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10 Chemicals That Are Hiding in Your Skincare Products

Many of us are committed to living healthy lifestyles and limiting the number of chemicals that enter our systems in everything from the food we eat to the cleaning products we use in our homes.

There’s one source of chemicals you might have overlooked — your skincare products. Read the labels of most products closely and you’ll see that they’re filled with ingredients that sound like they’re from a high school chemistry textbook. This applies to drugstore bargains and high-end alternatives alike.

Check your favorite products to see which of these harmful might be lurking around:


Used in: Nail polish, body wash, conditioner, shampoo, cleanser, eyeshadow

We’ll start with one of the trickiest chemicals to spot on a product label. Formaldehyde is a preservative that was declared a carcinogen by the U.S. National Toxicology Program in 2011. It causes skin reactions and damages your immune system.

Most companies are smart enough to not list formaldehyde directly on a product label, so it’s often disguised as DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, or Bronopol.


Used in: Exfoliants, perfume

BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole, is another chemical on the National Toxicology Program’s list of carcinogens. It can cause everything from skin depigmentation to liver damage and stomach cancers.

It’s also been shown to interfere with the reproductive system by altering hormone levels. It was banned by the European Union but may still show up in perfumes and exfoliating products made in other parts of the world.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) / Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Used in: Soap, shampoo, body wash, acne treatments

If you’ve ever used a “foaming” soap or body wash of any kind, you’ve probably come into contact with one of these two chemicals. They are not necessarily dangerous on their own but can become toxic when combined with other chemicals, leading to issues like kidney damage and respiratory distress.

To be on the safe side, the next time you buy body wash, hand soap, or other cleansers, look for products that are labeled “sulfate free.”


Used in: Makeup, moisturizer, body wash, shampoo, spray tan products

Much like SLS and SLES, parabens are ubiquitous in the cosmetics industry and widely used as a preservative to help prevent yeast and mold growth in beauty products. They can damage the reproductive and nervous systems and have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

Parabens can come in a variety of forms but will always have some form of the word “paraben” in the ingredient name. Again, look for “paraben-free” on labels to ensure that your products are safe to use.


Used in: Deodorant, toothpaste, antibacterial hand soap

Triclosan rose to prominence in the hand sanitizer craze of the late 1990s and early 2000s. If used too much (like every time you wash your hands or put on deodorant), it can make your body resistant to bacteria, which increases your risk for infection.

Beyond that, triclosan can irritate your skin and cause hormonal imbalances — starting to notice a pattern between chemicals and hormones? Filling your body with a bunch of chemicals is a surefire way to disrupt its natural chemistry.


Used in: Body/facial scrubs, toothpaste, makeup

What makes a scrub a scrub? Those little beads, right? While they may seem innocuous, they are actually made of polyethylene glycol, or PEGs.

Polyethylene is a skin irritant and should never be used on open or broken skin, as you may have already found out the hard way. It’s also frequently mixed with dioxins, which are dangerous chemicals that can affect your endocrine system.

If that wasn’t enough, the PEG beads do not break down in the sewer system and can cause problems for fish and other animals later on down the waterway.

Petroleum distillates

Used in: Mascara

Gas in your mascara? That’s right. The petroleum distillate used in many mascara brands is made in an oil refinery at the same time as gasoline and heating oil — not in a lab or cosmetic production facility.

As you can imagine, petroleum is a natural skin irritant, especially in sensitive areas like your eyes. And, using too many petroleum-based products can increase your risk for many types of cancers.


Found in: Skin lightening products

This one is a bit of a no brainer. Beyond baking in the sun or locking yourself in the dark, there’s no natural way to change the color of your skin tone. So, of course, any products advertising that ability must rely on harmful chemicals to do so.

Hydroquinone, the most commonly-used skin bleaching chemical, can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, with “disfiguring and irreversible” blue-black lesions on exposed skin.

Triethanolamine (TEA)

Used in: Soap, lotion, makeup, perfume, sunscreen

This is not the type of tea that you steep in warm water and enjoy when you want to unwind.

This TEA, also known as triethanolamine, is a fragrance ingredient found in many scented skincare products. It helps to emulsify products and adjust their pH to make them more palatable on the skin.

Those benefits come at a cost in the form of cancer, organ toxicity, and allergic reactions. This one type of tea you’ll want to avoid.

Propylene Glycol

Used in: Moisturizer, sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner, hairspray

Propylene glycol is marketed as a skin conditioning agent in everything from moisturizer to hair conditioner. However, it can have just the opposite effect when the harsh chemical comes into contact with your skin or hair.

It penetrates the skin and can cause dermatitis and hives. It doesn’t take much of this stuff to cause a reaction; effects can be felt with concentrations as low as two percent.

Natural Alternatives

Thankfully, many consumers are starting to realize the dangers of these chemicals and becoming more savvy about their skincare choices as a result.

Rewind by Lauren Ashley is just one of many all-natural skin care product lines on the market. By going the natural route, not only will you avoid harmful chemicals and health risks, your skin will look and feel better, too.