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Synthetic Ingredients

Synthetic Skin Care Products

Five Common (Synthetic) Chemicals Found in Cosmetics

In the cosmetic industry, products do not go through an approval process before hitting the market. While the FDA requires cosmetic products to be safe, companies have come under fire for using chemicals with a murky reputation. Since the definition of “safe” varies, we must take on some of the grunt work ourselves and learn about the ingredients that go into our skin care products. Frustrating, maybe, but it is well worth the effort to know exactly what is going on our skin.

The following are five common synthetic chemicals that have raised concern over the past years. Our goal is to introduce you to these chemicals so that you can begin to build a knowledge base. Equipped with the right information, we can make informed choices for ourselves and our families.


Parabens are synthetic preservatives that are used in cosmetics and personal care items to prolong the shelf life of a product from months to years

Common names: butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben.

Methyl Paraben, Propyl Paraben, and Butyl Paraben: Highly toxic chemicals known to cause allergic reactions, rosacea and skin rashes. The fact that parabens have been found in breast cancer tissue is enough reason for me read product labels. I never want to use anything containing parabens on my body ever again, nor do I want to support companies who continue to do so.

The danger of parabens is a topic of debate. Parabens were brought to the public’s attention when they were found to mimic estrogen in the body. Then, in 2004, a research study found parabens in human breast tumors.  The research did not make a claim stating that parabens had caused the breast cancer and concluded that more research needed to be done.

Since then, the dangers of parabens have been refuted. Yet, there is still public concern regarding this preservative. The non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), reports that parabens have been linked to a number of problems, including skin irritation. In response, some companies have transitioned to paraben-free products, while others defend that parabens protect products from bacteria, fungus, and mold.

Synthetic Fragrance

Under the FDA, a cosmetic company does not have to reveal the ingredients of a fragrance, as it is a “trade secret”. A concoction of natural and synthetic chemical ingredients need simply to be labeled as “fragrance”.

These includes perfume, fragrance, fragrance oil and parfum. These are ubiquitous terms for a chemical substance which can contain up to 200 undisclosed ingredients. While this protects the manufacturer, it isn’t to the benefit of the consumer. Common side-affects are headaches, dizziness, rash, hyper-pigmentation, violent coughing, vomiting, skin irritation, more

Common ingredients found in synthetic fragrance: acetone, ethanol, benzaldehyde, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, ethyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, and phthalates.

The FDA requires all ingredients to be safe for consumers; however, many are sensitive or allergic to the chemicals in synthetic fragrances.


Phthalates, a major component in plastics, appear in personal and cosmetic products such as nail polish, fragrance, lotions, and hairspray. Phthalates are often used to keep products pliable.

Common names: dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), and diethylphthalate (DEP).

On phthalates, the FDA states, “It’s not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on human health” (source). Phthalates have been studied for their effect on reproductive development and are often coined as endocrine disruptors. Findings in humans are not yet conclusive, however.

As we’ve mentioned earlier, phthalates are often used in fragrance and are therefore not listed as an ingredient.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) / Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)

Sodium lauryl sulfate is a foaming agent found in a number of personal care products including body wash, shampoo, soap, and toothpaste.

Common names: sodium dodecyl sulfate, sulfuric acid, monododecyl ester, sodium salt, sodium salt sulfuric acid, and sodium dodecyl sulfate.


With an extensive list of allergic reactions such as eye irritations, skin rashes, hair loss, flaky scalp it is a wonder that this nasty chemical is still so widely used in everything from laundry soap to shampoo, bubble bath and just about every sudsing product on the market. Be aware of 'pseudo-natural' products disclaiming it's derived from coconut.

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals

Formaldehyde is used to prolong the shelf life of a product and prevent the growth of bacteria. Commonly, cosmetic companies use formaldehyde-releasers over pure formaldehyde. When added to water, formaldehyde-releasing chemicals will decompose slowly to form molecules of formaldehyde.

Common names: DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, and hydroxymethylglycinate.

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals are allergens. When the fumes are inhaled, formaldehyde is carcinogenic; however, this type of exposure is not common with cosmetic products. The FDA does not monitor the amount of formaldehyde present in cosmetics.

Understanding which chemicals are of concern and at what levels can be difficult. We encourage you to continue research to determine which chemicals are of concern to you.

Petrolatum aka Petroleum Jelly

A mineral oil jelly which leaches the vitamins and minerals from your body, promotes sun damage, and encourages with dry, chapped skin conditions. Look for un-petroleum jelly as a safe and natural alternative. Petroleum Jelly is a byproduct of gasoline production.

