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Clean up your (Beauty) Act: Cosmetics Ingredients to Avoid

Want to clean up your beauty act but don’t know where to start? Here are some ingredients to avoid when shopping for skincare and makeup.

Navigating clean beauty can be confusing. Ever picked up a face cream or cleanser and seen 'clean', 'organic' or 'green' written across it, but not sure what that means? You're not alone.

There is no universal standard on what qualifies as 'clean' or non-toxic. Different countries have different regulations governing cosmetics and their safety, so ingredients that are considered harmful and banned from use in cosmetics in some countries, are allowed in others. For example, fewer than a dozen harmful chemicals have been banned or restricted by the FDA in the US, and the law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients to have FDA approval before they go on the market. Compare this to the EU where 1,328 ingredients have been banned from cosmetics because they are known or suspected to cause cancer, genetic mutation, reproductive harm or birth defects.

Hong Kong on the other hand, has quite relaxed regulations around cosmetics and skincare products. If another major market in the world— like the US— has deemed the product safe to sell then Hong Kong defaults to this. Your favourite skincare or beauty products could contain plasticisers, surfactants, and harmful preservatives which can enter your bloodstream and bioaccumulate in your system due to chronic exposure.

Want to clean up your beauty act but feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start? You don’t have to get rid of everything in your bathroom cabinet. Start by swapping out products you use the most and have long-term exposure on your skin, like body lotions and moisturisers for example, deodorant, or sunscreen which you wear every day. Or if you wear lipstick or eyeliner often, start there.

Using a paraben-loaded shampoo, or a mascara containing coal tar isn’t going to affect you overnight, but we don’t know the long-term bio-accumulative effects of using these chemicals daily. Many clean beauty advocates choose to err on the side of caution. If you find a clean product that performs better than the conventional product you are currently using, swap it out. Do you have a particular concern you need to address, like sensitive skin, or allergies? Prioritise this and eliminate known skin irritants from your cosmetics and skin care routine.


Here are some controversial and irritating ingredients you might want to avoid:

Perfume or Fragrance: Perfume is not a single ingredient but is made up of over 3000 undisclosed toxic ingredients and chemicals including a variety of carcinogenic chemical additives like benzene derivatives, aldehydes, toluene, phthalates and a number of other toxic chemicals which get absorbed and inhaled when applied to the skin.

Parabens (methyl-, propyl-, butyl-, isobutyl): These are commonly used as preservatives in many skincare products. Studies show that they can mimic oestrogen in the human body and have been linked to thyroid disruption and detected in human breast cancer tissues.

Phthalates: Found in nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, and perfumes this plasticiser keeps skincare products and cosmetics soft and pliable, and helps fragrances last longer. Phthalates may disrupt hormones and have been linked to reproductive harm, obesity, and diabetes.

BHT and BHA (Butylated Hydroxytoluene and Butylated Hydroxyanisole) - synthetic antioxidants used as preservatives in lipsticks and moisturizers. Can cause allergic reactions. BHA has been classified as a possible human carcinogen and may interfere with hormone function, while some evidence suggests BHT may mimic oestrogen at high doses.

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing preservatives: This antibacterial preservative found in nail polishes and keratin smoothing treatments is a known allergen and skin sensitizer, is linked to immune-system toxicity and respiratory irritation, and is a recognised carcinogen in large amounts.

Talc: It seems harmless enough but in recent years this clay ingredient – used in eyeshadows, face powders and other personal care products – has raised asbestos contamination concerns, which has been linked to breast cancer.

Triclosan: A synthetic antibacterial agent found in soaps, detergents, hand sanitiser and skincare products. It is linked to allergies such as skin and eye irritation and may be linked to disruption of thyroid and hormone function, the development of superbugs and disruption to your microbiome.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): These surfactants are what makes shampoos, facewashes, detergents and bodywashes foam. It’s a known skin sensitising ingredient, a skin and eye irritant, and can cause dry and flaking skin, allergies and redness.

Coal Tar (Carbon Black): Derived from petroleum and used in lipsticks, eyeshadows, eyeliners, mascaras and dyes. Can cause skin irritation, resulting in acne and allergic breakouts. Studies have shown that coal tar is a carcinogen.

Chemical UV filters like Oxybenzone and Octinoxate: Linked to hormone disruption, allergies and possible carcinogens. A recent study also found that certain chemical UV filters are appearing in higher concentrations in our bloodstream than recommended by the Food and Drug Administration’s threshold. Octinoxate and oxybenzone are harmful to coral reefs and have been banned in Hawaii.


Published in Hong Kong Vogue, August 2020


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