Chemicals in Skincare

Reading an ingredients listing can be a daunting task, especially if you have no idea what some of the chemical names mean.

The following list provides information about some of the more common ingredients used in skincare products, their uses and possible side effects.

Chemical Name Uses Possible Side Effects
2-bromo -2-nitropropane -1,3 diol Preservative used in fabric softeners, detergents, pharmaceutical products, face creams, shampoo. Also known by its trade name Bronopol. Can release formaldehyde. Can irritate skin and eyes. Causes allergic contact dermatitis.
ammonium lauryl sulfate Synthetic foaming agent, emulsifier and surfactant used shampoos, liquid soap substitutes, toothpaste, foaming facial cleansers, bubble bath. Also used in engine degreasers. Similar to sodium lauryl sulfate. Produces skin, eye and hair damage. Slightly less irritating than sodium lauryl sulfate.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) Preservative and antioxidant, used widely in cosmetics, also in cooking oils. Causes allergic contact dermatitis.
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) Preservative and antioxidant, similar uses to BHA. Causes contact dermatitis and is a known skin and eye irritant. Banned in the UK as a food additive.
butylparaben Preservative. Known skin irritant, may cause eye irritation and dermatitis. Unproven concerns over possible links to breast cancer.
cocamide DEA or MEA Synthetic surfactant found in "natural" shampoos. Sometimes claimed to be "derived from coconut". See also DEA. Can cause allergic reactions and contact dermatitis.
cocamidopropyl betaine Synthetic surfactant found in "natural" shampoos, eye makeup remover and sometimes, soaps. Often used in conjunction with stronger surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulfate. Sometimes claimed to be "derived from coconut". Can cause allergic reactions and contact dermatitis.
coco-betaine Synthetic surfactant. Often found in "natural" shampoos. Can cause allergic skin rashes.
DEA (diethanolamine) Emulsifying agent, solvent and detergent. Also used as dispersing agent and humectant. Found in soaps, moisturisers, shampoos, conditioners and other cosmetics. Also other products such as detergents, liquid handwash and pharmaceutical drugs. Mild skin irritant and severe eye irritant. Known sensitiser. Suspected carcinogen. Most US cosmetic chemists ceased using DEA in 2000, but it is still found in many Australian products.
diazolidinyl urea Preservative and antiseptic used in cosmetics, usually in conjunction with parabens. Also used as a pesticide in the cotton industry. Known by its trade name Germall II. Causes contact dermatitis. Releases formaldehyde.
DMDM hydantoin (dimethylol dimethyl hydantoin) Preservative, usually used in conjunction with other preservatives. Found in detergents, soaps, shampoos, conditioners and hand creams. Causes dermatitis. Releases formaldehyde. Believed to affect nervous system and brain.
EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid) A chelating agent used found in facial cleansers, soaps and baby lotions. Chelating agents bind metals in solutions to reduce cloudiness. A known skin and eye irritant, may be irritating to mucous membranes. May cause allergies such as asthma and skin rashes. Suspected carcinogen.
ethylparaben Synthetic preservative used in cosmetics and soaps. Can cause skin irritations and contact dermatitis. Unproven concerns over possible links to breast cancer.
formaldehyde Preservative used in shampoos, face and anti-ageing creams, anti-dandruff shampoos. Also known by trade names Formalin and Formol. Also used in the building industry in insulation, particle board, paints and glues, and also industrial strength cleaners. Acutely toxic by inhalation, internal dose or topically. Skin, eye, nose and throat irritant, sensitiser, trigger for chemical sensitivity. Also known to cause asthma attacks, nausea and vomiting, skin rashes and headaches. Suspected carcinogen.
imidazolidinyl urea Preservative and antiseptic used in cosmetics, usually in conjunction with parabens. Also used as a pesticide in the cotton industry. Known by its trade name Germall 115. Causes contact dermatitis. Releases formaldehyde.
isopropyl alcohol Petrochemical based antibacterial and solvent used in hair colouring, hair care preparations, hand lotions and antiperspirants. Also known as isopropanol. Known skin irritant, damaging to the eyes. Extremely drying to the skin.
isopropyl myristate Emollient, emulsifier and lubricant. Used to lessen greasy feel of products where other ingredients have a high oil content. Used in antiperspirants and deodorants. Can cause allergic reactions, known skin irritant. Can aggravate acne.
isopropyl palmitate Emollient, emulsifier and lubricant. Used to lessen greasy feel of products where other ingredients have a high oil content. Used in antiperspirants and deodorants. Can cause allergic reactions, known skin irritant. Can aggravate acne.
lanolin Obtained from sheep's wool and used as an emollient, base and emulsifier. Can cause allergic reactions. Can be contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers, depending on where sheep have been raised. It is questionable that the lanolin itself is to blame and not contaminants.
lauramidopropyl betaine Surfactant found in shampoos and liquid soap substitutes, similar to cocamidopropyl betaine. Skin and eye irritant.
