Clean Beauty 101: The Skincare Ingredients You Should Avoid

This clean beauty easy guide will help you decode your beauty products in a flash.
BY Marlene Srdic
| Last updated Jul, 2022
Clean Beauty 101

Everyone has heard the term “clean beauty.” But is beauty, well, dirty? Many think so, which is why the clean beauty industry has become a 54-billion-dollar industry and continues to grow.

What Is Clean Beauty?

In a nutshell, the term “clean beauty” means beauty and skincare products that are free of potentially harmful ingredients. You’ll also see terms like “non-toxic,” “green,” and “natural” often associated with clean beauty, but these aren’t necessarily the same thing.

It’s confusing, to say the least, as the beauty industry does not have a formal criterion as to when a product isclean” or not. (Basically, anyone can slap a clean beauty label on their product without repercussions. Yes, really.) 

Now, some clean-beauty-only retailers have taken it upon themselves to come up with their own criteria orban” list of ingredients to avoid. Places from Goop to Credo to even the Clean Beauty seal at Sephora and Target all brands have different standards regarding what makes their “clean” list for clean beauty products. 

Are you confused yet? What you need to know is this: The beauty industry is widely unregulated. In fact, the United States has 11 ingredients banned by the FDA for use in skin and hair products, while the European Union has banned nearly 1,300 ingredients. That’s enough to make you stop, think, and wonder if we should examine our own labels a bit more closely. Here, we’re doing just that.

Ingredients To Avoid In Your Beauty Products For A Clean Beauty

Skincare Ingredients to avoid

With ingredient names like retinal palmitate, ethyl oleate, or phenoxyethanol, it can be hard to discern what to avoid when you’re taking a quick glance at your beauty products. 

That’s one of the very reasons we love the guide by Environmental Working Group Skin Deep. This guide lets you look up a specific product and rate it according to how “safe” the Environmental Working Group determined it is. (You can also download the app to your phone for shopping on the go!) 

“The U.S. government doesn’t review the toxicity of products before they’re sold. Companies are allowed to use almost any type of ingredient as they wish without regard for how safe they are”

says the EWG on its website, which includes hazard ratings for nearly 70,000 products on the market.  

Want to quickly assess your own beauty products? Here are some of the most controversial ingredients. 

1. Parabens


Parabens are widely used in skincare products as they act as a preservative and help extend your skincare’s shelf life. They’re easily absorbed by the body and can also be found in food and body care products.

Why You May Want To Avoid Parabens?

Parabens mimic estrogen, and parabens may interfere with endocrine function.

Doctors found parabens even inside the breast tissues of the patients with breast cancer. However, it’s important to note that its discovery does not mean a definitive link has not been established

What To Look For In The Products To Avoid Parabens?

When looking at labels, you’ll be looking for ingredients that include paraben in the name. Common ones include:

  • Methylparaben 
  • Ethylparaben 
  • Propylparaben 
  • Butylparaben 
  • Heptylparaben

2. Formaldehyde


To your surprise, another popular preservative used in beauty products is formaldehyde. It’s a known carcinogen and one of the ingredients the EU has banned for use in cosmetics and skincare.

Why You May Want To Avoid Formaldehyde?

Nail polishes, hair treatments (like Keratin hair treatments and Brazillian Blowouts), and some makeup are the most likely sources of formaldehyde. Even prolonged exposure to high amounts of formaldehyde is considered carcinogenic. In other words, you’ll have a chance of cancer if you use cosmetics containing formaldehyde for a long time.

What To Look For In The Products To Avoid Formaldehyde?

  • Formalin
  • Formic Aldehyde
  • Methanediol
  • Methanal
  • Methyl Aldehyde
  • Methylene Glycol
  • Methylene Oxide

Want to quickly know which ingredients to avoid? Download our free checklist here. 

3. Phthalates


You’ll find phthalates (pronounced Tha-lates) in cosmetic products, skincare, food, and even in household items. Researchers have done several studies on whether or not phthalates are safe for use in cosmetics. While the European Union has banned them, the FDA says:

“It’s not clear what effect phthalates have on human health, even if it has any.” 

Why You May Want To Avoid Phthalates?

Phthalates are associated with reproductive issues, cancer, asthma, obesity, and even behavioral problems like ADHD. They can often be lurking in “fragrance,” an umbrella term that can encompass many chemicals. So, it can be one of the more difficult skincare ingredients to avoid.

What To Look For In The Products To Avoid Phthalates?

  • DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
  • DINP (diisononyl phthalate) 
  • DEP (diethyl phthalate) 
  • DEHP (di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate) 
  • DMP (dimethyl phthalate) 
  • BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate)
  • DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate) 
  • DIDP (diisodecyl phthalate)

4. Talc


Talc is a natural mineral that is mined from the earth. You’ll often find it in powders, like face powders, blush, or body powders. While talc itself isn’t an issue, some talc has been found to contain traces of asbestos, which is a known human carcinogen.

Why You May Want To Avoid Talc?

Unfortunately, asbestos is also a naturally occurring mineral that, when inhaled, is carcinogenic. The trouble comes into play when talc becomes contaminated with asbestos during the mining process. You could avoid talc altogether or seek out alternatives like corn starch, rice powder, etc.

What To Look For In The Products To Avoid Talc?

  • Talc 
  • Talcum 
  • Talcum Powder
  • Cosmetic Talc 
  • Magnesium Silicate

5. Fragrance


The fragrance is in almost everything, from skincare and makeup to your lotion, shampoo, hair care, and more. The tricky thing, in particular, is that “fragrance” is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of chemicals that don’t have to be disclosed. (Fragrance is considered a “trade secret” ingredient.)

Why You May Want To Avoid Fragrance?

Fragrances can be highly irritating, no matter what your skin type is. And as it’s hard to pinpoint which ingredient that makes up the fragrance is causing the problem, it’ll be best for you to try avoiding products that contain fragrance altogether. 

Some brands like to sidestep the use of synthetic fragrances by using “natural” fragrances instead, i.e., essential oils. But these can be highly irritating, too. 

“FDA does not hold the same legal authority to require allergen labeling for cosmetics as they have for the food. So, if you are concerned about sensitivities with fragrance, you may want to choose fragrance-free products, and check the ingredient list carefully,”


In other words, if you’re concerned about your skin, avoid the fragrances.

Bottom line For Your Clean Beauty

In conclusion, if YOU have a concern about clean beauty, you must avoid the harmful ingredients of the skincare products you use. The best bet for you is to avoid products that contain parabens, fragrances, talc, phthalates, and formaldehyde.

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