More and more folks are becoming more aware of the way the ingredients in their cosmetics can cause things like hormone-disruption, sensitized skin, and more.

And because of that, “clean” beauty is becoming more mainstream, with even a number of celebrities starting cleaner brands.

It’s understandable why! Rates of chronic health conditions like infertility, cancer, multiple chemical sensitivity, and more have steadily been going up over the last couple of decades.

People want better, healthier products.

And sure, makeup is only a small piece of the puzzle when we look at why chronic disease is increasing, but it is still a piece of the puzzle… and more importantly, it’s one we can control!

One of the biggest pieces of advice I give folks when it comes to transitioning to low-tox is to prioritize the things you do/use most often.

Considering that most people wear makeup daily (or almost daily), it’s a really great place to start swapping out your products for safer alternatives.

Now, if you want to skip the deep dive and just find out which safer cosmetics brands we recommend, you can check out this guide for 100% natural/organic brands, and this guide for non-toxic brands that use synthetic ingredients.

But if you want to learn more about WHAT the most common problematic ingredients that are (and why they’re not healthy), then keep reading.

(Plus, I’ve got 3 “iffy” ingredients at the bottom that are kinda controversial, too!)

Ingredients to Avoid in Your Makeup

Here are the most toxic ingredients that clean makeup brands exclude from their formulas. Keep an eye on ingredient labels before purchasing to make sure you’re not exposing your skin to these.

(P.S. They’re just in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of importance.)

1. Butylated Compounds

Butylated compounds (like butylated hydroxytoluene and butylated hydroxyanisole) are often used to preserve the quality of makeup.

However, BHT has been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and impacted reproductive systems. Additionally, BHT is a toluene-based ingredient. Toluene is a toxin with links to neurological damage.

2. Carbon Black

This is a dark powder that’s most often used in eyeliner and mascara, but can also be used in other products, like dark shades of lipstick, eyeshadow, and more.

It’s made from the incomplete combustion of carbon-containing substances such as coal tar. Studies have associated its use with a higher risk of cancer and adverse impacts on organs.

Much of the carbon black used on the market can also be contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are carcinogenic.

2. Ethanolamines (DEA, MEA, TEA)

Ethanolamines (such as diethanolamine, monoethanolamine, and triethanolamine) are also not safe for cosmetic use.

DEA and TEA have both been linked to cancer in animal studies. One of the main concerns is that these chemicals can break down into harmful nitrosamines. (Nitrosamines are why you’ve been told to stay away from hot dogs & cured meats!)

The EU prohibits DEA in cosmetics, to reduce contamination from nitrosamines.

DEA also has the potential to form into nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), a carcinogen, when combined with other ingredients.

3. Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Releasers 

Formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen that has also been linked to impacted fertility.

Formaldehyde itself isn’t really used as a preservative in cosmetics anymore, but formaldehyde releasers are more common.

Formaldehyde releasers basically release small amounts of formaldehyde over time, as they break down. These chemicals can include:

  • DMDM hydantoin
  • quaternium-15
  • polyoxymethylene urea
  • imidazolidinyl urea
  • diazolidinyl urea
  • sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • bromopol

4. Fragrance

Also called “parfum,” this ingredient is VERY commonly used in makeup and personal care products.

Because of a loophole in the law, companies aren’t required to divulge what’s actually in their fragrance ingredients. In fact, they can legally include over 3,500 different chemicals in their products under just the one word “fragrance.”

Some of those 3,500+ ingredients are totally safe, while others are very problematic. This is one of the ways that phthalates, for example, can hide in your cosmetics and cleaning products. If there are phthalates in your makeup, you won’t know it because they won’t actually be listed on the ingredient label!

We’re starting to make some slow progress on increasing transparency here. For example, brands are now required to tell you if their product contains a “fragrance allergen.” This is great, but it still doesn’t require the full ingredient list to be labeled.

5. Lead (& other heavy metals)

Here’s another substance that will NOT be listed on the ingredient label.

Lead, cadmium, mercury, and other heavy metals are not added intentionally, but can be found as contaminants in makeup.

Lead often gets into cosmetics, especially things like lip products (which is a problem because if you’re putting it on your lips, you’re likely ingesting some of it!). As you probably already know, lead cause neurological issues, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, and other health concerns. Babies and children are at the highest risk.

6. Mineral Oil

Mineral oils like paraffin, petrolatums, and synthetic wax have links to cancer. It’s important to mention that the risk of mineral oils depends on how they’ve been processed, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Like carbon black, it can contain a significant amount of polycyclic aromatic carbons (PAHs), which are classified as carcinogens.

7. Parabens

Parabens are commonly used in makeup to extend the shelf life of a product.

They will be listed on the label and they’re relatively easy to spot because they have “paraben” in the name:

  • methylparaben
  • ethylparaben
  • propylparaben
  • butylparaben

These endocrine disruptors have been linked to depression, breast cancer and tumors, impacted fertility, and abnormal fetal development.


