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8 Toxic American Skin Care Ingredients Banned In Europe

Updated: May 4, 2020

(Chances are you are using them right now)

Beauty products on the market today often boast labels claiming their brand as organic, natural, vegan, and so forth. The reality is most skin care brands in the U.S. are anything but clean.

Governments across the globe have taken the time to revise their allowed skin care ingredients over the years. The European Union has banned upwards of 1,300 additives, while only 11 have been taken off the U.S. market.

With the European Union having ten times stricter regulations then the FDA, this leaves America with a "fend for yourself" mentality. A 2016 warning letter released from the FDA detailed the lack of control over cosmetics, and the desperate need to be entrusted with more oversight and authority. Warning letters to over 50 U.S. skincare companies were cited.

"To be clear, there are NO legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety," tells Scott Gottlieb, departing FDA commissioner. "This means that ultimately a cosmetic manufacturer can decide if they'd like to test their product for safety and register it with the FDA."

Cosmetics law has not changed in 82 years. Congress passed the food, drug, and cosmetics act on June 25, 1938, and there has been little revision since.

On the shelves of drugstores, beauty stores, private salons, and spas in the U.S., are rows of cheap, sketchy, and downright toxic ingredients. In contrast to Europe, we do not have a surplus of regulations to rely on to insure what we are using is safe. It is time to take back control, and keep these untested and unsafe chemicals out of American bodies.

Read on to find out the most commonly used, toxic chemicals that it may be time to rethink.

1. Hydroquinone (tocopheryl acetate-synthetic Vit E)

What is it: A tyrosinase inhibitor, which is the enzyme that converts tyrosine, an amino acid, into melanin. By blocking the production of melanin in the skin, it is able to lighten and brighten the current skin.

Found in: Lightening serums, brightening serums, cleansers (both face and body), moisturizers, finger nail coating, and hair conditioners

The problem:

Cancer- Hydroquinone works by blocking melanin production in the skin, as well as increases the degradation of melanin pigments in the skin. This causes skin sensitivity and exposure to UVA and UVB rays, highly increasing the chances of cancer.

Hypopigmentation- Hypopigmentation results from their not being enough pigment left in the skin. Since hydroquinone is a melanin blocker, in high doses, it can create a less than desired effect. In a Harvard study, Dr. Barbara Gilchrest said, "higher concentrations of hydroquinone can cause white spots to develop on the skin. This medication may even cause a darkening of the skin in some cases."

Respiratory Tract Irritation- Hydroquinone may be harmful when inhaled. It can cause irritation of the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract. A study showed that hydroquinone acts on the same T-cells as smoking cigarettes, and shows the risks of the two, as it relates to respiratory tract infection are comparable.

Ochronosis- A rare skin disorder that causes the skin to thicken, and is identifiable by the bluish-black pigmentation. Ochronosis occurs as a complication of long term application of skin lightening creams containing hydroquinone.

In a case study done by the Indian Journal of Dermatology, a 50 year old woman who had prolonged use of hydroquinone 2% (highest OTC percentage allowed) developed ochronosis. This woman had no history of pigmentation issues prior to hydroquinone use. They found that ochronosis from hydroquinone is a frequently missed, misdiagnosed, and/or under reported entity. They also found that the percentage of hydroquinone that was considered "safe" needed to be reevaluated.

Alternatives: Vitamin C, licorice root, bearberry, green tea extract, retinol

2. Benzoyl Peroxide

What is it: Most famously known for being the main ingredient in Proactiv, it is a drying ingredient with anti-bacterial properties. It is often utilized due to the fact it is inexpensive to produce.

Found in: Commonly found in acne, teeth whitening, and hair bleaching products.

The problem:

Allergen- Benzoyl peroxide is a very common skin allergen and irritant. In a study done in 1977, it was found that a whopping 76% of test subjects became negatively sensitized to it.

Damaged Moisture Barrier- Since benzoyl peroxide is a drying ingredient, it can often overly dehydrate the skin. When skin is to dehydrated it can not heal, often times causing worse acne once use of product stops. This happens through a damaged moisture barrier causing sensitivity to the skin, allowing skin to get irritated, and moisture to evaporate faster. This creates a vicious cycle of the skin, and dependence on benzoyl peroxide.

Tumor Growth- Benzoyl peroxide is not a carcinogen by itself, however studies have shown it can exacerbate existing tumor growth.

