All of us want to use good skincare products that are going to complement and improve our skin.
However, knowing which ingredients to avoid in skincare products can be a challenging thing, especially if you don’t have the time to do your research.
Now, if you are just a regular person who wants to take good care of their skin and mind their business, spending hours researching skincare ingredients to avoid probably isn’t your idea of having a great time.
This is partly due to the myriad of online articles that somehow always make you even more confused than before whenever you try to dig a bit deeper and find out more about what you are putting on your skin.
But that doesn’t solve your problem, does it?
Your concerns are still there and are probably even rising at the thought you might be using something that can potentially be harmful to your health.
Well, here we are today, and in this article, we are going to discuss all the relevant things you need to know when it comes to skincare ingredients to avoid.
Hopefully, this article will relieve some of your concerns and educate you on taking a different approach with choosing ingredients in cosmetics.
What Ingredients Are In Skincare?
Whether you are shopping for a drugstore moisturizer or you want to treat yourself to a high-end, luxurious item, the first thing you need to look at isn’t the claim on the packaging or the product description – it’s the ingredients list.
Understanding ingredient lists isn’t something that everyone is interested in and this is probably the most boring part when it comes to choosing skincare products.
I mean, how are you even supposed to know which ingredients are good for you, which aren’t, and what about those long and technical names that nobody can pronounce?
Alright, no pressure. Things really don’t have to be that complicated. Here’s what you should know:
Every single cosmetic product has its full ingredients listed on the packaging. Once you’ve located the list, the next thing to do is to find out what the ingredients are.
Some ingredients like water, glycerin, or aloe vera are easy enough to understand. But what about magnesium ascorbyl phosphate or cetearyl glucoside? How do you even pronounce that?
Well, you can go on INCIdecoder and search them up if you are interested, however, this can still be a time-consuming option you really don’t wanna do.
However, what you do want to do is learn how to recognize the ingredients that can irritate your skin. Many skincare products contain known irritants, so always search for these before you spend your money on a product that looks cute or smells delicious.
Active and Inactive Ingredients.
In most beauty products, ingredients are listed according to their concentration in that particular product. You should know that ingredients present in the highest concentrations top the list, and so on.
Then there is a group of cosmetics that are considered “over-the-counter drugs” such as physical sunscreens and products intended to treat acne, whose ingredients are listed as active and inactive.
An active ingredient is one approved by the FDA to perform a specific function for a given specific condition. For example, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide serve as sun protection.
Benzoyl peroxide is an active ingredient in over-the-counter acne products, and retinol (vitamin A) is an anti-aging powerhouse that helps treat anything from fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.
On the other hand, you have the inactive ingredients, which aren’t really inactive per-say, as they are efficient in providing support for the active ingredients.
Additionally, inactive ingredients sometimes serve as an extra level of hydration in a moisturizer and other skincare products.
Our skin is a peripheral organ, and what this means is that it is at the very bottom of the priority list when it comes to the distribution of nourishing ingredients because tissue regeneration is more important for internal organs.
Additionally, this also means that due to being the only organ that is completely exposed to the environment, our skin is constantly at risk of attracting environmental pollution and harmful aggressors.
Antioxidants are agents that protect the skin by limiting the damage caused by these environmental aggressors and research clearly show antioxidants are vital to your skin’s health.
Skincare products that contain antioxidants can help reverse environmental damage that slowly changes the skin, causing it to look and feel older as well as appear dull and saggy.
Years of environmental aggression towards it slowly chip away the skin’s natural ability to look and feel healthy and as the damage builds up, the skin gradually loses its ability to recover and bounce back as it once did.
Now, what happens as a result of applying antioxidants to your face is truly impressive. The skin’s appearance begins to turn around and the skin starts regaining a firmer feel and more even and brighter complexion.
Famous antioxidants commonly found in skincare products are:
- Tocopherol (Vitamin E)
- Lycopene (Carotenoid)
- Vitamin A
- Green Tea Extract
- Vitamin C
- Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)
For all parts of our bodies to work properly, each cell must know how to perform the correct action at the correct time.
This is no exception when it comes to skin cells, therefore, in order for everything to flow smoothly, there needs to be a constant “communication” with many substances telling cells how and when to function properly.
When cells have a miscommunication, or when these substances are relaying bad information through to the cells, all sorts of problems can take place.
Each cell has a vast series of receptor sites for different substances. These receptor sites are the cell’s “communication hookup”.
When the right ingredient shows up, it has the ability to attach itself to the cell and transmit information, telling the cell to start doing the things a healthy skin cell should be doing.
If the cell accepts the message, it can then share the same healthy message with other nearby cells and so on.
