Finding a skincare product that does what it promises is no small feat. While these products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, some dangerous ingredients still make their way into skin care products. 

How could this be? Many potentially hazardous products only cause harm decades down the road. Others have to be used for months or years to cause damage. That means that it’s hard to demonstrate conclusively that a particular ingredient is harmful. For example, preliminary research suggested that triclosan — a common antibacterial ingredient — was safe. The FDA has now banned its use. The FDA continues to research potentially dangerous ingredients, but in the meantime, consumers are stuck trying to decide which products to forego. 

Even when the FDA uncovers evidence that an ingredient is dangerous, it can take years to ban it. The agency raised alarm bells about the perils of triclosan in 2013, but it took another three years to ban the ingredient. And triclosan-containing products won’t be fully banned until the end of 2017.

Here’s what you need to know about the toxic ingredients your skin care products may contain.

Why You Can’t Rely on Skincare Industry Regulations

“The problem with the skin care industry is that there is no regulation. There are many products banned in other nations that are either unregulated or untested in the United States and end up in skin care lines,” said Rhonda Klein, MD, MPH, a Connecticut-based dermatologist.

Endocrine Disruptors

The endocrine system sends chemical messages throughout your body. It regulates hormones that support fertility and weight loss, and it helps different organ systems work together. Mounting evidence suggests that some chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system, causing symptoms ranging from infertility to cancer.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical used in many plastics, including the packaging for some skin care products. It’s now widely regarded as an endocrine disruptor.

“Parabens have been shown to interfere with fertility and may be estrogenic, thus disrupting hormonal balances,” said Klein.

Other chemicals that may disrupt the endocrine system include:

  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Dioxins
  • Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs)
  • Phthalates
  • Formaldehyde
  • Parabens
  • Oxybenzone, which is commonly found in sunscreens
  • Sulfates, including sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)

“Fragrance” as an ingredient can also be a problem. This term is a catch-all that includes thousands of chemicals, many of which may harm the endocrine system. Klein says that fragrance is linked to a host of health issues, including endocrine system disorders.

Carcinogens

Carcinogens are products that can cause cancer. The American Cancer Society cautions that more research is needed to prove a clear correlation between skin care product use and cancer. Most research has only been done on animals.

As such, it’s impossible to assemble an exhaustive list of all ingredients that cause cancer. Some may turn out to be harmless. Other apparently safe materials could be carcinogens. 

Just as “fragrance” as a general purpose ingredient can conceal endocrine disruptors, it may also hide potential carcinogens. For maximum safety, choose fragrance-free skin care products.

Some other questionable ingredients include:

  • Formaldehyde, as well as preservatives that release formaldehyde, including coal tar, benzene, ethylene oxide, and cadmium
  • Silica
  • Chromium
  • Phenacetin
  • Cadmium
  • Dioxane
  • Urethane/ethyl carbamate
  • Hydroquinone

‘Natural’ Ingredients

To avoid potentially harmful ingredients, some people have turned to “natural” products, including essential oils. Not all natural ingredients are safe. Like the plants from which they derive, essential oils can be toxic, especially in large doses or when used on children. Before using essential oils, research the oil, the safe dosage, and any potential side effects. 

Some potentially toxic essential oils include:

  • Peppermint, particularly penny royal oil
  • Wintergreen
  • Eucalyptus
  • Nutmeg
  • Sage
  • Camphor
  • Tea tree oil

The oil of toxic plants, such as poinsettia and oleander, is also toxic.

Special Concerns for Potentially Pregnant and Pregnant Women

Most pregnant women know that what they eat can affect a developing baby. But ingredients absorbed through the skin can also cross the placenta and affect a fetus. Skin care ingredients to avoid include:

  • Retinol: Also called tretinoin, retinoid, or retinaldehyde, this derivative of vitamin A can cause congenital disabilities at high doses.
  • Hydroxy acids: These acids, which include salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, glycolic acid, and numerous other products, can cause congenital disabilities and pregnancy complications at high doses. A daily salicylic acid acne treatment is likely safe. But stronger beta hydroxy acid (BHA) peels can be dangerous, particularly if frequently used.
  • Soy: Soy is safe for pregnant women, but can make pregnancy-related skin problems worse. Melasma, pregnancy-related dark patches of skin, may get worse when exposed to skin care products containing soy. Use soy-free products instead. Lethicin, a textured vegetable protein, and Phosphatidylcholine can also worsen melasma.
  • Prescription acne medications: Retin-A, Accutane, and similar products contain high levels of retinol and are not safe during pregnancy.

Sunscreen Issues

Everyone knows that sunscreen can protect against cancer and premature aging. However, some ingredients in sunscreen may, in fact, cause cancer and skin problems. Bobby Buka, MD, a New York, New York, dermatologist, recommends avoiding the following ingredients:

  • Mineral oil, which can clog pores.
  • Parabens, which are tenuously linked to breast cancer.
  • Fragrance, which can conceal a broad range of ingredients, and which can trigger an allergic reaction.
  • Petrolatum, which is the primary ingredient in Vaseline, can undermine the skin’s exchange of protective oils.

Dr. Buka also cautions that chemical sunscreens are more likely to trigger an allergic reaction and inflammation. Physical barriers such as zinc oxide are a safer bet for people with allergies or sensitive skin.

What Does "Toxic" Mean Anyway?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by research showing that so many common ingredients are dangerous. You might even be tempted to throw up your hands, declare that everything is dangerous, and give up on researching the products you use.

Before getting overwhelmed, it’s important to understand what "toxic" really means. Some products are only dangerous when eaten or in very high dosages. Others only pose hypothetical, theoretical risks. Some are safe to use once or twice, but unsafe for prolonged use. If there’s a product you love that contains a potentially harmful ingredient, talk to your doctor or dermatologist. They can help you weigh the risks and benefits, empowering you to make safer skin care decisions.