Alternatives: Salicylic acid, retinol, glycolic acid, micro-silver

3. Formaldehyde

What is it: Used as a preservative in beauty products, it helps to prevent the growth of bacteria, and allow products longer shelf life. Nearly one in five cosmetic products contains a substance that generates formaldehyde.

Found in: eyelash glue, color cosmetics, hair straightening treatments (think brazilian blowout), hair dye, nail polish, certain shampoos and body washes.

The problem:

Allergen- Taking the title of the 2015 American Contact Dermatitis Society contact allergen of the year, it is a product widely known to cause allergic skin reactions and rashes. With 11.9% of the world's population being allergic to formaldehyde, it is a simple way your skin care products could be hurting more than helping.

Cancer- Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, as defined by the United States National Toxicology Program. A 2014 study found that formaldehyde initiates and promotes tumor formation. Formaldehyde can be absorbed through the skin when formaldehyde containing beauty products, including formaldehyde releasing preservatives, are applied.

What to look for: Even as a widely accepted carcinogen, the FDA does not regulate the amount that goes into beauty products. Companies now will try to hide it under the guise of methylene glycol, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15. "Leading hair straighteners, including Brazilian Blowout, claim that formaldehyde mixed with water creates a new chemical, methylene glycol.  That is like saying that sweet tea does not contain sugar," said in an investigation by the environmental working group.

4. Petroleum

What is it: Petroleum is used in cosmetics for the purpose of creating a barrier to help lock moisture into the skin. If properly refined, petroleum has no known health concerns. However petroleum in the U.S. is often not fully refined, therefore it can be contaminated with toxic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Found in: paraffin treatments, lotions, moisturizers, cosmetics, and mineral oil.

The problem:

Cancer- Primary concern is the potential contamination with various PAHs, which are considered by the National Toxicology Program as likely carcinogens. For example, benzo(a)pyrene can cause lung cancer, and acetaldehyde can increase the risk of cancer. Benzene can cause leukemia, harm the male reproductive system, and exposure during pregnancy may affect the development of the child. The International Agency For Research On Cancer (IARC) lists 14 PAHs as probable or possible carcinogens, and one as known carcinogen.

What to look for: Since the U.S. has no requirements on refinement, and the PAH content in beauty products, avoid products that contain petroleum. This is unless the company states that it is fully refined as white petroleum.

5. Parabens

What is it: Parabens are a family of related chemicals that widely used preservative in food and beauty products to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold.

Found in: Cosmetics and personal care items such as lotions, deodorant, makeup, shampoo, conditioner, cleansers, scrubs, chewing gum, mouthwash.

The problem:

Breast cancer- Parabens can enhance the actions of the natural estrogen known as estradiol. Parabens are known endocrine disruptors that can mimic estrogen in the body. Several studies have been able to show that parabens can affect the mechanisms of normal breast cells and potentially influence their abnormal growth, leading to an increased risk of breast cancer. Decreased cell death can play a role in breast cancer. Concentrations of parabens may reduce programmed cell death, which is one way the body deals with damaged cells. Breast cancer can be caused by metastasis, In vitro studies led to this discovery. Breast cancer can be caused by blockage of chemotherapy agents; methylparaben may decrease the ability of tamoxifen to impede the effects of estrogen, making this common chemotherapy agent less effective at treating breast cancer. One cell based study, authors found that the presence of a growth factor called heregulin leads parabens to stimulate the estrogen receptors at levels that had been considered non toxic in cell based research.

Skin cancer- Applying skin care products containing parabens, specifically methylparaben, can lead to UV damage of skin cells and disruption of cell growth rate. Daily application of parabens increases risk, due to increased concentrations that do not have time to metabolize. When combined with other estrogenic chemicals, parabens may cause the development of malignant melanoma (form of skin cancer) through their estrogenic and genotoxic activities.

Developmental and Reproductive toxicity- Propyl and butyl parabens appear to reduce sperm production, and lead to reduced testosterone levels. Multiple regression models showed that in cord blood, methylparaben, propylparaben, and the sum of all measured parabens were inversely associated with testosterone levels. This negative association shows possible risks with respect to importance of testosterone for prenatal male development.

What to look for: propylparaben, methylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, ethylparaben... basically anything with the word "paraben" in it.

6. Fragrance

What is it: Fragrance gives products their scents, can come come from plant, animal, or synthetic sources. 99.1% of Americans are exposed to fragranced products at least once a week from their own use, others use, or both.

