These days, there’s almost as much emphasis on what’s not in your beauty products as what is actually in them. And while we get that it’s important to know what you’re putting on your skin, decoding an ingredient label can be pretty confusing. That’s why we spoke with experts to get the scoop on the worst offenders to look out for the next time you step down the beauty aisle. If you spot these ingredients in your beauty products, toss them in the trash:
Also known as BHA, it can be found in some exfoliators, says board certified dermatologist Deborah Longwill. It’s best to avoid them for a few reasons: It is possibly carcinogenic to humans, and it can also cause depigmentation of the skin.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
“Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used in many cosmetic products to help prevent bacteria growth,” notes board certified dermatologist Dr. Yoram Harth, Medical Director of MDacne. There is mounting evidence linking it to cancer, and studies show that exposure to formaldehyde is associated with certain types of cancer. It can be found in beauty products such as nail polish, body washes, conditioners, shampoos, cleansers, eye shadows, and nail polish treatments.
This chemical compound can be found in nail polish, nail treatments and hair color or bleaching products. Dr. Harth cautions that it can also show up on ingredient labels as benzene, toluol, phenylmethane or methylbenzene. “It can affect your respiratory system, cause nausea and irritate your skin,” he says.
“Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products to increase the flexibility and softness of plastics,” Dr. Harth says. “The main phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products are dibutyl phthalate in nail polish, diethyl phthalate in perfumes and lotions, and dimethyl phthalate in hairspray.” He points out that they are known to affect the endocrine system and have been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers.
While it’s not found in products that are sold in stores in the U.S., there may be mercury lurking in products that promise to lighten the skin, which can be very detrimental to your health. Often marketed illegally in the U.S. (or purchased abroad), if mercury is present, it may not be listed as such, says Gary Beyer, MD, of City Facial Plastics. “Do not use any products with the following ingredients that are forms of mercury: Hg, mercuric iodide, mercurous chloride, quicksilver, cinnabaris, hydrargyri oxydum rubrum, calomel, mercurio or mercurio chloride,” he says. And if the ingredients aren’t listed, skip it.
Though these ingredients aren’t a hard stop, they can cause issues for some people. If you’re having trouble with your skin, the ingredient list may reveal where the problem lies, and you might want to avoid these:
Sodium lauryl sulfate
SLS helps products trap dirt so it can be rinsed away, and it also is the chemical behind the pleasant foaming of some of your favorite products. It’s a really common ingredient and can be found in shampoos, face washes, soaps and toothpaste. For many of us, its presence isn’t a problem, but in some people, there may be issues. “SLS may be a cause of skin irritation,” warns Dr. Longwill. “It can also disrupt your skin’s natural oil balance and cause acne flare-ups.”
While it doesn’t cause potentially severe health issues, isopropyl myristate is an ingredient you’ll want to avoid if you’re struggling with acne because it can clog pores. Interestingly, it can be found in some prescription or OTC acne products, says board certified dermatologist David Lortscher, CEO of Curology.
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