If you’re reading this, your bathroom is probably already stocked with products labeled natural and organic. But don’t assume that tells you the whole story. Unlike food, beauty products don’t need to meet government standards to include the word organic on the label. “There’s no one regulating the labeling of these types of products,” says Celeste Lutrario, director of research and development for Burt’s Bees in Durham, North Carolina. Some companies call their goods natural or organic though they contain only some ingredients that are.

The good news is that the Natural Products Association is working with several beauty companies and within a year hopes to define a standard for natural personal care products. (Companies can go through a rigorous process to receive USDA organic certification, but few do.) Because beauty labels don’t always mean what they say, we asked experts which common ingredients we should try to avoid. If you spot any of these, consider leaving the product—and its potential health and environmental hazards—on the shelf.

Sodium Lauryl (or Laureth) Sulfate

What it is: the detergent in cleansers that creates a bubbly lather

Found in: shampoo, body wash, facial cleanser, moisturizer, hair color, acne treatments, and exfoliating scrubs

Why you should avoid it: This harsh ingredient can strip your skin of its natural protective barrier, causing irritation. Plus, if it gets into the water system, it can harm plants, birds, and fish.


(Methyl, Propyl, Butyl, Ethyl)

What they are: a preservative that inhibits microbial growth in products, giving them a longer shelf life

Found in: shampoo, conditioner, styling gel, hair lotion, body lotion, sunscreen, and many types of makeup

Why you should avoid them: Parabens have a greater-than-normal potential for causing allergic reactions, and studies suggest they might interfere with your hormones, explains Lutrario. Preliminary research has also linked them to an increased cancer risk.


What it is: a mineral oil derivative used to soothe and soften the skin

Found in: lip balm, moisturizer, facial moisturizer, products with SPF, styling gel, and anti-itch cream

Why you should avoid it: It’s a by-product of petroleum, so it’s not biodegradable and comes from a nonrenewable energy source, says Daniel Fabricant, PhD, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association. It also may contain low levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are suspected carcinogens.

Propylene Glycol

What it is: a synthetic used to retain moisture in the skin

Found in: facial moisturizer, moisturizer, antiaging products, facial cleanser, shampoo, conditioner, styling gel, hair color, body wash, and deodorant

Why you should avoid it: Like petrolatum, it’s made from nonrenewable fossil fuels and brings to the table all the same environmentally damaging baggage. Plus, propylene glycol is known to be a skin and eye irritant.


(DEA)/Triethanolamine (TEA)

What they are: ammonia compounds used to keep ingredients from clumping together and also to create foam

Found in: cleanser, foundation, sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher), hair color, moisturizer, antiaging products, mascara, styling gel, and eye cream

Why you should avoid them: Residues from these two ingredients may react with other ingredients in products to form nitrosamines, which are potential carcinogens, says Lutrario. And DEA may also be toxic to aquatic organisms.


What it is: a chemical that blocks the sun’s ultraviolet rays

Found in: sunscreen, facial moisturizer, antiaging products, shampoo, aftershave, and acne treatments

Why you should avoid it: Research suggests benzophenone may have endocrine disruptive properties that can interfere with hormone regulation in the body. And like DEA, benzophenone may be harmful to aquatic life.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

What it is: the ingredient in plastics that makes them soft and flexible

Found in: nail polish

Why you should avoid it: It can be toxic to both the respiratory and immune systems, and it’s already been banned by the European Union. Some studies also suggest phthalates may cause birth defects, says Shel Pink, founder of SpaRitual, who created the first DBP-free nail-care line when she became pregnant.

Story by Mia Owen. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.

Be label smart
Read the fine print on your natural and organic beauty bottles.