Top 12 Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid


Hard to pronounce ingredients abound in the cosmetic industry; conventional products are filled with more than 10,500 industrial chemicals. Many of these chemicals are carcinogenic, are considered to be toxic to reproduction, may contain pesticide residues, and are known to be endocrine disruptors. If you think reading a food label requires some patience, you will need even more when it comes to conventional personal care products!



Coal Tar

Carcinogenic. A petroleum based product source of colours in makeup, often denoted by FD&C or D&C or including “lake” in their description. Some, if not all, colours contain aluminum or other heavy metals. Although use of certain colours is regulated and or restricted within the food industry, when it comes to cosmetics, restrictions only apply to makeup around the eyes. Hair dyes on the other hand contain PPD (para- phenylenediamine), aminophenol and diaminobenzene, all toxic dyes. Lip and skin makeup do not have restrictions either.



Carcinogenic. Irritant found in hair dye and fake eyelash adhesives. Used as a preservative and to harden nail polishes. Although Canada restricts the concentration, several formaldehyde-releasing chemicals do not fall under the purview. If you wish to avoid them, you have to play detective and scrutinize the product label. Chemicals in this category include:

  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea germall 2
  • Quaternium-15
  • Bronopol (2bromo2nitropropane1,3-diol )
  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Hydroxymethylglycinate



Used in nail polishes for a smooth finish, helping to keep the colour uniform. It is a volatile organic compound, causing irritation to the eyes, lungs, and throat when inhaled. Also affects the central nervous system. A suspected endocrine disruptor, affects fetal development.



Plasticizers banned in Canada in children’s toys and cosmetics but present in many fragrances, perfumes, deodorants, lotions and nail polishes where it is used to prevent chipping and provide sheen. Linked to endocrine disruption, liver/kidney/lung damage, cancer. Banned in the EU completely.



A catchall for dozens of hidden chemicals, even “unscented” or “fragrance free” products can contain fragrance plus an additional scent masking agent. Connected to headaches, dizziness, asthma, and allergies.



Used for lightening skin. Banned in the UK, rated most toxic on the EWG’s Skin Deep database. Linked to cancer and reproductive toxicity.



Known carcinogen found in lipstick and hair dye, but never listed because it’s a contaminant, not an ingredient.



Known allergen that impairs brain development. Found in mascara.



Petroleum derived. Used as preservatives, but also part of fragrances, found in many products. Linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, interacts with UVB rays to cause oxidative damage of the skin. Naturally occurring parabens in certain foods get metabolized and broken down into harmless compounds.


Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

Penetration enhancer used in many products. Often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, both known carcinogens. May be stripped from the product but currently this cannot be determined from product labels.


Silicone-derived emollients/Methicone

Used to make a product feel soft, these don’t biodegrade. Prevent skin from breathing. Carcinogenic, endocrine disruptor and skin irritant.


Mineral oil/Petrolatum

By-product of petroleum with possible contamination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cancer risk (Europe restricts the use to uncontaminated sources). Additionally, it creates a film similar to silicones that impairs the skin’s ability to release toxins.



Asbestos contamination concern. Although only pure uncontaminated sources can be used in Europe, no such regulation exists in the US and Canada. Linked to ovarian cancer.



Synthetic antioxidant preservative in lipsticks, carcinogenic, possible endocrine disruptor.


For more information:

Pocket guide of 12 toxic ingredients to avoid from the David Suzuki Foundation.

Detailed article and list about toxic cosmetic ingredients.