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11 Skincare Ingredients to Avoid

Shiri Feldman

Contributing quotes by Liyuan Ji

March 07, 2023

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Tired of playing the ingredient guessing game with your skincare? To help make your search easier, here are 11 ingredients you’ll want to avoid when purchasing skincare products. In an effort to keep things simple, our team has broken it down into the following categories: harsh & irritating ingredients, sun protection actives, and controversial ingredients. Read on for information on each of these ingredient types. 

Harsh Ingredients

Harsh skincare ingredients we recommend avoiding include:

  • Alcohols: Aningredient found in many skincare products, alcohol is often added to topicals to enhance the sensory experience–making the product feel lighter, cooling, and fast-absorbing. While there are helpful types of alcohol that are safe, many aren’t. Evaporative solvent alcohols such as ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, and SD alcohol 40 contain dehydrating properties that can cause dryness. The higher alcohol is listed under the ingredients, the higher the concentration and the stronger it will be. Note from our formulation chemist: Skincare ingredients are listed from the highest to the lowest concentration. Ingredients with a content of less than 1% can be arranged at random. Therefore, we recommend avoiding topicals that have alcohol listed within the first few spaces of the ingredient tab. 

  • Mineral Oils: A derivative of petrolatum, mineral oils are widely used in skincare and cosmetics. While harmless (when used in moderation), mineral oils can potentially clog pores. Plus, excessive and continuous contact can lead to skin irritation. We, therefore, recommend steering clear of this ingredient, particularly if you have oily, acne-prone skin. 

  • Fragrance: A common cause of skin allergy,it’s best to avoid fragrance in skincare products, especially topicals that are left on the skin (i.e. moisturizers). Fragrance can oxidize (on the skin) into more irritating compounds, leading to redness and sensitivity. Additionally, certain scents are co-sensitizing, making you more likely to have an allergy to other ingredients. And other fragrances are photosensitizing, making the skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays. If you prefer products with a scent, look for topicals with a non-synthetic fragrance.  Note from our formulation chemist: Common perfuming ingredients we don’t recommend include: amyl cinnamal, amylcinnamyl alcohol, benzyl alcohol, benzyl salicylate, cinnamyl alcohol, cinnamal citral, coumarin, eugenol, geraniol, hydroxycitronellal, hydroxymethylpentyl-cyclohexenecarboxaldehyde, isoeugenol, anisyl alcohol, benzyl benzoate, benzyl cinnamate, citronellol, farnesol, hexyl cinnamaldehyde, lilial, d-Limonene, linalool, methyl heptine carbonate, 3-Methyl-4-(2,6,6-trimethyl-2-cyclohexen-1-yl)-3-buten-2-one, oak moss, & tree moss. 

  • Formaldehyde: A naturally occurring gas, formaldehyde is used in some beauty products as a preservative that prolongs shelf life and prevents bacterial contamination. So, what’s the problem? Well, formaldehyde has been classified as a human carcinogen associated with an increased risk of nasopharyngeal and sinonasal cancers, as well as a type of leukemia (according to The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program). Avoid this ingredient when possible.  Note from our formulation chemist: These points also apply to formaldehyde releasers which are often found in preservatives. Common examples are DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, bronopol, 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate.

Irritating Ingredients 

Sensitizing ingredients we recommend steering clear of include: 

  • SLS: Sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS for short, is a common sulfate-based chemical used in facial cleansers that create a foamy lather. While SLS has been deemed safe for topical use, it's a widely accepted irritant. Studies conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) have found SLS highly irritating to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. SLS can also damage the skin barrier’s function and lead to dryness. As an effective surfactant, Sodium lauryl sulfate has powerful cleansing properties that can strip away natural skin oils and lead to a loss of skin barrier integrity.  Overall, it’s better to pass on this ingredient, especially if you have a preexisting skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis. 

  • SLES: Sodiumlaureth sulfate or SLES is another sulfate-based chemical produced from petroleum and plant sources. While a somewhat gentler alternative compared to SLS, this ingredient can also strip the skin barrier of its natural oils and lead to a reaction. It’s best to avoid SLES when possible. 

  • Benzalkonium Chloride: Used as a preservative, antimicrobial agent, and surfactant (foaming agent) in skincare and house cleaning products, benzalkonium chloride can irritate the eyes and skin. Long-term effects from repeated exposure to this ingredient include inflammation of the skin known as dermatitis. Inhaling benzalkonium chloride can also be toxic. We say: pass. 

Sun Protection Ingredients

Two common sunscreen ingredients we recommend omitting include: 

  • Oxybenzone: A common active ingredient found in sunscreens sold within the US, oxybenzone has been deemed safe by the FDA (with strict restrictions on usage). However, studies have proved this ingredient is unsafe for some people, leading to eye irritation, skin allergies, and interference with estrogen production in women and testosterone production in men. And from an environmental standpoint, oxybenzone is harmful to coral reefs. In fact, beginning in 2021, Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreens containing this ingredient. 

  • Avobenzone: Another major player in the world of sunscreen, avobenzone can also trigger irritation, allergic reactions, and endocrine hormonal disruptions. Opt for mineral sunscreen ingredients instead such as zinc and titanium dioxide. 

Controversial Ingredients

Controversial ingredients our team of skin experts recommends passing on include:

  • Parabens: A type of preservative, parabens commonly found in beauty products include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. The EU and FDA currently state that parabens in their current form are safe to use. However, studies are still being undertaken and questions remain. As endocrine disruptors that can mimic estrogen in the body, several studies have found that parabens may affect the mechanisms of normal breast cells, potentially increasing the risk for breast cancer. Although not proven to be dangerous, at Revea, we prefer to minimize risk. Our formulations are therefore paraben-free. 

  • Retinol: While a tried and true ingredient in the world of dermatology, retinol use comes along with certain side effects including mild irritation, sun sensitivity, dryness, redness, and flaking as the skin adjusts. Those with sensitive skin or conditions like rosacea or eczema should omit this ingredient from their regimen altogether. For other skin types introducing retinol, proceed with caution. And wear SPF daily! Note from our formulation chemist: At Revea, we are proudly altering retinol by formulating with its plant-based match, bakuchiol. Derived from edible seeds called babchi, this natural ingredient helps calm and soothe the skin. An impressive number of peer-reviewed mechanistic and clinical studies has demonstrated bakuchiol’s ability to help restore skin thickness and reduce acne and biological signs of aging. Overall, bakuchiol is just as effective as retinol but has improved skin tolerance.

Our Ingredients

At Revea, our ingredients are sourced from best-in-class international suppliers selected based on publicly available studies on the mode of action and proven clinical efficacy to deliver trusted results. Full toxicology and safety dossiers are available for all Revea raw materials to ensure your safety with no irritation or other skin reactions. The ingredients we utilize offer different mechanisms of action to work on various biological pathways. 

Our formulations are free of fragrance, colorants, silicones, phthalates, and parabens. Revea is also cruelty-free. Our packaging is sustainable and refillable. 

If you’re interested in more helpful tips and advanced information about skincare, follow us on Instagram @myrevea and sign up for our e-newsletter (we promise not to spam you!).