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Skincare Ingredients to Avoid and Safe Alternatives

Skincare Ingredients to Avoid and Safe Alternatives
September 5, 2013 Reviewed by Marta 6 Comments

We all want our beauty products to be safe as well as effective. But despite increased consumer awareness and concern about cosmetic safety, there are still manufacturers that use toxic ingredients. To help us navigate through the good and the bad, I’ve rounded up of some of the key cosmetic ingredients to avoid and safe alternatives to look out for.


Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES): Sulfates are detergents that make things foam and hence are frequently used as the base for shampoos, cleansers and toothpaste. SLS is the worst offender: tests on young animals showed permanent eye damage - even when the SLS was applied to areas other than the eye. No wonder shampooing can sting the eyes. Sulfates can cause severe epidermal changes and, at the very least, dryness and itching. Read more on sodium laureth sulfate and should it be avoided.

Safer alternatives: If suds are important to you when you wash your face, body, or hair, then look out for coco-betaine, generally regarded as a safe and mild ingredient made from coconut oil (although it has been shown to cause allergic reactions in some individuals). Coco-betaine is in Mukti Botanique Shampoo ($48), Get Creamed Body Naked Decadence Shampoo ($20) and Amarte Daily Wonder Cleansing Foam ($40). A great alternative is decyl glucoside as it's gentle enough for sensitive skin and can be used in baby products. It also possesses moisture binding properties. It is in Truth Vitality True Volume Shampoo ($29 in the shop).


(Methyl, Butyl, Ethyl, Propyl):Since parabens were found by a researcher in breast tumor tissue, they became irrevocably linked to cancer in the minds of many people – even though the National Cancer Institute says there is no link. Still, the jury remains out until more research is done and those with a history of breast cancer may choose to look for alternatives.

Safe alternatives: Fermented radish root is a natural preservative that several companies have started to use (update: it is in Truth In Aging's Truth Vitality Advanced Complex). It does a good job at 05%-2% concentrations against a whole range of tiny nasties from e.coli to a.niger and it is recommended that it can be used as the sole preservative in a cosmetic. You can also find it products by Sevani such as Ageless Radiance Refining AHA Cleanser ($39/4oz in the shop). See more natural alternatives to parabens.


DEA (Diethanolamine), Cocamide DEA, MEA (Monoethanolamine), & TEA (Triethanolamine): The most controversial issue with DEA is that studies on rats have shown that it can lead to the formation of nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.

Safe alternatives: Triethanolamine NF is a pH balancer and is completely free of diethanolamine (DEA), the chief concern in the formation of nitrosamines, potential carcinogens and was chosen for Truth Vitality Advanced Complex ($59-79 in the shop).

Color Cosmetics

FD&C Color & Pigments: The most common synthetic colors used in cosmetics and hair dyes are called FD&C colors and they are derived from coal tar, which in turn is a by-product of petroleum. Because some coal tar dyes have been known to cause cancer, they are regulated by the FDA. Read more on cosmetic colors and dyes and which ones are safe.

Safe alternatives: Safe colors are made from mica flakes and iron oxides. The latter are graded safe for cosmetic use as they are produced synthetically in order to avoid the inclusion of ferrous or ferric oxides, and impurities normally found in naturally occurring iron oxides. RMS Beauty uses mica in RMS Beauty Lip2Cheek. There’s a list of colors permitted by the FDA that includes Red 21, used by jane iredale in Just Kissed Lip & Cheek Stain ($25). W3LL People uses FDA approved colors and iron oxides in, for example, its Nudist ColorBalm ($19.50).

Acne treatment

Benzoyl peroxide: Used in acne treatments in concentrations of up to 10%. It is a known allergen and irritant that works by exfoliation. Concerns about cancer remain unresolved. A Dutch report in 2012 concluded that there was insufficient data either way and the FDA says that more studies are needed.

