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What Is In Your Cosmetic Products?

Alphabetical list of ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products

Skincare products at CVS. Photo credit: Plain Jane.

author   by PLAIN JANE  2017


List of cosmetic ingredients

Our scale from 1-10

  • S 1-2: safe
  • M 3-6: moderate hazard
  • T 7-10: toxic
  • L: limited data

B  C  D  E  G  H  S  T  


Benzyl Alcohol

Rating: 5 Moderate

What is Benzyl Alcohol?

Benzyl Alcohol is a natural aromatic alcohol. As a component, it can be found in many plants, fruits and teas and in essential oils such as jasmine, hyacinth and ylang-ylang. Benzyl alcohol is a natural preservative and partly is responsible for the lovely scent of many essential oils. However, what you get in your cosmetics is not natural benzyl alcohol but cheap synthetic.

Is It Safe?

Benzyl Alcohol has been approved by the FDA for use in food as a synthetic flavoring agent. The FDA has also approved it for use as an anesthetic in oral healthcare and topical analgesic drug products. Environment Canad Domestic Substance List classifies benzyl alcohol as toxic or harmful. The European Union Classification & Labelling allows benzyl alcohol as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products at a maximum concentration of 1 percent. In the USA, Benzyl Alcohol can be used in cosmetic products at concentrations of up to 5 percent, and up to 10 percent in hair dyes without being listed on the label.

Effect on Young Children and Infants

Benzyl Alcohol should not be given to young children and infants.

solutions containing 0.9% benzyl alcohol caused severe metabolic acidosis, encephalopathy, respiratory depression with gasping, and perhaps other abnormalities leading to the death of a total of 16 infants. Blood and urine from several affected infants had high levels of both benzoic and hippuric acids, known metabolites of benzyl alcohol. Both groups stated that no additional cases occurred after solutions with benzyl alcohol preservative were banned in their nurseries.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Fetus and Newborn
Benzyl Alcohol: Toxic Agent in Neonatal Units
PEDIATRICS Vol. 72 No. 3 September 1983

What Is It Used For?

Benzyl Alcohol is used in many cosmetics as a fragrance component, preservative, solvent (which means that it’s used to dissolve other ingredients to make a smooth formula or solution), and viscosity-decreasi agent (it decreases the thickness of liquid cosmetic products). It is also used as the active ingredien (at 5-10%) in head lice treatment.



Rating: 7 Toxic

What is Coumarin?

Coumarin is a fragrant, natural substance found in many plants. Coumarin was first isolated as a natural product from tonka beans in 1820. Coumarin was first synthesized in 1868.

Where is it used?

Coumarin has been used in perfumes and fabric conditioners for its scent of newly-mown hay. It has been also used as an aroma enhancer in pipe tobaccos and some alcoholic drinks.

Coumarin has traditionally been used as a vanilla substitute in various foods, especially tobacco, although this usage is restricted in some countries.

Should I avoid foods that contain coumarin?

It is perfectly safe to eat foods such as strawberries, cherries, black currants, bison grass, woodruff, and apricots, which naturally contain coumarin. However, one should not overdo. European health agencies have warned against consuming high amounts of cassia bark, one of the four main species of cinnamon, because of its coumarin content.

Coumarin Side Effects

Coumarin is recognized as a potential liver and kidney toxin, and human immune system toxicant or allergen. Its use as a food additive is heavily restricted or banned in some countries, including the USA. Synthetic coumarin has traditionally been used as a vanilla substitute in various foods. If you buy vanilla ice cream make sure that vanilla flavor is natural not artificial. Artificial flavor will almost always contain coumarin.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns about artificial vanilla sold in Mexico: ”a so-called “vanilla” flavoring or extract that isn’t vanilla flavoring or extract at all, but instead is made from a completely different plant material that contains coumarin. Coumarin is a substance with potential toxic side effects banned from food in the United States. This flavoring product may smell like vanilla extract, taste like vanilla extract, and be offered at a cheap price, but it could present a significant risk to some people’s health.”


Denatured Alcohol

Rating: 4 Moderate

What is Denatured Alcohol?

Denatured alcohol is ethanol (ethyl alcohol) mixed with a denaturing agent to discourage consumption. Ethanol is considered broadly toxic and linked to birth defects following excessive oral ingestion. Potential risks from ethanol in personal care products are significantly smaller than the health risks posed by the consumption of alcohol.

