Coal-tar: A sticky liquid produced by heating coal, coal tar is the most common colouring agent used in makeup and permanent hair dyes. Banned in EU cosmetics, coal-tar-derived colours are a suspected carcinogen and skin toxicant. Appears on ingredient lists as P-phenylenediamine, paraphenylene, PPD, p-diaminobenzene, p-aminoaniline, and 1,4-benzenediamine.
Parabens: Parabens are estrogen-mimicking preservatives that can lead to breast cancer, cause skin irritation, and affect male reproductive organs. It’s become a buzzword of sorts for the cosmetics industry and many companies have eliminated parabens altogether. Beware of ingredients with “parabens” in the suffix, such as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben, and steer clear of products that include fragrance or perfume, as they often contain parabens.
Fragrance: The words “fragrance,” “perfume,” or “parfum” usually stand in for a host of hidden chemicals that aren’t listed as ingredients because they are considered trade secrets. Fragrances contain hormone disruptors and are among the top five allergens in the world, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American nonprofit health advocacy organization. Go synthetic fragrance-free.
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT): These antioxidants are commonly used as preservatives in makeup and skincare products. BHA has been shown to cause liver damage and stomach cancers in animals and both substances are known endocrine disruptors that affect reproductive system development. Appear on ingredient lists as butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene.
Formaldehyde-Releasing Agents: Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic substance that can be released by chemicals in hair products, nail products, moisturizer, mascara, foundation, and eyeshadow. Avoid products labelled as containing DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, methenamine, quaternium-15, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.
Sulfates: Commonly found in shampoos, cleansers, and shower gels, sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate are petroleum-based foaming agents and detergents that can cause endrocrine disruption, affect the nervous system, and lead to cancer. Check product labels for ingredients that include laureth sulfate or lauryl sulfate, and look out for words that contain “eth” (“eth” indicates that 1,4-dioxane, an eye and respiratory tract irritant and carcinogen, may be present).
Triclosan and Triclocarban: These antimicrobial pesticides are found in liquid and bar soaps and have been linked to cancer and endrocrine disruption (they’re also extremely toxic to the aquatic environment). Watch ingredient lists for triclosan, triclocarban, and Microban (a brand name), and avoid products labelled as “antibacterial.”
Phthalates: A growing number of studies link phthalates to male reproductive system disorders, according to the EWG. Dibutyl phthalate is a known carcinogen associated with genital abnormalities in infants, testicular cancer, and endocrine disruption leading to the development of breast cancer. These toxins can hide under the word “fragrance” on product labels—another reason to go fragrance-free.
Petrolatum: Petrolatum (aka petroleum jelly) is produced in oil refineries at the same time as automobile fuel and heating oil. It may be listed as petroleum jelly, mineral jelly, or mineral grease on ingredient lists, and it should be avoided due to its possible contamination with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Exposure to PAHs has been linked to breast cancer, skin irritations, and allergies.
Siloxanes: These silicone-based compounds are used in cosmetics to soften, smooth, and moisten, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. They are toxic to the environment and have been associated with endocrine disruption and impaired fertility. Check labels for cyclomethicone, cyclotetrasiloxane (D4), cyclopentasiloxane (D5), and cyclohexasiloxane (D6), or any ingredient with the suffix “siloxane.”
Propylene glycol: Propylene glycol is often used in moisturizers, cleansers, cosmetics, and hair colours as a moisture-carrying ingredient. It is readily absorbed through the skin and has been known to cause contact dermatitis even in very low concentrations.