Harmful Cosmetic Ingredients

There may be some nasty stuff in your beauty products - here are some common cosmetic ingredients to watch out for.

Harmful Cosmetic IngredientsParabens

One of the most widely used preservatives, the safety of parabens has been, for years, considered questionable at best. Used alone or in conjunction with other chemicals, in small doses, parabens are used to prevent fungus, bacteria and other cultures from forming in cosmetics and skin care products. Chemicals in the paraben family include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. Of these, methylparaben has been deemed by the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep to be the most hazardous.

What they’re in: Facial moisturizers, facial cleansers, facial treatments, anti-aging products, sunscreens (SPF 15 and up), foundation, deodorants, mascara, hair colour and bleach, eye shadow.

Why they’re bad: Although studies have not yet been able to wholly prove hazards of parabens, they have been linked to breast cancer, allergies and immunotoxicities and irritation of skin, eyes and lungs. For now Health Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) have deemed parabens safe to use, so long as they stay at current exposure levels.


Often referred to as “plasticizers,” phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make products more flexible. Although there are many forms of phthalates (both known and unknown), those most commonly used in cosmetics are diethyl phthalate (DEP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Of the known uses and derivatives of phthalates, Skin Deep has listed DBP and DEP as highly hazardous.

What they’re in: Nail polish, nail treatments, cuticle treatments, facial moisturizers and treatments, fragrances.

Why they’re bad: While organizations such as the CIR maintain that cosmetics containing phthalates are safe in their current levels, agencies such as Health Canada and the FDA remain skeptical. Although the products have not yet been restricted by these agencies, phthalates have been banned by the European Union (EU), and have been linked to issues with reproductive systems in men and women (including infertility).

Propylene Glycol

A derivative of petroleum, propylene glycol is used in cosmetics to carry moisture. It works to maintain the moisture content of skin by preventing the release of natural moisture or water.

What it’s in: Hair colour and bleaches, facial moisturizers, facial cleansers, facial treatments, shampoos and conditioners, sunscreens (SPF 15 and above), foundation, styling gels.

Why it’s bad: Although virtually non-toxic when ingested, propylene glycol can cause skin irritation or sensitivity in concentrations as low as two percent. It has also been linked to causing liver and kidney damage. Skin Deep notes that cosmetics may contain up to 50 percent of the irritant.

Mineral Oil

The primary oil used in a wide range of cosmetics, mineral oil is a “mixture of aliphatic, napthalenic and aromatic liquid hydrocarbons derived from petroleum,” according to a study from Positive Health Online. It acts by coating skin, like plastic wrap, thereby disrupting the skin’s natural ability to breathe and absorb moisture.

What it’s in: Moisturizers (facial included), foundation, products containing SPF, hair colour, lipstick, lip gloss, concealer, eye shadow, styling gel.

Why it’s bad: Although Skin Deep deemed mineral oil as low to moderately hazardous, it has been linked to asthma, eye irritation and various forms of cancer.

Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)

Once a common ingredient in sunscreens, PABA is now one of the chemicals on Health Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient “Hotlist” (a list of ingredients that are banned or have limitations on use in cosmetics in Canada).

What it’s in: Shampoos and conditioners, body washes and cleansers, hair-loss treatments, facial moisturizers and treatments, hairspray, sunless tanning cream.

Why it’s bad: Skin Deep has listed the effects of PABA as cancer, skin irritation, rashes and has linked it to deficiencies in blood and the brain and nervous systems.


Also known as petroleum jelly, petrolatum is a “semisolid mixture of hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum,” according to Skin Deep.

What it’s in: Lipstick, balm and gloss, moisturizers (facial included), hair relaxers, body wash and cleansers.

Why it’s bad: It has been deemed as a low hazard ingredient and, as a result, is safe for use in Canada and the U.S. with little to no side effects, although further testing has been deemed necessary. It has been banned in cosmetics in the EU.


Best known for appearing in wax form, paraffin is a “solid mixture of hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum characterized by relatively large crystals,” according to Skin Deep.

What it’s in: Lipstick, gloss, balm and liner, products with SPF, eye liner, moisturizers (including facial), mascara, concealer.

Why it’s bad: Although ranked as a low hazard by Skin Deep, paraffin has been linked to skin irritation and some types of kidney and renal system cancers.

Diethanolamine (DEA)

DEA is a highly hazardous petroleum-based chemical best known as the ingredient that gives shampoos its rich lather. Although not harmful on its own, DEA can react with other ingredients to become cancer causing.

What it’s in: Sunscreens (SPF 15 and higher), moisturizers and treatments (including facial), foundation, around-the-eye cream, athlete’s foot treatment, anti-aging treatments.

Why it’s bad: When combined with nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), DEA can be linked to stomach, liver, esophagus and bladder cancers. It also acts as an irritant, is harmful if swallowed and has been linked to asthma.

Silica (Silicone Dioxide)

There are many types of silicones found in cosmetics and, although they are petroleum-based, most of these ingredients are harmless to consumers. One such strain, silica, has been considered by Skin Deep to be highly hazardous, depending on how the product is being used.

What it’s in: Foundation, lipstick and gloss, eye shadow, nail polish, facial powder, sunscreens (SPF 15 or higher), concealer, mascara.

Why it’s bad: In cosmetics, silica is relatively safe and harmless to use. In higher concentrations (mainly used in industrial applications), the ingredient has been linked to cancer, allergies and respiratory issues.

Polyethylene Glycols (PEGs)

There are a number of PEGs that exist in the cosmetic products. One of the most hazardous of these is PEG-7, a petroleum-based dioxide that can penetrate skin and act as a human carcinogen.

What they’re in: Oral pain relief products, lubricants and spermicide, styling gel, anti-itch/rash cream, mascara, toothpaste, facial moisturizers.

Why they’re bad: Classified by Skin Deep as moderately to highly hazardous, PEGs have been linked to cancers, skin irritation and cardiovascular ailments.

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