Five Common (Synthetic) Chemicals Found in Cosmetics

In the cosmetic industry, products do not go through an approval process before hitting the market. While the FDA requires cosmetic products to be safe, companies have come under fire for using chemicals with a murky reputation. Since the definition of “safe” varies, we must take on some of the grunt work ourselves and learn about the ingredients that go into our skin care products. Frustrating, maybe, but it is well worth the effort to know exactly what is going on our skin.


The following are five common synthetic chemicals that have raised concern over the past years. Our goal is to introduce you to these chemicals so that you can begin to build a knowledge base. Equipped with the right information, we can make informed choices for ourselves and our families.



Parabens are synthetic preservatives that are used in cosmetics and personal care items to prolong the shelf life of a product from months to years.


Common names: butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben.


The danger of parabens is a topic of debate. Parabens were brought to the public’s attention when they were found to mimic estrogen in the body. Then, in 2004, a research study found parabens in human breast tumors.  The research did not make a claim stating that parabens had caused the breast cancer and concluded that more research needed to be done.


Since then, the dangers of parabens have been refuted. Yet, there is still public concern regarding this preservative. The non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), reports that parabens have been linked to a number of problems, including skin irritation. In response, some companies have transitioned to paraben-free products, while others defend that parabens protect products from bacteria, fungus, and mold.


Synthetic Fragrance 

Fragrance often invokes pleasantry, yet what is it made of? Unfortunately, you may never know. Under the FDA, a cosmetic company does not have to reveal the ingredients of a fragrance, as it is a “trade secret”. A concoction of natural and synthetic chemical ingredients need simply to be labeled as “fragrance”. This could include one to 100 ingredients. While this protects the manufacturer, it isn’t to the benefit of the consumer.


Common ingredients found in synthetic fragrance: acetone, ethanol, benzaldehyde, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, ethyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, and phthalates.


The FDA requires all ingredients to be safe for consumers; however, many are sensitive or allergic to the chemicals in synthetic fragrances.



Phthalates, a major component in plastics, appear in personal and cosmetic products such as nail polish, fragrance, lotions, and hairspray. Phthalates are often used to keep products pliable.


Common names: dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), and diethylphthalate (DEP).


On phthalates, the FDA states, “It’s not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on human health” (source). Phthalates have been studied for their effect on reproductive development and are often coined as endocrine disruptors. Findings in humans are not yet conclusive, however.


As we’ve mentioned earlier, phthalates are often used in fragrance and are therefore not listed as an ingredient.


Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) / Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) 

Sodium lauryl sulfate is a foaming agent found in a number of personal care products including body wash, shampoo, soap, and toothpaste.


Common names: sodium dodecyl sulfate, sulfuric acid, monododecyl ester, sodium salt, sodium salt sulfuric acid, and sodium dodecyl sulfate.


Derived from coconuts, SLS is introduced to chemical byproducts during the manufacturing process. In higher concentrations (more than 2%) SLS and SLES are irritants, particularly to the eyes and skin.


Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals 

Formaldehyde is used to prolong the shelf life of a product and prevent the growth of bacteria. Commonly, cosmetic companies use formaldehyde-releasers over pure formaldehyde. When added to water, formaldehyde-releasing chemicals will decompose slowly to form molecules of formaldehyde.


Common names: DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, and hydroxymethylglycinate.


Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals are allergens. When the fumes are inhaled, formaldehyde is carcinogenic; however, this type of exposure is not common with cosmetic products. The FDA does not monitor the amount of formaldehyde present in cosmetics.



Understanding which chemicals are of concern and at what levels can be difficult. We encourage you to continue research to determine which chemicals are of concern to you.


As an all-natural skincare brand, we are a proponent of natural ingredients. We are committed to all-natural skin care for a routine you can feel confident in.


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