In short, a cell-communicating ingredient is “talks” to cells and directs them to behave in a healthier way.
Additionally, when the skin ages and experiences damage from the sun and other environmental aggressors, or there is some abnormal hormonal fluctuations going on, the genes involved in the formation of skin cells become damaged.
Therefore, when new skin cells are produced from a damaged base, they may be irregular, rough, or defective, leading to dull and damaged skin.
cell-communicating ingredients also help reverse this damage and encourage our bodies to produce healthier, more youthful cells.
Some great cell-communicating ingredients you can find in skincare products are:
- Linolenic Acid
- Linoleic Acid
- Cyclic Phosphate
- Pyrus Malu (Apple Fruit Extract)
Skin replenishing ingredients are used in skincare products in order to help enrich and hydrate the skin.
These are sometimes referred to as “skin-identical ingredients” because most of them are also found in abundance in young skins that haven’t been damaged by unprotected sun exposure and other environmental aggressors.
Aging, certain skin conditions such as acne, hypersensitivity, and the constant environmental assaults are notorious for depleting and weakening the healthy skin barrier.
When the skin’s barrier is weakened, the skin becomes much more vulnerable to external damage and so begins a vicious cycle of more dryness, dehydration, redness, increased sensitivity, and an inability to hold on to vital moisture.
This leads to a dull complexion that’s looking dry, flaky, and prematurely aged.
Skin-replenishing ingredients can be found in toners, serums, moisturizers, and even sunscreen and their sole purpose is to polish the skin and keep it feeling soft and looking smooth, bright, and supple.
There are so many of them, so a quick look at the ingredient list can give you a perception of what this product can do for you.
Some of them are:
- Hyaluronic Acid or Sodium Hyaluronate
- Fatty Acids
- Amino Acids
- Sodium PCA
- Salicylic Acid
- Glycolic Acid
- Mandelic Acid
Skin-restoring ingredients nourish the skin in a way that helps transform it so it appears noticeably younger.
These ingredients help improve dull skin tones while reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and are great additions to complement and reinforce the benefits of a complete skincare routine.
But how does this work?
Well, the easiest way to figure that out is to think of skin-restoring ingredients as connective wires in a communication system.
They have a special ability to help restore a normal connection so the skin cells can “hear” the entire message about how to behave in order to be healthy.
Something like nutritionists and fitness instructors do for us these days by instructing us on which foods to eat and how to exercise our bodies in order to be healthier and live a better life.
Some well-researched examples of skin-restoring ingredients are:
- Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (found in green tea)
- Linoleic Acid
By keeping antioxidants, cell-communicating, skin-replenishing, and skin-restoring ingredients in mind as you shop for your skincare products, you will be way ahead of the game and help your skin look better in every way imaginable.
Got it? Cool.
Now on to the other stuff.
The term emulsifiers refers to cosmetics ingredients that help to keep unlike substances such as oil and water from separating and enables them to mix together instead.
As we all know, oil and water repel each other and therefore, the oil always remains floating on top when put together in a glass.
Adding an emulsifier helps the two liquids mix together and produce a homogeneous and well-mixed product with an even texture.
Common emulsifiers in cosmetics are:
- Potassium Cetyl Sulfate
- Glyceril Monostearate
Thickeners or thickening agents are common ingredients of cosmetics and skincare products.
They are used to enhance the product’s consistency, volume, and viscosity, thus providing stability and enhanced product performance.
While some thickeners have emulsifying or gelling properties, the majority of these agents have the ability to retain water on the skin and act as great moisturizers.
Thickeners are derived from various sources and can be completely natural, synthetic, or even semi-synthetic.
Additionally, thickeners come from four different chemical families:
- Lipid Thickeners – Usually solid at room temperature but can be easily liquefied and added to cosmetic emulsions. Some of these include cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, and carnauba wax.
- Naturally-derived Thickeners – Polymers that absorb water, thus have the ability to swell up and increase the viscosity of a product. Some examples are hydroxyethylcellulose, guar gum, xanthan gum, and gelatin.
- Mineral Thickeners – Another type that comes from nature which also has the ability to absorb water as well as oils in order to increase viscosity, but give a slightly different result to the final emulsion. Some of these are magnesium aluminum silicate and silica.
- Synthetic Thickeners – Most often used in moisturizers and other products with a creamy texture. The most common synthetic thickeners used in cosmetics are carbomer and cetyl palmitate.
Emollients are often used in skincare products as they help soften the skin and prevent transepidermal water loss.
They have a wide variety of molecular structures and are typically non-polar materials that come from both natural and synthetic sources.
Some examples that you can often find on the ingredient list in skincare products are:
Are Chemicals In Skincare Bad?
