conscious cosmetics

Get to know 6 groups of chemicals you should be wary of when buying your daily cosmetics.

conscious cosmetics

“The irony is that antibacterial soap has not been proven to be more effective than washing with plain soap and water.…”

WRITTEN BY Evolve Wellness Centre

READ MORE ON Ailments, Focus

We take wellbeing seriously here at Evolve and we do not shy away from difficult topics that reveal the ugly side of our shiny every day existence. This time our regular collaborator wellbeing writer Susie Vandi sheds light on not-so-friendly ingredients that can be found in our every day cosmetics.

We are what we eat and what we drink. Over time what we put into our bodies can have a positive or negative effect on our health. So why wouldn’t we apply this to what we put on our skin? Our skin is the largest organ of the body and it’s porous. Anything that we put on to it is quickly absorbed into our bloodstream. Nicotine and contraceptive patches are proof of this. It stands to reason that we should have some concerns. 

Manufacturers however, have differing concerns. They need to make profits in order to survive. It makes good business sense for them to ensure that their products have a long shelf life and don’t become rancid within a short space of time. To achieve this a wide variety of everyday goods include a cornucopia of chemical preservatives that do everything from preventing the growth of mould to ensuring that the colour and fragrance of a product remain stable.

As a result of this, many of us are exposing ourselves to a large number of chemicals on a daily basis from birth from shower gels and deodorants to lip salves and mascara. A US survey discovered that on average, American women use twelve personal care products and/or cosmetics a day. The total products that they used contained 168 different chemical ingredients.  A similar French survescray found that women used an average of sixteen cosmetics daily, pregnant women used approximately eighteen cosmetics, men used eight, girls used seven, boys used five and babies under three years old used six. 

Now we’re never going to be able to escape chemicals as everything whether natural or man-made, is comprised of 100% chemicals. The Royal Society of Chemistry are so confident of this that they even have a prize on offer of £1million for the first person to provide them with a chemical-free product.

However, there is some good news.  We’re not completely powerless. By being aware of the background of ingredients used in products, we can begin to make our own choices concerning what we’re happy to apply on our skins and what we’re not. Consumers are increasingly using that power to choose products that are free from questionable chemicals and stores are listening. They’re starting to provide personal care and cosmetic ranges that are either partially or fully ‘toxin free’. So rest assured that your financial vote counts.

To help you on your journey, we’ve included six common ingredients, regularly found in cosmetics and personal care products, that are currently being hotly debated by scientists and researchers for their safety.

1. Parabens

What are they and why are they used?

Parabens are preservatives that help to extend the shelf life of products by inhibiting the growth of microbes like bacteria and mould. Parabens are widely used and can be found in over 75% of skin care products and 90% of everyday groceries. In skincare and cosmetic products parabens may be listed as methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben and propylparaben.

Which products typically use parabens?

Parabens can be found in cosmetics, toothpaste, deodorants, shampoo, foods, household products and pharmaceuticals. The concentration of parabens in cosmetics are typically approximately 0.3% to 1%.

Are they harmful?

There are claims that parabens are carcinogenic and that they can upset the endocrine reproductive systems. There is no scientific evidence of this but there are some researchers who feel that we should be wary. 

One such researcher is Philippa Dabre, a senior lecturer in oncology and researcher in biomolecular sciences at the University of Reading, who has a special interest in the effects of oestrogen on breast cancer. In a 2004 study, Darbre discovered that parabens were easily found amongst cancerous cells. Whilst the study didn’t show that parabens were cancer causing, parabens were discovered in 18 out of 20 tissue samples from breast tumour biopsies.

Darbre said, “We’ve known for more than 25 years that oestrogen exposure is linked to breast cancer development and progression; it is the reason tamoxifen (commonly prescribed to women with breast cancer) is used to disrupt oestrogen receptors.” “So it is not such a leap to be concerned that repeated, cumulative, long-term exposure to chemicals that weakly mimic oestrogen might be having an impact.”

The Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association who represent many different types of cosmetic and personal care products in the UK have an alternative view on parabens. On their website they state that “The safety of all cosmetic products and their ingredients is governed by strict European laws.  As well as this, cosmetic ingredients and their safety are kept under constant review by the European Commission and Member States, assisted by the SCCS.  The committee has, in 2010 and 2011, confirmed the safety of four parabens used in cosmetics.  For other, less used parabens, the SCCS found insufficient data to set a safe limit and additional data were not generated in their support.” 

2. SLS

What are they and why are they used?

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate aka SLS is a surfactant (Surface Active Agent) used in cleaning products and lotions. It typically acts as a foaming agent and a lubricant. It’s a very effective ingredient that works by interacting with the surface of a liquid to change its properties so that it can trap dirt from skin, hair, teeth, garments and surfaces which can then be washed away with water.

