Are your beauty ingredients safe for use?

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

Debunking beauty myths when it comes to no-no ingredients

Not too long ago, we weren’t aware about the potentially toxic and harmful chemicals that may lie within our beauty shelves. Because there is a lack of proper regulation in the cosmetics industry, it is always important to read the ingredients list to know what we are getting into. Despite that, the answers to whether certain controversial ingredients as “good” or “bad” are not that clear cut. Many within the green beauty field have demonised certain controversial ingredients, such as parabens, for their potential cancer-causing agents, whereas certain scientists dismiss them as mere fear mongering.

So what are the current regulations in place? Well, the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) lists more than 16,000 ingredients found in cosmetics and personal care products, which are tested and assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an independent board, who publish their findings here. That, at least, gives us some assurance as to whether an ingredient can be safe or not.

In general, a rule of thumb is this: you should consider the concentration of the particular ingredient, how they react with the other ingredients, and more importantly, how your skin reacts to it.

This post will guide you on some common problematic ingredients that have been debated upon.Ultimately, choosing to use or avoid a certain ingredient is your choice. If you wish to avoid these ingredients, that’s great. But if you believe that products containing these ingredients are okay to use, that’s great as well. After all, it all boils down to your own comfort level.


Most commonly used parabens: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben and Butylparaben

You’ve probably seen a lot of products with the label “paraben-free” on them. But what’s the fuss over them, really?

What does it do: Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products to prevent bacteria and fungi. They also act as food and drug preservatives and are found in beer, soft drinks and some medicine.

A 2004 scientific paper tested 20 breast cancer tumours and found that parabens were present. Scientific research also suggested that high concentrations of parabens can mimic oestrogen, increasing the risk of breast cancer.

The published CIR 2008 report have identified that they are safe for cosmetic use at lower concentrations (< 1%), and were also found be quickly excreted once it enters the body. The American Cancer Society also identified that parabens had no direct link to health problems, including breast cancer.

In 2018, the CIR Expert Panel submitted a re-review of the 2008 report. This was partly because of the European Union’s (EU) move to ban five parabens ((Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben, and Pentylparaben) and limit the concentrations of other parabens as preservatives in cosmetics.

EWG Rating:

Methylparaben - 4/10; moderate hazard

Ethylparaben - 4/10; moderate hazard

Propylparaben - 7/10; high hazard

Butylparaben - 7/10; high hazard

Verdict: Although parabens can seem pretty scary and dangerous, INCI found that parabens are safe when used in cosmetics in low concentrations (look out for parabens to be listed as the last few ingredients in the ingredient list). With INCI’s re-review of the 2008 report, you may also want to check the their website for the latest updates.

If you do not feel safe using parabens, you may also wish to go paraben-free, in which case there are also many options for you to choose from as well. Check out some paraben-free brands here.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

In love with that cleanser which foams easily and makes your face feel squeaky clean? Think again.

What does it do: SLS and SLES (a gentler version of SLS) are surfactants is often found in many face cleansers, shampoos, body wash and toothpaste which help to create foam easily. However, SLS is a skin irritant that strips your skin of its natural oils, resulting in the over-production of oil.

According to a 1983 safety assessment report, SLS is “safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin”. For products that were to be applied for prolonged contact with the skin, concentrations should be below 1%. The CIR Expert Panel reviewed SLS, along with Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate in 2002/2003 and studies “confirmed the irritant properties of these ingredients and reinforced concentration limit of 1% for leave-on uses”.

EWG Rating:

SLS - 1-2/10; low hazard (depending on usage)

SLES - 3/10; moderate hazard

Verdict: SLES have been found to be safe for use in cosmetic products under certain concentration, however, some users experienced eye and/or skin irritation in experiments carried out by the CIR Expert Panel. The severity of the irritation appeared to increased with higher concentrations, though they are not considered “toxic” ingredients that cause detrimental impact to our health. For those with sensitive skin, you might want to look out for this particular ingredient to prevent unwanted reactions!

Synthetic Fragrances

We get it- it’s nice having pleasant-smelling products. But what if it comes at the cost of skin irritation and environmental damage?

What does it do: Synthetic fragrances are often used in cosmetic products to mask unpleasant scents or simply to appeal to consumers.

EWG Rating: 8/10; high hazard

Verdict: Fragrances often contain several chemicals that are skin irritants and can sensitize your skin. Perhaps you should look out for this if you are allergic or sensitive to fragrances.

Many compounds in fragrances end up in water bodies as they are not filtered out by water treatment. They may accumulate in marine animals and contaminate the food chain. We may be consuming these substances when we eat seafood! However, this remains as an overlooked source of pollution.

You don’t need synthetic fragrances in your beauty product. The instant gratification you get when applying scented beauty products is not worth the potential skin irritation you might experience!


Commonly used phthalates: Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Diethyl Phthalate (DEP), and Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP)

What does it do: Phthalates is a huge class of chemicals that act as plasticisers, solvents and fragrance ingredients in cosmetic products. DBP is commonly found in nail care products and hair care formulations, DEP is found in fragrances, lotions and skincare products, while DMP is found in hair care products.

There have been many discussions and contradictions over whether phthalates are toxic to our reproductive systems and endocrine (hormonal) system. In the EU, phthalates are generally regarded as toxic substances, and, was banned in 1999 as a material for children’s toys designed for the mouths of those below three years old.

Just last year, members of the EU voted unanimously to prohibit four particular phthalates- DBP, butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP), di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), and disobutyl phthalate (DIBP) in the use of consumer products sold in the EU, due to possible negative effects on the reproductive system. In the US, FDA’s survey of cosmetics in 2010 revealed that DBP and DMP are rarely used, although DEP is still commonly used.

According to a study done by CIR Expert Panel on rodents in 2005, although phthalates have been found to be readily absorbed through the skin, they do not accumulate in tissues and are eliminated through urine. Similarly, phthalates were also found present in the urine of humans, showing that it is excreted from our body.

These three common phthalates were tested and identified as non-irritants or sensitizers when applied on the skin. They are also used in hair sprays, and the CIR concluded that their particle size was not respirable, and thus deemed safe for use.

EWG Rating:

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) - 10/10; high hazard

Diethyl Phthalate (DEP) - 3/10; moderate hazard

Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP) - 4/10; moderate hazard

Verdict: Though DBP, when orally administered to rodents in an experiment by CIR, led to productive and developmental effects, the CIR Expert Panel concluded that the three phthalates were safe for cosmetic use when used in certain concentrations (usually <1%). However, given the numerous concerns over phthalates, it is understandable that you might want to look out for cosmetics products that are phthalate-free. You can check out some here.


If you use chemical sunscreen, look out for oxybenzone. Also known as Benzophenone-3, it is largely used in sunscreens or cosmetic products such as moisturisers which presumably contain some form of sun protection.

What does it do: Sunscreens containing oxybenzone reduces the harmful effects of UV radiation by chemically absorbing light energy when applied on the skin. These molecules gain more energy and are released in the form of heat. Oxybenzone was concluded as a non-irritant and sensitiser when tested on animals. Although when tested on humans, there were isolated incidences where it was mildly irritating and sensitising at higher concentrations.

Oxybenzone has also been linked to endocrine disruption and cancer in some studies. Do note that many of the studies were done on rodents, and therefore though there might be a possibility that it could result in cancer in humans, there could be none as well.

Hawaii has banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone & octinoxate as studies revealed that they may have negative consequences on coral reefs. This was controversial as some argued that research on the negative effects were limited and inconclusive.

EWG Rating: 8/10; high hazard

Verdict: Both the CIR Expert Panel and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have deemed oxybenzone as safe and effective sunscreen ingredients for concentrations not exceeding 10%, although it can be sensitising and mildly irritating at higher concentrations for a minority. To be extra careful, you can use physical sunscreens or chemical ones without oxybenzone and octinoxate, especially when you are going swimming at the beach.


What does it do: Talc discussed here refers to cosmetic-grade talc which does not contain asbestos, a naturally-occurring mineral that is considered to be carcinogenic and harmful. Talc acts as an absorbent, anti-caking agent, and bulking agent in cosmetic products. The highest reported concentration of talc is usually found in cosmetic powders and baby powders, though a concentration of up to 35% can be found in spray products such as cosmetic sprays and deodorants.

Reports from the FDA and the Personal Care Products Council revealed that talc is used in nearly all cosmetic categories, and was present in 3,469 cosmetic formulations, with maximum concentrations at 100%.

There have been concerns about whether talc is carcinogenic, although studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Working Group revealed that there was insufficient evidence linking inhaling talc to cancer.

For women, please do try to avoid applying baby powder or talc to your thighs and genital areas. According to the American Cancer Society, it has been suggested that there may be a small increase in the risk of ovarian cancer in women who use talc on their genital area. Furthermore, there was a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson by a woman who claimed that she developed ovarian cancer after using the talcum powder daily for 50 years.

EWG Rating: 5/10; moderate hazard

Verdict: The CIR Expert Panel concluded that talc is safe for use in cosmetics under current practices of use and concentration. Although it should not be applied directly to broken skin as it can lead to a possible infection.

This post acts as a guide for those who have started paying more attention to the ingredients in your beauty products. However, remember to do your own research before buying a beauty product.

Here are some user-friendly and comprehensive websites you can get more information from:

Chemical Safety Facts

Cosmetics Info

Environmental Working Group

Paula’s Choice Ingredient Dictionary

Cosmetics Info

Think Dirty app

Disclaimer: Although the EWG rating has been included for the ingredients listed above, it is important to understand that their database may be limited. Hence, it is important that you look for information from more than one database to ensure that you get several perspectives.



Sodium Lauryth Sulfate/ Sodium Laureth Sulfate

Synthetic fragrances





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