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NOW READING The Facts On Four “Controversial” Ingredients Found In Many Beauty Products
January 29, 2021

The Facts On Four “Controversial” Ingredients Found In Many Beauty Products

Mineral oil, Parabens, Phthalates, and Sulfates are frequently deemed “suspicious.” We’re diving into the evidence-based research to help ease the confusion.


Think back to when you were a child. Life was filled with obvious comparisons that simplified decision-making. Things were either good or bad, right or wrong. Lately, that type of comparative language has been commandeered by the “clean” beauty movement, particularly on watch lists that designate ingredients as clean or dirty. Unfortunately, branding a product with a single word that evokes such an emotional response can confuse consumers. 



A 2019 JAMA Dermatology article puts the entire movement into perspective: “Many of the ingredients that have been denounced by clean beauty evangelists seem to be selected haphazardly as companies attempt to ‘greenwash’ their products to make them more attractive to conscientious shoppers.”


In an attempt to cut through the rhetoric and get to the core of clean beauty, I turned to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel because they “review and assess the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased, and expert manner, and publish the results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.” Alternative sources for ingredients and opinions abound, but as an academic, I prefer a “just the facts” approach, so I don’t have to decipher a provider’s underlying intent. That said, let’s tackle the so-called “baddies” one by one.



  • Parabens prevent products from biodegrading and growing bacteria. Many organizations have raised concerns about parabens accumulating in the body and disrupting the way hormones function. According to the CIR’s 248-page 2019 Safety Assessment report, which takes “endocrine activity, dermal sensitization and epidemiological studies” into consideration, “the available evidence suggests no significant association of parabens exposure with diseases or other adverse health conditions. The Panel also noted that refined aggregate exposure models suggest that cosmetic product use is a major source of parabens exposure. However, the vast quantity of biomonitoring data indicates that systemic exposure to these ingredients is very low.” Given their valuable role in preserving product integrity and the lack of a concrete connection between parabens and disease, the argument against them might be overexaggerated. Go with your instincts on this one.


  • Sulfates, particularly sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are cleansing agents. To remove dirt, makeup, pollution, and sunscreen, you need more than just plain water and a towel. Although SLS and SLES aren’t toxic, they can strip skin of its natural oils and hair of its proteins if manufacturers don’t properly balance their formulations. In a recent Beautytap Talks interview, Philip B. , one of Hollywood’s most in-demand haircare specialists, discussed using SLS in his formulas. He explained, “If you put oils into SLS – fats and lipids – you get cream. The creamier [the formula] is, the less abrasive it is. You can create a balance between moisturizing and cleansing without stripping.” 


  • Mineral Oil, a petroleum derivative, may or may not be a no-go for you, depending on your feelings about fossil fuel. The biggest concern most people have with mineral oil is whether or not it is comedogenic. The majority of the research studies emphasize the safety and efficacy of mineral oil as a skin softener and moisturizing agent. If you’re already prone to clogged pores, you may want to steer clear of this one. But if you have dry skin and are trying to prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL), mineral oil makes an excellent occlusive, meaning it’s a solid moisturizing agent. 


  • Phthalates are found in so many products that lumping them all together and calling them bad creates a lot of confusion. For example, you wouldn’t deny mushrooms their rightful place in your diet simply because some poisonous varieties exist in the wild. Concerns over phthalates stem from a CDC study seeking to understand “the extent of human exposure to industrial chemicals” as well as an American Academy of Pediatrics article that noted “increased levels of phthalate metabolites in [infant] urine,” neither of which connected findings to health effects per the FDA


For reference, personal care products may utilize one of three phthalates:


  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) prevents nail polish from making nails brittle.
  • Dimethyl phthalate (DMP) makes hair spray workable for styling.
  • Diethyl phthalate (DEP) helps fragrance last longer in perfume.


Furthermore, the FDA’s 2010 Survey of Cosmetics for Phthalate Content revealed that “DBP and DMP are now used rarely.” And since the FDA reviews data from the CDC and the CIR, including any findings related to safety, and has concluded as recently as 2013 that it “does not have evidence that phthalates as used in cosmetics pose a safety risk,” the danger these chemicals present is still considered “negligible.”



