Deciphering the back of a bottle can feel like trying to read street signs in China, but not knowing what you’re putting on your skin carries risks – many products contain elements that can pose health problems. Some say you should not put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t eat, which I think is a tad extreme (um gross, sunblock?), but I like the general idea. Our skin is the largest organ of our body and when we put things on it they get absorbed. While we can’t avoid the bad stuff completely (or be totally anal) here are some red-flag terms to look for. (And P.S. this isn’t just for women, they say men use an average of 6 self-care products daily).
1. Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate (DLS)
What it is: a chemical salt
What it does: lowers water’s surface tension, which lets products spread out and penetrate more easily; boosts foaming action. Originally used to clean grease off factory machines.
Why avoid? It can produce harmful byproducts such as 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, two chemicals linked to cancer
2. Triethanolamine (TEA)
What it is: a chemical compound derived from ammonia
What it does: acts as a cleansing agent and foam booster; prevents products from separating.
Why avoid? Research has linked TEA to certain cancers and may irritate skin and mucous membranes
What they are: chemical preservatives used in up to 90% of cosmetics
What they do: keep products from going bad
Why avoid? studies suggest parabens may act like estrogen in the body, and estrogen exposure has been linked to breast cancer and hormone disruptions
4. Propylene Glycol
What it is: a thick, clean alcohol
What it does: helps the skin soak up moisture, thins out liquids, and enhances skin’s absorption of other ingredients in the product
Why avoid? it may interfere with reproductive health
What it is: an oily liquid preservative made from phenol, a coal derivative
What it does: prevents scents from rapidly evaporating
Why avoid? Japan restricts use of it, which research has linked to both endocrine disruption and cancers
6. Imidazolidinyl Urea
What it is: the most commonly used preservative after parabens
What it does: Extends a product’s shelf life
Why avoid: a top cause of contact dermatitis, it may also stress your immune system. Plus, used with water, it can release formaldehyde, a toxic chemical