6 skincare ingredients to avoid

Warning: this is NOT your usual toxic skincare ingredients to avoid list.

You won’t find the usual suspects here. I won’t tell you to avoid silicones, parabens and mineral oil. Those are all perfectly fine (but they did make it onto my Top 7 Unfairly Maligned Ingredients).

The truth is there’s nothing in your skincare that’s toxic or will give you cancer. But, there are a few ingredients that can give you a bad rash, cause an allergy or make your skin breakout.

These ingredients are different for everyone. Just because something doesn’t agree with my skin, it doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.

So, don’t take this list as the holy grail of skincare ingredients to avoid. I’m sharing what’s not working for my skin, the skincare ingredients I personally choose to avoid and why:

Are There Toxic Ingredients In Your Skincare Products?

I started Beautiful with Brains in 2008 with the intent to debunk marketing hype and scaremongering tactics that get you to make the wrong skincare choices. At the time, rumours about toxic skincare ingredients lurking in your cosmetics had just started to take hold, courtesy of organisations like the Environmental Working Group that likes to scare people with statements like this: “Companies are allowed to use almost any ingredient they wish. The U.S. government doesn’t review the safety of products before they’re sold.”

This is a LIE. According to the FDA, “It’s against the law for a cosmetic to contain any ingredient that makes the product harmful when consumers use it according to directions on the label, or in the customary or expected way. This is true whether or not there is a regulation that specifically prohibits or restricts the use of the ingredient in cosmetics.”

Even if it were not illegal, it’d be downright stupid for skincare companies to put toxic ingredients in skincare. Killing your customers is just NOT a good way to make money. If people started dying left, right, and centre after using a cream with parabens, rest assured you’d know immediately. You can’t hide stuff this like.

So why do people and organisations like the Environmental Working Group think there are toxic ingredients lurking in your skincare products? They misunderstand the science and misinterpret scientific studies. Some common mistakes they make:

  • Applying animal tests results to humans: Just because an ingredient causes cancer in rats, it doesn’t mean it’ll do the same in humans (last time I checked, rats aren’t human). For example, a study shows that retinyl palmitate in sunscreens caused tumours in mice. Scary, right? What the Environmental Working Group & co don’t tell you is that the species of mice used in this study is highly susceptible to skin cancer when exposed to UV light EVEN when they’re NOT treated with retinyl palmitate! How does that automatically translate to retinyl palmitate being carcinogenic in humans?! It doesn’t.
  • Ignoring “the dose makes the poison” principle: Just because an ingredient is toxic at 100% concentrations, it doesn’t mean it’s toxic at 1%. Even the safest of natural ingredients can kill you at high enough doses. It’s possible, for example, to die if you drink too much water (more than 6 litres in 3 hours). Vitamin C can cause Diarrhoea and nausea in high doses. There’s a reason why there are recommended dietary doses of harmless foods. Everything is dangerous in high enough doses and good at the right dose.
  • Not taking the delivery system into account: Just because a skincare ingredient is toxic when ingested, it does mean it’s toxic when topically applied onto your skin. It’s a myth that your skin absorbs 60% of what you put on it. The main job of your skin is to keep stuff OUT of the body and it’s damn good at doing that. Think about it. One, if everything you touched penetrated your skin, you wouldn’t get dirty. Two: there would be no need for injections or pills to treat most diseases. Three: skincare superstars like retinol and Vitamin C would easily penetrate skin, giving you much better and faster results. Instead, there are very few medicines and ingredients that can bypass the skin’s protective barrier. If they can’t get into your skin, they can’t reach the bloodstream and cells and be toxic to them.

Do you see how easy it is to misinterpret studies when you’re not aware of the scientific principles behind them?