Found in: Most skin care and beauty products including cleansers, toners, serums, moisturizers, sunscreen, deodorant, makeup, body lotion, exfoliating scrubs, shampoo, and body wash.

The problem:

FDA loophole- Fragrance chemicals do not need to be disclosed under law. The FDA marks it as "trade secrets" under the fair packaging and labeling act. This gaping federal loophole, in combination with a self-regulated industry, allows dozens, sometimes even hundreds of chemicals to hide under the guise of the word "fragrance" on packaging. This creates an extreme lack of both transparency and accountability, allowing for companies to cover up any unsightly ingredient.

Allergies- Repeated contact with fragrance ingredients can lead to sensitization (process where an allergy to specific chemicals is created through repeated exposure). This allergy affects up to 11% of world's population.

Chronic health conditions- One in four fragrance ingredients were linked to adverse, chronic health effects according to studies. In fact, fragrance chemicals make up the majority of chemicals that are linked to chronic health effects in the beauty industry. Companies are not required to disclose fragrance chemicals that are knowingly linked to cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive harm, and respiratory issues. In one study, more than one quarter of the 338 fragrance ingredients in both personal care and cleaning products are linked to adverse health effects.

What to look for: A label that either says "fragrance free" or does not have the blanket term "fragrance" listed.

7. Phthalates

What is it: Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products. There are three main phthalates in beauty products, dibutylphthalate(DPB), dimethylphthalate(DMP), and diethylphthalate(DEP). A fourth phthalate, Di-2-ethylhexylphthalate is found most often in eyelash glue.

Found in: Color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, eyelash glue, body washes, hair care products, and nail polish.

The problem:

Fetal development and fertility- Phthalates are hormone disrupting chemicals, studies show numerous effects developing from use. Phthalates can reduce female fertility, and cause premature breast development in young women. Phthalates in a mother's body can affect the fetal development of her child. Pregnant womens exposure to DBP and DEHP has been associated with a shortened distance between the anus and genitals in male babies, indicating a feminization has occurred during prenatal genital development.

Male fertility- In adult males, phthalates lower sperm counts, reduce sperm mobility, and damage sperm. It was found that sperm quality and male infertility are associated with levels of DEP and DEHP, and the higher levels lead to more impaired sperm mobility. Research in humans has shown altered hormone levels in baby boys exposed to DEP and DEHP in breast milk. A 2004 University of Rochester study, found that baby boys whose mother was exposed to high levels of phthalates are more likely to have altered genital development and altered testosterone levels.

Cancer- DEHP is a reasonably anticipated human carcinogen based on evidence of carcinogenicity of animal studies based on a National Toxicology Program and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report. DPB has been shown to cause proliferation of breast cancer cells, and to make anti-estrogen treatments less effective against tumors.

Endocrine disruption- DEHP and DBP are reproductive toxicants classified by the EU. Phthalates research suggests hormone disruption, which can lead to harm during critical periods of development. Phthalates interfere with reproductive function by lowering levels of sex hormones, which are critical for development and functioning of the sex organs, including breasts. Phthalates exposure is widespread and animal studies show that they are toxic to the reproductive system, along with other effects, according to the CDC. CDC research found metabolites of DEP in all 2,540 urine samples, and metabolites of DPB in 99% of urine samples. The researchers speculated that the the high prevalence of DEP is the result of the chemicals used in cosmetics and fragranced products.

What to look for: Fragrance! Here is one example of an ingredient almost always hidden under the word "fragrance,". DEP is widely used to help scented products linger although you will almost never find it listed, because it is a fragrance ingredient constituent.

8. Coal Tar Dyes

What is it: Coal tar is a brown-black material and thick liquid generated during the incomplete combustion of coal. It is a complex mixture of hundreds of compounds, any of which are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons(PAHs). This mixture contains numerous known and suspected carcinogens. The FDA does require a label stating the product could be harmful to consumers, but this is the only required action.

Found in: Coal tar is found in food, cosmetics, and skin care products.

The problem:

Cancer- Exposure to and application of coal tar can produce skin tumors according to experimental studies. Coal tar is also associated with bladder, lung, kidney, and digestive tract cancers. Many reports of skin cancer were found among patients using therapeutic coal tar preparations.

Organ system toxicity- A coal tar constituent, pyridine, has been linked to neurological damage. These effects include emotional and sleep disturbances, along with lack of coordination.

What to look for: An FDA warning label, as any products that contain more then 0.5% must specify on a label the concentration of coal tar in the product.


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