Dara Kennedy

Dara Kennedy worked in beauty product development and marketing for more than 10 years before starting Ayla. She is a graduate of Princeton University and holds an MBA from Harvard. A longtime yoga practitioner and mother of 2, she's been a supporter of non-toxic beauty products for years.

Oftentimes, we’ll be careful about what we eat—seeking out natural and organic products and avoiding those with lots of preservatives or artificial ingredients—and assume that the products we put on our skin are safe. But a significant amount of what you put on your skin can be absorbed into your bloodstream, and some ingredients can have an unpredictable or negative impact on your health. So at Ayla, we avoid most controversial ingredients because we either know they’re bad for you or suspect they might be.

We don’t think you have to go all organic, all the time, but an enormous amount of evidence supports switching to a non-toxic beauty regimen in general. So we carry a variety of brands from which we’ve picked star products that really perform—many of them are specifically labeled or marketed as "natural" or organic, some are not—and we make sure that the specific products we carry don’t contain ingredients that are clearly questionable.  Because you don’t need them, they could harm you, and they could certainly age you faster because, in many cases, they’re likely to trigger an adverse reaction and inflammation as a result.

You won’t find the following controversial ingredients in the products we carry:

  • Formaldehyde & formaldehyde-releasing preservatives: formaldehyde is a known/probable human carcinogen
  • Parabens: chemical preservatives linked to allergies and hormonal disruptions; unequivocally shown to mimic estrogen
  • Phthalates: plasticizers and fragrance stabilizers linked to birth defects
  • Nano-sized zinc & titanium dioxide: tiny particles proven to cause damage to reef-building coral and marine life
  • Hydroquinone: skin-lightener linked to allergies; suspected neurotoxin and carcinogen; can have a paradoxical darkening effect
  • Petrolatum: emollient that can interfere with the body’s own moisturizing mechanisms and can plug pores
  • Triclosan: antibacterial that stays in our bodies for far too long
  • Lead & mercury: additives that can sometimes be found in products ranging from hair dye to mascara
  • DMDM hydantoin: potential allergen/irritant

Other ingredients we avoid include the following:

  • Methylisothiazolinone and Methylchloroisothiazolinone: potential allergens/irritants
  • Sulfates (especially SLS, SLES): irritants
  • BHA, BHT: potential irritants and endocrine disruptors
  • Chemical sunscreens: many irritate sensitive skin, some exhibit estrogenic activity, and in all cases, they’re often improperly used (not applied before sun exposure, not re-applied as needed). We make one exception here, detailed below.
  • Coal tar dyes: suspected neurotoxins and carcinogens
  • Propylene glycol: potential allergen/irritant
  • Many/most animal-derived products: because these ingredients in many cases haven’t been cooked or denatured, there is a chance that they could carry disease of some sort

We also through all the ingredients on each product’s listing and make the following assessment: Does this product contain anything else that the most ardent critics would find questionable? And if so, is it a major problem in the grand scheme of things?

If we decide that a product with one of these ingredients should go on our site, we ensure that a) there’s a clear reason why our customers need this product, and b) we have enough information to assure customers that the product is safe for them to use.

For example, our single exception to our no-chemical-sunscreens rule is MD SolarSciences’ Quick Dry Body Spray, which contains Avobenzone, Octisalate, and Octocrylene. We made this choice because we have so many customers who insist on using a spray sunscreen, and if they're going to use a spray, we'd rather have them use a healthy one. These are the safest chemical sunscreens out there (the main ones to avoid are Octinoxate, Oxybenzone, and PABA). And this product rates a "3" on EWG's database, which is not bad.

We firmly believe in and are committed to non-toxic beauty; we also believe in maintaining a well-informed sense of context and finding as-safe-as-possible solutions that are truly effective. Because, to us, it's so important that beauty products deliver results: a natural product graveyard is still a product graveyard! There's no need to choose between healthy products and products that work — you really can have it all.

Our most frequently consulted resources include:

  • Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, MD, PhD
  • Elizabeth Hale, MD
  • David Suzuki Foundation
  • Environmental Working Group / Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
  • The Good Guide

We encourage you to do more exploration on your own, but keep in mind that some sources are better than others, so use a good dose of your personal judgment as you read. We're constantly reevaluating our product choices as we learn new things every day about cosmetic formulations, too. So if it's too much information, you can always trust us to do the product selection for you. It's a lot easier, and we only carry what we honestly think is best.


Any topic discussed in this article is not intended as medical advice. If you have a medical concern, please check with your doctor.