These 5 Common Moisturizer Ingredients Are Toxic—Here's What to Buy Instead

Here at Who What Wear Beauty, we eat, sleep, and breathe skincare. We've tested all the most iconic eye creams and gotten our hands on the exclusive moisturizers your favorite celeb can't stop raving about on Instagram. But when we turn to the ingredients list only to find a slew of tongue-twisting words that just sound bad, we can't help but give those (sometimes pricey) formulas a stern side eye. Are they really safe?

Even as editors, we sometimes find it a hassle to wade through all the misleading labels, tricky buzzwords, and ingredients we can't even pronounce to determine whether or not a product that claims to be clean or organic actually is. Especially when it comes to moisturizer, a product that so many of us use twice daily, it's difficult to stomach the idea that the ingredients in those jars could be causing toxicity in our bodies, and leading to serious health issues down the line. 

To get the rundown on which ingredients to skip altogether, we tapped Tamerri Ater, product development director for Versed (Who What Wear's actually clean sister skincare brand), to get the scoop on the ingredients that belong on all of our blacklists. Read on for the five most commonly used toxic ingredients, then check out our edit of the 20 best organic moisturizers that will reveal healthy, hydrated skin.


(Image credit: Getty Images)

What are the most toxic ingredients in moisturizers?

Toxic Ingredient #1: Mineral Oil

"This petrochemical has commonly been used in popular skincare products for decades, but you may want to avoid since there have been links to cancer and organ toxicity," Ater explains. And aside from the more serious ramifications, this substance is also known to be pore-clogging, which could lead to breakouts and other unwanted skin issues. 

Possible replacement: According to Ater, grapeseed oil gives a similar emollient feel to moisturizers, without any heavy or overly oily after effects.

Toxic Ingredient #2: Cyclic Silicones

"Silicones give 'slip' to skincare and haircare products and help your skin and hair feel silky and smooth, which is why they are commonly used in high-end moisturizers," Ater told us. "Not all silicones are deemed bad, but it’s best to try to stay away from cyclic silicones due to their personal safety and environmental concerns." Some red flags you can look for on your skincare labels include cyclotetrasiloxane, cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane, and cyclomethicone.

Possible Replacement: Ater says that Isohexadecane gives an equally nice velvety, emollient feel to the skin without running the risk of toxicity.

Toxic Ingredient #3: Parabens

Lots of big beauty brands have attempted to feign health consciousness by touting the fact that their formulas are paraben-free. But according to Ater, excluding these hazardous ingredients should be standard practice. "Parabens are controversial preservatives that have been linked to breast cancer and are commonly added to cosmetic products for their antimicrobial properties," she told us. "A common way to spot them on an ingredient list is to look for the suffix paraben at the end of the ingredient. Common ones are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben."

Possible Replacements: Per Ater's advice, phenoxyethanol and sodium benzoate with potassium sorbate are all preservatives deemed safe to use in cosmetics at indicated levels.

Toxic Ingredient #4: Hydroquinone 

"This is one of the most controversial skin lighteners that has been banned in many countries, but not the U.S., where it is limited to a 2% concentration in over-the-counter products," Ater explains. "There have been studies linking hydroquinone as the cause of hyperpigmentation (the opposite of what people use it for). High concentrations have also been found in the bloodstream after long-term use."

Possible Replacement: Ater points out that a natural replacement to look out for it arbutin, which is derived from bearberry extract.

Toxic Ingredient #5: Artificial Colorants 

"Artificial colorants and dyes can be irritating to the skin and are frequently added to skincare products for their cool factor, but most of the time they're just unnecessary," says Ater.

Possible Replacement: Colorants derived from plants and other natural sources are an easy alternative.

Shop our favorite organic moisturizers:

Moisturizing Balms

Moisturizing Oils

Moisturizing Creams

Associate Beauty Editor

Courtney Higgs is a Cancer sun, Libra rising beauty enthusiast with about six years of experience in the editorial space. She was previously Who What Wear's associate beauty editor after spending many years working on the West Coast edit team at InStyle Magazine. She graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a BA in communication studies and pivoted to editorial after spending her college years working in the legal field. Her beauty philosophy is simple: She believes there are no wrong answers and that discovering our favorite beauty products and rituals is a journey, not a sprint. When she's not geeking out over products, she can be found adventuring around L.A. with her fiancé; watching reality TV with their French bulldog, Bernie Mac; or relating way too hard to astrology memes.