So for example it’s hard to wash your hair using water alone. This is because water has a high surface tension. However, when water is used with a surfactant such as shampoo, the shampoo is able to penetrate the surface tension of water increasing the contact between the water and the shampoo helping the solution to spread and move around our hair. The resulting foam then helps the water to get under the oil and dirt and carry them away. 

Which products typically use SLS?

SLS is typically found in cleaning and hygiene products such as toothpaste, body wash, soap, shampoo, detergents, shaving cream, fabric softeners. It is also used in industrial strength detergents, engine degreaser, anti-fogging liquids, adhesives, emulsifiers and ink.

Is it harmful?

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can be an irritant at concentrations of 2% or greater. Irritation increases with the concentration of the ingredient and the length of time that this ingredient stays in contact with the skin. However, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is said to be safe in formulations that are designed for intermittent use, followed by thorough rinsing from the skin.

An expert panel from the Cosmetic Ingredient Review expert panel found that, although Sodium Lauryl Sulfate was not carcinogenic, it was shown to cause severe epidermal changes to the area of skin to which it was applied. Other studies found heavy deposition of the detergent on the skin surface and in the hair follicles which could damage the hair follicles and result in hair loss. Further, it was reported that 1% and 5% Sodium Lauryl Sulfate produced significant number of blackheads caused by clogged pores.

Research has also showed that SLS could be damaging to the immune system, especially within the skin. It could cause skin layers to separate and inflame due to its protein denaturing properties. 

Nicola Smith, Health Information Officer at Cancer Research UK, reinforced that SLS is not a carcinogen, “There’s no evidence to suggest that sodium lauryl sulfate causes cancer—so there’s no need to stop using shampoo.” “The reality is that SLS has an excellent safety record, delivers great results and doesn’t bioaccumulate (persist in the environment), although it does have a potentially toxic effect on aquatic organisms. Contrary to some reports, there’s also minimal risk of skin irritation when it’s used in shampoo.”

3. Talc

What are they and why are they used?

Talc is a naturally occurring clay mineral which is made up of magnesium, silicone and oxygen. It’s used in skin and cosmetic products primarily for its ability to absorb moisture and to fill skin creases. Cosmetic talc is milled from mines selected for the high quality and purity of their talc seams and it is checked for purity before it can be classified as cosmetic grade.

Which products typically use talc?

Talc is most commonly associated with talcum powder but it is also commonly used as a base in cosmetics such as eyeshadow and blusher. It’s also used for medicinal tablets, chewing gum, paper, rubber, plastic and paint.

Is it harmful?

Fears about the safety of talc emerged in 1971 when scientists in Wales discovered particles of talc embedded in ovarian and cervical tumors. In August 2017, a Los Angeles jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay sixty-three year old medical receptionist Eva Echeverria $417 million in damages due to claims that she developed ovarian cancer as a result of using the company’s trademark Johnson’s baby powder on her perineum from the age of eleven.

Eva was not the first woman to take the Johnson & Johnson to court. Juries in Missouri awarded women $237 million in similar cases. Not all of these cases have been successful though. Cases have been rejected/dismissed in St Louis, Tennessee and New Jersey.

The spokesperson for the American Cancer Society (ACS) said: “It is not clear if consumer products containing talcum powder increase cancer risk. Studies of personal use of talcum powder have had mixed results, although there is some suggestion of a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk. There is very little evidence at this time that any other forms of cancer are linked with consumer use of talcum powder.”

Some scientists have suggested that talc might lead to cancer as the crystals are able to move up the genitourinary tract into the peritoneal cavity, where the ovaries are, and may trigger inflammation. This is thought to play a crucial role in the development of ovarian cancer.

In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified talcum powder as a possible human carcinogen if used in the female genital area. However, so far talcum powder continues to be sold free of any health warnings.

4. Triclosan

What is it and why is it used?

Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent which was first created as a pesticide before being developed as a surgical scrub for medical professionals. It is used in water based products and inhibits the growth of germs, bacteria, fungi and mildew.

Which products typically use triclosan?

Triclosan can be found in soaps, body washes, detergents, acne products, deodorants and antiperspirants and toothpaste. It can help prevent gum disease and body odour.

Is it harmful?

There isn’t much long-term research on the effects of triclosan on humans but numerous studies on the effects of triclosan on mice have found that in high concentrations it can increase cancer and reduce fertility.

One such study found that triclosan promoted breast cancer in cells and animals. Another study found that exposure to triclosan during fetal development could cause neurological damage.

Endocrine disruption and bioaccumulation are attributed to triclosan. In addition because triclosan acts as an antibiotic, overuse may lead to the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibodies and antibacterial products making it easier for antibiotic-resistant bacteria (like MRSA) to grow in our noses or throats.

Rolf Halden, PhD, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University, said that the widespread use of triclosan might be part of the reason that common bacteria are becoming harder to treat. In fact from this month, the FDA has decided that soaps and other antiseptic wash products made with triclosan can no longer be marketed in the US.

