What’s On Your Face? The Toxic Ingredients in Common Makeup Products

What's On Your Face? The Toxic Ingredients in Common Makeup Products

Perhaps you’re blessed with naturally glowing, zit-free skin that needs no help. But many of us use makeup to cover undereye circles and acne, highlight our best features, or simply have a bit of fun with color. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that many cosmetics products contain preservatives, dyes, and other ingredients that are actually toxic. And while there are “natural” and “eco-friendly” brands on the market, they may not be much better.

How can you look your best while protecting yourself from synthetic chemicals that potentially cause cancer and hormone disorders? Read on to learn the most common culprits in cosmetics — and how to choose healthier options.


BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are often used to preserve lipsticks and moisturizers. They have been linked to endocrine disruption and eventual liver and kidney damage. BHA and BHT also pass into the water supply after people wash their faces, affecting aquatic life. While the European Union has banned BHA, both it and BHT are still used in North America.



Polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a large family of chemicals that are used to make products waterproof. They have been linked to endocrine disruption, heart problems, and infertility. Unfortunately, they appear in hundreds of cosmetic products. One study found that 52 percent of concealers, eye makeup, lipsticks, and mascaras contained fluorine, a sign of PFAS formulation. Polytetrafluoroethylene, the key ingredient in Teflon, is often used to make powdered makeup products and lip colors easier to apply.

Because these compounds are generally used to ward off moisture and heat, it’s safe to assume that many waterproof mascaras and lipsticks, 24-hour foundations, and other “wear-resistant” formulas contain PFAS. Check the ingredients!

Ingredient Names to Watch For:

  • PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene)
  • perfluorooctyl triethoxysilane
  • perfluorononyl dimethicone
  • perfluorodecalin
  • perfluorohexane
  • Polyperfluoromethylisopropyl Ether
  • DEA-C8-18 Perfluoroalkylethyl Phosphate


  • Use natural formulas (nothing labeled “waterproof” or “long-lasting”), and use lots of blotting and setting spray to prevent your makeup from melting. Note that setting spray is alcohol-based and can be drying. You can also use a solution of 1/2 tbsp witch hazel + 1/2 tbsp vegetable glycerin + 1 tbsp water.
  • Whenever possible, go for cream-based formulations rather than pressed-powder products or liquid lipsticks/eye colors.


These silicone-based compounds are designed to soften and smooth your skin and hair, so they appear in many moisturizers, shaving creams, and leave-in conditioners. You may also encounter them in quick-drying hair stylers and roll-on deodorants. They have been linked to fertility and hormone disruption, as well as ecological damage.

Ingredient Names to Watch For:

  • cyclotetrasiloxane
  • cylcopentasiloxane
  • cyclohexasiloxane
  • cyclomethicone


  • Moisturize your hair with pure argan oil.
  • Gentle exfoliation helps smooth skin and prep it for shaving, without the need for siloxanes.


Parabens are used as preservatives to keep cosmetics fresh and ward off mold and bacteria. THey’re most commonly found in moisturizers, hair products, and shaving creams. Unfortunately, studies show that parabens mimic estrogen, confusing the body’s natural endocrine function. Decreased estrogen can lead to fertility issues and potentially increased risk of breast cancer.

Ingredient Names to Avoid:

  • methylparaben
  • propylparaben
  • butylparaben
  • ethylparaben


  • Look for cosmetics labeled “paraben-free,” although be wary of other harmful preservatives they may use instead.


These protectant chemicals are used to maintain color and elasticity in products such as nail polish, hair spray, and styling gel. You’ll also find them used as fragrance, as they tend to smell good. Make no mistake: these compounds have been linked to endocrine disruption, birth defects and decreased fertility (especially among males), and cancers. They also tend to trigger allergies and respiratory distress.

Ingredient Names to Avoid:

  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP) – usually found in nail polish
  • diethyl phthalate (DEP) – usually found in perfumes and lotions
  • diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP)
  • dimethyl phthalate – usually found in hairspray
  • fragrance or “parfum”


  • Avoid hair spray and nail polish as these are the top sources of phthalates.
  • Look for products that use natural fragrances such as essential oils or fruit/herb extracts. Don’t be fooled: cosmetics labeled “unscented” often do contain phthalates, while “fragrance-free” means just what it says.

Wrapping Up

The price of beauty shouldn’t be your health. Many cosmetics products contain unnecessary chemicals that pose a significant health risk. While each dosage is relatively small, most of these compounds don’t break down quickly. This means they could accumulate in your body over time, disrupting your hormone balance and contributing to cell oxidation. Also, these cosmetics always end up down the drain with every shower — and our fragile aquatic life cannot thrive in waters filled with these chemicals.

With proper hygiene and natural skin/hair care, you can remove your need for many of these products. Regular trims along with homemade hair masks of argan oil, coconut oil, egg whites, and avocado will nourish your hair in place of siloxanes. Wash your face with a gentle, sulfate- and paraben-free cleanser, then apply a simple mask of turmeric and honey. Use face-powder to set makeup rather than relying on “wear-proof” formulas. And of course, essential oils are always great sources of fragrance.

Of course, a healthy diet, regular exercise and hydration, and lots of vitamins will help you glow, so you may not even need cosmetics at all! You’re beautiful — and you deserve a life free of toxic chemicals.

This article is inspired by an interview with Samantha Harris, breast cancer survivor and awareness advocate, holistic health coach, and former host of “Dancing with the Stars.”

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