The 12 Worst Skin Care Ingredients in the World — And Why We Still Need (some of) Them

Photo courtesy of Gaetan Lee

Photo courtesy of Gaetan Lee

Serious Skin Care 101 with Rob Hardwicke, President and Product Master at Awakening Mineral Therapies.

As our customers know, we at Awakening Mineral Therapies have always made it our mission to create products that are wonderful for your skin and as friendly as possible to the environment. We have been at the forefront of changes in the skin care industry for many years, constantly seeking to improve our formulas in terms of their efficacy AND their environmental purity.

For example: parabens. Most people who are familiar with natural skin care products have seen the words “paraben free” on a label or two. I’ll be discussing parabens in more detail below, but for now, suffice it to say that Awakening was one of the first skin care companies to respond to the allegations about parabens’ negative health implications and begin to remove them from our products.

But beyond our choice of ingredients, we also believe that human health cannot exist independently of the health of our planet and its other inhabitants, which is why we never, ever test on animals, and always try to manufacture our products in the most eco-conscious manner possible. In fact, our highly concentrated formulas last up to 5 times longer than comparable products, thereby using less packaging in the long run.

But as the Product Master at Awakening Mineral Therapies, I can tell you after 15 years of formulating skin care products, that “going eco” is a lot easier said than done. Particularly if your highest priority is creating skin care products that are EFFECTIVE (like us!). I see far too many companies these days jumping on the “organic” or “eco-friendly” bandwagon, with lists of ingredients you wouldn’t hesitate to spoon feed to your infant child. But the real question is: Do these ingredients provide any REAL benefit to your skin? In some cases, absolutely. In many others, none at all.

Many people in the Eco camp, while well-intentioned, seem to think that the presence of questionable or dangerous ingredients in skin care products represent a kind of conspiracy against our health and well being. And while there is no question that inertia and low costs have kept many industries from making important reforms, even long after they knew that health risks had been identified, we need to remember that these ingredients were put there in the first place for a reason, and their continued presence does not equate to spreading asbestos on your skin.

For example, one of the main obstacles we face in the skin care industry is making products that don’t spoil or otherwise degrade on the shelf (just like with food products). In fact, we went through perhaps 5 versions of our recently launched anti-wrinkle cream, FACE&NECK, before finally getting the formula to the point that it would remain stable in the jar. Parabens, those evil perpetrators of God-only-knows-what, are preservatives that are found in many skin care products for the simple reason that without them, there wouldn’t be anywhere near as many skin care products on the shelves in the first place.

I’m going to talk in more depth about parabens below, but I’ll just say for now that as “bad ingredients” go, parabens are one of the least dangerous. They’re made from plant sources – specifically, parabens are decocted from the pigmentation ingredient that gives flower petals their color – and although there is evidence that they may be problematic, they are not the demons they’re sometimes made out to be. Nonetheless, we here at Awakening have removed parabens from almost all of our products, but there remain obstacles that are difficult to surmount in some cases, depending on the formula in question.

In other words, it’s not like you can just trot off to the local organic preservatives shop and pick up a bucket of “paraben replacement formula” and plunk it into your products in place of the parabens. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move to replace parabens completely — we most definitely are — but it does mean that it takes time, especially if you want the quality of your formulas to remain at the highest level.

What follows is a survey of the so called “Dirty Dozen” of the skin care industry—the 12 most suspect ingredients widely found in mass-market (and also so-called “luxury”) skin care products. This list was originally put together by the fine folks at The Green Guide. Many of these ingredients have absolutely no place in anything that touches your skin, and others are much less “toxic” than they’re made out to be. In fact, a (very) few of them are still found in our own products. What I hope to achieve with this article is to show that the issue of questionable ingredients in skin care products is not black and white. So come along and we’ll see if we can’t shine a little light on the dark side of skin care ingredients.


Know what the world’s most effective advertising technique is? Ask a hundred ad men, political consultants, or school board members and they’ll tell you: Fear. Make people afraid of something, then offer a “solution” to their fear, and 99 times out of a 100, you’ll have a winner.

In the last 10 years, a new industry has been born, and I’m here to tell you it’s nothing but fear mongering. Antibacterial soaps abound, public places are littered with antibacterial “sanitizing” lotions, and we’re all hearing about drug-resistant bacteria that are sure to bring down humanity if we don’t defend ourselves (by using, of course, “anti-bacterial” sanitizers and lotions).

Hogwash. Did you know that warm soap and water will destroy 99% of the bacteria one might normally come into contact with? And did you know that the reason we have drug-resistant bacteria in the first place is that – surprise, surprise – we’ve been over-using antibiotics for so long?

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to get up on a soapbox and start shouting about how you shouldn’t immunize your children and how all you need for that Strep throat is a couple of cloves of garlic. Antibiotics have been responsible for many huge advances in human health, and they have their place. But to imagine that we’re somehow protecting ourselves from “danger” by slathering on antibacterial creams and soaps day in, day out is absurd. They won’t protect us, and if anything they weaken our natural defenses to “regular old bacteria” – the kind that would normally present no threat.

