chemicals used to preserve, Linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation/dermatitis.  Several studies have shown links to great cancer as paragons mimic estrogen- and effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity.

Look for: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben, 4-hydroxybenzoic acid, propyl ester, propyl 4-hydroxybenzoate, benzoic acid, and 4-hydroxybutyl ester. 

11. Oxybenzone: 
Found in most chemical sunscreens, oxybenxone filters UV light on the skins surface, converting it from light to heat, this accumulates in the bodies fatty tissues and has been implicated in allergies, hormone disruptions, cellular damage and low birth weight.

Look for: benzophenone-3, benzoyl-5, 5-methoxyphenol, 2-hydroxy-4methoxybenxophenone, methadone, solaquin.

12. Paraphenylenediamine (PPD)
PPD causes dermatitis and allergies because of its toxicity of the skin and immune system. Found in hair dyes and other hair products, it is linked to cancer in lab tests.

Look for: paraphenylene, PPD, p-diaminobenzene, p-phenylenediamine, p-aminoaniline1, 1,4-benzenediamine. 

13. Phalates:
Phalates are rarely listed on ingredient lists because they are hidden in fragrances. Phalates are hormone disruptors that have been linked to kidney, liver and lung damage. 

14. Placental extract [placenta,placental protein, hydrolyzed placental protein]
This ingredient is used In skin and hair care products. It has been linked to endocrine disruption.

15. Polyethylene glycol
Used traditionally in cream based products and in cosmetics. PEG possibly contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and ethylene glycol, both known as carcinogens. 

Look for: PGE; also avoid PG: propylene glycol, and PPG: polypropylene glycol

16. Silicone derived emollients
Used in products that make hair and skin smooth. Environmental concerns as well as health concerns. Linked to tumours in lab tests; said to accumulate in liver and lymph nodes. 

Look for: cyclomethicone, dimethicone, dimethicone copolyol

17. Sodium lauryl (ether) sulfate
Responsible for making your products foamy; a known skin irritant that is easily absorbed. It is an inexpensive synthetic detergent. Found in Shampoo, Body wash, soap, tooth paste etc. 

Look for: SLS, SLES, sodium dodecyl sulcate, sodium PEG lauryl sulfate, monododecyl ester, sodium PEG lauryl ether sulfate

18. Talc
Talc in an old ingredient, found in some of the first cosmetics on the market. It is used to absorb moisture, in powder, blush, makeup deodorant. Linked to ovarian cancer and is a probable respiratory toxin.

Look for: French talc, cosmetic talc

19. Toulene
Possible hormone disruptor and known immune system toxicant. Listed as an ingredient or hidden in fragrances. 

Look for: toulene-2,5-diaminem toulene-2,5-diamine sulfate, methylbenzene, toll, benzene, methyl; also avoid buty-lated hydroxytoulene

20. Triclosan
Found in antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizer, face cleansers, deodorants. Suspected carcinogen and endocrine (hormone system) disruptor.

Look for: Microban 

21. Benzyl Alcohol
Benzyl alcohol is a naturally occurring and synthetic ingredient used as solvent and preservative; has been associated with contact allergy and organ system toxicity. 



What is an "atom", "compound" "ester" & "derivative"?

I am no scientist, and I assume you majority of you are not chemists either so I am going to explain this as simply as possible. There are some terms that may be helpful while reading ingredient labels, or helpful if you do your own research on the internet.

What is an atom?

an atom is the smallest unit of ordinary matter

  • solid, liquid, gas and plasma are are neutral or ionized atoms

What is a compound?

a compound is 2 or more different atoms which associate via chemical bond. 

What is a Derivative?

A derivative is a substance that is obtained from a specific compound.

  • Derivatization is a technique used in chemistry which transforms a chemical compound into a product of similar chemical structure, called a derivative.

What is an Ester?

an “ester” is ( alcohol + acid - water ) when at least 1 -OH (hydroxyl) group is replaced by an -O-alkyl (alkoxy) group (to get scientific on you) or in cosmetic words an emollient

esters are usually derived from carboxylic acid and alcohol. 

{some examples of esters are:}

  • Glycerides: fatty acid esters of glycerol = animal fats or vegetable oils (important incosmetics)
  • Phosphoesters: form the backbone of DNA molecules
  • Nitrate Esters: are the esters of nitric acid and alcohols and have explosive properties = nitroglycerin.
  • Polyesters: polymers that contain the ester functional group in their main chain = plastics

Esters with low molecular weight = fragrances and essential oils or pheromones (chemical factors that trigger social responses) 

Natural esters = the natural aroma of fruits and plants

{some examples of natural esters are:}

    - Flavouring agents and scents in plants and fruits.

    - Animal fats and plant oils.

Synthetic esters = artificial flavouring and fragrances. (beware of phthalate esters) 

{some examples of synthetic esters are:}

    -benzyl acetate: pear and strawberry

    -butyl butyrate: pineapple

    -methyl cinnamate: strawberry

For the most part esters are non-irritating and my even be beneficial for the skin. Many of us prefer to use cosmetics that are free of synthetics, including synthetic esters. I recommend staying away from phthalate esters in particular.

