Put On Your Best Face: Skincare Ingredients to Avoid — and What to Use Instead

Cosmetics have come a long way since centuries of old, when everything from arsenic to lead was hailed as a miracle beauty solution. Today, though, our skincare and makeup products are filled with synthetic toxins. While companies are finally moving away from endocrine-disrupting parabens, plenty of cosmetics still contain phthalates, octinoxate, and other toxins. Skincare brands are particularly guilty of this, selling us anti-acne, anti-aging, and anti-UV formulas that may do more harm than good.

What’s really in your skincare, and do you need it to maintain healthy, happy skin?

The Problem with Skincare Products

Most skin disorders boil down to at least one of three factors:

  • Exposure to the sun’s radiation
  • Inflammation
  • Dryness

Ironically, the products designed to solve these problems often exacerbate them. For example, many face washes contain sodium lauryl sulfate or salicylic acid, both of which will dry out your skin. So, you’ll need to purchase a face moisturizer. (How convenient for the skincare industry!) Also, when skin becomes dry, it counteracts by producing more sebum (oil). Imbalanced sebum levels — not chocolate or pizza! — are the number-one cause of acne as excessive oil allows bacteria to thrive.

Dehydrated skin is also more likely to lose elasticity and show fine lines. Adequate moisturization can be more of a boon to youthful skin than typical anti-aging products — many of which “fill in” wrinkles with toxic chemicals such as PMMA, which has demonstrated immunotoxicity and carcinogenic effects. Also, wrinkles happen naturally due to declining levels of collagen and elastin in the skin. Simply boosting your production can replenish your skin from the inside.

That said, some skincare products treat the symptoms rather than the cause. Worse, they actually damage your skin’s natural restorative properties. Here’s what you need to know.

5 Skincare Ingredients to Avoid

Petrolatum and Mineral Oil

As mentioned above, keeping your skin hydrated is the first step toward keeping it healthy. Not all moisturizers are good, though. Petrolatum and mineral oil, commonly used as ingredients in “intense moisture” formulas, are highly comedogenic (pore-clogging). Petrolatum, aka petroleum jelly, can work for some people, although it is a petroleum byproduct with a sizable carbon footprint.

Mineral oil is especially harmful, though. Created by mixing various hydrocarbons derived from petroleum, mineral oil may disrupt your immune system or cause allergic reactions. And it’s notorious for clogging pores, which means acne-prone people should avoid this ingredient.

Polyethylene glycol

Commonly used as a preservative in skincare products, PEG is highly irritating, opening up your skin to microbes and harmful substances. Some people suggest that PEGs are safe on unbroken skin — but our skin is literally covered with pores. You may also have micro-abrasions that could permit heavy metals and ethylene oxide often found in PEG compounds

Propylene glycol

This chemical is renowned for its moisturizing properties, but the benefits are definitely not worth the risk. Propylene glycol has been linked to rashes, eczema, and other irritation. Like its cousin PEG, propylene glycol penetrates the skin to improve formulas’ efficacy — but that opens up your skin to allergic reactions.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)/Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)

As a rule of thumb, anything butylated will do more harm than good. BHA and BHT are particularly insidious, posing as moisturizers and antioxidants but potentially causing hormonal disruption. The good news is that BHT typically appears in mere traces — not enough to cause lasting damage.

BHA, however, presents a bigger problem, and it’s commonly found in facial cleansers, body oil, and shaving cream. While more research is needed, there is evidence that BHA mimics estrogen and hurts androgen, potentially causing reproductive defects or disorders. It’s also been listed as a possible carcinogen.


We all know that oil = acne, right? Not necessarily. Oil is vital to your skin’s health. It not only locks in moisture but also wards off microbes and irritants. Again, well-moisturized skin tends to be more resistant to acne. The oil itself is not the problem, but rather imbalanced oil production.

Unfortunately, the anti-acne industry has made oil the bad guy. Astringents, “oil-busting” formulas, and acne washes typically use isopropyl alcohol or ethanol (denatured alcohol) to strip away excess sebum. But that also triggers your skin to make more oil, creating an imbalance that ultimately leads to acne.