Of course, there are people who suffer from skin ailments like eczema or bad acne, whose condition can be improved by using antibiotic agents, whether pharmaceutical or naturally occurring. Indeed, many of Awakening’s products contain naturally occurring antimicrobial and antibacterial agents. Our best selling product – a Dead Sea mineral hand cream called (aptly enough) HANDS – contains myrrh, as does our anti-wrinkle cream, FACE&NECK. Dead Sea mud contains naturally occurring antibacterial and antifungal agents as old as the earth itself, which is why people looking for a natural acne treatment often see such incredible results using our MUDFACE Dead Sea mud masque. But the fact is, there is simply no reason to regularly use (and plenty of reason NOT to use) soaps and lotions with antibacterial agents in them. Be on the lookout for antibacterial agents such as Triclosan, which according to studies published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and Nature, encourages the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. (By the way, these ingredients can also be found in deodorants and other cosmetics.)


Parabens are preservatives that are still VERY commonly used in deodorants and many other skin care products. Their safety had never been a concern, and until recently, the skin care industry never gave them a second thought. So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, preliminary studies indicate that they may be linked to breast cancer. In some biopsies traces of parabens have been found. And as someone once said, “facts are a stubborn thing,” so as these facts first started to become apparent to us at Awakening, we started the arduous task of overhauling our products to ditch the parabens rather than sit around and await the final scientific reports. Remember, we’re not talking about asbestos here. But in an effort to stay as clean as possible, we’ve phased parabens out of each and every one of our current formulations of creams. And they’re in the process of being phased out of our mud products, too. The reason for this is that, first of all, creams are meant to be left on the skin without rinsing them off (obviously!), whereas the mud products we make are meant to be left on for a maximum of 8 minutes, making the time of contact significantly lower. Secondly, our Dead Sea mud masque uses very pure Dead Sea Mud. We don’t dilute it, evaporate it, or compromise it. Dead Sea mud is VERY bioactive – that’s partly why it’s so effective. It’s also why it is more difficult to preserve, and as of our last formulation, we still hadn’t found a viable alternative for our mud products. Nevertheless, our objective is to get them out of ALL our products within one year.

PETROLATUM (petroleum jelly)

Petrolatum is a major ingredient in Chapstick and other lip balms, hand lotions, and of course that old standby, Vaseline. It’s also found in everything from lipstick to baby lotions, cold cream to eye shadow. Why? Well, because petrolatum does two things that skin care products need to do REALLY WELL. It is incredibly effective as a surfactant (something that coats the skin) and as a spreadability agent. Petroleum is also very greasy, so it forms an effective barrier against loss of skin moisture. But the fact is, there are so many healthy alternatives to petrolatum at this point that there really is no excuse for using it any more, except that it’s cheap.

Because I’m in the mineral skin care business, I always make a point of mentioning one of the most common – and most misleading – uses of petrolatum products: the deceptively named “mineral oil.” Mineral oil is not mineral in any sense of the word. It’s a petroleum product like any other, and comes with the same associated risks (it’s a carcinogen). Worst of all, petroleum products come from our already depleted non-renewable oil resources. So throw out your Chapstick and Vaseline, and instead find some healthy alternatives.


The Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR), a publication from a panel of experts from the personal care industry (whose purpose is to test established ingredients for safety), reports that SLS causes “severe epidermal changes” to mouse skin, and felt the need to request further study into the possible carcinogenic nature of SLS. This year, after review of over 250 existing SLS studies, the CIR concluded that SLS is NOT cancer-causing. So that’s the Good News – and I must say it’s always a treat to see that something in our world has been found to be non-carcingenic. However, the Bad News is that SLS has been established as a skin and eye irritant in a certain percentage of the population. So, is SLS safe? Well, you decide. Here’s the conclusion from the CIR document: “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate appear to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with skin, concentrations should not exceed 1 percent.” In keeping with this information, you’ll find SLS only in Awakening’s Dead Sea mud products – which are meant to be on the skin briefly, and rinsed thoroughly afterwards. Nonetheless, we are working to eliminate it entirely.


Ah, formaldehyde. Best known as a chemical used for preserving corpses (remember all those jars of rabbit and hamster cadavers in 10th Grade biology class?), formaldehyde is a powerful disinfectant and preservative. It is found in cosmetics and skin care ingredients because, unsurprisingly, it is a very effective preservative and stabilizer. It is used in eye shadows, mascaras and other cosmetics, and the EPA classifies it as a “probable human carcinogen.”

