The rise in popularity of “clean” beauty products in recent years has placed a newfound emphasis on the importance of knowing what’s inside the products you’re putting on your skin every day. Unfortunately, however, because the cosmetics industry remains largely unregulated in the US, consumers are left with the responsibility of researching ingredients themselves and knowing which ones could be toxic and even potentially cancer-causing.

It can seem like an overwhelming task to eliminate every possible problematic ingredient from your skincare routine. But if you can start by avoiding these known carcinogens in skincare and other cosmetics, it could have a profound impact on your long-term health and wellness.

1. Formaldehyde

What is it? Formaldehyde is a colorless gas with a pungent odor and is best known for its use as an embalming fluid. Although it is listed as a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) by The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), formaldehyde is also used as a preservative in many other products, including skincare and personal care items.

Where to look: Nail polishes, nail polish removers, hair products, moisturizing creams, eyelash glue, and others.
What to look for on the label: You might see formaldehyde listed on the label, as well as formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) like quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and others.

2. Phthalates

What is it? Phthalates are colorless and odorless synthetic compounds used in the manufacturing process of many types of products, including plastics, solvents, and personal care items. These chemicals are easily absorbed by our bodies and are known endocrine disruptors and have also been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

Where to look: Nail polish, hair spray, perfumes, creams and lotions, soap, body wash, deodorants, tampons and other feminine hygiene products, and others.

What to look for on the label: Labels very rarely outwardly disclose that they contain phthalates. Instead, look for three- or four-letter acronyms that are used to describe the specific phthalate compound, such as:

  • DEP
  • DMP
  • DBP
  • DINP
  • BBP
  • MBP

3. Parabens

What is it? Parabens are man-made chemicals used as preservatives in a wide array of products, ranging from skincare and cosmetics to packaged foods and pharmaceuticals. Parabens, however, mimic the effects of estrogen in the body and are also linked with an increased risk of breast cancer.

Where to look: Lotions, tinted moisturizers, sunscreens, makeup, shampoo and conditioner, deodorant, face cleansers, and many others.

What to look for on the label: You might see the name of the paraben listed on the label, such as propylparaben, or you may see alternative names such as propyl 4-hydroxybenzoate. Most paraben names will follow that same naming pattern.

4. Coal Tar

What is it? A byproduct of the coal industry, coal tar is thick black liquid and a known human carcinogen. Yet, it is still included in a number of skincare products, including prescription treatments for rosacea and psoriasis.  

Where to look: Hair dyes, dandruff shampoos, creams and ointments for rosacea and psoriasis.

What to look for on the label: You might see “coal tar” listed on labels, as well as derivatives of coal tar, such as benzene and toluene. Many dyes containing the term “lake” are also derived from coal tar.

5. Mineral Oils

What is it? Derived from the crude oil industry, untreated and mildly treated mineral oils are classified as known human carcinogens and have been linked to an increased risk of nonmelanoma skin cancers. While refined mineral oils may not pose as many health risks, it is difficult or impossible to determine how the ingredient was manufactured based on product labels alone.

Where to look: Often used as a moisturizing agent in products like creams and lotions, baby oils and lotions, deodorants, bubble bath, hair products, and more.

What to look for on the label:

6. Ethylene Oxide

What is it? Ethylene oxide is an organic compound found in many household cleaners, tobacco smoke, vehicle exhaust, and personal care items. In skincare products, this carcinogenic ingredient is used to increase water solubility. Ethylene oxide exposure has been linked with many types of cancer, including breast cancer, endocrine dysfunction, and central nervous system dysfunction.

Where to look: Hair conditioners and shampoos, makeup, bubble bath, and others.

What to look for on the label: Look for “ethylene oxide” on the label.

7. Cadmium

What is it? Cadmium is a heavy metal that has historically been used as a pigment in many cosmetic products. However, it is highly toxic and even small amounts can cause cardiovascular, renal, neurological, and reproductive harm.
Where to look: Lipstick, eye shadows, nail polishes, soap, shaving creams.

What to look for on the label: Look for “cadmium” or cadmium compounds on the label.

8. Arsenic

What is it? Arsenic is a naturally occurring metal that is known to be highly toxic and cancer-causing in humans. The FDA currently allows small amounts of arsenic to be present in cosmetic products as a color additive.
Where to look: Lipsticks, eye shadows, skin-lightening products.

What to look for on the label: Arsenic is not necessarily on the label of products that may contain this harmful ingredient.

9. Chromium

What is it? Chromium is another heavy metal that is found in cosmetic products as a color additive. Although the FDA does not place any limits on the amount of chromium that can be present in cosmetic products, this ingredient is listed as a carcinogen by the The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and is linked with lung cancer, respiratory harm, liver and kidney problems, and skin ulcers.

Where to look: Eye shadow, nail polish, face masks, foundations and concealers, brow pencils, and more.
What to look for on the label: Chromium, chromium oxide, or chromium green may be listed.

10. Silica

What is it? Crystalline silica is derived from the mineral quartz and is listed as a known carcinogen, most notably linked with lung cancer. Amorphous silica is another form of the same ingredient that is also linked with respiratory problems.
Where to look: Moisturizers, face masks, facial cleansers and scrubs, eye creams, makeup products, nail polish, lip balm, and others.

What to look for on the label: Silica, silicone dioxide, hydrated silica.

In Summary

There is no need to become overly stressed trying to eliminate every single potential skin irritant or problematic ingredient all at once. If you are looking for a more manageable list, avoiding the ten ingredients outlined above can be a helpful place to start.

If you are ever unsure about the safety of the ingredients in the products that you are using, bring the bottles into your next dermatologist appointment to be sure. It is also recommended that you work closely with your dermatologist to create a customized skincare regimen that makes sense for your skin’s specific needs.

For skincare questions or to schedule an appointment, call our Delray Beach office at (561) 692-6422 or contact us online!