Although it’s beginning to become less common, intentionally-added PFAS (aka “forever chemicals”) can be included in cosmetics to improve texture, to make skin appear smoother/younger, and to increase water-resistance.

PFAS have been linked to impacted reproductive function, cancer, developmental neurotoxicity, and more.

The EPA has essentially said that no level of PFAS are safe.

The easiest way to find PFAS in cosmetics is to look for ingredients with “fluoro” in the name. PTFE is the most common type of PFAS used in makeup.

9. PEGs & Other Ethoxylated Ingredients

Polyethylene Glycol, also known as PEG, is commonly found in all kinds of products, such as lotionstoothpaste, and laundry products.

The problem with ethoxylated ingredients is not actually the ingredients themselves, but rather how they are processed. The process involves ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane. Ethylene dioxide is an irritant that’s known to cause multiple types of cancer and infertility. 1,4-dioxane is also carcinogen.

Unfortunately, products containing ethoxylated ingredients can be contaminated with both of these ingredients leftover from the manufacturing process. Because they are contaminants, however, you don’t see these two ingredients on the label.

Ethoxylated ingredients are very common, and it can be extremely difficult to completely avoid—which is okay! I recommend just trying to minimize them when you can.

You can also look for brands that either test their ingredients to make sure they’re not contaminated with those two chemicals and/or processes them more carefully. Honest, for example, actually vacuum strips the ethoxylated ingredients used in their products in order to eliminate potential contamination.

10. Petrolatum

Here’s yet another commonly used ingredient that has PAH problems, which means they’re potentially carcinogenic.

Plus, as a fossil-fuel derived ingredient, it’s not very sustainable or eco-friendly either.

You can read more about this here.

11. Phthalates

As mentioned above, these endocrine disruptors are commonly found in synthetic fragrances. They’re linked to impacted childhood development, pregnancy complications, fertility issues, and breast cancer.

Remember: phthalates will NOT be listed on an ingredient label, so the only way to avoid them is to:

  • avoid “fragrance” / “parfum”
  • buy from a brand that explicitly says they’re phthalate-free

12. Talc

Talc in itself isn’t inherently dangerous. However, talc can be contaminated with asbestos, which is a cancer-causing chemical.

Often found in products like eye shadow or blush, it’s best to search for talc-free options when possible to avoid the risk of asbestos.

+ 3 Controversial Ingredients to Know About

Here are a few categories of ingredients that are kind of “iffy.” Some people choose to avoid them at all costs, but they’re so commonly used that that can be difficult. You may want to just minimize them when you can… But I don’t think they’re as *high priority* as the ingredients listed above.

Certain Dyes

FD&C colors are synthetic dyes used in “food, drugs, and cosmetics” (which is what “FD&C” stands for).

This includes coal-tar dye, which can contain heavy metal contaminants (like lead). Coal-tar dyes will sneak into cosmetics and hair dyes through long and difficult-to-decipher names like P-phenylenediamine, diaminobenzene, and aminophenol.

These ingredients have been known to cause eye injury, allergic reactions, and several kinds of cancer. Coal-tar ingredients don’t have to be approved by the FDA.

Other FD&C colors have been associated with things like skin allergies and hyperactivity in children.

The thing about FD&C colors is that some of them seem to be a lot worse than others. Many “cleaner” makeup brands use some of them but not others, while most 100% natural/organic brands will avoid them completely.

Titanium Dioxide

I hope to provide a more in-depth resource on titanium dioxide soon, because it’s kind of complicated. But here’s the short of it:

  • The biggest concern with titanium dioxide has to do with inhalation. So, you’ll probably want to avoid it in powders and sprays.

  • When it comes to ingestion and absorption, there doesn’t seem to be enough research one way or the other to say titanium dioxide is definitely safe or definitely toxic.

  • A lot of “cleaner” brands do use titanium dioxide, but they use is in non-nano form. This is important because smaller (nano) sized particles are more able to penetrate the skin and blood-brain barrier, where they may be able to do more damage. I do recommend looking for non-nano titanium dioxide.


This is another pretty complicated one, and I’m hoping to provide you with a more in-depth resource soon.

Phenoxyethanol is used as a preservative and it’s another one that some “clean” brands use, and others don’t. It’s probably the most hotly debated ingredient in the low-tox space!

The main concern is that in some research, it’s been linked to allergic responses as well as central nervous system damage in babies in high concentrations.

I personally don’t have a big problem with phenoxyethanol (especially when used in low concentrations), but I would generally recommend not using on babies/kids to be safe.

If you choose to avoid phenoxyethanol completely out of caution, that’s totally cool, too!

More to come, hopefully!

Ready to ditch the toxins in your makeup bag? Give these brands a try.

We’ve picked out some of our favorite safer beauty brands for you to express your facial creativity without sacrificing your health:

I hope you found this guide helpful! To get more tips, news, deals, and more delivered to your inbox once a week, sign up for Filtered Fridays!

About Celia

Celia is a wellness copywriter with a background in marketing and business strategy. She helps non-toxic companies grow through SEO-optimized content and emotional language that speaks directly to the reader.

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