Terrakai Skin’s “no-no” ingredient list
Here’s a list of the chemicals you’ll never find on our ingredient labels (yes, we’re 100% committed to a health and safety standard that goes well beyond what is legally required in the United States):
Benzalkonium chloride is an ingredient typically found in cleansers and moisturizers for its foaming and antibacterial properties. Unfortunately, there’s strong scientific evidence to show that benzalkonium chloride is associated with severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation and allergies (it’s classified as a human immune and respiratory toxicant and/or allergen) (1).
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
BHA and BHT are synthetic antioxidants commonly used as preservatives in moisturizers. Unfortunately, research indicates that they're likely carcinogens and hormone disruptors and may cause liver damage (based on animal studies) (2). Worse still, there’s also evidence suggesting that both compounds could harm the environment – with BHA’s toxicity to aquatic organisms and BHT's risk for bioaccumulation in marine species (3).
Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)
EDTA is a chelating (i.e., binding) agent commonly used in skincare formulations to prevent deterioration, protect fragrance compounds, and prevent rancidity. Adding this chemical in formulations can also result in enhanced foaming and cleaning abilities. As a result, in the context of skin care products, you can typically spot EDTA in both cleansers and moisturizers. Only, the major problem here is that EDTA may be toxic to organs (4).
Ethanolamines – including monoethanolamine (MEA), diethanolamine (DEA), and triethanolamine (TEA) – are a family of chemicals that work as surfactants and emulsifying ingredients in skincare products. That means you’d most typically find them in cleansers. Unfortunately, ethanolamines may increase the risk for cancer, especially with repeated and prolonged use (5,6).
More worrying still, an animal study suggests a pregnant woman’s exposure to DEA could adversely impact their baby’s memory function and brain development (7). And there’s more. Ethanolamines are also potentially hazardous to aquatic organisms (8).
In skincare products, formaldehyde (yes, the same ingredient used during the embalming process!) is used as a preservative to prolong shelf life and prevent bacterial contamination. Sounds good, right? Only, it isn’t – for starters, both The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Toxicology Program classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen (9). Numerous studies link it to an increased risk of nasopharyngeal and sinonasal cancers, plus leukemia (10).
Its impact on the environment isn’t any kinder. In the atmosphere, formaldehyde usually breaks down rapidly to create formic acid and carbon monoxide, both gasses that may indirectly contribute to climate change (11). Formaldehyde is also highly toxic to animals and all forms of aquatic life (12).
Hydroquinone is a skin-lightening agent. It bleaches the skin by decreasing the number of melanocytes (i.e., pigment-producing cells). But while hydroquinone is indeed effective at lightening dark spots on the skin, various health experts have sounded the alarm on the ingredient over the years – with some going as far as to call it the “biological equivalent of paint thinner” (13). By essentially "removing" the top layer of skin, hydroquinone could increase one's risk for skin cancer and cause fatal liver and kidney damage.
Beauty products containing hydroquinone also tend to feature mercury – a known toxin linked to bacterial and fungal infections, liver damage, anxiety, depression, and psychosis (14). Hydroquinone isn’t only harmful to humans, too. It’s also an environmental contaminant that shows increased toxicity for aquatic organisms (15,16).
Parabens (methyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-, and others)
At first glance, you may think of parabens as great news. They’re a type of preservative capable of prolonging your skincare product’s shelf life by preventing the growth of mold and bacteria within. But look closer, and you’ll find that it’s downright nasty for health. For starters: scientists have pretty much proven that parabens can pass through the skin barrier – and into human bodies (17).
What's the issue with this, you ask? The main concern is that parabens mimic estrogen (commonly known as the “female” hormone) (18). Too much estrogen can trigger the growth of tumors and an increase in breast cell division – in turn, explaining why paraben use has been linked to breast cancer, reproductive complications, and developmental issues in children.
These hormone disruptors aren’t just bad news for humans; they impact the environment too. According to laboratory tests, even low levels of butylparaben can kill coral reefs (19). Parabens have also been shown to accumulate within the bodies of various marine mammals, including dolphins and sea otters (20).
Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP, and others)
Phthalates (FYI: pronounced “thalates”) refer to a class of “plasticizing” chemicals used to improve texture, increase “spreadability”, and enhance absorption of skincare products. Sounds great, right? Not so fast.
As it turns out, phthalates are yet another endocrine disruptor – capable of leading to a slew of hormonal health problems. For instance: phthalates usage has been linked to reproductive and genital defects, lower sperm count, disrupted hormones, and infertility in numerous studies (21). Scarily still, it appears that exposure to phthalates can increase the risk of miscarriage and gestational diabetes in pregnant women (22, 23).
Polyethylene glycol (PEG compounds)
Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are petroleum-based compounds widely used in skincare products as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture carriers. That means you'd typically find them in your moisturizers. But what’s so bad about PEGs? Well, they’re terrible for both the planet and human health.
So, let’s talk about why PEGs are so bad for the Earth. See: there are 2 methods to derive the raw materials required to produce PEGs (26). The first is petroleum refining, and the second comes from natural gas or coal. As you can tell, none of these are renewable sources of energy – which means they will run out or will not be replenished for thousands or even millions of years.
As for the compounds’ impact on human health? It all comes down to the fact that PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide (a known human carcinogen) and 1,4-dioxane (a possible human carcinogen) during their manufacturing process (27).
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
Sulfates – both SLS and SLES – are anionic surfactants typically used in cleansers to produce a lather or foam. Unfortunately, they’re both harmful to the skin. That’s because they’re too good at their jobs (i.e., removing the oil from the skin).
They’re so good, in fact, that numerous studies show them capable of stripping the skin’s barrier (stratum corneum) of its natural oils. And when this happens, “gaps” are left between the cells in the skin’s barrier – allowing moisture to escape and harmful environmental pollutants to enter (28,29, 30).
Worse still, sulfates can also be derived from petroleum – which is also associated with climate change, pollution, and greenhouse gasses.
Synthetic fragrances refer to scents that are made in the lab. And the problem with them is that they're often masqueraded as quite simply "fragrance" or "parfum" on ingredient labels – when they could, in fact, be "hiding" up to hundreds of chemicals that could potentially be hormone disruptors and allergens.
So, is it any surprise to learn that fragrances are considered the leading cause of allergic reactions on the skin (affecting up to 4% of the general population) (31)?
Oh, and here’s another thing you should know. Synthetic fragrances have a heavy footprint. They’re petrochemical-based, made in an energy-guzzling process, and produce waste emissions that could further exacerbate climate change (32, 33).
Triclosan is a chemical with antibacterial properties; in the context of skincare, you can typically find it in acne-fighting cleansers. And the issue with it? Research has suggested that triclosan alters hormone regulation in animals, may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs, and might be harmful to the immune system (34).
In addition to being bad for health, triclosan also poses a threat to the environment. Presently detected in streams and waterways across the United States, triclosan persists in the environment – and is toxic to aquatic organisms, including algae and fish (35). Adverse effects include reduced growth, reproduction rates, and survival.