Terrific or Toxic? Chemical Ingredients to Embrace and Avoid in Your Cosmetics Collection

Terrific or Toxic? Chemical Ingredients to Embrace and Avoid in Your Cosmetics Collection

When it comes to beauty products, the ingredient do’s and dont’s can be tough to keep track of. Did you know that in the U.S. there are a variety of harmful and toxic ingredients that remain legal to use in cosmetics? That’s why getting familiarized with your ingredient labels is super important! But long lists of complicated chemicals make figuring out what’s good and what’s toxic for our bodies feel virtually impossible. Have no fear - this blog is here to help you identify the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to chemicals in your cosmetics collection. 

Chemicals to Avoid

Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are closely related chemicals commonly used as preservatives in moisturizers and lipsticks. When coming in contact with the skin, these chemicals have been found to cause allergic reactions in certain groups. 

BHA is also classified by The International Agency for Research on Cancer as a potential human carcinogen (aka a substance capable of causing cancer.) Researchers also suspect that BHA can interfere with hormone function. Studies have found that BHT is toxic in mice and rats, leading to kidney, thyroid, and liver problems when exposed to long-term, high doses. 


You’ve likely heard of parabens before and been warned to stay away - and for good reason! Parabens are a family of related chemicals frequently used as preservatives in cosmetics, including hair care, skin care, shaving, and makeup products. The most commonly found parabens in cosmetics are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben. 

What makes parabens so concerning is that multiple studies have indicated that these chemicals can increase the risk of cancer, disrupt hormones, reduce fertility, and impact overall reproductive organ health. 

These chemicals should be avoided generally when choosing cosmetics, but particularly if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive. 

2-Methoxyethanol (Methyl Cellosolve)

2-Methoxyethanol (also called methyl cellosolve) is a solvent used in anti-aging creams, serums, moisturizers, and as an additive in perfumes. According to the EWG, this solvent is a neurotoxin (meaning it is destructive to our nervous system.) Research has shown that 2-Methoxyethanol can cause DNA mutation in rodents. It has also been linked to skin irritation as well as possible effects on the central nervous system, blood, bone marrow, kidneys and liver.

This solvent has been banned from use in cosmetics in Canada and restricted by the EU, however its use is still legal in U.S. - so be wary when evaluating your perfumes and skincare products. 

Petroleum distillates

Petroleum distillates are solvents typically found in mascara products. They are produced in the same oil refineries as heating oil and auto fuel and are often contaminated with carcinogens. Research indicates that petroleum distillates can cause contact dermatitis (an irritated and itchy skin reaction.) 

For most of us, the last thing we’re looking for is chemicals in or around our eyes, so make sure to choose brands that don’t feature this ingredient. 

Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

When skimming the ingredients labels, formaldehyde (a known human carcinogen and allergen) is not likely to be listed. However, there are a number of sneaky ingredients found in cosmetic products that release formaldehyde as they decompose. Some known formaldehyde-releasing chemicals include: 

  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Methenamine
  • Quaternium-15
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Imidazolidinyl urea

Chemicals to Embrace

While some chemicals (like the ones mentioned above) are best to avoid, not all chemicals are harmful. In fact, with the right application, some chemicals can even have positive effects for your skin, beauty, and health! 

Salicylic Acid

For those who struggle with acne, you’ve likely become well acquainted with salicylic acid. This chemical compound is a common ingredient in skin care products, particularly ones used to treat acne. This is because salicylic acid breaks down the bonds between dead skin cells so they can release from pores more easily, helping to unclog blocked pores and prevent the oil buildup that leads to acne.

If you suffer from acne, blackheads, papules, or other breakouts, salicylic acid may be just what you need! But, when used in excess, salicylic acid can be drying or irritating to the skin, so make sure to account for your skin’s unique sensitivity and needs when searching for salicylic acid products.


Retinol is a Vitamin A compound typically found in skincare and anti-aging products. This chemical produces collagen, a protein that helps maintain skin elasticity and hydration. Retinol also works to increase skin cell turnover by facilitating the removal of dead skin cells, so it’s great for promoting healthy, rejuvenated skin. 

Topical retinol products can get a bad rep for causing irritation, however, retinols mixed in blends are not known for causing irritants. 

Similar to salicylic acid, retinol products can be drying for certain skin types or when used too frequently - so make sure to use it sparingly or check with your dermatologist to see if it’s right for you. 


Peptides (aka polypeptides) are one of the best chemical ingredients a skin care product can offer! Peptides are amino acids that make up important proteins needed in the skin, like collagen. As we age, the production of proteins like collagen gradually decreases. Using products with peptides can help to enhance collagen production, keeping skin looking plump, firm, and youthful even as you age!

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid found in many exfoliation products and chemical peels. Glycolic acid works to break the bonds between dead skin cells (found on the outermost layer of the skin) and the next layer of new, healthy skin cells. This creates a peeling effect that removes dead skin cells and leaves skin looking brighter, smoother, and more even. 

Those with dry or sensitive skin may find glycolic acid to be too harsh or irritating, so make sure to keep your skin type in mind before trying products with this chemical. 

There are a variety of other chemicals out there that you should avoid/embrace, so it's important to take the time to get to know ingredient labels before purchasing or using cosmetic products. 

If you’re looking for hydrating cosmetics that promote natural ingredients with zero artificial additives, make sure to check out our products! Our Rosa daily moisturizer, Honeybutter body salve, Lotus hydrating scalp oil, and Lilium hydration supplement all embrace clean and natural ingredients to nourish your body naturally!


EWG: The Toxic Twelve Chemicals and Contaminants in Cosmetics | David Suzuki Foundation: The Dirty Dozen - BHA and BHT | Vermont Department of Health: Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) | US National Library of Medicine: Endocrine Disrupting Effects of Butylated Hydroxyanisole | US Food & Drug Administration: Parabens in Cosmetics | EWG: What Are Parabens, and Why Don’t They Belong in Cosmetics? | AZ Chemistry: 27 Harmful Chemicals to Avoid in Skin Creams | New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services: Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, 2-Methoxyethanol | Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology: Mutagenicity and Cytotoxicity of 2-Methoxyethanol and its Metabolites in Chinese Hamster Cells (The CHO/HPRT and AS52/GPT Assays) | David Suzuki Foundation: The Dirty Dozen - Petroleum |  Medical News Today: Salicylic Acid for Acne - Efficacy, How to Use, and More | Healthline: How Does Retinol Work? Facts, Side Effects, and More | Healthline: Peptides for Skin- Benefits, What to Look for & Side Effects | WebMD: Glycolic Acid - Treating Wrinkles, Scars, and More

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