The Personal Care Products Council and the American Cleaning Institute, which represents manufacturers, have maintained that triclosan is safe and effective. But the FDA now says that "Manufacturers did not provide the necessary data to establish safety and effectiveness” for 19 active ingredients, including triclosan.

The irony is that antibacterial soap has not been proven to be more effective than washing with plain soap and water.

5. Formaldehyde

What are they and why are they used?

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are more widely known as an embalming fluids but they are often used in cosmetics and personal care products. It works alongside other preservative ingredients, releasing in small amounts over time, to help protect water based cosmetic products from bacterial contamination.

On labels formaldehyde may be described as Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.

Which products typically use formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde can usually be found in nail polishes, eyelash glue, hair gel, soap, makeup, shampoo, lotion, deodorant, antiseptics and medicine. Hair straightening products and nail hardeners tend to have particularly high amounts of formaldehyde.

An article published in the April 2010 volume of Contact Dermatitis looking at products from the FDA’s Voluntary Cosmetic Registration Program database found that nearly 20 percent of products contained formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.

Formaldehyde is also used in the production of fertilizer, paper, and plywood, and can be found in building materials, walls and cabinets furniture.

Is it harmful?

Formaldehyde causes cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that formaldehyde is "carcinogenic to humans" based on higher risks of nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.

Exposure to formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory test animals. In mice, applying a 10% solution of formaldehyde to the skin was linked to quicker development of cancers caused by another chemical.

Exposure to relatively high amounts of formaldehyde in medical and occupational settings has been linked to some types of cancer in humans. Embalmers and hair and nail salon workers are particularly at risk. The effect of exposure to small amounts however, is less clear.

The Brazilian blow-dry a semi-permanent hair straightening method has been named as particularly hazardous to the health. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration warned that the products used contained unacceptable levels of formaldehyde. There have even been cases of salon workers who used the products complaining of nose bleeds, eye irritation, and trouble breathing.

Co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Stacy Malkan says “There's no acceptable level of formaldehyde in products." "Alternatives are readily available, so there's no reason to be exposing anybody to a known carcinogen," she added. Plus, "If you're using shampoo with formaldehyde on a daily basis for 30 or 40 years, that can be a problem," says Alexandra Scranton, Director of Science and Research for Women's Voices an organisation that works to eliminate the toxic chemicals that harm women's health and communities.

Formaldehyde is banned from use in cosmetics and toiletries in Japan and Sweden.

6. Phthalates

What are they and why are they used?

Phthalates are chemical compounds. They are preservatives added to cosmetics and personal care products to make fragrance and colours last longer. They aid lubrication and help creams to penetrate and soften the skin. Phthalates are also used to make plastic more durable and pliable.

There are a variety of phthalates which include DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate), and DMP (dimethyl phthalate). 

Because they are not chemically bound to the plastics they're added to, phthalates are continuously released into the air, food and into liquid. This leaching of phthalates is what can make plastic sometimes harden over time.

Phthalates can be found in human urine samples. An analysis of the 1999-2000 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Biomonitoring Program found metabolites of DEP in all 2,540 samples and metabolites of DBP in 99% of samples. The researchers speculate that the high prevalence of DEP is the result of the chemicals use in cosmetics and other fragranced products.

Which products typically use phthalates?

Phthalates are omnipresent and therefore hard to avoid, they can be found in perfume, deodorant, air fresheners, shampoo, hairspray, nail polish, soap and detergents. Whenever you see the words ‘fragrance’ of ‘parfum’ on the label it almost always means phthalates.

They can also be found in toys, sex toys, electronics (such as personal computers), car-care products, adhesives, vinyl floors, carpets, wallpaper, lubricating oils, plastic containers, plastic wrap, clothing and insect repellent, cars (They’re the source of that new car smell), shower curtain, medical devices, tap water and pesticides.

Phthalates can be found in dairy products due to milk passing through the plastic tubes that are used to milk cows.

Are they harmful?

Phthalates exposure has been linked to breast cancer, male fertility issues, asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, reduced IQ, obesity, type II diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and more.

Children, pregnant and breastfeeding women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of phthalates. "Children are uniquely vulnerable to phthalate exposures given their hand-to-mouth behaviors, floor play, and developing nervous and reproductive systems," says Sheela Sathyanarayana, an acting assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington and lead author of a study that looked at phthalate exposure via baby care products.

Boys exposed to phthalates in the womb have been found to have signs of feminised genitalia, which might lead to fertility problems. Researchers also have found neurological effects, including reduced IQs and attention.

However, once again numerous government scientific agencies and regulatory bodies world-wide have studied and reviewed the effects of phthalates and many of them have concluded that phthalates used in commercial products do not pose a risk to human health at typical exposure levels. Information collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the last ten years indicated that, despite the fact that phthalates are used in many products, exposure was extremely low—significantly lower than any levels of concern set by regulatory agencies.

Written by Susie Vandi.