Decoding Labels on Your Beauty Products – 10 Classes of Beauty Product Ingredients to Watch Out For!

There is no way, even if you have a master’s degree in Ingredients & Beauty Product Label Reading, that you could possibly know what every single ingredient is on your beauty product labels. Well, maybe if you’re a master chemist, you know these things, but us non-science-y people – how could we possibly know?

We want to know what we’re putting on our skin, though! Don’t we? I’ve noticed more and more attention being paid by beauty lovers to product ingredients – and that’s a good thing! In fact, it’s crucial!

There are plenty of reasons why you should be paying as close attention to your beauty product labels as you do to your food labels. (Those run along the same lines as the reasons I love natural and organic beauty products!)

No FDA Oversight

Did you know that the FDA does not test, approve, or regulate beauty product ingredients? 

Let me say that again. 

In the U.S., there is very little, if absolutely no, oversight over which ingredients can and cannot be put in our beauty products! 

If that doesn’t scare you, this will: 

More beauty products than you want to count contain toxic ingredients that have caused negative consequences, including:

  • Hormone disruption 
  • Cancer
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Skin that ages faster
  • Skin irritation

Since our skin is our largest organ, and it can absorb just about anything we put on it, we should definitely be vigilant about knowing what we’re putting on our face and body. Agreed?

It Might Sound Okay…

Many of the ingredients that sound like they might be toxic are actually excellent for our skin, while the ingredients that are toxic may not sound harmful at all – or might sound familiar enough that we don’t think they’re toxic. There is really no way of telling the difference without looking up each and every single ingredient listed on a label that we aren’t familiar with. Or, we could all memorize all of the possible beauty product ingredients, which would be nearly impossible, considering there are thousands and thousands of different ingredients used in beauty products. 

How tedious would it be if there were 20 or more different ingredients listed on every product? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, there are plenty of products with exasperatingly long ingredient lists.

The bottom line? 

It’s kinda crucial to be able to decipher the foreign language on our beauty labels. 

Now, if you’re anything like me, memorizing your chemistry textbook glossary just doesn’t sound exciting. It makes more sense to get to know the most important classes of ingredients for starters. Doesn’t that sound much easier?

I’m going to teach you some quick beauty ingredient deciphering skills, right here, right now!

I want to help you become smarter about ingredients in your beauty and skin care products, so you can give your skin the best treatment possible and avoid any potential future health concerns. 


Parabens are used to extend the shelf life of products. They are synthetically made, and have been linked to: 

  • DNA damage
  • disrupting hormones
  • aging skin
  • cancer

I prefer to stay away from parabens as much as possible. The easiest way to do this is to find products that are labeled as “paraben-free.” If in doubt, consult the ingredient list and look for words that end in – surprise, surprise – paraben.

Some examples:

  • Methylparaben 
  • Butylparaben 
  • Ethylparaben 
  • Propylparaben 
  • Isobutylparaben 

Also, stay away from variations of the following:

  • Hydroxybenzoic acid
  • Hydroxybenzoate 
  • Ester


If you see “fragrance” or “parfum” in an ingredient list, it is typically a synthetic fragrance, and the product that you are using could be an allergen – or even worse. 

The biggest concern with seeing “fragrance” or “parfum” on a label is that those words do not accurately describe what the ingredient truly is. They’re usually generic descriptions of chemical concoctions. Our trade secret laws allow companies to hide which chemical ingredients they use to create the fragrance in a beauty product. 

Fragrance mixes have caused:

  • Allergies
  • Dermatitis
  • Respiratory distress
  • Effects on reproductive systems

Don’t discount all products that have those words in their ingredient list, though. There are plenty of natural and organic beauty and skin care products that source the fragrance from natural ingredients, so pay close attention to the brands you are purchasing from. If their products are made with all natural or organic ingredients, the fragrance may not be toxic or chemically deriven.  


From water bottles to paint, phthalates are chemicals that are found in a variety of things. Beauty products that typically have phthalates in them include hairspray, fragrance, and lotion. If you haven’t heard, phthalates have been linked to fertility issues and cancer.

Although studies are still being done, it is best to avoid these ingredients:

  • DBP
  • DEEP
  • DMP
  • DEP
  • Dibutyl/diethyl Ester
  • 2 – benzenedicarboxylate

Keep in mind that synthetic fragrance is often made from phthalates, as well.

Detergents and Sulfates

You are most familiar with detergents and sulfates because we commonly use them to clean our house and belongings (like our clothing and dishes.)

Taking a look at your collection of beauty products, you will find sulfates and detergents in your facial cleansers, and more typically, foaming and gel cleansers, because that’s what creates that lather we all love. 

Many cosmetic brands belive that because sulfates are effective for cleansing other items, they are also great for our skin. Sulfates are actually surfectants that work to cut out the natural oils in your skin, and because they’re too strong for our skin, they can make it dehydrated. 

