Toxic skin care ingredients to avoid

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the ingredients in your skin care products are rigorously tested for safety, right? Surely nothing toxic or harmful could make it on to your bathroom shelf? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Here are some of the most toxic ingredients to look out for in your skin care products.


Parabens are a type of preservative used in beauty and hair care products. They were first introduced in the 1950’s, to prolong the shelf life of cosmetics. They are also used to prevent the growth of mould and bacteria.


The problem with parabens is how the penetrate the skin into our bodies. Parabens contain compounds that mimic oestrogen, which can potentially interfere with hormone function in the body. Some research has even suggested that parabens could be linked to cancerous cells in women.

Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate

Sulfates are cleansing agents (aka surfactants) found in a wide range of cleaning products, from face cleanser and shampoo to toothpaste and household detergent. The most commonly found sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. The reason why they appear in so many cleansing products is that they’re good at creating bubbly lather, to remove grease, dirt and oils. Sounds pretty innocent, right?


The reason why people avoid sulfates is that they’re a little too good at cleansing. These sulfates can strip natural oils from the skin, causing dryness and sensitivity. This is a particular concern for the skin on your face, as harsh sulfates in face cleansers can damage your skin’s moisture barrier. 

When your moisture barrier is damaged, this can lead to issues like acne, flakiness, redness, itchiness, inflammation, and all-over irritation. For your hair, it can mean dry, brittle locks and a flaky, dehydrated scalp. Alternatively, your scalp can also over-produce oil to combat dehydration, leading to greasy hair. 

Drying alcohols

You’ll find alcohol creeping up a lot in acne products, because of their ability to dehydrate the skin. However, dehydrating your skin can actually worsen your acne, as the skin will produce more oil to make up for the lack of moisture. So while they might dry out your pimple in the short term, they’re actually making your acne worse in the long term. 


When it comes to alcohol in skin care products, not all alcohols are created equal. Fatty alcohols act as emollients and thickening agents, and can help the skin retain moisture.

Popular fatty alcohols

  • Cetyl alcohol
  • Stearyl alcohol
  • Cetearyl alcohol 
  • Lauryl alcohol

Popular drying alcohols

  • Alcohol
  • Alcohol denat (or denatured alcohol)
  • Ethanol
  • Benzyl alcohol 
  • Isopropyl alcohol.

If you’re acne prone, avoid drying alcohols and use ingredients like salicylic acid and willow bark extract in your skin care products. These ingredients effectively treat pimples by cleaning your pores from the inside out, without dehydrating the skin. 


Phthalates (pronounced ‘thah-lates’) are a group of chemicals commonly found in plastics. They are also used in cosmetics for their ability to keep materials flexible, acting as lubricants. 

Why are phthalates harmful? Research shows that phthalates could be linked to some serious health risks. The United States’ National Toxicology Program have even named certain phthalates as potential carcinogens. Other studies show that using phthalates can affect human hormones, in particular testosterone. A 2014 study even linked phthalates to type 2 diabetes. 


To avoid phthalates, look for cosmetics and other products that specifically say ‘no phthalates’ or ‘phthalate free’. You can also check ingredients lists for some of the most commonly used phthalates, like DBP (dibutyl phthalate), DiNP (diisononyl phthalate), DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate) and BBzP (benzyl butyl phthalate). 

Artificial fragrance

While lots of skin care ingredients are perfectly safe and beneficial for skin, they don’t smell particularly appealing. So, companies add artificial fragrance to cosmetics and skin care products to enhance the scent of products. 


Unfortunately, artificial fragrance can be particularly irritating to the skin. Even if you don’t have sensitive skin,  artificial fragrance can sensitize your skin and lead to irritation like acne, inflammation and flaking skin. If you see ‘fragrance’ (aka parfum, perfume, or ‘aroma’) listed high on a product list, perhaps you should reconsider buying it. 

Skin care ingredients to avoid if you’re pregnant


While lots of skin care ingredients are perfectly safe and beneficial for your skin, they can’t be used during pregnancy. Exhibit A: Retinoids. 

Retinoids and retinol are one of the most important skin care ingredients to avoid while pregnant, as excessive amounts of vitamin A during pregnancy can lead to birth defects. Most research focuses on oral vitamin A, such as Accutane. However, to err on the side of caution, doctors recommend not using retinol or retinoids during pregnancy.


Salicylic Acid & Willow Bark Extract

Although these two pore-cleaners are perfectly safe for skin, doctors recommend avoiding them if you’re pregnant. This is because salicylic acid is derived from aspirin. Research shows that aspirin can cause intracranial bleeding in fetuses when taken orally during pregnancy. Willow bark extract is salicylic acid’s ‘natural’ cousin and contains the same active ingredient – salicin. 

While topical salicylic acid aren’t as likely to pose the same risk, doctors recommend discontinuing use while pregnant. Thankfully, AHAs like lactic acid and glycolic acid are perfectly safe to use, so you don’t have to forego exfoliation completely. 

Poko skin care is free from silicone, phthalate, gluten, synthetic fragrances, synthetic dye, mineral oil, palm oil, and we are animal cruelty-free. Check out our full range of skin care products here