methylchloroisothiazolinane A preservative used in shampoos and liquid soap substitutes. Causes allergic reactions. Skin and eye irritant.
methylene chloride Used as propellant in aerosols and solvent in paint strippers. Found in hairsprays. Headaches, dizziness, nausea. Skin and eye irritant. Also irritates nose and throat at high concentrations.
methylisothiazolinane Preservative used in conjunction with Methylchloroisothiazolinane in shampoos and liquid soap substitutes. Causes allergic reactions. Skin and eye irritant.
methylparaben Synthetic preservative used in cosmetics and soaps. Can cause skin irritations and contact dermatitis. Unproven concerns over possible links to breast cancer.
mineral oil Petrochemical ingredient, manufactured from crude petroleum, used in many moisturisers, creams and lotions. Highly refined (i.e. odourless and colourless) and very cheap. Can cause skin to develop clogged pores because it suffocates the skin and prevents it from breathing. Skin and eye irritant. Ineffective as a moisturiser because of its poor absorption. Suspected carcinogen.
parabens Synthetic preservatives used in cosmetics and soaps. Can cause skin irritations and contact
paraffin Derived from sources including petroleum and coal. Used as a thickener for cosmetics, also called soft white paraffin or liquid paraffin. Found in creams, lipsticks, eyebrow pencils. Can cause skin to develop clogged pores because it suffocates the skin and prevents it from breathing. Skin and eye irritant. Suspected carcinogen.
PEG (polyethylene glycol) Synthetic binder and softener found in many cosmetics. Also used as emollients, carriers, emulsifiers and dispersants. May cause hives and eczema.
petrolatum Also known as petroleum jelly. Petrochemical ingredient, manufactured from crude petroleum, used in many moisturisers, creams and lotions. Highly refined (i.e. odourless and colourless) and very cheap. Can cause skin to develop clogged pores because it suffocates the skin and prevents it from breathing. Skin and eye irritant. Ineffective as a moisturiser because of its poor absorption. Suspected carcinogen.
phenoxyethanol Widely used preservative made from phenol and ethylene dioxide. Phenol is known to cause chronic dermatitis. Suspected carcinogen and strong irritant.
polysorbates Also known as polysorbate 60 and polysorbate 80. Fatty acid ester used in cosmetics as emulsifiers and stabilisers. Found in shampoos and conditioners, also used in the food industry. Known skin and eye irritants, can be drying to scalp.
propylene glycol Petrochemical based humectant, surfactant and solvent used in creams, lotions, moisturiser, foundations, and other cosmetics. Causes allergic reactions including contact dermatitis, even at low levels.
propylparaben Synthetic preservative used in cosmetics and soaps. Can cause skin irritations and contact dermatitis. Unproven concerns over possible links to breast cancer.
quaternium 15 Preservative used in cosmetic creams. Causes allergic reactions and skin rashes. Eye and skin irritant. Can release formaldehyde.
sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) Synthetic foaming agent, emulsifier and surfactant used shampoos, liquid soap substitutes, toothpaste, foaming facial cleansers, bubble bath. Skin and hair irritant.
sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) Synthetic foaming agent, emulsifier and surfactant used shampoos, liquid soap substitutes, toothpaste, foaming facial cleansers, bubble bath. Can irritate the skin, hair, eyes and mucous membranes. Can cause damage to mouth tissue, including ulcers. Can cause corrosion of hair follicles and dandruff.
sorbolene Used as a basic moisturiser, or base cream or lotion for many handmade cosmetics. Contains petrochemicals such as mineral oil, petrolatum or paraffin and other synthetic preservatives. Clogs the pores of the skin, which can cause and exacerbate eczema. Ineffective as a moisturiser, as it absorbs poorly.
stearic acid Fatty acid derived from tallow, animal fats, cocoa butter and other hard vegetable fats. Used as an emollient and base in cosmetics. Can cause allergic reactions.
talc Found in baby powder, makeup foundations, eye shadows and other powdered makeup. Suspected carcinogen. Can contain traces of asbestos.
TEA (triethanolamine) Emulsifying and dispersing agent. Found in soaps, moisturisers, shampoos, conditioners and other cosmetics. Also other products such as detergents, liquid handwash and pharmaceutical drugs. Mild skin irritant and severe eye irritant. Known sensitiser. Suspected carcinogen.
tetrasodium EDTA A chelating agent found in shampoos, facial cleansers, soaps and baby lotions. Chelating agents are used to bind or remove metals to give clarity and enable surfactants to work more effectively. Skin and eye irritant. May cause allergies such as asthma and skin rashes. Suspected carcinogen.
toluene Solvent found in nail varnish, hair sprays and other hair products, perfumes and artificial fragrances. Suspected carcinogen, can be a trigger for asthma attacks. Can cause headaches and loss of appetite.
triclosan (2,4,4 Trichloro-2-Hydroxydiphenylether) Antibacterial found in deodorant, toothpaste and antibacterial soaps. Skin irritant.
trisodium EDTA A chelating agent used found in facial cleansers, soaps and baby lotions. Chelating agents bind metals in solutions to reduce cloudiness. A known skin and eye irritant, may be irritating to mucous membranes. May cause allergies such as asthma and skin rashes. Suspected carcinogen.