how detoxed is your bathroom?
From babies to older people, we all use skin and body care products on a daily basis. Even if we choose ranges that are marketed as "natural" they can contain a frightening array of synthetic and potentially harmful ingredients. The solution? Become an avid label reader and insist on only the purest and best, says Hector Bolaños.
In the UK alone, we spent close to one billion pounds in 2006 on facial and body care products such as moisturisers, creams, toners and hand care lotions. Yet have you ever considered what sorts of ingredients go into these products? Most people unquestioningly believe that if they are available on the market, they must be safe to use and good for you as that the government is surely keeping a vigilant eye on the safety of these mixtures.
However, you may be surprised to know that there is no legal requirement for manufacturers of cosmetics and personal care products to perform health studies or pre-market testing before they put their lotions and potions on sale. In fact, of all the chemical ingredients that are allowed to be used in skin care products, only 10% have been fully tested for any potential ill effects on human health.
Sadly, the vast majority of skin care products contain chemicals which are known carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, plasticizers, degreasers and surfactants. Some of them are known to cause skin irritation, itching, and to accelerate ageing. To make matters worse, many of these skin care products are marketed to the unsuspecting customer as 'natural'. In some cases, they are even labelled as organic when they contain a minimal proportion of organic ingredients. The advertisements tell you that these products will help to make your skin young and beautiful. Yet the majority of them contain all sorts of toxic chemical substances which actually work against your skin and overall health.
To demonstrate this point, we researched the ingredients of three products sold in high street stores in the UK, two of them made by companies who advocate the use of "as many natural ingredients as possible". Without naming and shaming, here are some of the ingredients found in them and their potential side-effects:
The first one, an anti-wrinkle cream, manufactured by one of the largest skin care companies in the world, contained among other things: Phenoxyethanol, which has been linked to potential for reduced fertility and reduced chances for a healthy, full-term pregnancy; Propylparaben, a potential breast carcinogen; and Methylparaben, an ingredient which can instigate itching, burning, scaling, hives, and skin blistering.
The next one, a moisturiser from a natural skin care company, contained Disodium EDTA, a penetration enhancer, which alters the skin structure, allowing other chemicals to penetrate deeper into the skin, increasing the amount of other chemicals that can reach the bloodstream. It is also made with Salicylic Acid, a potential cardiovascular toxicant, which can also increase risk of sunburn and skin cancer by intensifying UV exposures in deep skin layers. It also had PEG-100 Stearate, which can potentially break down into chemicals linked to cancer or other significant health problems.
Finally: a seaweed cream, made by a company that expresses a commitment to natural, sustainable and safe products. This contained Aluminium Starch Octenylsuccinate, a respiratory toxicant and also a lung sensitizer which can potentially instigate asthma attacks and other lung problems. It is also made with Polysorbate 60 which can potentially instigate itching, burning, scaling, hives, and skin blistering.
All these products contained the ingredient "Fragrance", which is an unspecified cocktail of chemicals. Ingredients in fragrances have been linked to potential for immune and nervous system toxicity and are the most frequent cause of allergies from cosmetics and skin care products.
Here is a partial list of the ingredients to avoid; all are common in skin and body care products:
Parabens: Used as preservatives in many, many products, parabens (such as methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, butyl-, isobutyl- and others) have shown hormonal activity. The estrogenic activity of parabens may be linked to the development of breast cancer.
Propylene Glycol: Found in many skin moisturisers (and now even in processed foods and throat pastilles), propylene glycol is used as the base ingredient in the manufacture of brake fluid and industrial anti-freeze. It is used in skin care products because it glides on smoothly, drawing moisture to the outer layers of the skin, giving the appearance of moisturizing the skin. However it greatly damages and ages the skin. It also causes skin rashes and dryness.
Vaseline (also referred as Petroleum Jelly and Baby Oil): Commonly used in cold creams, lip protection and baby creams, it coats the skin just like plastic wrap. The skin's natural immune barrier is disrupted as this coating inhibits its ability to breathe. It can cause premature skin ageing as well as allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
Phthalates: Used widely in lotions, fragrances, deodorants, nail polishes and hair care products, phthalates act like a moisturizer and help lotions penetrate the skin. However, this family of chemical plasticizers have been found to produce liver cancer and birth defects in lab animals. Phthalates are often hidden behind the term fragrance, so choose products labelled "fragrance-free" or which are scented exclusively with pure botanical or essential oils.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): Used as detergents and surfactants, these closely-related compounds are used in car wash soaps, garage floor cleaners and engine degreasers. Yet SLS and SLES are major ingredients in cosmetics, toothpastes, hair conditioners and about 90% of all shampoos and cleansing products that foam. They can cause eye irritation, permanent damage in children's eyes, skin rashes, hair loss, flaking skin and mouth ulceration. When combined with other ingredients, they can form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. Both chemicals easily penetrate the skin and can lodge themselves in the heart, lungs, liver and brain.