Propylene Glycol

A cosmetic form of mineral oil found also found in automatic brake and hydraulic fluid and industrial antifreeze.

PVP/VA Copolymer

These are micro-plastics, chemical particles which have been found in the lung tissue of people with lung conditions.

Stearalkonium Chloride

A toxic chemical that is widely known to cause allergic reactions.

Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea

The American Academy of Dermatology lists these chemicals as a primary cause of contact dermatitis.

Diethanolamine (DEA)

Known to be toxic to the immune system, an irritant to skin and may form carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Synthetic Colors

Widely believed to be cancer-causing agents.

Alcohol Denat

Denatured alcohol is an irritating solvent which draws moisture from the skin, making it more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. It is found in many skin and hair products, fragrance, and antibacterial hand washes.

Alcohol, Isopropyl

Another irritating solvent which dries the skin. It is made from propylene, a petroleum derivative and is found in many skin and hair products, fragrance, antibacterial hand washes as well as shellac and antifreeze. It can act as a 'carrier' accelerating the penetration of other harmful chemicals into your skin.



a toxin with a poison rating higher than lead. Fluoride used in water fluoridation is a toxic waste product from the fertiliser industry. Over-exposure to fluoride has been linked to health problems such as brittle bones, osteoporosis and (incredibly) porous dental enamel.



a potent neurotoxin and linked to numerous other health and reproductive problems. Independent laboratory testing initiated by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that a large number of lipsticks from top brands contained lead. Read more here.


Mineral Oil

a petroleum by-product which coats the skin like plastic. It clogs the pores and interferes with the skin's ability to eliminate toxins, promoting acne and other disorders. Slows down skin function and cell development, resulting in premature aging. It is used in many skin care products. Mums will probably be shocked but baby oil is 100% mineral oil.


Petroleum Distillates

found in lipsticks, lip balms, foundations and mascaras. Potentially contaminated with or breaking down into chemicals linked to cancer or other significant health problems. Gastrointestinal, liver, respiratory and blood toxicant.


found in bodywash. Potential endocrine disruptor, raising concern for impaired fertility or development, and increased risks for certain cancers. Neurotoxin, cardiovascular or blood toxicant, respiratory toxicant, skin or sense organ toxicant.

Sodium Chloride

in other words 'salt', commonly used to increase the viscosity in some cosmetics. Can cause eye and skin irritation if used in too high concentrations. It is usually used to make a cheap, watery consistency product look thick and rich instead.


commonly found in baby powders, face powders, body powders. Talc is a known carcinogen and is a major cause of ovarian cancer. It can be harmful if inhaled as it can lodge in the lungs, causing respiratory disorders.


Toluene is a chemical commonly found in nail polish and hair dyes. It is a volatile petrochemical solvent that can be toxic to the immune system and can cause birth defects. If you’re pregnant, be especially careful and avoid nail polish containing toluene entirely.


Sunscreens come in two different forms: chemical and mineral filters. The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters such as oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor and can alter thyroid function. It’s also linked to skin allergies. Chemical sunscreens should be avoided at all costs—especially with children. Oxybenzone can also be found in moisturizers, lip balm, and makeup.


a synthetic "antibacterial" ingredient found in many skin care products. The EPA registers it as a pesticide, giving it high scores as a risk to both human health and the environment. It is classified as a chlorophenol, a class of chemicals suspected of causing cancer in humans. Its manufacturing process may produce dioxin, a powerful hormone-disrupting chemical with toxic effects measured in the parts per trillion; that is only one drop in 300 Olympic-size swimming pools! It can temporarily deactivate sensory nerve endings, so contact with it often causes little or no pain. Internally, it can lead to cold sweats, circulatory collapse, and convulsions. Stored in body fat, it can accumulate to toxic levels, damaging the liver, kidneys and lungs, and can cause paralysis, suppression of immune function, brain haemorrhages, and heart problems. It has a wide-spread use in popular antibacterial cleansers, tooth pastes and household products.

Zinc Oxide

found in skin preparations, nappy creams, foundations. Ingredient classified as toxic, affecting reproduction and development, respiratory toxicant, immune system toxin.


The National Toxicology Program classifies butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” It can cause skin de-pigmentation and can form cancer-causing nitrates. In animal studies, BHA produces liver damage and causes stomach cancers such as papillomas and carcinomas. It also interferes with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels.

Coal Tar

A byproduct of coal processing, coal tar is a known human carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Hair stylists and other professionals are exposed to these chemicals in hair dye almost daily. Europe has banned many of these ingredients in offered products. While FDA sanctions coal tar in specialty products such as dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, the long-term safety of these products has not been demonstrated.