My Criteria For Choosing Which Skincare Ingredients To Avoid

Like everyone else, I do have my list of skincare ingredients to avoid. But I base my decisions based on what science, not misinformation, says. So what are my criteria? I avoid skincare ingredients that:

  • Don’t agree with my skin: For example, every time I use a cream with a high dose of Isopropyl Myristate or Isopropyl Palmitate, my skin breaks out so much, it turns into a war zone. I also know people who can use them without any issues. You don’t need to avoid an ingredient just because it doesn’t work for me. But you need to pay attention to what works for you – if something doesn’t, ditch it.
  • Proven side effects: I’m not talking about cancer. Again, it’s illegal to put toxic ingredients in skincare products. I’m talking about irritations, allergies, and breakouts. A lot of natural extracts, for example, contain fragrant compounds that can cause irritations in sensitive skin while offering no positive benefits whatsoever. To me, if something is a common allergen, it simply doesn’t belong in your skincare.
  • Unproven effectiveness: Some skincare ingredients are so new, the only proof of them working comes from the manufacturer. Argireline, anyone? It’s a peptide dubbed “botox in a jar” that’s supposed to freeze muscles and wrinkles, but I haven’t seen solid evidence it deliver son its promises. In cases like this, I may try the product for review purposes only. Otherwise I’d avoid it, simply because I want to spend my money on things that are proven to work, like retinol.

There you have it, how I make decisions about the skincare ingredients to avoid for better (and safer) results.

The Skincare Ingredients I Personally Choose To Avoid

Now you know my criteria, let’s take a look at the ingredients I don’t want in MY skincare products:

1. Palmitates and Myristates: They’re Highly Comedogenic

Palmitate and Myristates are two families of ingredients with emollient properties. You can easily spot them on an ingredient list: they include anything with Palmitate and Myristate in the name, such as Isopropyl Palmitate, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Isopropyl Myristate and Myristyl Myristate. 

Palmitates and Myristates are fatty acids that moisturise skin, leaving it soft and smooth. Most creams for dry skin will include at least one – they’re that good at the moisturising job. And, for your skin type, they may be fine. I have clients who use moisturisers with Palmitate and Myristates without any issues. If they work for you, keep using them.

Personally, every time I used a moistruriser or other skincare products that has a Palmitate or a Myristate high on the ingredient list, my skin explodes in pimples. Although there are no scientific studies (yet!) that these ingredients cause acne, a lot of people with oily, acne-prone skin report my same experience. If you know they’re problematic for YOU, avoid them.


There are plenty of ingredients that moisturise skin without clogging pores. A few of my faves:

  • Ceramides: Natural components of the skin’s protective barrier, they prevent water loss and keep skin soft and supple.
  • Hyaluronic Acid: A humectant that attracts and binds up to 1000 times its weight in water to your skin! That extra moisture makes your skin softer and plumper – without adding more oil to it and causing pimples.
  • Natural oils: Rosehip, olive, sweet almond & co are all deeply moisturising. Rosehip and jojoba and Squalane in particular are suitable even for oily and acne-prone skin.

Best Picks:

  • Boscia Green Tea Oil-Free Moisturiser ($38.00): An oil-free moisturiser for oily skin enriched with green tea to help prevent wrinkles too. Available at Dermstore, Sephora, and Ulta
  • CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion ($15.99): One of my fave moisturisers, it’s loaded with ceramides and niacinamide to deeply hydrate and soothe skin. It’s suitable for all skin types and walks that balance between being moisturising enough for dry skin without causing breakouts in oily skin. Available at Sephora and Ulta
  • Paula’s Choice Clinical Ultra-Rich Moisturiser ($31.00): A godsend for dry skin, it uses a mix of ceramides, shea butter, and olive oil to deeply moisturise even the driest of skin types. Plus, it has antioxidants that help fight premature aging. Available at Paula’s Choice

Related: Is Isopropyl Myristate Comedogenic?

Struggling to find skincare products that don’t irritate your sensitive skin? Download your FREE “Skincare Ingredients To Avoid” cheatsheet to find out what the most common culprits are and cut them out of your skincare routine:

2. Alcohol: It Can Be Drying (When Poorly Formulated)

First things first: not all types of alcohol are bad for skin. Fatty alcohols like Cetyl Alcohol and Stearyl Alcohol are very moisturising. Keep using them. I do.

