A Clean Scientist’s Guide To The Top Ingredients To Avoid In Skincare

By Terri Vinson
on 18 March 2021

As a skin scientist and formulator, my lab only contains ingredients that align with my ‘clean science’ philosophy. This involves creating effective skincare by merging the best of evidence-based science with the best of what nature provides, without adding harmful or questionable ingredients.

Our market is flooded with skin care products, many of which contain dubious additives. We absorb over 2kg of potentially toxic ingredients per year from face and body products. Whilst it’s important not to be a fear monger, some ingredients may pose a risk to health and wellbeing if used under certain conditions or if you are predisposed to skin reactions.

Woman applying skincare products

Below is my personal list of no-no ingredients that will not appear on my lab shelves.

Artificial colours

Also referred to as D&C or FD&C dyes, synthetic colour is used for appearance only and provides colour to makeup and skincare. They are derived from petroleum and offer no benefit to the skin. FD&C dyes may be irritating to the skin, and the small size of the pigment particles, as well as possible lead and heavy metal content, may cause a problem with skin penetration. Whilst artificial colour offers a huge variety of colour, I opt for natural minerals, such a coloured micas and iron oxides and plant derived colours.

Artificial Fragrance  

I once walked past a store selling bath bombs and soaps and I inhaled that overpowering sickly sweet perfume. My nose immediately recognised it as artificial. The artificial fragrance is in so many beauty products can contain over 200 synthetic chemicals and it is the number one cause of skin irritation. It can even have effects on brain chemistry and cause headaches. Instead, opt for pure essential oils and fragrance-free formulas. Even some essential oils can cause irritation; so, ensure the dosage is low and at the very lower end of the ingredient list. Hint: look for the words ‘Fragrance + /- number’ or ‘Parfum + /- number’ and chances are they are artificial).

PEGs (Polyethylene glycol)

PEGs are a cheap and versatile additive to skincare. There are many types of PEGs and they are used in skincare products as an emollient, an ingredient penetration enhancer and to help dissolve and stabilise other ingredients in the product. Pure PEGs themselves are not questionable in low doses, but there are other by-product ingredients involved in their manufacture that may be present, such as ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which are known toxins.

Propylene glygol

This ingredient is used as a moisturiser to hold water in the skin and to help penetration of other ingredients. There is some controversy about the toxicity of this ingredient, and this comes down to dosage. Propylene glycol has been linked to skin irritation and my philosophy is to use ingredients with minimal risk to skin. Glycerine performs the same function as propylene glycol and has a much lower irritancy risk.

Questionable preservatives


Chemical absorbing Sunscreens

Also known as ‘organic sunscreen’ ingredients, these work to absorb UV rays inside the skin compared to mineral sunscreens (aka physical or inorganic) that do not penetrate the skin. These mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to reflect and scatter harmful UV rays from the surface to prevent solar radiation damage.

Zinc oxide is my number one fave sunscreen because it protects from both UVA and UVB rays, without the risk of skin irritation and photosensitivity that many of the chemical absorbing sunscreens create.

Oxybenzone is currently creating controversy regarding hormonal disruption to cells and its negative effects on marine life and coral reef infertility. Oxybenzone is now banned as a chemical sunscreen in Hawaii for this reason. There may be some new chemical sunscreens on the horizon offering great protection and minimal risk, but until then my lab will only use zinc oxide for skin care!

5 Minutes To Discover Your Real Skin Age
Guide to the top ingredients to avoid in skincare

As a formulator, I constantly study scientific evidence regarding ingredient safety and make informed decisions regarding what ingredients to use and those that I deem as questionable. Most of these questionable ingredients will not be toxic at low doses for most healthy individuals. It is when ingredients are used for long periods of time or on compromised skin that I have concerns. Ultimately, consumers are choosing products with the highest safety and ethics profile for themselves and their families. The great news is that there are alternatives, so skin scientists like me, will keep researching the cleanest and safest ingredients from both science and nature.

Women Love Tech would like to thank Terri Vinson for her article. Terri is the founder and owner of Synergie Skin.

Synergie Skin
Synergie Skin Products

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