Where is it used?

Denatured alcohol is used as a solvent and as fuel for alcohol burners and camping stoves. Because of the diversity of industrial uses for denatured alcohol, hundreds of additives and denaturing methods have been used.

Use in skincare

Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and denatured alcohol are used as solvents that help other ingredients penetrate into the skin by breaking down the surface layers of skin and harming it.


Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate (synonym: Octinoxate)

Rating: 6 Moderate

What is Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate?>

It is a common sunscreen ingredient.

Is It Safe?

The FDA has approved octinoxate for use in sunscreens and products that help reduce the appearance of scars; however, the concentration must be no higher than 7.5% for the product to be considered safe. New studies have shown that octinoxate used in sunscreen degrades quickly, which leads to long term problems, like hyperpigmentation. Other tests show it has hormone-mimicking effects on laboratory animals -- it increasse the development of estrogen in cells, as it absorbed rapidly into the skin when applied. This is a concern because high levels of estrogen in the body have been linked to the development of breast cancer. Octinoxate also decreases thyroid hormones in the bloodstream, which may interrupt normal thyroid function. more...


Glycolic Acid

Rating: 4 Moderate

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic Acid is an ingredient derived from sugar cane. In that form, it is a natural ingredient, but today is mostly made synthetically. It is a well-known skin irritant; yet, it is used in chemical peels.

Glycolic Acid is the most common alpha hydroxy acid, and it is considered as one of the safest forms of alpha hydroxy acids, which means you should avoid other alpha hydroxy acids.

Is It Safe?

The Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products classified glycolic acid as skin irritant.

What Is It Used For?

Glycolic Acid is an exfoliator used to remove the outer layer of skin cells on your skin, which leaves new skin vulnerable to sunburn. Home-made glycolic acid exfoliators are quite effective as they are slightly more acidic than normal skin, around pH 3-4.



Rating: 4 Moderate

What is Homosolate?

Homosalate is a chemical ingredient used in sunscreens.

Is It Safe?

Research indicates that homosalate is a potential endocrine disruptor. It may impact hormones. Environment Canada Domestic Substance List lists homoslate as toxic or harmful to non-reprodutive organs. It also lists it as suspected environmental toxin and be persistent or bioaccumulative. Homosalate enhances skin absorption; thus, it may enhance the absorption of pesticides in the body.


Sodium Acrylates Copolymer

Rating: 4 Moderate

What is Sodium Acrylates Copolymer?

Sodium Acrylates Copolymer is a sodium salt of a polymer consisting of acrylic acid, methacrylic acid or one of their simple esters. Acrylic acid consists of vinyl group. Vinyls are used in production of commercial plastics such as PVC.

Is It Safe?

Acrylic acid is severely irritating and corrosive to the skin and the respiratory tract. Eye contact can result in severe and irreversible injury. Low exposure will cause minimal or no health effects, while high exposure could result in pulmonary edema.

What Is It Used For?

Acrylates are synthetic chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics and paint formulations.


Tocopheryl Acetate

Rating: 3 Moderate

What is Tocopheryl Acetate?

Tocopheryl acetate is a chemical compound that consists of acetic acid and tocopherol (vitamin E). Tocopheryl acetate is often used in skincare instead of pure tocopherol (or undiluted vitamin E) because it is considered more stable and less acidic giving a product a longer shelf life. Vitamin E can be natural or synthetic. We do not know which form of vitamin is used in tocopheryl acetate.

Is It Safe?

Scientists at Tel Aviv University warn “that indiscriminate use of high-dose vitamin E supplementation does more harm than good… We've now concluded that going to the grocery or to a health food store to buy Vitamin E supplements, for the most part, won't do you good. In some cases it can do harm," says Dr. Pinchuk. "A doctor wouldn't prescribe anti-hypertension drugs to the whole population, only to those with low blood pressure. It seems this is true for antioxidants, too. When you give them to everybody, you may be doing more harm than good. Some people may benefit from it, but more may be harmed.”

There is a strong evidence that tocopheryl acetate is a human skin toxicant or allergen.

Tocopheryl acetate is also linked to cancer - vitro tests on mammalian cells showed positive mutation results and tumor formation at high doses.

In produciton Tocopheryl acetate is often contaminated by highly toxic hydroquinone.

What Is It Used For?

Skin care and oral supplements.

Reasearch based on "US National Library of Medicine" and "skin deep database".



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