The alcohols I avoid are Denatured Alcohol, Ethyl Alcohol, Ethanol, Methanol, Benzyl Alcohol, Isopropyl Alcohol and SD Alcohol – and even then only when they make up most of the product.

These alcohols are used to thin down solutions and help other ingredients penetrate the skin better. But, they do this by disrupting the skin’s protective barrier. Overtime, this dries out your skin.

There’s a workaround: if your serum or moisturiser is also loaded with moisturising ingredients, they’ll be able to counteract the drying effects of the alcohol.

If my alcohol-laden sunscreen contains moisturising ingredients, like hyaluronic acid or shea butter, I’m able to use it without experiencing any dryness – and I do use them. Sure, I’d prefer a different delivery system, but there’s no real harm done for my skin.

But those toners with alcohol and little else that are supposed to tree acne? They work by absorbing excess oil. But, without anything hydrating to counteract the drying effects of the alcohol, the side effects are not worth the little benefits you get in return. There’s always a trade-off and, in this case, it’s one that doesn’t benefit your skin.


If you’re using an alcohol-lade toner to absorb excess oil, you can use ingredients like silica and clays that do the same job and are not so drying.

Best Picks:

  • Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil-Absorbing Mask ($22.00): A clay mask with bentonite and kaolin to absorb excess oil and antioxidants to fight premature aging. Available at Paula’s Choice
  • Shiseido Oil-Control Blotting Paper ($20.00): They’re on the pricier side, but they include kaolin to absorb excess oil during the day without ruining your makeup. Available at Sephora.

Related: What Does Alcohol-Free Really Mean?

is witch hazel good for skin

3. Witch Hazel: It’s A Mixed Bag

Witch Hazel is one of the few natural ingredients I prefer to avoid whenever possible. It’s a complete mixed bag. Natural ingredients often are. Contrary to popular opinion, natural ingredients like witch hazel aren’t just one ingredient. Instead, they’re made up of lots of different chemical compounds. some of these compounds have moisturising, antioxidants and soothing properties. Others are designed to kill the plants’ predators and can cause irritations and allergies in humans.

With hazel is a mixed bag. For example, you may have heard that witch hazel has powerful soothing and antioxidant properties. That’s true, BUT… it also contains a lot of tannins, a group of antioxidants that can irritate sensitive skin. The amount of tannins (or even if they’re in witch hazel extract at all) depends on which part of the plant is used, how it’s been processed… all things you won’t know simply by looking at the ingredient list.

But what really worries me is the distillation process. During this phase, 14-15% of alcohol is added to witch hazel extract. When it comes to witch hazel, I apply the same rule I have for alcohol: ok with moisturising ingredients, not ok when this is pretty much all you get. Those toners with witch hazel and nothing else may be promoted as a gentler alternative to alcohol-laden toners, but they’re anything but.


There are soooo many ingredients with soothing powers that don’t have the irritating potential of witch hazel. They include antioxidants like green tea, avena-derived colloidal oatmeal, soothing allantoin, and natural aloe vera – to name just a few.

Best Picks:

  • First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream ($30.00): Packed with colloidal oatmeal and green tea, this rich cream deeply moisturises dry and sensitive skin and soothes irritations. Available at Sephora and Ulta
  • Niod Modulating Glucosides ($21.00): This baby contains every soothing ingredients you can think of, including some of the most innovative you won’t find anyone else. It’s the best thing I’ve found for redness. Available at Harrods and Niod
  • Paula’s Choice Calm Redness Relief Repairing Serum ($34.00): A serum packed with plenty of traditional soothing agents and antioxidants to slow down premature aging and reduce irritations. Available at Paula’s Choice

Related: Once And For All, Is Witch Hazel Good Or Bad For Skin?

why your bar soap should be ph balanced

4. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: It’s Drying And Irritating

I know I said you wouldn’t find the usual suspects here but Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is one of the very few ingredients that deserves its bad reputation. Here’s why:

SLS is a surfactant (a fancy way of calling cleansing agents). You’ll find it in shampoos and body washes. If you’ve paid attention in chemistry class, or you’ve ever tried to wash a greasy pan without soap, you know that oil and water don’t mix. So how can you clean that greasy pan and take dirt off your skin?

