Find products and ingredients Learn how Skin Deep® works Meet our experts Discover EWG VERIFIED®

Top Tips For Safer Products

Environmental Working Group created our Skin Deep® database as a way to combat the serious deficiencies in cosmetics regulation.

Still, it can be difficult navigating store aisles in search of the perfect personal care product, one made without harmful ingredients. EWG researchers have evaluated thousands of safety studies and ingredient labels to assess the known and suspected hazards in personal care products we all use daily.

By Product Type

Expand content Collapse content
  • Avoid:
  • triclosan and triclocarban.
  • Avoid:
  • Vitamin A (listed as: retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinoic acid and retinol) in daytime products.
  • Pick:
  • ethanol or ethyl alcohol in at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Just say no:
  • SPF above 50.
  • Oxybenzone.
  • Spray sunscreens.
  • Retinyl palmitate.
  • Added insect repellent.
  • Say yes to:
  • Hats and shade in midday sun.
  • Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as active ingredients, otherwise avobenzone (at 3 percent).
  • SPF 15 to 50, depending on your own skin coloration, time outside, shade and cloud cover.
  • Using a lot and reapplying often.
  • Avoid or limit:
  • Dark permanent hair dyes.
  • Chemical hair straighteners.
  • Avoid:
  • triclosan.
  • Avoid:
  • Formaldehyde or formalin in polish, hardeners and other nail products.
  • Toluene, triphenyl phosphate (TPP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in polish.
  • Pregnant? Consider skipping polish

Tips for Babies and Young Children

Expand content Collapse content

Children are not little adults. Pound for pound, kids are exposed to more contaminants in air, water, food and personal care products than adults. Immature organ systems are often less capable of fending off chemical assaults. Subtle damage to developing bodies may lead to disease later in life.

Parents can make healthy choices by using fewer personal care products on their children, ignoring marketing claims and following these tips:

  • Avoid:
  • Bronopol.
  • DMDM hydantoin.
  • Fragrance.
  • Avoid:
  • BHA.
  • Boric acid.
  • Fragrance.

Use a small amount of fluoride-free toothpaste until kids can reliably rinse and spit (none for kids under 2). Use child-strength toothpaste for children 6 and younger. Use only a pea-size amount and supervise child’s brushing and rinsing (to minimize swallowing).


Infants under 6 months don’t belong in the sun, and they shouldn’t wear sunscreen. For older babies and children, use protective clothing and sunscreen that provides good UVA and UVB protection. Use enough and reapply often.


Skip it! As with auto exhaust or secondhand smoke, tiny airborne particles can damage a baby’s delicate, developing lungs.

Tips for Teens and Tweens

Expand content Collapse content

Teens use cosmetics. Sometimes lots of them. From hair gels and straighteners to eye makeup, body wash and lotions. And then some! Knowing which ones are healthy – and which ones aren’t – is important.

Here’s why: EWG found that adolescent girls’ bodies are contaminated with chemicals commonly used in cosmetics and body care products. In fact, we detected 16 potentially toxic chemicals – phthalates, triclosan, parabens, and musks – in blood and urine samples from 20 teen girls. Studies link these chemicals to potential health effects, including hormone disruption.

To make matters worse, teens may be particularly sensitive to exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals, given the complex role they play during puberty, precisely when girls typically experiment with an increasing number and variety of body care products. In fact, when we surveyed them, our teen study participants reported using an average of 17 personal care products each day, 40 percent more than an adult woman.

Teens can easily make safer choices by reducing the number of body care products they use, viewing marketing claims with skepticism, always checking the ingredients (a good lifelong habit!) and following EWG guidelines to select safer products:

  • Avoid:
  • Triclosan.
  • Parabens.
  • PEGs and ceteareth.
  • Avoid:
  • Phthalates.
  • “Fragrance” (listed as an ingredient).
  • Avoid:
  • Loose powders.
  • Vitamin A (listed as: retinol, retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate) in skin and lip products.
  • Choose:
  • Less hazardous makeup using Skin Deep®.

Be sun smart! Sunburns in children and teens may increase your risk of the deadliest form of skin cancer – melanoma.

Avoid tanning beds. Tanning booths expose the skin to 15 times more UV than sunlight. The use of tanning beds before age 30 can cause a 75 percent increase in melanoma.