Safe alternatives: A great way to tackle acne is with blue LED light. Baby Blue Quasar ($349) has been proven to help with acne. Quasar also has a new device, Clear Rayz, with red and blue light ($249). Our exlusive Truth Vitality Lux Renew ($279 in the shop) device also has blue LED, along with red lights. Gentler than benzoyl peroxide is salicylic acid used at 2% in Envy Medical Skin Clarifying Acne Treatment Pads ($25) as does Arcona AM Blemish Lotion ($40). Believe it or not, snail slime is supposed to repair acne scars and you’ll find it in Michael Todd True Organics Knu Anti Aging Face Lift ($150).

Perfume (parfum)

Butylphenyl methylpropional, amyl cinnamal: Although it remains frequently used in cosmetic formulations, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has restricted butyphenyl methylpropional’s use in fragrances because of the potential dermal sensitization. The European Cosmetics Directive lists this ingredient as an "allergenic" substance. Amyl cinnimal is such a well-known irritant, insomuch that it is one of 8 other ingredients in a fragrance mix specifically designed to detect contact allergies to fragrances.

Safe alternatives: Look for products that use botanical extracts and essential oils. Your Best Face uses YBF Private Reserve Energy Blends ($75 in the shop) uses an essential oil combo (yuzu, juniper, vetiver, black cumin and rosewood). Or take a brand such as Arcona, whose products are packed with the natural perfume of its fruit actives – see Arcona Raspberry Resurfacing Peel ($68).

Sunscreen chemicals

Avobenzone, octocrylene, oxybenzone, octinoxate: Sunscreen actives are extremely controversial. They easily absorbed into the body and pose risks (in the case of octinoxate and oxybenzone) of estrogen-like effects and, there fore, should bot be used by pregnant women. Worryingly, chemical sunscreens tend to be act as a photosensitizer, resulting in an increased production of free radicals. Free radicals can induce indirect DNA damage and potentially contribute to the increased incidence of malignant melanoma in sunscreen-users compared to non-users. Avobenzone is one of the few chemical sunscreen agents with comprehensive UV protection, and for this reason, used in a large majority on sun protection products, usually alongside others since most chemical sunscreens are very unstable and degrade under sunlight. Read more on octinoxate and the safety of sunscreen ingredients.

Safe alternatives: To avoid chemical sunscreens, the only real alternatives are the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.  However, titanium dioxide is also a cause for concern. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) pronounced titanium dioxide to be a group 2B carcinogen and it is D is a photosensitizer, absorbed by the skin and resulting in an increased production of free radicals. Zinc oxide is also a photosensitizer. However, with mineral sunscreens, the assumption is that they do not easily penetrate the skin.  There are some sunscreen innovations just appearing and one of them is a member of the ginger family and found in Snowberry Everyday Broad Spectrum SPF 15 ($36). There’s also reishi mushroom featured in Prana Reishi Mushroom Shield ($42 in the shop). Astaxanthin is an absorber of specific ultraviolet sunlight rays and is in Suntegrity’s Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen and Primer ($45 in the shop). 

  • September 22, 2017

    by Grace

    Thank you for this info and site. Almost every product, organic or inorganic I have seen has phenoxyethanol in it. even the Honeyskin Organics face Cream--so disappointing. just don't want to use it. But didn't see the ingredient until I had already purchased. why do "organic" companies have to put this neuro-toxin in such a good product?

  • August 30, 2016

    by Carrissa

    Triethanolamine NF is not DEA free. It is still listed on the COA and SDS.

  • April 20, 2016

    by Lori D

    I am so grateful for awesome reads like this. So glad I also found Beautycounter. When you know better you do better <3

  • March 24, 2015

    by Marta

    Hi Patricia, if you type Arbonne into the search tool at the top of every page, you'll see results for the reviews we have done on Arbonne products. Some are recommended and others aren't.

  • March 24, 2015

    by Patricia

    Can you tell me why you do not recommend Arbonne skincare products?

  • August 15, 2014

    by Ava

    Just to say THANKS for being here,am still learning but just have to now throw away MOST of my cosmetics

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