You don’t need to follow a strict vegan diet, practice yoga daily, or have a cabinet full of herbal supplements to care what’s in your beauty products. Chemicals like artificial fragrances, hydroquinone, triclosan, sulfates, parabens, and phthalates have become the dirty words of beauty.

With concerns about an increased risk of cancer and hormonal disruptions that can wreak havoc on your health, even the most easy-going beauty enthusiast is shifting away from chemical-based products. Clean beauty is the latest beauty buzzword that’s influencing purchasing decisions across the board.

Market research shows that nearly half of women are already choosing clean beauty products. And they’re willing to spend more money on nontoxic products. Thanks to this rise in demand, clean beauty options are becoming more accessible and affordable.

But we all know that you can’t just go by what it says on the product label. How do you know a product is truly clean and non-toxic? Which ingredients should you be concerned about? Today we’re getting to the root of what clean beauty really means and how to shift away from toxic, chemical-based products.

What does clean really mean?

Clean means that a product is safe for people and the planet, using only plant-based and non-toxic ingredients. Much like eating clean means avoiding process foods in favor of nutritious, organic options that are produced sustainably, the same idea applies to clean beauty and skincare.

Toxic ingredients to avoid in your beauty products

Making the shift to clean beauty is easier than you might think. Knowing which ingredients to avoid and why is half the battle. Let’s start with a list of common beauty ingredients that clean beauty brands and consumers are moving away from and why.


Parabens are a group of chemical preservatives and antimicrobials that are added to personal care products to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. In recent years, science has discovered that parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen in the human body.

Parabens have been associated with a number of scary health concerns, including hormone-related cancers, obesity, thyroid dysfunction, and reproductive issues. Recent studies have also linked parabens to early-onset puberty in females. They may also present risks to the fetus during pregnancy.

The EU has banned the use of most parabens in personal care products, but unfortunately, they are still approved in the US. Any product that contains pentyl-, benzyl-, phenyl-, isobutyl-, or isopropyl parabens is not truly clean and should be considered toxic.

Thankfully, conscious beauty brands like Cover FX have completely removed parabens from their entire range of vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics, including their reliable setting spray. Their products are truly clean since they’re free of fragrances, phthalates, sulfates, and other toxic ingredients.

Phthalates and fragrances

We all want beauty products that smell amazing, but the term fragrance can be used to describe as many as 3,000 synthetic and natural chemicals in personal care products. Phthalates are chemicals that are used to make fragrances last longer and keep the product more pliable.

In recent years, fragrances and phthalates have been linked to various hormonal and reproductive issues, including hormone-related cancer and male and female infertility. They may also increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular issues.

Many brands still hide these chemicals on product labels by listing them as abbreviations like DEP, DEHP, BBzP, and DBP. You’ll have to read labels carefully to avoid them.

The good news is major brands like Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, and Unilever have committed to being more transparent about using these chemicals in their products, which is definitely a step in the right direction.


With such a notorious reputation, you would think that the use of formaldehyde would be banned in personal care products. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It’s often included in keratin hair care products to help smooth and straighten the hair.

Formaldehyde is a globally recognized carcinogen, and it has been eliminated from most cosmetic products. However, it can be hidden in ingredients like formalin, methylene glycol, and methanediol, which release formaldehyde when mixed with water.

This chemical is not only dangerous to consumers, but also to salon workers who are exposed to it on the daily in an enclosed space. Be sure to read labels on the products you purchase and ask your salon for an ingredients list of any products they plan to use during your visit.

Ethoxylated agents

Polyethylene glycol (PEG), sulfates, oleth, and ceteareth are ethoxylated agents commonly used in hair care products. Sodium lauryl sulfate is a cleanser that has a bad reputation for being too harsh and stripping the hair, but it’s not toxic.

Unfortunately, brands sometimes use ethoxylation to convert sodium lauryl sulfate to a more gentle version, called sodium Laureth sulfate. Sodium Laureth sulfate and the other ethoxylated agents listed above have been identified as likely carcinogens due to a byproduct of this process, known as 1,4-dioxane.

Ethoxylated agents are still allowed in personal care products in small amounts due to a low risk of absorption into the skin. Thankfully, conscious brands like Sephora are requiring products to be tested for the presence of 1,4-dioxane, making it easier to avoid as we shift to cleaner beauty products.

Other ingredients to avoid

The following ingredients may not present as much risk as the ones listed above, but they should be avoided if you’re shifting to a clean beauty routine.

  • Mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffin. These petroleum products have environmental concerns. They may also accumulate in the body and lead to health concerns over time.
  • Hydroquinone. Thankfully, hydroquinone has been removed from most beauty products due to an increased risk of immune issues and certain cancers. It should be clearly listed on product labels, so it’s easy to avoid.
  • Talc. Talc is common in powder cosmetics and if it hasn’t been purified, it may contain asbestos, which has been linked to ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. Most brands are following safety regulations, but it’s best to avoid the ingredient as much as possible.
  • Triclosan. Up until recently, triclosan has been commonly added to everything from hand sanitizer and body wash to mascara and even toothpaste. It has been linked to a number of issues, including hormone disruption, skin cancer, liver fibrosis, and the development of super germs. Most brands have eliminated it from their products, but it’s still something to be on the lookout for.

So, how can you begin the shift to clean beauty?

If you’re ready to begin making a shift to clean beauty, we recommend taking a commonsense approach. You don’t have to toss out everything in your medicine cabinet or shower. As you run out of a product, look for a clean option to replace it.

Prioritize replacing the products that remain in contact with your skin all day, especially lotions, moisturizers, sunscreens, and cosmetics. Products like shampoo and body wash that are rinsed off almost immediately present less of a risk.

Wrapping up: the future of clean beauty

In the past, there has been a lot of misinformation and misrepresentation when it comes to cosmetic labeling. These issues are made even worse by the lack of FDA regulation for cosmetics and personal care products.

That being said, conscious consumers are demanding transparency on cosmetic labels. Many forward-thinking brands are eliminating toxic ingredients and practices from their manufacturing processes. Clean replacements are becoming more widely available in every beauty product category.

Today’s educated consumer knows that just because a product is labeled organic, natural, or green doesn’t mean it’s safe, non-toxic, or good for you and the environment. Brands will have to step up their game if they want to remain competitive in this rapidly evolving industry.