Tips for Women

Expand content Collapse content

Every day, the average woman uses about a dozen products containing more than 150 different ingredients. Many cosmetic chemicals are designed to penetrate the skin completely, and they do. Consequently, some common cosmetic ingredients turn up in the body. Among them: industrial plasticizers called phthalates, a common fragrance component; parabens, which are preservatives; and persistent fragrance components like musk xylene.

Are levels of cosmetic ingredients found in our bodies causing biological damage? Only more research can say. For now, several studies have linked endocrine disruption and metabolic changes in children to certain types of phthalates.


Avoid: Alpha and beta hydroxy acids (lactic acid and glycolic acid).

FDA-sponsored studies find UV-caused skin damage doubles for users of products with alpha hydroxy acid. Regular sunscreen application is the best way to avoid sun-damaged skin.


Minimize use of dark, permanent hair dyes. Many contain coal tar ingredients, including aminophenol, diaminobenzene and phenylenediamine, all of which are linked to cancer.


Avoid skin lighteners with hydroquinone. FDA warns that this skin-bleaching chemical can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, which can lead to “disfiguring and irreversible” blue-black lesions on exposed skin.

Illegally imported skin lighteners can contain mercury, which can poison adults and children and is especially toxic during pregnancy. Be wary of imported skin lighteners, don’t buy products without ingredients clearly labeled and always avoid products with “mercury,” “calomel,” “mercurio” or “mercurio chloride.”


Many hair-straightening treatments use harsh or toxic ingredients and make misleading safety claims. We recommend you minimize your use of chemical hair straighteners or avoid them all together.

If you choose to use, avoid keratin treatments, which often contain high levels of formaldehyde.

Tips for Men

Expand content Collapse content

The average man uses about six products daily, including nearly 100 unique ingredients, all told. Some ingredients are hormonally active; some are linked to male reproductive-system disorders. For instance, phthalates have been associated with altered hormone levels in men and boys and sperm damage.

  • Avoid:
  • “Fragrance”.
  • Oxybenzone.
  • PEGs and ceteareth.
  • Parabens.
  • Avoid:
  • DMDM hydantoin.
  • “Fragrance”.
  • PEGs and ceteareth.
  • Triclosan.

Wear sunscreen. Surveys show only about one-third of men wear sun protection, compared to more than three-quarters of women. Choose one with adequate UVA and UVB protection, and reapply often. See EWG's annual sunscreen report for good choices.

Shopping Tips by Ingredient

Expand content Collapse content

Boric acid and sodium borate: These chemicals disrupt hormones and harm the male reproductive system. Men working in boric-acid-producing factories have a greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido. In animals, high doses cause testicular damage in mice, rats and dogs. Both the EU and Canada restrict these ingredients in body care products made for children under 3 years of age and require that products containing these ingredients be labeled as not appropriate for broken or damaged skin. No similar safety standards are in place in the U.S. The cosmetic industry’s own safety panel states that these chemicals are unsafe for infant or damaged skin, because they can absorb readily into the body. Despite this guidance, boric acid is found in some diaper creams.

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): The National Toxicology Program classifies BHA as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” In animal studies, BHA produces liver damage; causes stomach cancers such as papillomas and carcinomas; and interferes with normal reproductive system development and thyroid hormone levels. It is found in food, food packaging and personal care products sold in the U.S.

Coal tar hair dyes and other coal tar ingredients (including aminophenol, diaminobenzene and phenylenediamine): Coal tar, a byproduct of coal processing, is a known human carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Europe has banned many of these ingredients in hair dyes. Although FDA sanctions coal tar in specialty products such as dandruff and psoriasis shampoos, its long-term safety has not been demonstrated.

Formaldehyde: A potent preservative classified as a “known human carcinogen” by the International Agency on Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde, also an asthmagen, neurotoxicant and developmental toxicant, was once mixed into many personal care products as an antiseptic. This use has declined. But some hair straighteners contain substantial amounts of formaldehyde and release potentially toxic fumes during their use.

Formaldehyde releasers (Bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15): Cosmetics preservatives that slowly form formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, within the product to kill growing bacteria. These preservatives and the formaldehyde they generate can trigger allergic skin reactions. Formaldehyde releasers are widely used in U.S. products.