On labels, sulfates are super easy to find, because they will end in the word “sulfate:”

  • Ammonium lauryl sulfate
  • Ammonium laureth sulfate
  • Sodium laureth sulfate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate


Alcohol can be a bit confusing, because there are misconceptions surrounding this class of ingredients, too. If you think the same thing I once did, you would assume that if a product has alcohol in its ingredient list, it will dry out your skin.

On the contrary though, you might be surprised to find out that vitamin E and vitamin A are alcohols. Not all alcohols are alike – in formula and in function. 

Alcohols can be one of the following:

  • humectants
  • solvents
  • emulsifiers
  • surfactants, 
  • antioxidants

Alcohols that are supposed to benefit your skin include:

  • Retinol (a vitamin A derivative)
  • tocopherol (vitamin E)
  • cetyl alcohol
  • stearyl alcohol 
  • propylene glycol (see next topic)

Alcohols that will dry out your skin include:

  • SD alcohol 40
  • denatured alcohol
  • ethanol
  • isopropyl alcohol

    Propylene Glycol
    Propylene glycol is an alcohol, too (see list above). It’s small and organic, and often used as a skin-conditioning agent. It can penetrate the skin, and has been known to irritate the skin, cause dermatitis, and hives at as low as 2 percent concentration. 

    Propylene glycol is found in:

  • Moisturizers
  • Sunscreen
  • Makeup products
  • Conditioners 
  • Shampoo
  • Hair sprays

  • Synthetic Colors

    I’m talking about artificial colors here, similar to the ones you would find in foods. Product labels with artificial colors in them will include D&C or FD&C. The F = food and the D&C = drug and cosmetics. On labels, you will see the relevant letters, then a color, then a number. (For example, FD&C blue 1 or D&C Red 27.) 

    Artificial colors are derived from coal tar and petroleum sources, and they’ve been linked to:

    • Cancer 
    • Skin irritation
    • Childhood ADHD

    In fact, the European Union has banned synthetic colors, and their classification and labeling system has them listed as carcinogens. But, in the U.S. we don’t think much about it when we see artificial colors in our foods and beauty products.


    If you have ever dissected a frog in Biology class, you know that formaldehyde is used as a preservative. It has also been labeled as a carcinogenic. 

    Did you know that it is also found in 1 in 5 cosmetic products? And, as I said earlier, the FDA doesn’t regulate or restrict the amount of formaldehyde that can be put into our beauty products!

    Formaldehyde is known to cause the skin to be irritated, and some cases have reported experiencing extreme irritation. 

    Because beauty brands often don’t use pure formaldehyde, but rather use chemicals that react and generate formaldehyde molecules, you won’t see “formaldehyde” on the ingredient list. (Have no fear, I got you!) Companies prefer using this process because the chemicals create a time-release effect while the products are sitting on shelves in stores, on your vanity, or in your bathroom. 

    So, how will you know if any of these formaldehyde releasing chemicals are in your beauty products? I told you I got you! 

    Even though the word “formaldehyde” won’t be on your beauty product labels, look for these ingredients to ensure that formaldehyde – releasing chemicals are not in your beauty products:

    • DMDM hydantoin
    • Diazolidinyl urea
    • Imidazolidinyl urea
    • Methanamin
    • Quaternium-15
    • Bronopol  (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-, 3-diol)
    • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1, 3-dioxane 
    • Hydroxymethylglycinate


    Toluene is derived from coal tar sources, and known as a petrochemical. It’s an extremely potent solvent that is commonly used to dissolve paint thinner and paint. So, why would it be used in beauty products?

    Well, you’ll mostly find this ingredient in nail treatments, nail polish, and hair bleaching/coloring products. 

    It is known to affect respiratory systems, irritate skin, cause nausea, and toxicity of the immune system. Because exposure to the vapors of toluene can cause developmental damage in fetuses, expecting mamas should avoid being anywhere near them during their pregnancy. (That is why you hear that you shouldn’t bleach or color your hair when you are pregnant.)

    On labels, look for:

    • Benzene
    • Toluol
    • Phenylmethane
    • Methylbenzene

    Sunscreen Chemicals

    Sunscreen is commonly made of chemicals that work to absorb UV light. These chemicals are believed to be easily absorbed into your skin, and therefore, absorbed into your body.

    Sunscreen chemicals are known to:

    • Be endocrine disruptors
    • Cause cellular damage
    • Cause cancer

    Watch out for these ingredients on labels:

    • Benzophenone
    • PABA
    • Avobenzone
    • Homosalate
    • Ethoxycinnmate

    Just so you know, for every “bad guy” ingredient, there is an ingredient with superpowers that will miraculously make your skin look amazing. I will be covering superpower ingredients in the near future, so be looking out! 

    I hope this was a helpful lesson on ingredients to watch out for in your beauty products! 

    So, what do you think? Will you be scrutinizing your beauty product labels more closely? Will you be tossing some of your beauty products in the trash? 

    Let me know in the comments below!



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