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Toxic Beauty: Top 5 Ingredients to Avoid and Alternatives to Shop For

Non-toxic beauty products

Image by Seksak Kerdkanno from Pixabay.


The global cosmetics industry is expected to grow to a staggering $805.61 billion in market value by 2023, with Canadians spending upwards of $5.3 billion on every-day beauty products including but not limited to lipstick, make-up, creams, moisturizers and soap.

But did you know that 8 in 10 of those products contain one or more harmful chemicals?

Many cosmetic companies and brands are still not being transparent and regulating the inclusion of what are deemed “toxic” compounds in their products. Many of these substances have led to detrimental side-effects, including cancer, hormonal imbalance, allergic reactions, brain damage, and more. There are currently over 125 ingredients that are suspected of carcinogenic properties.

Despite governmental efforts (the U.S.’s FDA, the European Union, and Health Canada to name a few) to curb the use of these substances and ensure public safety, there are many limitations that make such regulations somewhat unreliable.

For example, Health Canada’s Hotlist of over 500 banned and restricted ingredients:

  • Doesn’t review ingredients for safety before they’re put on shelf,
  • Doesn’t always consider the long-term health effects of using lower-dosage chemicals and,
  • Doesn’t always acknowledge that some substances may potentially be more harmful combined than they are individually.

This means it’s up to you to make sure you walk away a happy (and healthy!) customer.

Unfortunately, there are a plethora of different chemicals, acronyms, and labels that are hard to keep track of. On top of that, what is “natural” may not necessarily be safe, and “synthetic substances” aren’t always evil, making shopping a difficult process, even for those who know what they’re doing.

But it doesn’t have to be.

We’ve put together a comprehensive list of key ingredients to watch out for the next time you go shopping, and alternatives you can look for instead so you can live a more sustainable and healthier lifestyle.

Top 5 Toxic Ingredients and Healthier Alternatives

1. Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), and Triethanolamine (TEA)

Ethanolamines are a chemical group made up of various amino acids and alcohols, primarily used as emulsifying agents in a wide range of personal care products, including shampoos, detergents, sunscreen, fragrances and make-up. The problem is when they’re combined with certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen, forming nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are known to cause cancer, and ethanolamines themselves have also been linked to liver tumors.

Alternatives: Natural emulsifiers like plant-sourced lecithins, beeswax; biodegradable surfactants that are coconut or palm oil-based, or comprised of glucose from corn or potatoes.

2. Parabens

Parabens in cosmetics are commonly used as preservatives to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold. Common parabens to look out for are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben. Parabens are safe in small amounts, but most products contain multiple types of parabens simultaneously, which can lead to hormone imbalance and impaired fertility.

Alternatives: Tea tree oil, Vitamin E, antioxidants and other similarly natural preservatives.

3. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), and by extension, sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are surfactants and cleaning agents found in grooming and bath products that help you absorb other chemicals. Unfortunately, they strip natural oils from the skin and have been known to induce skin irritation and allergic reactions.

Alternatives: Many of the alternatives to ethanolamines can be used as alternatives to SLS. Decyl and coco glucoside are safe options as well.

4. Phthalates

Phthalates in cosmetics are used as plasticizers to help substances like nail polish, lipstick or hair spray stick and hold to their intended surfaces. They’re also used as a solvent and fixative in certain fragrances. The most common phthalate is diethyl phthalate (DEP).

Alternatives: The best options are those without phthalates. If the product label lists “fragrance,” make sure it’s safe by checking if it’s sourced “from natural sources.”

5. Nanotechnology

Nanoparticles aren’t new to the cosmetics industry. They’re found in most personal care products and most commonly in sunscreens, anti-aging creams and moisturizers. Nanoparticles are used to more efficiently carry and enhance the absorption of various substances. Some are also known to have UV-resistant properties. However, studies have also shown that nanoparticles pose a risk, both to the human body and to the environment. Some of these risks include penetrating and damaging skin, cellular degeneration and oxidative stress.

Alternatives: The best practice here is to research the nanoparticles used in your cosmetics, and make sure they’re safe. Or, you can be nano-free by looking for products containing non-micronized particles, in addition to the other organic cosmetic options available to you.

Woman applying lipstick

(Image by luxstorm from Pixabay)

Now, this can get overwhelming. But remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day! It’s okay to not have a house full of clean products as long as you’re taking small steps to achieve a 100% non-toxic life. Hopefully this post has helped you take those first steps.

And if you’re unsure on where to start, join the Box Club! This subscription box brings together trustworthy brands like Tom’s and Osea all in one place – your doorstep, making it an easy way to discover and sample new products and start building an Eco-lifestyle.


With Love and Compassion,

Team Karunaki