The Ugliest Beauty Ingredients

While I’ve experienced an incredible amount of support since establishing my non-toxic skincare brand, S.W. Basics, I’ve encountered a considerable amount of resistance to the idea of “natural beauty,” too. I guess it shouldn’t be all that surprising. No one wants to be told that their favorite cleanser (the one they’ve been using since high school) actually possesses ingredients that might be harmful. It’s unsettling to have to forego your standby lip balm after you’ve used it for years and years (and you feel just fine). I get it – change is hard. And who likes being told what to do?

Not me! I like making decisions on my own, with my own information. Which, I realized, is actually very hard to do when assessing the beauty industry. That’s because the savvy marketers behind many of your most beloved beauty products are notoriously cagey about sharing information, plus they experience the benefits of operating in a largely unregulated industry. Did you know the FDA does not oversee or set standards for the safety testing of an ingredient before it is used in a product? Or, that besides color additives, no product or ingredient requires FDA approval before going to market? Not only does this pose safety concerns, it certainly doesn’t encourage transparency.

As such, I’m sharing the beauty industry’s Ugliest Ingredients, where you can find them, and the potential health risks they pose. The information is all there. I invite you to decide what to do with it.

Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Where it is: Nail polish, eyelash glue, hair gel, color cosmetics, and sometimes shampoo. Used as a preservative in a lot of products.

What it does: When inhaled as a gas, formaldehyde causes bronchitis and pneumonia. Also causes contact dermatitis and migraines. Formally classified as carcinogenic to humans.

Check the label for: DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quarternium-15, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol.

Plastic and Plasticizer

Where it is: Shampoo and conditioner, as well as in a wide array of other beauty products. Gives products a more uniform consistency and makes them more pourable.

What it does: Affects your hormones; is linked to cancer. Plastic microbeads soak up toxins and, when they get into our water supply, disrupt the digestion of small fish and other marine animals that are then eaten by larger fish, which pollutes the entire food chain.

Check the label for: polyethylene, polythene, PE, phthalates.


Where it is: Moisturizers and lip balms. Petroleum traps water in your skin; some derivatives are used as preservatives.

What it does: Contaminated by known carcinogens, petroleum is linked to kidney and liver abnormality, and it damages cell membranes. Its “trapping” ability also clogs your pores and prevents your skin from getting oxygen.

Check the label for:  petroleum oil, petroleum jelly, petrolatum, mineral oil, mineral jelly, liquid paraffin. Derivatives include propylene glycol, propanediol, and isopropyl alcohol.


Where it is: Powdered makeup and deodorant; also in baby powder.

What it does: A well-known carcinogen, asbestos is linked to lung cancer when inhaled.

Check the label for: Talc. Asbestos isn’t itself an ingredient in skin care, but it is a common contaminant of talc, which is used because it absorbs excess oil from the skin and keeps you dry. Asbestos coexists with talc in nature, and virtually no talc that comes into the United States is tested for asbestos contamination. Also called talcum powder and hydrous magnesium silicate.


Where it is: Hair dye and lipstick. Contaminates minerals that are used to color products; sometimes used as a colorant itself.

What it does: Lead is a neurotoxin that affects the brain, and a confirmed carcinogen. Lead can build up in the body and develop into lead poisoning, which causes seizures, disrupts child development, and can even be fatal.

Check the label for: Lead acetate.

Coal tar

Where it is: Hair dye, shampoos (acts as an antidandruff agent). Often used in cosmetics to denature alcohol (a chemical process used to make alcohol undrinkable).

What it does: Coal tar causes skin sensitivity, photosensitivity, and is carcinogenic.

Check the label for: Surprisingly, it’s usually just called “coal tar.”

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