Of course, one must keep in mind that like many carcinogens, the quantities used to get the test results that make their way into public discussion often represent tens or hundreds of thousands of times the exposure one would experience in a lifetime of use. The small amounts found in skin care products most likely do NOT represent a serious health threat. Nonetheless, we have worked very hard to find replacements for formaldehyde derivatives in our products, and they’ve been removed from all but a few (a VERY few). In those products that are particularly susceptible, there are tiny amounts of such ingredients as DMDM hydantoin and IMIdiazolidinyl urea (both are distant cousins of formaldehyde). The problem is, every formula is different, and what works in one will not work in another, so while we can eliminate certain ingredients from certain products, we can’t just do it across the board Still, these ingredients (along with any other questionable ones) are slated for oblivion as we work feverishly to eliminate them and achieve EcoCert certified status by the end of 2009. How’s that for Full Disclosure?


At this point in history, these heavy metals need no introduction. Bad, Bad, Bad. Lead is a nasty toxin to the brain and nervous systems, and a well known carcinogen. It is also a powerful hormone disruptor which accumulates in the bones. Brain damage generally results from exposure to lead, which is why lead-based house paints have been illegal in this country for years. And yet unbelievably, it is STILL found (as “lead acetate”) in many hair dyes and makeup. Please, do your due diligence and avoid at all cost ANY products with ANY lead derivatives.

As for mercury, this nasty nervous-system toxin, which accumulates in the body (people with over-accumulation of mercury in their bodies often go through long-term chelation therapy to get rid of it) is still allowed as a preservative in eye cosmetics. You gotta be kidding me.


These are ingredients in the dyes that are found in many hair color products and makeups. If you see “FD&C blank” or “D&C blank” that should be a red flag. For example, FD&C Blue 1 and FD&C Green 3 are known carcinogens. Impurities found in other colors, such as D&C Red 33, FD&C Yellow 5 and FD&C Yellow 6 have also been shown to cause cancer when applied to the skin. We don’t use any artificial coloring agents in our products, ever.


DEA is used in many hair products like shampoos and conditioners, and is suspected to be a carcinogen. Its compounds and derivatives include triethanolamine (TEA), which is often contaminated with nitrosamine compounds, which are in fact KNOWN carcinogens.


Glycol ethers are nasty industrial solvents commonly used in nail polish, perfume, deodorant and other cosmetics. Studies have shown some glycol ethers to be hazardous to the reproductive system. Other side effects of exposure to glycol ethers are, unsurprisingly, irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Look for – and avoid like the plague – the following typical glycol ether listings on labels: EGPE, EGME, EGEE, DEGBE, PGME, and DPGME. We have never used any of these in our formulas, although we could add them easily if there were a demand. Rats might like them…


Found in many hair dyes, PPD is linked with skin irritations – and, to add injury to insult (or rather, injury), respiratory disorders! PPD, aka “para dye,” “oxidation dye,” “peroxide dye,” or “amino dye,” is mutagenic and considered a probable human carcinogen. PPD is banned in Europe. By the way, a great way to stay abreast of what food and self care ingredients may be dangerous is to follow the decisions made by the European Union and the UK. In a lot of areas, they’re years ahead of the States regarding consumer safety.


Phthalates are substances commonly used in fragrances, lotions, deodorants, hair products. The oily texture of phthalates allows them to work as “moisturizers,” helping lotions to penetrate the skin. The only problem is, they are NOT moisturizers. They are chemical plasticizers that have been shown to cause cancer of the liver and birth defects in lab animals. Since phthalates are often hidden in substances labeled “fragrances,” it is very important to use products that are either fragrance-free or state explicitly that they are scented only with pure botanical ingredients or essential oils (as with Awakening’s products).


This solvent found in nail products can cause liver damage and is a known skin irritant. It also causes respiratory irritations. There are great alternatives out there to this and other solvents. A company that’s definitely worth checking out is Suncoat, who make great water-based nail products, as well as other cosmetics.

Well, that about wraps things up for today. Although the natural skin care industry is still in its infancy, we’ve made a lot of progress already. And although there are some lingering ingredients we need to be aware of, there are good alternatives to just about every one of them. For our part, we’re working hard to find viable, effective alternatives that won’t compromise the effectiveness of our products. In a future article, I’ll be detailing those alternatives, and giving you resources to find products that contain them.

Until then, keep it healthy, and try one of our paraben-free mineral skin care products today. If you don’t feel that it’s the best thing you’ve ever tried, we’ll cheerfully refund your investment, no questions asked.

Click on the image below to get started with healthier skin now!



Awakening Mineral Therapies has been hand-crafting unique Dead Sea mineral skin care products for over 15 years. For more information about this and other natural mineral-based skin care remedies, visit our main site at:

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2 Responses to “The 12 Worst Skin Care Ingredients in the World — And Why We Still Need (some of) Them”

  1. Excellent! Great article, I already saved it to my favourite,

  2. Nicki- editor 13. Jun, 2011 at 00:28

    Excellent article; I'm going to reference this at some point on my blog.  I'll link back!  🙂