There is nothing like a little bit of controversy in order to generate some media buzz and draw attention towards the message many companies are trying to spread.
For over a decade there have been recurring reports in both the media and on hundreds of internet sites relating to potentially toxic substances present in cosmetics and the dangers they pose to the consumers.
But should we really be worried about this or is it all just a scam and a desperate cry for attention?
Are these claims actually backed up by reputable, published scientific research or is it just someone’s opinion?
There are many chemical combinations used for the preparation of beauty products. The chemicals added are responsible for the texture, scent, feel, and color of the products.
Cosmetics are made from a range of ingredients which are called industrial chemicals. Sounds scary, right?
However, industrial chemicals may be either synthetic or naturally occurring processed chemicals, which makes it sound slightly less scary.
Moreover, these ingredients can easily be researched online by their names and, as it turns out, many of them are simply labeled as toxic and non-safe, but this is entirely false from a scientific point of view.
Both dermatology and toxicology experts agree that based on current knowledge, cosmetic ingredients in today’s market are completely safe to use as directed.
The reason for this is that chemicals in skincare products are used in very small and diluted quantities.
Cosmetic products are defined by their temporary effects and inability to change the physiology of our body and moreover, very little of these ingredients actually penetrates the outer layer of the skin.
This means that chemicals used in skincare products simply cannot penetrate deep enough to enter the bloodstream and cause any type of harm.
Moreover, many warnings also relate to the effects of large doses of chemicals on lab animals, typically rats, mice, and rabbits, which aren’t a reliable prediction of the effects small and diluted quantities will have on humans.
For example, substances that cause cancer in mice don’t necessarily cause it in rabbits and vice versa.
Therefore, in the absence of good evidence of harm, it is up to you to decide whether you want to continue buying products that contain these ingredients or not.
Is Natural Skincare Good?
Many people nowadays wary of “chemical” skincare products and gravitate towards natural cosmetics, assuming they might be safer, healthier, and better.
Words like hormone disruptors, phthalates, birth defects, cancer concerns, etc, are being thrown around almost forcefully in order to scare people into buying in on the entire “natural skincare” trend.
Many natural ingredients can cause skin reactions, hypersensitivity, and allergies, including lavender, tea tree oil, lanolin, cinnamon, citrus oils, and other various essential oils that are slapped on every “clean beauty” product as a natural alternative to fragrance.
In fact, some oils including lavender and tea tree have already been linked with hormone disruption in boys.
Additionally. people can even develop potentially harmful food allergies after having their skin sensitized to ingredients found in “natural cosmetics”.
There have been various reports of people who have developed food allergies after using skin care products containing almond oil, peanut, wheat, and even oats.
Natural products used to be sold primarily in health food stores and farmers markets with labels decorated with pictures of trees, grass, or leaves, making the consumer believe they came straight from mother nature.
But is this really something you consider safe?
Nowadays, sleek new brands are positioning themselves as cleaner alternatives to the mainstream chemical – based and “harmful” skincare products.
What seems to be happening here is a classic sabotaging and even bullying of mainstream skincare brands, deeming them toxic and non-safe in order to bring attention to their cleaner alternative.
Or as I like to call it: they feed you with a fake problem so they can sell you the solution.
What Ingredients Should You Avoid In Facial Cleanser?
While everyone is unnecessarily concerned with different chemicals used in skincare and how they affect our health, let’s pay a little bit more attention to a few other ingredients that can be harmful to the skin for several different reasons:
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is one of the ingredients you will find listed in many cleaning and beauty products. It is one of the most misunderstood ingredients out there with urban myths linking it to cancer, hormonal disruption, and whatnot.
However, science tells a different story. SLS is what’s known as a “surfactant” and this means that it has the ability to lower the surface tension between ingredients, which is why it is used in cleansing products.
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) is a surfactant with a similar chemical formula and something of a cousin (if that’s a thing) to SLS. For example, some tests found that continuous skin exposure to SLS could cause mild to moderate irritation on the skin.
But that doesn’t mean it is not safe to be used in cosmetics and personal care products. It simply means that it might not be doing your skin much of a favor, but it certainly won’t cause cancer or disrupt your hormones.
Cleansing products are designed to be rinsed off after short applications, therefore, the risks of using it are minimal, however, there are much better cleansing agents out there to choose from than SLS.
Everyone and their goldfish love exfoliating acids in skincare products, and this is probably true for you too. You have seen toners, serums, and moisturizers showcasing active ingredients that can help reduce wrinkles, brighten the skin, and prevent acne breakouts.
Basically, exfoliating acids are ingredients that cause physiologic changes in one of the skin layers.
