dirty words in clean beauty

We’re all taught to read the back of food labels to ensure that we’re eating real food, that we’re ingesting ingredients we can pronounce, that even kids could recognize. The beauty game, unfortunately, is a bit more complex. Many natural, good-for-you ingredients have scientific names that obscure their humble origins. For example, jojoba oil is Simmondsia Chinesis Oil and  Vitamin E is Tocopheryl Acetate. This nomenclature system actually stems from an FDA law requiring cosmetic ingredients to be listed in accordance with the CTFA (Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, Inc.) Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary. With names like this, it’s challenging to know what’s safe and what’s not.

If you’re new to clean beauty or just don’t have time to look up every single. Ingredient, there are some ingredients worth taking note of in your products due to their potentially negative effects.


AKA: Butylparaben, isobutylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben
Purpose: Preservative
The Dirty: Parabens are endocrine disruptors which means they interfere with natural hormone production and increase risk of reproductive problems and cancer in men and women, posing the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming. A 2007 study suggested that parabens cause a cancer risk when applied at extreme doses while the FDA issued a statement declaring it doesn’t believe that parabens pose a health risk when used in normal, everyday doses.
The Clean: Food-grade preservatives (those safe enough to be ingested by us as indicated by the FDA, include vitamin E, potassium sorbate, and sodium benzoate, but it is recommended to discard opened products after a year of use regardless.       


AKA: Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), diethyl phthalate (DEP)
Purpose: Binding agent (allows fragrance to stick to skin), plasticizer (increases flexibility of plastic bottles and tubing)
The Dirty: Phthalates have been linked to reproductive issues in animal testing. Furthermore, phthalates in plastic bottles can leach into products over time. When possible, avoid plastic containers and use fragrance-free lotions and creams.


AKA: 2-bromo-2 nitropropane-1,3 diol (Bronopol), diazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantonin, quaternum-15, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, imidazalidinyl urea
Purpose: Preservative and disinfectant
The Dirty: Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and more immediately can cause skin and eye irritation.


AKA: Chemical sunscreens, benzophenone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene
Purpose: Sunscreen
The Dirty: Avobenzone, oxybenzone, and the like have been determined by the EWG to be skin irritants and endocrine disruptors that interfere with hormonal processes such as reproduction and our metabolism. However, scientific research has been mixed, suggesting that adult skin is unlikely to absorb chemical sunscreens when applied in normal amounts and that skin irritation often results from other added ingredients such as fragrance or phthalates. It is suggested that newborn skin, however, is more susceptible to absorption and its use should thus be avoided
The Clean: Non-nano (non-aerosolized) titanium and zinc oxide (aka mineral sunscreens) are safe alternatives that act as physical UVA/ UVB sun blocks, soothe skin, and do not degrade in sunlight


AKA: 1,2 propanediol, methylethyl glycol, antifreeze
Purpose: Skin conditioner used to enhance absorption of other substances
The Dirty: Propylene glycol is a proven eye and skin irritant, especially to those with eczema. While research has been conflicting, it is generally recognized as safe in small amounts in the USA, while European laws restrict it to non-food items. There is some concern, however that it can enhance the skin absorption of other harmful chemicals in a product due to its mechanism of action. It is agreed that pregnant women, newborns, infants, and those with kidney disease should avoid as they cannot eliminate properly.  


AKA: Tocopheryl acetate
Purpose: Skin lightener
The Dirty: Hydroquinone is a controversial substance. Banned in Europe and Canada, it has at one time been flagged in the the USA by the FDA for further study after studies suggested its carcinogenic properties, especially when consumed orally. Other studies have suggested DNA mutation and interference with the death of mutated cells. Currently, the FDA does allow for over-the-counter amounts in 1.5-2% concentrations and up to 4% by prescription. A reported and proven risk, although rare, is ochronosis or darkening of the skin in some patients when applied topically. If hydroquinone is used, the eye area should be avoided as it can cause corneal damage. The EWG lists it as highly hazardous due to its respiratory toxicity.


AKA: SLS, sodium dodecyl sulfate
Purpose: Surfactant which helps dissolve substances, breakdown dirt for a squeaky clean feel, and create foam
The Dirty: Sodium lauryl sulfate is a skin irritant for many as it strips skin of natural oils. It’s often used in experiments by scientists as a known skin irritating agent and is known to cause recurrent aphthous ulcers in humans.


Purpose: Surfactant which helps dissolve substances, breakdown dirt for a squeaky clean feel, and create foam
The Dirty: Sodium laureth sulfate is a skin irritant for some. Additionally, there is a small risk of it being contaminated with 1,4-dioxin, a known carcinogen, during processing. While contamination is minimal, some feel that there could be negative consequences of long-term use.
The Clean: Some companies use an extra step in processing to eliminate trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane altogether while other companies choose not to use it in their products as it does not affect efficacy.


AKA: Parfum, perfume, flavor
Purpose: Scent
The Dirty: Because fragrances are proprietary blends, the FDA doesn’t require that all ingredients are listed. Therefore, the specific negative effects of each scent are unclear. The EWG, however, noted the presence of endocrine disruptors in several popular fragrance blends. Toxic chemicals are often added to enhance the absorption and appearance of fragrances such as phthalates, solvents, or colorants.
The Clean: Essential oils make safe alternatives to laboratory-derived fragrances.

If all of this talk of potentially harmful ingredients is a bit frightening and you want more info, I encourage you to check out the Environmental Working Group’s site for a comprehensive database of ingredients and their risk and their Skin Deep site for a list of toxin-free products.



While I monitor my own products for these ingredients, minimizing my own risk and the environment’s, I try to stay flexible when I’m traveling or visiting friends or relatives. This means I use the drugstore body wash and shampoo if that’s what’s available. That said, I’ve gotten better at packing my own travel sized containers of my favorites (future post coming on that soon!). I encourage you to find what types of products you feel most comfortable and find where you can and cannot be flexible.