"Fragrance": Federal law doesn’t require companies to list on product labels any of the chemicals in their fragrance mixture. Research from EWG and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products, and none of them was listed on the label. Fragrances can contain hormone disruptors and are among the top five allergens in the world. Our advice? Look for products that disclose their fragrance ingredients.

Hydroquinone: A skin-bleaching chemical that can cause a skin disease called ochronosis, which is characterized by blue-black lesions that in the worst cases become permanent black caviar-size bumps. In animal studies, hydroquinone has caused tumor development.

Lead and Lead acetate: A neurotoxin in popular black hair dyes and men’s progressive hair dyes, such as Grecian Formula 16.

Methylisothiazolinone (MI/MIT), methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) and benzisothiazolinone (BIT): Preservatives, commonly used in personal care products, that are among the most common irritants, sensitizers and causes of contact allergy.

Nanoparticles: Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles appear to be among the safer and more effective active ingredients in U.S.-marketed sunscreen creams, because they do not penetrate intact skin. But avoid sprays and powders containing these nanoparticles, which could be inhaled and enter the lungs and bloodstream. Many other nanoparticles have received very little testing, yet they readily penetrate the skin and contaminate the body. Cosmetics manufacturers are not required to disclose the presence of nanoparticles in their products.

Oxybenzone: Sunscreen agent and ultraviolet light absorber, found in the bodies of nearly all Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In human epidemiological studies, oxybenzone has been linked to irritation, sensitization and allergies. A study of more than 400 New York City women in the third trimester of pregnancy associated higher maternal concentration of oxybenzone with a decreased birth weight among newborn baby girls but with greater birth weight in newborn boys. Studies on cells and laboratory animals indicate that oxybenzone and its metabolites may disrupt the hormone system.

Parabens (specifically propyl-, butyl-, isopropyl-, and isobutyl- parabens): Parabens are widely used as preservatives in cosmetics. The CDC has detected parabens in virtually all Americans. According to the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, certain parabens (propyl-, butyl-, isopropyl-, and isobutyl-), may disrupt the endocrine system and cause reproductive and developmental disorders.

PEGs and ceteareth: A family of conditioning and cleaning agents that go by many names. These synthetic chemicals are frequently contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. government considers a probable human carcinogen and which readily penetrates the skin.

Petroleum distillates: Petroleum-extracted cosmetics ingredients may cause contact dermatitis and are often contaminated with cancer-causing impurities. They are produced in oil refineries at the same time as automobile fuel, heating oil and chemical feedstocks.

Phthalates: A growing number of studies indicate that the chemical family of phthalates damages the male reproductive system. Pregnant women should avoid nail polish containing dibutyl phthalate. Everyone should avoid products with “fragrance,” which indicates a chemical mixture that may contain phthalates.

Resorcinol: A common ingredient in hair color and bleaching products that has been linked to skin irritation and immune system dysfunction and is a frequent cause of hair dye allergy. In animal studies, resorcinol can disrupt normal thyroid function.

Toluene: Volatile petrochemical solvent and paint thinner and potent neurotoxicant that acts as an irritant, impairs breathing and causes nausea. A pregnant woman’s exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may impair fetal development.

Triclosan and triclocarban: Antimicrobial ingredients in a range of personal care products, including toothpaste and deodorant. Often found as contaminants in people due to widespread use of antimicrobial personal care and cleaning products. These ingredients are linked to endocrine disruption; triclosan affects thyroid function and proper functioning of reproductive hormones. They are also very toxic to the aquatic environment. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Microbiology say that soap and water serves just as well to prevent the spread of infections and reduce bacteria on the skin. Overuse may promote the development of bacterial resistance.

Vitamin A compounds (retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinol): Vitamin A is an essential nutrient but not necessarily safe for use on skin. Studies show that when applied to sun-exposed skin, these compounds can increase skin sensitivity. Furthermore, sunlight breaks down vitamin A to produce toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and hasten skin lesions and tumors in lab animals. These ingredients are widely used in sunscreens, skin lotions, lip products and makeup.

Skindeep Healthy Living App

EWG research
on the go

Find personal care, cleaning, and food products on the EWG Healthy Living app.