Top 5 toxic ingredients found in beauty products & why we have banned – terra20
Top 5 toxic ingredients found in beauty products & why we have banned them

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By Andrea Tomkins

Over the past few years there has been a lot in the news about certain ingredients being harmful to us and to the environment. It makes me tired, frankly, trying to remember which ingredients in my makeup are bad or not. I’ve printed off lists of harmful ingredients I should look out for in the cosmetics aisle, and have been given little cards at conferences and trade shows, but for some reason they always get lost in my wallet. Well, here’s something good to know: Terra20 is doing all the research for us. The products available at terra20 – in-store and online – do not contain any of the chemicals on their in-house banned ingredient list. (Which you can read online right here.) It’s worry-free shopping!

The banned list is a long one, but it’s helpful to have a better idea of some of the top offenders. You will find these ingredients in a lot of regular cosmetics and personal care items but you won’t find them at terra20.


What are parabens?

Parabens are a class of chemical. On cosmetics labels, look for methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. Parabens are featured in David Suzuki’s “Dirty Dozen.” They are primarily used as a preservative in the cosmetics industry to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria (a big issue in steamy bathrooms!).

Parabens can easily penetrate the skin and there is evidence that they interfere with hormone function. What’s more, they have been detected in human breast cancer tissues.

There are no restrictions on the use of parabens in cosmetics in Canada. Internationally, it’s a different story. The European Union restricts the concentration of parabens in cosmetics.

Here’s what I’m wondering: individual products may have very low levels of parabens – acceptably low by Canadian standards – but what if you use 8-9 different products that all contain parabens?

Why does the cosmetics industry use parabens anyway? In an article about parabens published in Best Health magazine, Alain Ménard of the Hawkesbury, Ontario-based Green Beaver Company said, “The reason parabens are used so widely is that they are cheap and effective….” He notes that parabens largely replaced formaldehyde as a preservative.

Here’s another interesting tidbit many people don’t think about. Have you ever notice “fragrance” listed as an ingredient on a scented product? A fragrance is considered to be a trade secret and manufacturers aren’t required to disclose what is actually in a fragrance. According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, an estimated 75 to 90 per cent of cosmetic fragrances contain parabens.



According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, MEA, DEA, and TEA are all related. These are ethanolamine compounds and are used in a wide range of cosmetics and personal care products including soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and dyes, lotions, shaving creams, ointments, eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, blush, make-up bases, foundations, fragrances, and sunscreens.

DEA (diethanolamine) and DEA compounds are also on David Suzuki’s Dirty Dozen list. They’re added to products make them sudsy or to counteract the acidity of other ingredients. According to U.S studies, exposure to high doses of these chemicals has been shown to cause liver cancers and precancerous changes in skin and thyroid.

There’s a lot to look out for on a label if you’re concerned about ethanolamine compounds: Triethanolamine, diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate.



BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and its chemical cousin BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are closely related synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks and moisturizers. They’re also widely used as food preservatives, which is why many have probably heard of them. According to the Environmental Working Group, a wide variety of foods contain BHA, including potato chips and preserved meats. It is also added to fats and to foods that contain fats and is allowed as a preservative in flavoring. The European Union classifies BHA as an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with our hormones at certain doses and can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.



Formaldehyde-releasers (a.k.a.Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives) are used as an antimicrobial/antifungal preservative in cosmetics and hair care products. They often appear in nail polishes and other nail products. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, they are a concern because they slowly and continuously release small amounts of formaldehyde, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies as a known human carcinogen.  



Triclosan is a man-made antimicrobial; a substance that kills microorganisms or stops their growth and it’s an ingredient in common brands of toothpaste. Sounds great, right? Bad breath is bad news! Unfortunately, triclosan can interfere with thyroid and other hormones and has also been identified as a toxic to aquatic organisms. You can read more about triclosan in this archived blog post.

Here’s my thinking: It’s hard to throw everything out and start again, but we all slowly replace our makeup, soaps, and lotions as they run out. Gradual change is possible! And if everyone replaced just one regular purchase with something that’s a little safer (think soap, shampoo, lip gloss!) we would be helping our own health and making the world a tiny bit better as well.

As a terra20 shopper, I appreciate the fact that they’re doing the hard work for me. If I have questions, I ask a sale associate. Now, the only place I read the labels is at the grocery store.


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