- Some of the worst ingredients in skincare products include fragrances, phthalates, formaldehyde, and alcohol.
- Fragrances can irritate your skin and are one of the leading causes of contact dermatitis, which is a condition that causes inflamed skin.
- Alcohol can also damage your skin’s natural barrier, making it hard for your skin to retain moisture.
- This article was medically reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in New York City.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Our everyday skincare products contain dozens of ingredients. Some of these ingredients are essential and beneficial for our skin’s health, while some can be damaging and should be avoided.
The list of ingredients on the back of your favorite skincare products is often long and confusing. So here are five ingredients to look out for and why you might want to avoid them.
Both natural and artificial fragrances can irritate your skin. In fact, according to the Academy of Dermatology Association, fragrances are one of the leading causes of contact dermatitis, a skin condition in which your skin becomes red and inflamed after coming in contact with an irritant.
Artificial fragrances are made up of a mix of chemicals like solvents and preservatives that can irritate your skin. These have even been shown to cause skin problems like eczema and psoriasis because of the volatility of the chemicals used to make them.
“All fragrances in high concentrations can irritate the skin. Even organic ones,” says Paul Bigliardi, MD, a professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
Some research also shows that fragrances are the most common cause of allergic reactions to cosmetic products, so it’s best to choose products with no scent if you have sensitive skin.
Some scented products may also be worse for you than others. “Skincare products that you can rinse off, such as soaps, are more tolerable and can have a higher concentration of fragrance in them,” Bigilardi says. “But products that stay on the skin, such as creams and lotions, should have very low concentrations of fragrance or no fragrance at all.”
Parabens are a group of chemicals used as preservatives for skincare products, to prolong their shelf lives. They do this by hindering the growth of mold and microorganisms like bacteria in the products. The most common parabens used in skincare products include:
Parabens are popularly used in makeup products and moisturizers. According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) and the FDA, parabens are safe for use in cosmetic products and pose no significant health risks. This is because they are only used in very small quantities in these products.
However, research shows that parabens can easily pass through your skin, and into your body. This is problematic because they stay in your body tissues and fluids. Parabens have been found in the breast tissue of people with breast cancer, though no conclusive studies have definitively linked it to an increased risk of developing cancer.
Parabens could also interfere with hormone production by mimicking estrogen, a hormone that plays a vital role in maintaining the reproductive system in women. When this happens, your body may begin to produce less estrogen. Some research shows that this could adversely affect regular reproductive function in both men and women.
You may recognize this ingredient from science class, since the liquid form of formaldehyde is used as a preservative for cadavers. In cosmetic products, it is used as a chemical preservative to prevent bacterial growth.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, formaldehyde is considered to be a human carcinogen. This means exposure to it in large amounts for a prolonged period may put you at risk of developing cancer. However, most skincare products contain such small amounts of formaldehyde that many manufacturers don’t consider it a risk to use it.
Even though small amounts are used, many everyday skincare products like soaps, moisturizers, and cleansers contain formaldehyde, and it can still be harmful and irritating for your skin. For example, research shows that even short term use on normal skin can cause contact dermatitis.
“Formaldehyde shouldn’t be in cosmetic products at all. It can be very sensitizing and irritating to the skin. It can also be carcinogenic. Even though it’s not as damaging in lower concentrations it shouldn’t be used in skincare products anymore,” says Bigliardi.
Phthalates are a large group of chemicals often used to soften plastic. In cosmetic products, they are also used as softeners. They are often included in many fragrances used in skincare products to make the scents linger.
The most common type of phthalate used in skincare products is diethyl phthalate (DEP). DEP helps products like moisturizers and lotions to penetrate the skin better. DEP is also used in fragranced products to help the scent stay on longer.
According to the FDA, phthalates contained in skincare products don’t pose any significant health risks, even at the highest levels. However, phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. This means that in our bodies, they may interfere with the normal actions of our hormones.
Avoiding phthalates in your skincare products can be tricky. Manufacturers who used phthalates in fragrances aren’t required to list them as an ingredient on the back of their products. This is because they are often considered to be a part of the chemical makeup of fragrances. So if you are looking to avoid products with phthalates in them, it’s not enough to take a look at the list of ingredients. Opt for products that are specifically labeled ‘phthalate-free’.
Alcohol is used in many skincare products for different purposes. It may be used as a preservative, or to help products dry more quickly on your skin. In products like toners and cleansers, it’s used to help tighten the skin and reduce the appearance of pores.
They are different types of alcohol used in skincare products. Alcohols such as ethanol, isopropanol, and propanol are denatured alcohols and are most irritating for the skin. These types of alcohol are usually found in toners, soaps, and cleansers. They tend to be very harsh and overly drying for your skin. If used often these alcohols may damage your skin’s natural barrier, making it hard for your skin to retain moisture.
If denatured alcohol is one of the top ingredients in a skincare product, it’s likely to be very drying and may cause damage to your skin. Skincare products that contain a small amount of alcohol are less likely to be drying or irritating to the skin.
However, research shows that fatty alcohols such as stearyl, cetearyl and cetyl are safe for the skin. These alcohols are less irritating and can be beneficial to the skin. They are emulsifiers, which means that they help keep liquid and oil together in products. This is why they are often used in products like moisturizers and sunscreens.
Even though many manufacturers are discontinuing the use of some of these ingredients, most of them can still be found in our everyday skincare products. Taking a look at the ingredients that your favorite skincare products contain is a great habit to develop.
“Certain ingredients like formaldehyde have no place in cosmetic products. But with other ingredients like fragrance and parabens, it’s important to know that less is more, especially for people who have sensitive skin,” says Bigliardi. “The best products are the simplest products that don’t contain too many ingredients.”