Reading labels for questionable ingredients is a great place to start making safer choices for your health, but how can you start to make sense of what those ingredients are, or figure out how harmful they can be? Some ingredients you might recognize easily, especially if they are natural oils or butters that you’ve known about your whole life. A lot of other ingredients may seem like long or unpronounceable words that you have no idea what they could possibly do, but they must be necessary if they are in there, right? Well….maybe.

As a follow-up to our last blog post, The Science of Clean Beauty, we spoke to Dr. Nicole Acevedo, a leading clean beauty scientist for context.  Some common cosmetic ingredients, such as preservatives, antioxidants, chemical UV filters and even fragrance additives can disrupt our natural hormone system or release carcinogens that can unintentionally harm our health. Here are a few to look out for:

  • Parabens are a class of preservatives widely used in cosmetic products due to their efficacy at preventing the growth of mold and harmful bacteria. However, parabens may affect your normal hormone balance that can play a role in early onset of puberty, development of fibroids, or increase the risk of premenopausal breast cancer.

  • Other preservatives like DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, or imidazolidinyl urea help prevent microbial growth by releasing formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. Liquid formaldehyde is also used in some popular heat-treatments that straighten hair and create a lasting shine, but the release of formaldehyde gas with heat can severely irritate your skin, eyes and lungs.

  • Synthetic antioxidants like butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) help prevent rancidity of natural fats or oils and can also help protect the skin from oxidative damage from free radicals in the environment.  The UV filters oxybenzone and octinoxate help keep cosmetic pigments from fading and helps protect the skin from harmful UV rays. The downside? They can mess with your hormones, and BHA is known to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity in animals.

  • Fragrance’ or ‘Parfum’ is one of the trickiest ingredients to assess for safety because the term ‘fragrance’ on a label can hide over a hundred different chemicals! Some of these undisclosed chemicals can trigger allergies, skin sensitization or even hormone disruption. Diethyl Phthalate (DEP) is often added to fragrance to help the scent last longer on the skin, fabric, or air but you probably won’t find it listed on a label because companies are allowed to hide it behind the word ‘fragrance’.

Learning the language of ingredient function and safety in your favorite cosmetic products takes some practice and patience, but the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetics database ( is a great place to start. When we as consumers become more aware of what’s in our products, we can use our voice to demand better options in the marketplace and support companies working hard to replace harmful ingredients with safer, cleaner options.