What we put in our bodies—food—is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
What we put on it—skin care and beauty products—is not.
That could be an issue.
In one 2021 report, scientists tested 231 popular makeup products from the U.S. and Canada and found that more than 100 had Per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These are chemicals that don’t break down and build up in the body over time.
They include perfluorooctanoic acid, which may cause cancer, according to the
Clean skin goes beyond washing your face.
“Your skin is a living, dynamic organ,” says Nava Greenfield, M.D. of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. “Just like you consider carefully what you put into your mouth, you should take care in what you place on your skin.”
Understanding what’s in your products can help you achieve long-term health that’s more than skin-deep.
Here’s what the science says you should avoid—and what to use instead.
The skin is our largest organ, notes Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, board-certified dermatologist, co-founder of Precision Skin Institute, and founder of Stamina Cosmetics.
The skin has high absorption, “so skin care products that can be absorbed and enter our bloodstream can have detrimental effects on our overall health,” Blyumin-Karasik says.
Some ingredients like synthetic or highly concentrated fragrances or chemicals in personal care products can trigger skin sensitivity, irritation, or a more intense allergy.
Symptoms can include:
Other ingredients have been linked to more serious problems, like:
- cardiovascular disease
- developmental issues
- hormone disruption
For example, a 2018 review suggested that phthalates found in certain personal care products could adversely affect male fertility.
In 2020, California became the first state to issue a statewide ban on 24 chemicals, including methylene glycol and formaldehyde.
Other states don’t have these bans, leaving consumers to analyze and interpret labels themselves.
Complicating things, some recommendations to avoid specific ingredients aren’t one-size-fits-all. Different people may have different (or no) reactions to certain ingredients, even if they’re common allergens.
“Aside from real toxins and dangerous chemicals, a list like this will be different for each person,” Greenfield says. “Unfortunately, it’s not all black and white.”
Having an idea of what’s potentially toxic and what’s more likely to cause skin irritation can help you make informed decisions about the products you choose.
From common allergens to potential carcinogens, here are the ingredients Blyumin-Karasik and Greenfield suggest avoiding:
- PEGs (polyethylene glycols)
- methyl and propyl parabens
PEGs (polyethylene glycols)
Blyumin-Karasik and Greenfield warn that PEGs are a potential skin irritant.
They’re most often found in lotions, creams, and hair products because they can act as skin conditioners and humectants, a common moisturizing agent.
Methyl and propyl parabens
Blyumin-Karasik notes that methyl and propyl parabens are preservatives with reputations for being hormone disruptors. However, research is mixed.
Found in some eye make-up products, lipsticks, and deodorants, aluminum can cause skin irritation, according to Greenfield.
There’s also been discussion as to whether aluminum is a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent.
In 2013, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review said alumina and aluminum hydroxide was safe to put in cosmetics, noting that it doesn’t get absorbed into the skin and less than 1 percent is absorbed orally.
This ingredient is a preservative commonly found in soaps and shampoos and may cause skin irritation or allergies, Blyumin-Karasik explains. Greenfield agrees with avoiding formaldehyde, saying it’s a common irritant.
Phthalates are typically used to make sure plastic doesn’t break. They can also be used in fragrances in skin products. Blyumin-Karasik warns they may disrupt hormones.
- altered puberty
- testicular dysgenesis syndrome, a condition affecting semen quality and testicle descent
- increase risk for cancer
- increase risk of male and female fertility issues
- modify the release of hypothalamic, pituitary, and peripheral hormones
However, it’s important to note that neither piece of research above was specific to phthalates in beauty products.
Key West and Hawaii recently banned oxybenozone, which is commonly found in sunscreen. Blyumin-Karasik says it can disrupt hormones and cause allergic reactions.
Avoiding fragranced products and using a mineral-based sunscreen can help avoid harmful chemicals, Blyumin-Karasik says. Looking for preservative-free items can also cut down on risks of irritants and health hazards.
“The main purpose of preservatives is to maintain the integrity of the personal care products,” Blyumin-Karasik says. “The natural alternatives may not attain as long of the shelf-life as the chemical ones, but they’re better for our well-being.”
To clean up your beauty regimen, Blyumin-Karasik suggests looking for products that contain these safer ingredients instead.
Tea tree oil
Blyumin-Karasik suggests using tea tree oil, an essential oil found in shampoos, skin care items, hand sanitizers, and first aid products.
Instead of PEGs, opt for a humectant with fewer potential side effects. Blyumin-Karasik recommends glycerin.
Coconut oil, or Cocus nucifera, is extracted from the meaty part of a coconut fruit.
Blyumin-Karasik recommends it because it’s moisturizing and can reduce mold growth in skin care products.
- smooth skin
- reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- increase collagen density
Blyumin-Karasik says elderberry, or Sambucus nigra extract, often found in serums, has “versatile benefits for our skin.”
She notes these benefits include antimicrobial effects and high levels of vitamin C.
Research on elderberry is limited, particularly in topical products. However, a
Willow bark extract
Blyumin-Karasik says willow bark, or Salix nigra extract, is an excellent source of skin preservation. She recommends it for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.
“Besides that, willow bark contains a potent salicin ingredient which has gentle exfoliating properties to cleanse pores and reduce skin surface oil,” she says.
When shopping for personal care products, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind, depending on your age and any conditions you have.
Layering is not for skin care
Leave the layering for sweater weather, not skin care. Blyumin-Karasik says the biggest issues she sees in her clinic happen when people try to cake on too many products or ingredients.
“Trying to be innovative or frugal, young individuals play with potentially hazardous ingredients such as baking soda or lemon juice which can lead to significant skin irritation,” Blyumin-Karasik says. “Older individuals try to layer too many products onto their skin such alpha hydroxy acids and potent retinoids and as a result, create skin allergy or irritation.”
Blyumin-Karasik recommends working with a dermatologist to find the correct ingredients for your skin type and beauty goals.
More is not always more
A long ingredients list doesn’t necessarily mean there are a ton of items working to boost your skin’s health. Sometimes, simple ingredient lists are most effective.
“In general, if a skin care product has too many chemicals or fragrances, it can irritate the skin and cause skin rashes, and it’s best to avoid,” Blyumin-Karasik says.
Sensitive skin, eczema, dermatitis, or rosacea
Individuals with sensitive skin, eczema, dermatitis, or rosacea will want to pay particular attention to product labels and the “less is more” mantra, Blyumin-Karasik says, as people with these conditions are more prone to irritation.
“They’re best served by using fragrance-free, sensitive skincare lines such as Avene and Bioderma, and definitely avoiding any of the above skin allergens,” Blyumin-Karasik says.
Blyumin-Karasik advises acne-prone individuals to opt for products that won’t clog pores. She suggests looking for words like “oil-free” and “noncomedogenic” and minimizing the use of occlusive moisturizers or make-up.
These “can cause more breakouts and blemishes,” Blyumin-Karasik warns.
When purchasing skin care products, you’re making an investment in your body’s largest organ.
But some ingredients may not serve your skin — or overall health.
Though research in some cases is minimal and others are mixed, Phthalates and some parabens are linked to hormonal disruption. Other ingredients are carcinogens or may cause irritation.
Speaking with a dermatologist can help you figure out the best and safest products and ingredients for your skin and overall health.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.