The Ugliest Beauty Ingredients

Ugly Cosmetics

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.”

  • Should we vaccinate this toxin

    Why is it in vaccines then. Vaccines are safe are they not?

  • lemonpie

    Vaccines are absolutely safe and it is important to do it.

  • lemonpie

    Unfortunately, I’ve had the worst experience with natural beauty. I really wanted it to work and gave it a shot for about 2-3 years, but in the end it just wrecked my skin. I have extremely sensitive, dry skin and natural/organic skincare just wasn’t enough. I need mineral oil to trap the moisture in my skin. Coconut oil based products made me break out. Mineral oil does not, because it does NOT clog pores. Nothing cleanses my skin as well as my Clinique cleanser without irritation. “Natural” soap made me itch all over my body, green hair shampoo made my hair greasy, dirty and very very heavy. Sulfates don’t do that. Using just very few ingredients like SW Basics recommends (I’ve tried your products) didn’t work at all. It is just not enough for my skin at all. Diet didn’t change this by the way. I’ve tried. The worst are essential oils, though. They are so extremely irritating to the skin! I’ve banned them completely. I’m so sorry to say this because I really gave this beauty “lifestyle” and for a while I was convinced it worked and was better for me. I think many natural/organic beauty companies make false claims without scientific facts. And I think way too many people have been brainwashed into believing that all these ingredients are the worst for their skin when in reality they are not (this also includes parabens by the way).
    In the end, everyone should use what is best for their skin. Mine is definitely extremely sensitive, people with normal skin might tolerate it better than me. But don’t forget that your skin might be damaged on a deeper level that you can’t see at first but will make your skin age faster. When it comes to skincare we should listen to the professionals – chemists, researchers and dermatologists and NOT listen to models, celebrities and lifestyle gurus.

  • I am sorry you have not found something which is ‘safer’ to help your dryness.

    Are you aware that 60% of what is put onto your skin is absorbed INTO your blood in 26 seconds. From your blood, these toxins are spread throughout your body and into your cells and vital organs. You seem to think Parabens are safe… yet parabens are found in 95% of all breast cancer tumors that are sent to pathology! It is not just about ingredients being bad for your skin (your largest organ) but they are bad for your endocrine system (hormones/reproduction).

    I agree that we need to listen to chemists – doctors – researchers versus models/celebrities, but they need to NOT be paid by Big Pharma/Consumer Goods Companies. And they also need to be educated too. A medical degree unfortunately is not always enough.

    Mineral oil is a petro chemical. When you break down crude oil to get gasoline what is left over is PETROLEUM (mineral oil, petroleum jelly) they are akin to putting plastic wrap on your skin, not allowing it to breath, trapping toxins inside your body. The market is bringing out other products that are more ‘pure’ or ‘safe’ without toxins.

  • lemonpie

    I’m sorry to say this, but your numbers are incorrect. The skin isn’t a sponge, instead it’s a shield that protects us. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that none of the skincare ingredients get into our bloodstream, but it is definitely not 60% in 26 seconds and far less instead.
    There is also no evidence that there is a link between parabens and cancer. In fact, the study you are referring to is wrong and the researchers have since admitted that. Parabens also do not have a significant impact on hormones- natural foods that we consume daily have a much higher potential. Parabens are also plant-based, their alternatives are often more synthetic and although they have different names are sometimes essentially the same thing (e.g. japanese honeysuckle). And you really need preservatives in skincare!!
    I know where mineral oil comes from. Comparing it to plastic is a bit of a stretch. Also, mineral oil cannot clog pores, its molecules are too big. In fact, mineral oil is an oil that is perfectly safe to use if you suffer from breakouts! I wouldn’t base my skincare regimen only on mineral oil, it just doesn’t do enough, but it is truly excellent at keeping the skin moisturized as it is only on the surface of the skin (protecting the skin from evaporating too much moisture!) yet doesn’t feel greasy or cause pimples.
    I could go on and on.

  • lemonpie

    Overall I can only repeat myself: I really gave natural/organic skincare a shot and used various products, brands and ingredients. It did not work at all. I have been using Clinique + Paula’s Choice products for two weeks now and my skin has transformed, although it isn’t perfectly healed. I guess that will take up to a year.