The Most Common Toxic Ingredients in Skincare Products & Why You Should Avoid Them

Author's Profile Image Sky Haarsma


There's no shortage of beauty products these days. When you take a quick walk down the skincare aisle in a beauty shop, you'll find hundreds of products, each promising glowing skin, fewer wrinkles, and a radiant complexion. From fancy serums to rejuvenating creams, there's seemingly a miracle solution for every skincare concern. 

But have you ever stopped to consider what's actually in those bottles and jars?

While these products boast impressive results, many contain ingredients that could do more harm than good. And you might not notice because these ingredients seem harmless. Take fragrance, for instance. It's hard to imagine that the good scent you love can be harmful. But these fragrances are made of about 2000 to 4000 chemicals, including carcinogens like styrene, naphthalene, and phthalates? 

Most manufacturers count on people not knowing that it's legal to sell toxic beauty and hair products. In some cases, they rely on misleading you (spinning information) to make their products appear better than they are. This is referred to as eco-washing, clean-washing, or greenwashing when a company portrays its products or brand to trick you into thinking it's better for your health and the environment than it is. Unfortunately, an unsuspecting consumer might never know these trade secrets.

Understanding Toxic Ingredients in Skincare

We all want products that make our skin look and feel its best, but it's important to know what we put on our faces and bodies. So, what exactly are toxic chemicals, and why should you care?

Toxic ingredients are substances that can harm your health. They might irritate your skin, mess with your thyroid hormones and immune system, or even lead to serious health problems over time. Despite all the potential risks, many of these ingredients are still found in various beauty products because they serve valuable functions, like preserving the product or creating a pleasant scent.


Common Toxic Ingredients and Their Effects

Let's explore some of the most common toxic ingredients in beauty products and their effects on the body.


Parabens are preservatives that keep mold and bacteria from growing in skincare and cosmetic products. You'll see them listed as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. The problem with parabens is that they can mess with your hormones.

They act like estrogen in your body and can cause breast cells to grow and divide more than they should. As a result, it increases the risk of breast cancer, early puberty, weight gain, and can cause an irregular menstrual cycle.


Phthalates are colorless, odorless, and oily liquids that serve as solvents and stabilizers in perfumes and other fragrance preparations. They're also used in cleansers, shampoos, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, and nail polishes. You'll see them as diethyl phthalate (DEP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), or dibutyl phthalate (DBP) on labels, though DMP and DBP are not so common.

Phthalates are well known for their ability to disrupt the hormonal system, with extensive lab research showing that exposure reduces testosterone levels and causes a range of reproductive issues, including infertility. It's also associated with insulin resistance, breast cancer, respiratory problems and other major public health concerns.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a detergent that makes your shampoos, body washes, and facial cleansers foam up nicely. But SLS strips away your skin's natural oils, leading to dryness and irritation. It can also cause eye irritation and, in some people, more severe skin reactions.

While most studies conclude that SLS does not cause cancer, cataracts, or hair loss, the reality is that our bodies readily absorb it. SLS can build up in internal organs, increasing the chances of related long-term health issues. If you have very sensitive skin and are prone to rashes, it might be a good idea to stay away from SLS. The same applies to when you have skin conditions like psoriasis or rosacea.

Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasers

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives help prevent microbes from growing in water-based products. Like parabens, they help increase the shelf life of beauty products. They appear on labels as glyoxal, bronopol, quaternion-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, or Diazolidinyl urea.

Many experts and government bodies, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the United States National Toxicology Program, consider formaldehyde a known carcinogen, meaning it can cause cancer. It can also lead to skin irritation and allergies. 

Synthetic Fragrances

Synthetic fragrances are artificial scents used to make products smell nice. They're often listed as "fragrance" or "parfum" on labels and can be a mix of many chemicals. These fragrances can cause skin irritation, allergies, and breathing problems. Some are also linked to hormone disruption. Synthetic fragrances are found in perfumes, lotions, shampoos, and deodorants.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

BHT acts as a preservative and antioxidant in cosmetics and skincare products. It's an efficient stabilizer, which is why it's common in lotions and creams. While the FDA has approved BHT for use in beauty products, some animal studies have shown that it has toxic effects on the lungs, liver, reproductive system, blood system, and kidneys. It can also affect testosterone levels and sperm quality.

Heavy Metals

Some personal care products like nail color, eyeliner, lipstick, hair dye, sunscreen, etc., include heavy metals like zinc, aluminum, iron, chromium, mercury, arsenic, and lead. Some are intentionally added as ingredients, while others are contaminants. Heavy metals are essential for the normal functioning of the body. But when they accumulate, they may have serious adverse effects like cancer, nervous system toxicity, reproductive toxicity, etc. Heavy metals appear as lead acetate, thimerosal, chromium, sodium hexametaphosphate, and hydrogenated cottonseed oil. 

polyethylene glycol (PEG)

PEG is a versatile ingredient in skincare products, thanks to its many uses and compatibility with other ingredients. It's often mixed with a range of hydrating emollients, cleansing agents, and beneficial fatty acids. However, its safety is questioned because it contains problematic impurities like 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, which can cause skin irritation, nervous system issues, and cancer. PEF appears as Pex-XX or polyethylene XXX, where XXX consists of an identifying number(s).

How to Make an Informed Choice


It's easy to assume that all products on the shelves are safe. However, skincare regulations aren't as strict as we might hope, and some harmful chemicals slip through the cracks. That's why knowing what's in every product you choose to put on your body is essential. Start by looking for products that prioritize transparency and use safe, natural ingredients.

Take a look at your current skincare products. If you spot any harmful ingredients, consider switching to natural and organic alternatives like those offered by Pure Treesy. Our products are free from toxic chemicals and made with organic ingredients derived from nature. Green products are good for your skin and overall health, and they are also good for the environment.
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