Formaldehyde: A cheap preservative found in eye shadows, mascaras and many hair care products, formaldehyde is toxic, carcinogenic and probably the most irritating ingredient used in personal care products. It is listed as "formalin" on product labels instead of its common name, formaldehyde, to veil its presence.
Diethanolamine (DEA) and derivatives such as triethanolamine (TEA): Widely used in shampoos, these ingredients can cause allergic reactions, irritate the eyes and dry the hair and skin. DEA and its derivatives can be contaminated with nitrosamines which are toxic pollutant bi-products and have been linked with cancer, especially in the kidneys and liver.
Isopropyl Alcohol: A poisonous solvent which alters the structure of other chemicals. Found in body rubs, hand lotions, aftershave lotions, fragrances and hair colour rinses. Can cause nausea, vomiting headaches, flushing and depression. It can also dry the skin and hair and create cracks and fissures in the skin which encourage bacterial growth.
Talc: Found in baby powders, face powders and body powders as well as on some contraceptives such as condoms, talc is a known carcinogen. A major cause of ovarian cancer when used in the genital area. Can also lodge in the lungs, causing respiratory disorders.
Fragrance: This ingredient almost always denotes the use of synthetic fragrance compounds. Fragrances are known to cause the majority of allergic reactions to cosmetics and toiletries.
Scary, isn't it?
You may be thinking: "But I have been using skin care products for years and I'm fine!" Well, that's good but consider this: On average, we apply 126 unique chemical ingredients on the skin daily. Slowly but surely, this exposure adds up. Thus, the average person absorbs about 2kg of synthetic chemicals into their skin every year. The cumulative and combined effect of these chemicals is definitely risky.
Inevitably, the question comes up: How come the government has allowed these products on the market? Simply because the chemical, body care and perfumery industries are big businesses. Their interests have shaped the legislation, which allows the skin care and cosmetic industries to regulate themselves!
So, as daily users of body care products, what are we to do? Fortunately, there is a growing choice of ranges made only with plant-based ingredients which have not been chemically altered and which are safe to use, with excellent skin moisturising, rejuvenating and healing qualities.
Therefore it is crucial to know how to distinguish those products that are good and safe to use from those that one should to avoid altogether. So here are some recommendations to help you choose:
1. Read the labels and do not use skin care products containing any of the ingredients listed above. If you are out shopping and don't have this list at hand, as a rule of thumb, do not buy products which include complicated chemical compound names on the labels. However, do note that plant-based ingredients need to labelled by their Latin name, so don't mistake one for the other. And remember: the word "natural" on products does not mean anything, since it can even be used for ingredients derived from petrol!
2. Use only vegan products. This is for several reasons: Firstly, the most beautifying skin care ingredients are naturally provided to us by plants. Secondly, beeswax (as well as plant wax) clogs up the pores of your skin. Finally, when buying certified vegan products you have the added peace of mind of knowing that these products not only do not contain animal products, but also have not been tested on animals.
3. Choose 100% organic. If your skin care product is not made with organic ingredients, you could potentially be rubbing pesticide and fertiliser residues into your skin. Here, we must be very careful with what marketing propaganda may try to suggest: Unfortunately, a skin care product can be labelled organic as long as 1% of the ingredients are organic. So make sure to check that all the ingredients are organic.
4. Buying certified organic products is good but also bear in mind that there are many really good skin care products available which are made with wildcrafted ingredients (i.e., harvested from the wild and free from chemicals). Also, many rural communities in developing countries sell raw, plant-based ingredients grown under ecological principles and fair-trade practices but are not yet certified because certification is expensive.
5. Prefer skin care products made with unheated, cold-pressed and living ingredients. Plant-derived oils (like apricot kernel, jojoba and rosehip) and butters (such as cocoa and mango kernel) have some of the best skin moisturising and nourishing properties. Yet, if these ingredients are heated, their life energy is gone and most of their antioxidants, vitamins and minerals are destroyed. Moreover, heating oils and fats creates highly toxic trans-fatty acids and free radicals, which may be absorbed into the cell membranes, causing them to become porous and weak. Therefore, it is best to use skin care products made with cold-pressed ingredients and through a low temperature process, which ensures that the vitality and goodness of the ingredients is retained while avoiding the creation of free radicals and trans-fatty acids.
So when you next buy a skin care product, remember that up to 60% of what you apply to your skin will be absorbed into your bloodstream. Therefore using products made only with organic, vegan and raw, living ingredients is the best choice you and your family can make for a healthy skin and body.
Hector Bolaños is co-founder of Raw Gaia, which makes a range of 100% raw, organic and vegan skin care products.
This article is from the Summer 2007 issue of Get Fresh! magazine.