What is a Phthalate ester?

a phthalate ester is (phthalic anhydride + alcohol)

Phthalate esters are typically used as plasticizers and in cosmetics to control viscosity, stabilizers, lubricant, binders and fragrance. 

{some examples of phthalate esters are:}

    -dimethyl phthalate

    -butyl benzyl phthalate 

    -(anything that contains the word phthalate)

Why should you avoid Phthalate esters? 

Many studies have been conducted on the use of phthalate esters in cosmetics, household products and medical tools.  Phthalates have been found to be hormone disruptors and endocrine disruptors. This has a major impact on reproductive toxicity causing birth defects and health complications.

Phthalate esters are found just about everywhere, for example: PVC, plastics, meat, milk butter, cosmetics and personal care products. you can avoid phthalate esters by reading your ingredients on the products you purchase.


What safe ingredients have a dangerous looking name ?

Reading product ingredient lists can be extremely intimidating and confusing. with thousand of chemical ingredients on the market, most names may be new to you, and you won't apply what you can't pronounce right? Well..this may not be the case, in face, some unpronounceable ingredients are not harmful at all. Lets take a peek at this:

Botanical ingredients:

Ingredients that are directly derived from a plant and that have not been chemically modified before being used in the preparation of a cosmetic such as "orange peel extract", "sweet almond oil" etc must be labelled using the botanical name. This name may look different, or un pronounceable, but the english name should follow.

{For example:}

Citrus aurantium dulcis (orange) peel extract

     Citrus aurantium dulcis (latin scientific name) 

     Orange peel extract (ingredient name in english)

Emulsifiers & stabilizers:

Many emulsifying, stabilizing and viscosity ingredients may be difficult to pronounce, however these ingredients can be plant derived ingredients and toxin & synthetic free.

{For example:}

    Cetearyl Olivate / Sorbitan Olivate - olive oil derivative

    Cetyl Palmitate / Sorbitan palmitate - palm oil derivative

    Galactoarabinan - obtained from the extraction of one or more species ofthe larch tree, Larix

    Sorbitan palmitate - monoester of palmitic acid and hexitol anhydrides derived from sugar     alcohol.


Although it may seem ideal to avoid products with preservatives, you would actually be doing yourself a disservice. Shelved products that contain water must be preserved or they will grow mold & bacteria, go rancid and spoil. There are many preservatives to stay away from, however some preservatives are not as bad for us as some carcinogenic, toxic preservatives.

{For example:}

    Anti-oxidants: will extend the shelf life of an oil or butter. This will not preserve the product or prevent bacteria growth. 

    Tetrasodium EDTA

    Sodium dehydroacetate


As stated earlier, many ingredients may look scary but are 100% natural and non toxic.

{For example:}

    Montmorillonitealuminum/magnesium silicate clay

    Tocopherol - Vitamin E

    Maltodextrin - Hydrolysis of starch

    Sodium hyaluronate - salt of hyaluronic acid, naturally occurring polysaccharide found in connective tissues such as cartilage


How do I read a product label? 

I admit it, reading a product label is not easy. With a list of long, unpronounceable names, latin language and small lettering it can feel next to impossible to read a cosmetic label.

{Here are some tips for table reading:}

  1. It says "natural" and "organic" on the front, it must be a toxin free, clean product: not always true. There are many loop holes in the industry and companies have caught on to how hot natural cosmetics have become. Because the cosmetic industry is not regulated, companies can put whatever they want on the labels. This is why it is important to turn the product around and look for yourself
  2. "Read about our key ingredients" Is a major red flag. If cosmetic companies are not full disclosure, step away fast. There is a reason they are not sharing their ingredient information.
  3. The order of the ingredients actually means something: Ingredients are listed from highest concentration to lowest. 
  4. Fragrance and Perfume in my natural product? INCI (product labelling standards in EU) requires fragrance from essential oils be listed as “Fragrance” or “Parfum”, which both sound synthetic. Brands using essential oils for fragrance usually note this under the ingredient listing.
  5. First 5, last few: We are not perfect, and sometimes we are in a rush. If this is the case, take a look at the first 5 ingredients - this gives you somewhat of an idea if this product is clean. Make sure to also peek at the last 5 ingredients and this tends to tell you what kind of fragrance and preservatives are in the product. 
  6. First things first: Is this product toxin free? This step comes before organic. Would you be more concerned about your children's apple juice being organic, or how much lighter fluid it contains? Cosmetic labelling is just like food: 100% Organic” means a product contains only organically produced ingredients, “Certified Organic” means the product is made of at least 95% organically produced ingredients, “Made with Organic Ingredients” means the product contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients. 
  7. Do your research before you shop: Knowing and trusting brands is the most efficient way to shop for clean cosmetics. Reading blogs, watching youtube videos and staying updated on the latest clean products is a safe way to find good, clean cosmetics.

Got a burning question about cosmetic ingredients? Please feel free to ask here and I will get back to you as soon as I have the answer. 

Name *

I would love to go into detail about all ingredients, but there are 2 wonderful databases I just cannot compete with when it comes to ingredient recognition. If you are ever skeptical about and ingredient, or just simply need to check if it is safe please use one of the following resources: