What Ingredients to Avoid in Your Skincare Products

This is the first in a series of posts I will be doing on the most important ingredients to avoid in skin care products and how to easily recognize them. Every time I go shopping I see people looking at the ingredients in their products. People are trying to make informed, safe decisions but without extensive training in chemistry/toxicology it is becoming increasingly difficult to do! Here I will distill what to look for that should absolutely be avoided in your products and some tricks to easily make safer purchases!

3 simple rules for buying skin care products:

1) If you cannot pronounce it, you probably should not put it on your skin!

You do not have to know exactly what acrylamide/sodium acryloyldimethyl taurate copolymer is to suspect that it is probably something you don’t want on your skin. As an aside, while doing my master’s I used to use acrylamide to for my western blots. Let me assure you I was instructed to always wear gloves while doing this and there was a material safety data sheet outlining the dangers of this chemical. Yet, it can be included in skin care products because it is used at a low acceptable level…..but is it really?! More to come in future posts on the regulation of the skin care industry in North America.

2) An exception to rule #1….that weird Latin name

Crash course in Latin. Latin names are generally two words with the first one capitalized and the second one is not. They are also often written in italics. They are an exception to rule #1 because cosmetic labeling requires the Latin name to be given. When you see Butyrospermum parkii (Shea Butter) or Theobroma cacao (Cocoa Butter), don’t worry…get excited. All botanical ingredients must be reported this way, so these products contain natural ingredients that are good for the skin, even though you cannot pronounce them!

3) Avoid products that contain “fragrance”

This is code for contains parabens. The manufactures are trying to slip a fast one by you in hoping that you won’t red flag this as bad for you.

Now I will go through a short and simple break down of the first 3 ingredients to avoid on David Suzuki’s “Dirty Dozen”.


1) BHA and BHT

BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are synthetic antioxidants used as preservative in moisturizers and other skin care products. BHA has been classified as a possible human carcinogen (cancer causing agent) and is hypothesized to be a hormone disruptor. Choose products with natural antioxidants: Vitamin A, C and E.

2) Coal Tar Dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colours labeled CI: followed by a 5 digit number

Coal tar dye is typically found in commercial hair dyes. It is a mixture of chemicals derived from petroleum. Coal tar is a confirmed to have the ability to cause cancer in humans. There have been studies that show women who use coal tar containing hair dye, especially for many years, have an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (cancer of the lymph system). Be proactive and ask your hair stylist about the ingredients in their dyes at your next appointment.

3) DEA, cocamide DEA and lauramide DEA

DEA stands for diethanolamine and is used in personal care products to make them creamy, sudsy or to make their pH more favorable. They’re primarily found in shampoos and cleansers. One easy way to avoid these ingredients is to get away from the mindset that something has to be super sudsy to be effective. A lot of the agents that are used to make products sudsy were developed during WWII as floor cleaners!

I hope this will help make your next trip to buy personal care products easier….just remember the 3 simple rules. Click here for the next series of ingredients that are essential to avoid

Curious as to how I became interested in avoiding cancer causing chemicals? I will give you a little hint, it was while I was studying breast cancer 


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Dr Alexis

Dr Alexis practices virtually and is accepting new patients who live within Ontario. To book your appointment, click here


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