They work by lowering the pH level of the skin and putting the skin into an acidic state. Because of this, acids work great to dissolve and digest the glue that holds dead skin cells together.
Two of the most common types of acids used in skincare products are alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids.
Now, while acids can help treat pigmentation, texture, tone the skin, as well as reduce acne, these active ingredients are meant to stay on the skin in order to do what they are supposed to do.
And because of this, you will reap the most benefits of using exfoliating acids in leave-on products, instead of having them in cleansers, which you are going to remove from your skin three seconds after applying them.
Additionally, due to their strength in lowering the pH level of the skin, acids in cleansers can actually be mildly irritating for the skin.
Extensive research on fragrance in skincare products, whether natural or synthetic, shows that this particular ingredient is a common sensitizing agent regardless of how resilient you think your skin might be.
Lots of people have a difficult time accepting the fact about fragrance being a problem for skin, so let’s explain what the concern is all about.
Fragrance in your skincare products won’t kill you or cause hormonal disruption, or something else this “clean beauty” nation claims in their marketing.
But the sheer truth is that it can sensitize your skin and bring out some unwanted changes years down the line including premature skin aging, wrinkles, and sagging due to the highly irritating and dehydrating properties it has.
Fragrance can also easily irritate sensitive skin as well as have an adverse effect on other ingredients that are working hard to repair your skin from the constant environmental damage.
What Ingredients Should I Avoid In Moisturizer?
We all know moisturized skin means healthy skin, however, many companies continuously pack potentially harmful ingredients in their products for many different reasons,
Here are some ingredients to avoid in moisturizers:
There is plenty of misleading information online when it comes to alcohol in skincare, therefore, it is easy to see why some people believe it really isn’t all that bad for their skin.
Dermatologists often recommend brands such as La Roche Posay in an attempt to treat many different skin concerns, however, this particular brand is notorious for the amounts of alcohol and fragrance you can find on the ingredient list of almost every product they have.
However, the research makes it perfectly clear that alcohol as a main ingredient in any skincare product is a problem. This is particularly important when it comes to leave-on products, such as moisturizers.
When expressing concern about the presence of alcohol in skincare products, I refer to the drying type of alcohol that you will most often see listed on an ingredient list as SD alcohol, alcohol denat, or, less often, isopropyl alcohol.
These types of volatile alcohols are used in skincare to give products a quick-drying finish, immediately degrease skin, and feel almost weightless on the skin.
But these short term benefits (even for the oiliest of skins) end up with negative long-term consequences.
On the other hand, there are other types of alcohol, known as fatty alcohols, which are non-irritating and exceptionally beneficial for the skin.
Some of these include cetyl, stearyl, and Cetearyl alcohol.
✖️ Essential Oils.
I really don’t know what’s worse when it comes to heavily-fragranced products.
The fact that they can contain up to fifty different fragrance components or the fact that the typical marketing behind them states that they are supposed to be fragrance-free but are instead packed with “natural” fragrance such as essential oil extracts.
Nevertheless, no matter how natural they might sound to some people, the truth is that essential oils can be extremely irritating for the skin and they are capable of causing damage that can start appearing years down the line.
While some diluted essential oils such as tea tree and lavender can have mild antibacterial properties, that doesn’t mean that they will do wonders for your acne of other skin concerns you might have.
Additionally, citrus oils that are commonly used as “natural fragrance” in skincare products have the potential of becoming phototoxic when exposed to sunlight, which can seriously mess up your skin ten years down the line.
✖️ Natural Oils.
And these are my absolute favorites since they have made me quite popular in arguments I have with friends or family members of how bad they can be for our skin.
One thing needs to be said about natural oils and that is that they do not hydrate your skin. They don’t. Oils such as coconut, argan, and others belong to a category of ingredients called occlusives.
Due to their large molecular structure, oils are simply unable to penetrate into the skin in order to hydrate it. So what happens when you apply oil on your face is that creates an occlusive barrier and just sits there with the potential to clog your pores and trigger acne breakouts.
Yes, oils soften the skin, but they do not hydrate it. It is important to keep soft skin and hydrated skin apart when it comes to using the correct terms to describe a certain action an ingredient has on your skin.
I hope you enjoyed reading my article where I try my best to explain everything you need to know about which ingredients to avoid in skincare and which ones to accept and use regularly.
Don’t forget to drop me a comment with your thoughts on this article, and if you have a different opinion on certain things I said, I look forward to discussing these with you.
My name is Simone and I am a certified skin specialist. I created this website to teach my readers how to take great care of their skin and I also like to occasionally share my honest opinions on skincare products I’ve tried. You can learn more about me here.