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Green Is The New Black

OPINION: 10 Unsustainable Skincare Ingredients To Avoid

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The sustainability spotlight on the beauty industry is intensifying. We’ve seen Net-a-Porter launch its NET SUSTAIN initiative championing eco-skincare brands, and ‘clean beauty’ is the hottest buzzword on the scene. And thank goodness because it can be a minefield trying to navigate through lengthy and confusing ingredient lists containing myriad ingredients we’ve never even heard of. Here, our contributor Emily Folk takes a closer look at 10 unsustainable skincare ingredients it’s probably best to avoid.

“Whether you use only two products or follow the entire 10-step Korean beauty routine, you’ll agree that sustainable skincare is essential. What you put on your body is equally significant as what you put in it. This revelation occurs to most people at some point, but the sooner, the better. And switching up your skincare regime is an easy #LittleGreenStep we could all take.

While there are safety regulations the skincare industry must adhere to, brands are increasingly taking note of consumer concerns around sustainability. And this is causing many to change their formulas. However, not all have joined the eco-friendly movement. The next time you shop for a new moisturiser, cleanser or toner, make sure it doesn’t contain any of these unsustainable ingredients.

Girl holding face


1. Parabens

If scanning ingredient lists is your thing, you’re no stranger to parabens. Businesses put these chemicals in their products to act as preservatives. However, they can remain in your skin tissues well after you use them, and they can turn your endocrine system upside down by mimicking estrogen. Shun these disruptive substances by avoiding any cosmetics or skincare products with “-paraben” on their labels.

2. Artificial Fragrances

If you read the bottle of any scented skincare product, “fragrance” is bound to be on the ingredients list. Companies withhold the specific components for a reason — they often contain skin irritants. Manufactured products aren’t inherently toxic, but you can guess that anything unnatural will have at least a few concerns. Stick to brands that emphasise natural scents in their goods, or go fragrance-free.

3. Phthalates

Phthalates are another type of chemical you may be familiar with. It’s hard not to be — they’re everywhere. Companies love using them in cosmetics and skincare products to create fragrances, but they’re a known carcinogen. Scientists in past studies have cited them as a risk for breast cancer, and they can also disrupt your endocrine system. Though they may smell sweet, they’re not worth the potential for chronic illness.

4. Toluene

Toluene, found in hair dye and nail polish, is a petrochemical that can cause congenital disabilities in expectant mothers. Low amounts of it put you at risk for memory loss and nausea, while long-term exposure can cause hearing or vision loss. Though this chemical is highly toxic and usually found in glues and paint thinners, some cosmetics companies have no qualms with using it for everyday products like hair dyes.

5. Aluminium

Everyone knows deodorant contains aluminium, but we continue using it anyway. Maybe you find commercial deodorants cheaper than natural brands. Perhaps those all-natural solutions can’t stand up to a day of sweating — no one wants to smell like raw onion, after all. However, think about kicking this element to the curb once and for all. It’s prevalent in your lipsticks, moisturiser and sunscreen, and it may have links to neurotoxic effects in humans.

6. Triclosan

Although this chemical is an antibacterial, it’s germ-fighting properties don’t mean it’s safe for you. You’ll generally find it in body washes and shampoos. Some animal studies have suggested it can cause imbalances in thyroid hormones, while others label it as a potential carcinogen. Other researchers have tied it to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is the last thing Earth needs right now.

8. Diethanolamine

This tongue-twisting ingredient, also known as DEA, is a respiratory irritant. If you’re a fan of foamy soaps and cleansers, you’ve likely used it. Putting it on your skin or breathing it in can irritate your dermis or your lungs. The effects of long-term exposure are still unclear, though it’s better to play safe than sorry with your health.

9. Siloxanes

Siloxanes fit in the same category as silicones. They primarily exist in products like foundations and moisturisers, but they’re in many more goods besides cosmetics. They pose a more substantial threat to wildlife than to us — once you flush it down the drain, it’s not going to dissolve like some substances will. 

Instead, it stays in local water sources and combines with other harmful substances. If too many siloxanes accumulate, marine animals absorb it in fatal amounts and die. Similarly, aquatic plants die off from a lack of fresh, unpolluted water.

10. DMDM Hydantoin

This chemical is one of the less harmful ones on this list, though it isn’t without its concerns. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep guide, it has a high propensity for causing allergic reactions and introducing toxins to the immune system. DMDM hydantoin is a formaldehyde releaser, meaning it releases small amounts of the chemical throughout its shelf life. Avoid body washes, cleansers and hair conditioners with this on the ingredient list.

Buying Better Skincare

With this information, you can make informed choices about the skincare you use and the companies you buy from. Who doesn’t want what’s best for their mind, body and the environment? Uphold your commitment to protecting your skin and our wildlife by choosing the safest products.”


Pssstttt… Take a peek at our brand directory if you’d like to explore natural, organic skincare products further.


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Emily is a sustainability and conservation writer and also the creator of Conservation Folks. You can follow her on Twitter to see her latest updates.

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