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8 Skin Irritating Ingredients to Avoid

Author: Chantal Navratil

Skin irritating ingredients are all around us in the world of cosmetics. It can be overwhelming at first when deciding to use only clean beauty products and seeing a list of ingredients one should avoid. These eight skin irritating ingredients are meant to help serve as a starting guide of skin irritating ingredients to avoid. It is especially important to avoid these ingredients however if one is allergic to the ingredient, breastfeeding, pregnant or putting personal care products on a child under three years old.


Phenoxyethanol is a preservative used in cosmetics and personal care products. It can be used as an alternative to paraben. Phenoxyethanol is a glycol ether that is used as an antibacterial in cosmetics and stabilizer in perfume.1 Glycol ethers are also commonly used in paints and cleaning products. The European Union identifies phenoxyethanol as an irritant and in various studies done, it was shown to cause reactions at low doses.1 On some people, phenoxyethanol is known to cause allergic-type reactions and in some cases even central nervous system damage.2 Skin irritation, hives, eczema and rashes have all been shown to occur on some test subjects exposed to phenoxyethanol.2  If using products with phenoxyethanol, one should be careful to not layer multiple products since it can accumulate.2


Talc is a clay mineral used in powder makeup such as setting powders, bronzers, and highlighters. Talc is used for a silky consistency in cosmetics. The mineral particles in the talc can have rougher edges which create microscopic tears in the skin that then cause irritation.3 Talc can be an irritant if it gets in the eyes or if it is exposed to an open wound.4 Inhaling talc can cause serious respiratory problems such as trouble breathing and can also cause damage to the lungs.4 Talc use has also been linked  to certain cancers such as ovarian.4  It is best to not blow on any brushes with products containing talc due to not wanting to breathe it in.4

Chemical Sunscreens:

Chemical sunscreens absorb UVA and UVB rays and convert them into infrared heat. Some ingredients in chemical sunscreens have been shown to cause skin irritation.3 Ingredients such as oxybenzone can inflame sensitive skin.3 Chemical sunscreen ingredients cause irritation due to them deeply penetrating the skin which causes reactions to occur. Histamines are then released which can cause irritation and inflammation the skin. Another concern when wearing chemical sunscreens is that some ingredients can be endocrine disruptors.5  Certain chemicals such as oxybenzone, can mimic hormones and affect hormone levels. Chemicals from sunscreen are absorbed in the body and can be found in blood, breast-milk and urine samples.5 It is important to wear sunscreen so choosing to wear a mineral-based sunscreen is a safer alternative to chemical sunscreens.3

Alcohols (Isopropyl, Ethanol, Alcohol Denat and Methanol):

Alcohols are used in cosmetics to help cream products feel lighter and help other ingredients be able to penetrate your skin.6 Alcohols are also used as a preservative in cosmetics.6 Alcohols however can cause irritation, breakouts and dryness.6 The problem is that alcohols used in high concentration, can hurt your skin’s barrier of protection causing skin to become more dry due to your skin not being able to keep moisture in.6 Alcohols in cosmetics also stimulates oil production which can lead to breakouts.6 However, fatty alcohols such as Cetearyl, Behenyl, Stearyl and Cetyl are protective to the skin and act as an emollient locking moisture in.6

Preservatives (Parabens):

Parabens are synthetic compounds used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry.  They are used as preservatives and can be found under the names of: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben.7 Parabens can cause allergic reactions with certain people. Parabens are more likely to irritate those with skin conditions such as: eczema, Contact dermatitis and psoriasis.8 Parabens are also known to disrupt hormone function which is tied to breast cancer and being toxic for reproductive health.7 Parabens can mimic estrogen due to binding to estrogen receptors on cells.7 There are many safer alternatives for preservatives in cosmetics such as antioxidants and oils.

Synthetic Fragrance:

Synthetic fragrances are used in many different areas of cosmetics such as skincare, fragrance and color cosmetics. Synthetic fragrances are known to cause contact dermatitis which is itchiness, redness and a burning feeling on the skin. The concern with synthetic fragrances is that chemicals from synthetic fragrances are made from petrochemicals.9 Synthetic fragrance ingredients are absorbed in your bloodstream.9 Some of those chemicals include phthalates and aldehydes which can cause allergies, birth defects, cancer and affect the nervous-system.9 Phthalates can disrupt your hormone activity and been associated with liver and breast cancer.9 Reading labels and seeing what is in your personal care and cosmetics products is always a great idea. Being aware that “fragrance free” products can still contain fragrance ingredients to mask chemical smell is also important.9


Petroleum is used in personal care products and the cosmetics industry. It is used as an emollient to help lock in moisture on the skin. However, petroleum can cause allergic reactions.10 Many are sensitive to petroleum-derived products. Contact dermatitis is also a common reaction that can occur from using petroleum-derived products. Many can also breakout from it clogging pores if skin isn’t properly cleaned before using.10 Petroleum based products can also contain carcinogens.10 Being aware of any possible toxic products one is putting on their skin and doing your research before purchasing will help awareness. There are plant-derived instead of oil-based petroleum jellies which are better for yourself and for the environment.

Surfactant (SLS):

Surfactants are used in the cosmetics industry to help emulsify, thicken, solubilize and many other effects. They are compatible with both oil and water.11 Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can be found in shampoos, color cosmetics and soaps. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can cause irritation to the eyes, skin, mouth and even lungs.12 Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can also clog pores and cause acne. Though there is no direct link to surfactants causing cancer, chemicals from surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate which puts you at more exposure and a higher risk of irritation.12 Reading labels looking for products that are sulfate-free or don’t contain sodium lauryl sulfate is the best way to avoid surfactants being in your products.















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