Enter surfactants. SLS helps water mix with oil and dirt so that they can be rinsed away. But SLS is also very drying. It cleans skin, but it also disrupts its protective barrier, making your skin drier with regular use. Plus, it’s irritating. So irritating that when scientists want to determine how irritating another ingredient is they compare it to SLS. I’ll pass, thank you…


Thankfully, it’s rare to find a cleanser that still uses Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Most cleansers use gentler surfactants like Sodium Laureth Sulfate (a gentler cousin) or Coco-Betaine that remove dirt and makeup without drying out skin. Natural oils also make good cleansers. They break down the oils and makeup on your skin and rinse it away.

Best Picks:

  • CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser ($14.99): A gentle cleanser for dry skin that removes impurities and moisturises skin at the same time. Available at SephoraUlta and Walmart
  • Corsx low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($11.00): A gentle, pH-balanced (5.5) foaming cleanser for oily and sensitive skin. Available at YesStyle.
  • Paula’s Choice Perfect Cleansing Oil ($25.00): An oil-based cleanser that removes even then most stubborn of waterproof makeup. Available at Paula’s Choice

Related: Should You Avoid Sulfates In Your Shampoos And Shower Gels?


5. Peppermint And Menthol: They’re Irritating

Ever wondered why peppermint and menthol are in so many lip products? It’s not just to give a fresh feel to your lips or give the lip balm a nice scent. Both peppermint and menthol swell up your lips, making them look larger.

At first glance, it may seem like a good thing. Who doesn’t want bigger lips without the cost and pain of lip fillers? But there’s a catch. Mentol and peppermint swell your lips by irritating the skin. When your skin is irritated, inflammation kicks in, making your lips bigger. The swelling is a sign your skin is badly irritated! Irritation is never a good thing!


Regular lip balms and products without these ingredients. You may not get the lip plumping effects, but you’ll get smooth, soft and healthy lips ready to kiss – and that’s so much better, in my humble opinion.

  • BIODERMA Atoderm Dry Lips Moisturiser ($4.90): A simple, no-frills lip balm that heals chapped lips and makes them soft and smooth again. Available at Sephora
  • Drunk Elephant Lippe ($18.00): Enriched with natural oils, this lip balm is super moisturising and has some antioxidant properties to fight premature aging. Available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK
  • Paula’s Choice Lipscreen SPF 50 ($10.00): It provides broad spectrum protection and features natural plants and oils to deeply moisturise lips. Available at Paula’s Choice

6. Sodium Cocoate And Sodium Palmate: They’re Drying

These are two of the main surfactants (that word again!) used in bar soaps. In other words, they’re the active ingredients in bar soap that cleanse your skin and remove impurities from it. Their problem? They cleanse skin TOO well.

These surfactants are usually formulated at an alkaline (high, about 7 or higher) pH. But skin has a slightly acidic (low, about 5.5) pH. In plain English, this means they disrupt the skin’s protective barrier, making skin dry and prone to irritations.


Give your bar soap a pass and use a liquid formula instead. They use surfactants like Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Coco-Betaine that do the same thing, but are gentler on the skin. Check out the alternatives to Sodium Lauryl Sulfate for best picks.

Related: Bar Soap VS Liquid Soap: Which One Should You Use?

The Bottom Line

There are no ingredients in skincare products that will kill you. But there are a few that’ll dry out your complexion, irritate your skin, and give you pimples. These are the real skin enemies you want to avoid at all costs.