This chemical is used as a stabilizer and binder in lotions and other products. It has been linked to cancers of the thyroid, testis, mammary gland, uterus, pituitary gland and oral cavity in animal studies. Polyacrylamide is used in water, sewage and waste treatment, oil recovery, to make permanent-press fabrics, to synthesize dyes, contact lenses, and in the construction of dams, tunnels and sewers. It is also present in cigarette smoke.

The Good Synthetic Ingredients

Synthetic ingredients are organic chemicals made in a laboratory and a large number of them are created with one goal in mind: to work on all types of skin without the unwanted negative effects that everyone seems to think they cause.

Our skin naturally produces the chemicals found in synthetic ingredients so you don’t really need to fret. Technically, they are still natural chemicals and having them in our skincare gives our skin the boost it needs to have beautiful, clear skin.

Now let’s find out the top synthetic ingredients that should be part of your skincare routine:



A small pea-sized amount of Retinol is more than enough to fight the early signs of aging, acne and any other blemish. Amazing, right? It does all this by having a small molecular structure which lets it get deep into your skin and rejuvenate it from the inside out. It also works directly on your skin’s DNA, boosting your skin’s ability to create collagen making skin supple and firm.

Our skin produces less and less collagen as we age and adding in retinol to your routine can help stimulate our skin cells to produce more collagen and keeping it from breaking down. With this, your skin will have improved elasticity, fewer wrinkles, and fine lines.

Retinol also effectively fights acne and breakouts by increasing the skin’s ability to renew itself and clear out old skin. It exfoliates and unclogs your pores to keep those pimples away alongside keeping the oil level on your skin low. Perfect for keeping breakouts to a minimum.

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is an amazing ingredient used in cosmetics because of its hydrating properties. In fact, this ingredient is one of the best hydrators because of how it attracts and retains water in our skin. It acts like a magnet for moisture that makes skin radiant, plump and hydrated and as we know, staying hydrated is a great way to fight the signs of aging, breakouts, acne and excessive amounts of oil.

As we age the amount produced by our skin isn't nearly enough to keep our skin’s youthful glow and using cosmetic products with hyaluronic acid will definitely help our skin keep away unsightly dryness, sagging, wrinkles, and fine lines.


Peptides are amino acids that send instructions for the skin to produce more collagen.

As we age, levels of collagen produced by the body decreases and applying synthetic peptides topically signal the skin to produce more collagen. Using products with peptide will give your skin the boost it needs to keep skin healthy, supple, glow.

Synthetic Oral Ingredients

Many mainstream brands of toothpaste contain harmful or even toxic ingredients such as:

  • Triclosan, a pesticide and hormone disruptor.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) which causes canker sores for many people.
  • Artificial colorings, which are linked to ADHD and hyperactivity in children. Toothpaste does not need to be blue!
  • Fluoride, which can be toxic if swallowed and doesn’t even work in toothpaste.
  • Titanium dioxide, which is added to make a toothpaste white. Most of the data shows it’s safe and is not absorbed by the skin, but I have yet to find a study done to measure absorption by oral tissues. The EWG has a good list of safety concerns around titanium dioxide, but the take-home message: it’s just there to make toothpaste white, not improve your health. So why bother with it?
  • Highly abrasive ingredients, which damage enamel, making teeth sensitive and more prone to gum recession and cavities. Toothpaste should be only a little bit abrasive—this graininess aids the brushing motion to remove the biofilm of the tooth.


Glycerin is an ingredient I’m asked about often. It isn’t toxic, but ideally has no place in the mouth as it’s a soap that strips your body’s natural oral mucosa and leaves a film.

Leave it Out: Ingredients to Avoid

  • Anything acidic: I recommend grabbing pH strips from Amazon to test the acidity of any homemade toothpaste. Anything you make and use should ideally have a pH of 7 (neutral) or higher. Tooth enamel is built to resist acids, yes, but teeth are usually under constant acid attack–often in the form of constant snacking, the wrong foods, or even the right foods. Sipping on kombucha doesn’t give teeth a break from acid, preventing remineralization and making your teeth prone to decay.
  • Hydrogen peroxide. Yes, this is the same ingredient used in whitening products and it does work — just not in the form of toothpaste. In order for hydrogen peroxide to whiten teeth, it needs to be held up against the tooth for an extended period of time–ideally with a custom-made tray, but also possible using whitening strips. You can’t just brush hydrogen peroxide on for a few minutes–it’s not long enough to have an effect. Hydrogen peroxide should be held up against only tooth enamel–ideally, it never comes into contact with gums, tongue, and soft tissues of the mouth, where it creates free radicals, which age us.

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