The Bottom Line


“Skincare brought in $5.9 billion” in 2019, “and natural [beauty] was the top growth contributor. Natural brands represented 30% of total skincare [sales].” 


Since manufacturers are all vying for a piece of that very big pie, the FDA continuously monitors these chemicals and will take action, if necessary. As for consumers, let’s continue to listen to our guts and do our homework.

Tracy is a "quality over quantity" word girl fascinated by eagles and life in a small SoCal mountain community. She believes in the now, has written professionally for 30+ years, and worships at the alters of serum and Sulwhasoo.



As usual Tracy, you do not cease to amaze me with your informative articles! I think the lesson here is just READ AND RESEARCH. Read your labels, and know what they say. If we are going to be health-conscious with the food we eat (choosing organic, farm-fresh, cage-free, etc), should we not pay the same attention to our skincare and haircare? I think the answer is simple...duh!

Spot on, as always, Jenny! In the past, before we had the "internet of things," researching was labor intensive and sometimes impossible. Today, everything is at our fingertips, so there's no reason not to do a little homework before writing off a product on someone else's recommendation. And, as always, it's best to consider the source.


Thanks for the deep dive! Education is the most important step — they we can all think critically. I think it's about tradeoffs and it's just a matter of what people are going to prioritize.

Well said. I try to subscribe to the "everything in moderation" approach, and I want solid, performing products in my skincare routine.

Watch out for those buzzword ingredients and the products on the "no-no" list. Dive into the research and don't let IG & ticktock tell you the truth!

Well said, Jonni. I liken the current trend to the introduction of fat-free foods in the 90s. We all ate them with gusto and gained weight because "fat-free" doesn't equate to "low calorie." Ever since, I've done my homework.

I agree. As consumers it is our duty to build product ingredient knowledge. It can ease the mind and we come to our own conclusions as to whether it is good for us or not.

Absolutely! And our role as educators in the beauty space is crucial. People rely on us every day for real answers. Research is king.


Thank you for explaining this. I can't tell you how much it frustrates me when people say all preservatives are bad. It's not that simple because the pros/cons have to be weighed properly. So important for the consumer to receive this type of education.

Many people I know (K-beauty fans) learned the value of preservatives the hard way when DIY cushion cases hit the market in 2015. The BB cream in a ready-made cushion contains tons of preservatives, whereas a BB cream in a tube does not. The different delivery system played a role in the amount of preservatives, and when people tried putting their regular BB cream into a DIY cushion case, the product grew mold and bacteria. My big takeaway: preservatives are a necessity, especially in skincare. After all, we are putting these things on our skin.

I am proud to know Tracy Teel for few months as professional Beautytap writer, Ghost writer for MD, dermatologists and more.
I recommend to read this great article for everybody. (Yes, we all have passion for Beauty).
And “to dive into the research” and really understand Tracy’ s concept “quality over quantity “ I am sure we need to take time and find big love to your self and your clients to make sure that Beauty products we use are safe and effective, in the some time we don’t have to run away in panic from... Read more


Agree, she's a gem!

I love articles like these because I think this is what makes people change their loyalty to brands that in my opinion are not loyal to their customers by not providing the safest best ingredients in their products and Beautytap products in stark contrast, focus on clean beauty products that care sooo much about transparency regarding ingredients, quality combined with affordability, and that is 100% why I’m proud to be a part of this company.

Thank you, Jenna. There's so much misinformation in the beauty space, and I greatly appreciate your positive response to my article. 😘

This is such a great information to learn. As a makeup artist working on multiple people I always research ingredients to make sure it is not harmful and will not cause reaction on my clients` skin.

Happy to help. 😀


very informative

I'm glad you found it helpful, Gretchell. There's a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering out there, and my goal is to always cut through the noise to get to the facts.


This is so informative! I am learning more and more and I appreciate all this insightful information.

I'm happy you found it helpful! I might've left my teaching career behind, but I'm all about getting to the heart of the matter and sharing good info.