2 Skincare Ingredients to Use with Caution

Witch Hazel

While synthetic chemicals can cause skin irritation (or worse), natural isn’t always better. Witch hazel, derived from the plant Hammamelis virginiana, is often lauded as a natural skin degreaser, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant. However, its astringent properties come from plant compounds called tannins. You may have heard the word “tannins” in the context of wine, coffee, or beer. They create that bitter taste. Tannins can also be seen in blackwater environments such as marshes and jungle rivers, which tend to have a low pH.

Those properties definitely have short-term benefits, such as treating a bad acne outbreak or shrinking your pores before a photoshoot. But long-term, the constant drying and acidification of your skin will only lead to further imbalance. Also, most witch hazel extracts are distilled through denatured alcohol, which as we mentioned above, is terrible for your skin.

In short: be cautious with witch hazel. It’s definitely not ideal for daily use.


Many anti-aging products contain retinoids, such as retinol or a retinyl ester, e.g. retinyl acetate or retinyl propionate. All these compounds are derivatives of vitamin A that convert to retinoic acid on your skin. While the names may differ, the effects are the same: retinoic acid binds to cell receptors to minimize sebum and stimulate collagen production. That combination of oil-busting and elasticity-boosting properties sounds nice, especially since retinoids are essentially vitamin A.

However, any retinoid product drastically increases your skin’s photosensitivity, i.e., its potential for UV damage. ONLY use these products at night, and wear sunscreen during the day. Some people experience skin irritation from retinol or retinyl esters.

And 3 To Choose Instead

Hyaluronic acid

This hot new skincare ingredient may sound scary, but remember, “acid” simply means a chemical that can donate a proton or accept an electron pair. When dissolved in water, acids often release hydrogen ions, which makes them vital to activating enzymes and promoting cell metabolism.

Hyaluronic acid is one of your body’s natural lubricants, keeping your eyes and joints moist. It appears throughout your skin as a key source of moisture, and it regulates inflammation to help wounds heal. Our baseline levels of hyaluronic acid decline to just 5 percent in adulthood. Therefore, dehydrated, damaged, or aging skin can benefit from an extra boost of this innate moisturizer.

As a skincare ingredient or oral supplement, hyaluronic acid promotes new capillary growth, reduces inflammation, and minimizes your fine lines and wrinkles — without the need for toxic fillers.

Fatty alcohols and esters

Not to be confused with denatured alcohol, this type of alcohol is actually an extract of the fatty acids from plants. These lipids bind to water on the skin and prevent dryness, making them an excellent moisturizer.

Look for cetyl alcohol or cetearyl alcohol, both of which are derived from coconut oil. However, you should avoid lauryl alcohol, which comes from habitat-destroying palm oil crops.

When plants’ fatty acids combine with alcohols, they form esters — non-drying emollients that don’t clog pores. Look for isoamyl laurate or caprylic/capric triglyceride (both derived from coconut oil). Avoid isopropyl palmitate, glyceryl stearate, and sodium coco-sulfate, all of which are sourced from palm oil.

Argan oil

Found in the fruit of the argan tree, argan oil is now one of the world’s most beloved skincare ingredients — and for good reason. Packed with beneficial fatty acids and vitamin E, argan oil is a potent moisturizer that packs some major anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits as well. Some research has suggested that argan oil can actually inhibit cancer growth by triggering the death of damaged cells! That’s ideal for promoting cell turnover and rejuvenating your skin as well.

Wrapping Up

First, unlearn the idea that you need a crazy cocktail of skincare products. Keep it moisturized and clean, and the rest will happen naturally. If you do need a boost for your collagen production, opt for naturally derived anti-inflammatory products. Avoid ingredients that will dry out or irritate your skin. Nourish it with plant-derived fatty acids and your skin’s own natural emollients. Once you strike that balance, you’ll be less likely to experience the acne, fine lines, and dryness that have you reaching for toxic products to begin with.

This article is inspired by an interview with Chris Gibson, holistic health coach and esthetician.

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